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What Is The Maximum Cold Holding Temperature? Remember This

What Is The Maximum Cold Holding Temperature? Remember This

I think we can all agree that food tastes best when it is freshly cooked and is still hot from the pan, grill or oven. However, this isn’t always possible, and especially when preparing food for many guests, preparing things in advance is necessary.

So even when you have to do advance preparations, how do you ensure that food will still taste good and, more importantly, be safe to eat when your guests arrive?

What is The Maximum Cold Holding Temperature?

The maximum cold holding temperature is 40°F. Food must be stored and held at this temperature or lower to ensure food safety. For hot food, food should be kept at 140°F or higher.

What is The Maximum Cold Holding Temperature?
What is The Maximum Cold Holding Temperature?

What Is Cold Holding?

Cold holding is storing and keeping food in cold temperatures, such as refrigeration or over ice, to keep it safe for consumption and to retain its best quality.

Keeping food at cold temperatures slows down the action of food spoilage-causing and food-borne illness-causing bacteria and pathogens, and allows for food to be enjoyed for a longer period of time. In the same way, keeping foods above the unsafe temperature range also inhibits the growth and action of these pathogens.

The maximum cold holding temperature is 40°F, which means that foods must be held at 40°F or below, while hot holding temperatures should be 140°F or above.

Cold holding is keeping food at temperatures below 41 °F to delay bacterial growth and ensure food safety.
Cold holding is keeping food at temperatures below 40°F to delay bacterial growth and ensure food safety.

What Is Hot Holding?

Hot holding is keeping food in warm temperatures, above 140°F, to slow down the proliferation of bacteria. Similar to cold holding, keeping food at high enough temperatures will also delay the action and proliferation of foodborne-illness causing bacteria.

This can be done by keeping your hot food on chafing dishes or using heat lamps, for example at an event where cooked food has to stay out for a long period of time.  

In the case of hot food, it should be kept at temperatures above 140°F to ensure safety.

Hot holding is when foods are kept hot, above 135 °F, to also delay the action of bacteria and pathogens on food.
Hot holding is when foods are kept hot, above 140°F, to also delay the action of bacteria and pathogens on food.

What Does The Food Danger Zone Mean?

Food has an unsafe temperature range and we call it the “food danger zone”. The food danger zone is the temperature range at which harmful bacteria thrive and proliferate, causing the food to deteriorate and become unsafe for consumption.

According to the USDA, the food danger zone is 40°F-140°.

What this means is that bacteria are most active in this temperature range, and they can multiply exponentially in as little as 20 minutes. The longer the food sits out in these conditions, the more damage the bacteria can do just by virtue of their numbers.

Room temperature often falls well within this danger zone range, which means that if we leave food out on the counter for a long period of time, it will eventually get overtaken by these overactive bacteria. And if you eat this food, you have a big chance of getting a foodborne illness.

This is the reason why health experts advise us not to leave food at room temperature for longer than 2 hours. Anything left out for a longer period of time, especially overnight, is a really big food safety risk. 

To ensure food safety, food should be kept in holding at 40°F or below and above 140°F.

Hold on… Why Do Some Use the 41°F – 135°F Food Danger Zone Range?

Okay, so we mentioned that the food danger zone is between 40°F and 140°F.  But sometimes you will encounter information stating that the food danger zone range is 41°F to 135°F.  Which one is the right one?

The answer is, both are correct. The food danger zone range of 41°F to 135°F is actually more specifically used in the food service industry.

Food that is prepared in professional settings like restaurants and other food establishments will generally adhere to the 41°F – 135°F food danger zone temperature range as stated in the FDA Food Code.  

For the rest of us, however, the food danger zone is still between 40°F – 140°F. Health experts have likely maintained this advice for the general public and average home cooks as a form of precaution. Since home kitchens typically have fewer food safety controls in their home kitchens compared to commercial establishments, it is best to err on the side of caution with regard to food safety measures.

Professional food services follow very strict guidelines and codes for food handling and food temperature safety which are regularly checked by health authorities, and they would have more tools on hand that make them better equipped to properly ensure compliance with those guidelines.

In other words, while technically food can safely be held at temperatures of 41°F and below (as opposed to 40°F and below) and 135°F and above (as opposed to 140°F and above), only professional food services will likely possess the capability to properly and accurately monitor these safety temperatures because of the procedures, equipment, and controls they have in place.

It will be safer for the average home cook working in a simple home kitchen to assume the food danger zone is in the broader range of 40°F to 140°F.  Besides, one advantage of this is, it is actually easier to remember than the other one!

Why Are Holding Temperatures Important?

Knowing the right holding temperatures are important because it ensures that we are able to retain the quality and safety of our food especially on days when we have no choice to but to prepare them in advance.

Without this knowledge, it would always be a hit or miss. Your food will sometimes still be good, and sometimes it wouldn’t be. Your guests will sometimes get sick, and sometimes they won’t. And of course who would want that!

We want to always be consistent in terms of food preparation, so that not only will our food be safe to consume, but will also be tasty and delicious.

What Happens If I Leave Food in the Danger Zone?

Not properly storing or holding food at the right temperatures will leave your food vulnerable to bacteria and pathogens that cause food spoilage and cause foodborne-illnesses.

As we said earlier, they thrive at temperatures between 40°F- 140°F.  If we do not step in and manage the temperatures and the time they are exposed, the food may spoil faster and bacteria may release toxins that can cause your guests to become really sick. The severity of the illness depends on the person and the type of food, but some common symptoms include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Fever
  • Headaches
  • Diarrhea
  • Gastrointestinal discomfort and upsets
  • Muscle aches
  • Neurological issues and dizziness

Symptoms of food poisoning may resolve anywhere from a few hours to a few days, but some forms of foodborne illnesses that arise from improperly handled food, for example, contaminated or undercooked meat, may take longer to resolve and may need hospitalization. In some cases, these illnesses may even have long-term effects on the body.  

Knowing the potentially serious consequences of improperly handled food should give us more incentive to be careful with the way we store food, and to properly know the holding temperatures of different types of food.

What Are TCS Foods?

TCS foods are what is known as “Time and Temperature Control Foods”. These are foods that are highly perishable and potentially hazardous, and require specific time-related and temperature-related measures to be actively taken to limit their exposure to the food danger zone.

TCS foods must go through the food danger zone quickly, or not at all in order to be safe to eat. This means keeping food in holding at the right temperatures that avoid the food danger zone, or cooling foods very quickly and storing them appropriately if they are to be served later on.

Professional cooks and establishments have specific methods and tools, as well as guidelines in place to be able to execute this properly.

Checking temperatures every two hours to monitor holding, cooling food quickly within a specific period of time to quickly bypass the danger zone, rapid reheating, and other methods are ways in which food is kept safe for consumption.

Milk and dairy products are considered Time-Temperature Control Foods.
Milk and dairy products are considered Time-Temperature Control foods.

What Are Examples of TCS Food?

Some examples of TCS food include:

  • Milk and dairy
  • Eggs
  • Meat and poultry
  • Tofu and other plant-based meats
  • Sprouts
  • Shellfish and Crustaceans
  • Creams and custards
  • Cooked Rice
  • Baked Potatoes
  • Cooked Pasta
  • Cooked Beans
  • Cut tomatoes and melons
  • Leafy greens
  • Garlic and Oil mixtures

These types of food are time and temperature sensitive and go bad quite easily. They must be monitored constantly to maintain their temperature, and the time they spend in the food danger zone must be controlled. 

What Does Time Temperature Abuse Mean?

When food is allowed to linger in the danger zone for a long period of time without proper controls, we have what is called “time-temperature abuse”.

Time-temperature abuse is what happens when:

  • Food is not stored or held at proper temperatures
  • Food is undercooked or it is not reheated to safe temperatures
  • Improper cooling of hot food before storing in cold temperatures

These things can cause food to become unsafe for consumption and lead to food-borne illnesses.

Hot foods should be cooled properly prior to cold storage. Not doing so is a form of time temperature abuse.
Hot foods should be cooled properly prior to cold storage. Not doing so is a form of time temperature abuse.


1. Keep Things Clean Wash hands before, during, and after food handling and preparation
Clean all cutting boards, utensils and surfaces thoroughly after each use
2. Separate Raw Stuff Keep raw meat, poultry, seafood, shellfish, and eggs separate from food that will not be cooked prior to eating
Use separate cutting boards and utensils for raw food
3. Cook Properly Always cook food thoroughly to safe internal temperatures:
Chicken and poultry: 165 °F
Beef : 145 °F
Pork : 145 °F
Leftovers: 165 °F
4. Serve Foods Safely Hold hot food at 140 °F or warmer
Hold cold food at 40 °F or colder
Use ice packs, coolers, chafing dishes or food warmers
5. Do Not Go Over 2-Hours Remember the food danger zone : 40°F-140°F
Do not leave food in this temperature for more than two hours
Toss food that has not been properly stored
6. Store & Reheat Properly Store leftovers in the fridge or freezer for longer storage
Reheat all kinds of leftovers to at least 165°F
Source: CDC Food Safety

Frequently Asked Questions to What is The Maximum Cold Holding Temperature

What Is The Holding Temperature for Hot Foods?

To ensure food safety, hot foods should be kept in holding temperatures of 135°F or higher.

What is the Right Temperature for Reheating Leftovers?

If you have leftovers, you should make sure to reheat them to a temperature of at least 165°F to ensure that the food is safe to eat. Using a food thermometer can help you determine this more accurately.  

How Long Can Food Be Kept At Room Temperature?

Food should only be kept at room temperature for 2 hours max, less if the room is warmer than 90°F.

Conclusion to What is the Maximum Cold Holding Temperature

The maximum cold holding temperature is 41°F. This means that to ensure the safety and best quality of food, it must be kept at this temperature or below consistently. 

Exposing food for a long time to the food danger zone compromises its quality and safety. Certain foods are more perishable than others, but in general, food must not be kept out at room temperature for more than 2 hours.