Though food safety fears have driven us to put food in the fridge ASAP if we’re not planning to eat in the next ten seconds, my own observations of chefs and serious home cooks reveal that not everybody follows USDA guidelines to the letter–which, by the way, allows commercial chefs to leave cooked food out for four hours (home cooks, for whatever reasons, only get two).
When entertaining, dishes that can be left, worry-free, at room temperature are obviously a boon to the host’s organization. Less known is the fact that the best brown bag lunches are equal candidates for short-term room temperature storage. Here’s why.
Eating food cold kills a lot of flavor. Reheating lunches in the office microwave is depressing, plus the microwave leaves all those vexing cold spots in a dish. Since I adore bringing my own lunch–the mid-day journey to find a bad, expensive sandwich just about does me in–I’m always looking for ways to make even a humble packed meal more delicious. And a safe two-to-four hour (aka all morning) marination at room temperature does just that, giving flavors in grain bowls or chicken salads time to mesh in the best way. The bread on your sandwich stays crusty, and last night’s leftovers morph from congealed to inviting. Even soup, which you’ll still want to microwave, will warm up faster if it starts from room temperature. Plus, the texture of room temperature food is better.
Still, when you have a debate in which food scientist Harold McGee chides cooking expert Michael Ruhlman about his food storage habits, you do want to be careful. Refrigerate lunches that spoil easily, like fish and fresh cheese. The USDA’s tips for college students are surprisingly readable, if you want to know more.
P.S. 11 Low-Carb Lunches (so you’ll stay awake this afternoon).