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Your Ultimate Guide To How Long Food Can Be Left Out At Room Temp (And When You Should Toss It)

Sometimes our food falls victim to our forgetfulness. We get sucked into a Harry Potter marathon on TV and end up leaving our leftovers on the table for hours. Or perhaps we forget to put away the cheese tray after our guests left our cocktail party. But foods can be left at room temp for a while, right? How damaging can the mild air really be? To help you save yourself from stale snacks or food poisoning, here’s your room temperature food guide.

Common sense is really important in regard to determining if food is still safe to eat. If you left that tub of yogurt on the counter for more than a few hours, toss it. And if you forgot you pulled chicken out of the freezer to thaw in the fridge three days ago, sayonara. Seriously — if you have any doubts about whether or not a food item is A-OK to ingest, you’re better off calling it quits before you do your stomach in.

However, for some foods, “how long is too long?” is a valid question, and you may be surprised to learn that raw foods and cooked foods have about the same life span in a room temperature environment. If you’re as forgetful as we are, we recommend that you bookmark this guide for your future forgetful self.

Vegetables

Depending on the veggie, most can stay on the counter until use (or until overripe).

According to Fruits & Veggies More Matters, many vegetables like basil, cucumber, eggplant, garlic, onions, peppers, potatoes, tomatoes, and squashes, should only be kept at room temperature. Storing these vegetables in the refrigerator could hinder ripening and make them lose their flavor.

However, vegetables like artichokes, asparagus, green beans, carrots, herbs (except for basil), leafy greens, mushrooms, and peas should always be refrigerated to maintain freshness. Don’t eat anything that has mold, is leaking, or smells like it’s rotting. If it looks soft or soggy, feel it out — the veggie may be okay for a soup, but maybe not so much a salad. It really depends on the vegetable, but most stay fresh for at least a week if stored in the fridge.

Fruit

Like veggies, certain fruits can remain at room temperature until use.

Fruits should have time to ripen at room temperature before being refrigerated to prolong their life. Apricots, avocados, citruses, kiwifruit, mangoes, melons, nectarines, papaya, peaches, pears, plums, tomatoes, should all stay on the counter to fully ripen. In terms of freshness, the same rules as veggies applies to fruits. Soft apples? Turn ’em into applesauce. Brown bananas? Make banana bread!

Eggs

Freshly laid eggs can stay at room temperature for about a month.

However, if you buy your eggs from the refrigerator section at the grocery store, you must keep your eggs refrigerated from there on out. Those who raise their own chickens can keep unwashed farm-fresh eggs on the counter until use (within a couple of weeks). Once eggs are washed, the protective “bloom” layer, which seals the egg’s pores and prevents bacteria from entering through the shell, is removed. Washed eggs, like those at the supermarket, must remain cooled in order to keep bacteria at bay.

And if you forget to put your eggs back in the fridge and you notice “sweat” beginning to form on the shells, these eggs are technically unsafe to consume. If you haven’t used eggs five weeks after purchase date, you should throw them away, but egg cartons generally have an expiration date on them.

Meat

Both raw and cooked meat should not be left at room temperature for more than two hours.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends following the “2-hour rule” for meats and other perishable items. The warmer the room, however, the less time meat should be left out. Bacteria doesn’t need long to spread over a surface and grows best at temperatures between 40 degrees Fahrenheit and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. And no, cooking or reheating meat that has been left out for over two hours does not kill the bacteria. Don’t risk food poisoning — keep your meats cooled in the fridge.

According to Foodsafety.gov, cooked meat stays fresh for about 3-4 days if it’s refrigerated.

Cheese/Dairy Products

Similarly, cheeses, milk, and other dairy-based products also follow the 2-hour rule.

Although you should try not to keep your cheese platters out at room temperature for more than two hours, Dairy Good notes that the moisture content in some cheeses give them more leeway than others. Moister cheeses, those being soft, unripened or ripened cheeses, are more perishable than cheeses made with pasteurized milk. And if your cheese platter was out up until the two hour mark, discard your soft cheeses but rewrap your hard cheeses and refrigerate to serve again.

Keep in mind, dairy-based foods such as dips, spreads, and anything containing milk or cream should not be left out for more than two hours. Cheese is a sturdy food, and some (the harder cheeses, generally) can be kept in the fridge for months.

Butter

Butter can be left out for a few days, or a few weeks depending on the container.

Leaving butter on the counter and exposed to air will leave your butter spreadable, however, it will most  go rancid within a few days. But, if you have an appropriate butter crock or air-tight glass container, you can keep your butter at room temperature for about two weeks. Don’t feel scared to leave your butter out on the counter. Its fat content (80 percent) keeps it safe from bacteria.

Condiments

Acidic condiments can be left out for one to two months. Fermented condiments can last a year.

Mustards like yellow and dijon can be kept at room temperature for up to two months, as long as it doesn’t contain vegetables. And ketchup can remain on the counter for about month. Soy sauce lasts for about a year unrefrigerated, as does fish sauce. And hot sauce stays good at room temp for about three years. Any dairy or vegetable-based condiments follow the “2-hour rule.”

Baked Goods

Bread products can last up to four days, cakes up to two, and and cookies up to three weeks. (It also really depends on the ingredients and how processed your baked goods are. The more processed ingredients, the longer your bread and baked goods can last — they just might taste stale.)

Baked goods containing custards, meats or vegetables, and dairy-based frostings cannot be left out on the counter and must be refrigerated. However, more hearty items like breads, rolls, and items made from mixes can stay out at room temperature for up to four days. Moister bakery goods like sponge cakes, pastries, and angel food cakes will last up to two days on the counter.

If you need a handy guide, download or print this out and tape it to your fridge!