Hot holding food safely

Table of Contents

Today, I want to talk about what you need to know about hot holding food safely.

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This is important because if food is not hot held safely, bacteria can multiply to unsafe levels. It’s important for a food business to hot hold food correctly to ensure safe food is provided customers.

Over the years, I have seen some food businesses failing to hot hold food safely. The result can be a low food hygiene rating or worse a food poisoning outbreak.

It is a legal requirement that food is hot held at or above 63°C.

Hot holding is where you keep cooked food hot for many hours before or during service.

How to hot hold food safely

Here’s 10 things you should know when it comes to hot holding. Let’s dive in.

  1. Why is it important?
  2. What temperature should you hot hold food at?
  3. How long can you hot hold food for?
  4. What is the hot holding exemption?
  5. How should you check temperatures?
  6. How should you record temperatures?
  7. What to do if the temperature falls below the required temperature?
  8. What equipment should you use?
  9. What is the process for placing food into a hot holding unit?
  10. What will the Environmental Health Officer (EHO) check?

1. Why is it important?

It is important to keep food hot to stop harmful bacteria from growing. When food is in the danger zone (between 5°C and 63°C) bacteria can grow very quickly. If food is left in this temperature range for an extended period of time, then bacteria can grow to levels that are high enough to cause food poisoning.

Keeping hot food out of this danger zone is important to stop bacteria from multiplying.

Over the years, I have inspected food businesses that were not effectively managing hot holding. The result was food that was in the danger zone. This meant there was a very real risk of causing their customers to suffer from food poisoning.

Now you know why hot holding is important, I’m going to explain how you can hot hold food safely.

2. What temperature should you hot hold food at?

hot holding temp

The hot holding temperature in the UK is 63°C or above. To keep cooked food out of the danger zone and prevent bacteria from multiplying, you must hot hold it at a minimum temperature of 63°C.

It is actually good practice to set hot holding equipment slightly higher than 63°C. This will allow for fluctuations in temperature. It will also ensure that all parts of the food in the unit reach a minimum temperature of 63°C.

There have been occasions during inspections, when I’ve checked the temperature of hot food (i.e. sauces or gravy) in a bain-marie and found the food was just below 63°C. It wasn’t until the chef gave the food a stir that the temperature reading went above 63°C. This highlights the importance of regularly stirring liquid foods to ensure a uniform temperature.

3. How long can you hot hold food for?

This is a question I get asked a lot. If you are holding food above 63°C, then from a food safety perspective there is no time limit. But you do need to think about the quality of the food. Hot holding food for more than 4 hours is likely to mean that the food dries out.

Also, the longer you hot hold food, the more it is likely to experience fluctuations in temperature. In my experience, hot holding smaller quantities and replenishing regularly with fresh batches is best.

4. What is the hot holding exemption?

Hot food that is being served or on display can be kept below 63°C for a limited period of time. There is in fact a hot holding exemption that means that you can keep food that is to be served hot, below 63°C for one period of up to two hours.

You must take care not to exceed the two hours because otherwise you could cause a risk to the health of your customers.

I’ve seen this exemption used many times, for example for hot food buffets. In my experience, utilising this exemption works best when it is planned. This is important because EHOs will want to know that you are managing food safety.

It is important to note that food can only be kept below 63°C for one period of up to two hours. After two hours, any food that is left must be thrown away.

Please note, you can’t put the same food at room temperature for one hour one day, then put it into the fridge and bring it back out for another hour the next day. It doesn’t work like this. My advice is that only small amounts of hot food are displayed at a time.

If hot food has been on display below 63°C for less than two hours, you can either:

  • Reheat food until it is steaming hot (above 75°C) and put back into hot holding (above 63°C).
  • Cool food safely. That means as quickly as possible to below 8°C (within 90 minutes). Then place it into the fridge or the freezer. Note that the food must not be re-heated more than once.

During food hygiene inspections, I’ve witnessed staff mixing fresh batches of hot food with food already on display. This must never happen as it make it impossible to keep track of when food was put on display.

If you want to use this exemption, you should record the time that each food item is placed on display (i.e. below 63°C). This will enable you to keep track easily.

5. How should you check temperatures?

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You should use a clean and disinfected digital temperature probe to check that the centre or thickest part of any food being hot hold is above 63°C.

Over the years, I have witnessed some food handlers pressing the probe so far into the food that it ends up touching the bottom of the unit. Train your staff so that they don’t do this as you will not get an accurate reading.

During a food hygiene inspection or food safety audit, I may ask a food handler to show me how they check the temperature of hot held food. Unfortunately, there are occasions when the food handler forgets to clean and disinfect the digital temperature probe (i.e. with a food safe probe wipes). This does not create a good impression as there is a risk that the temperature probe could contaminate the food.

6. How should you record temperatures?

Hot holding temperatures should be periodically checked throughout service. This can be on a paper record sheet or using a food safety checklist in an app.

7. What to do if the temperature falls below the required temperature?

If the temperature falls below 63°C, you need to make sure you throw the food away after no longer than two hours. This is because bacteria can multiply to unsafe levels in food after this time.

Comprehensive hot holding records make it much easier for you to manage a situation like this. I have had the unfortunate experience of making a food business throw away food because they did not have records to show the last time the food had been at a safe temperature. Situations like this are totally avoidable with accurate and comprehensive food safety records in place.

8. What equipment should you use?

There are many types of hot holding equipment. The ones I see the most are:

  • Soup kettles for hot holding soup and sauces
  • Bain-maries which work by using hot or boiling water. They can be used to effectively hot hold a variety of food types.
  • Hot cupboards, I’ve seen these used in takeaway businesses to temporarily hot hold takeaway orders.
  • Hot cabinets such as those used in a fish and chip shop to hot hold fish, pies etc.
  • Insulated boxes, I’ve seen these used to transport hot food.

Whatever hot holding unit you use, it is essential that it is working properly and cleaned and disinfected before use. Don’t forget to include this in your cleaning schedule.

9. What is the process for placing food into a hot holding unit?

Make sure the equipment has been cleaned and disinfected.

Food must be cooked or reheated until the core temperature reaches at least 75°C before it is placed into the hot holding equipment. This is because generally, hot holding equipment is not designed to cook or reheat food.

A common mistake I have seen is food (i.e. sauces or gravy) being reheated in hot holding equipment. I have then checked the core temperature of the food and found it to be right in the danger zone (around 50°C)! When I have asked the staff how long the food has been in there for often I have been told a couple of hours. This provides ideal conditions for bacteria to grow to unsafe levels.

Make sure you avoid this. Reheat food thoroughly first.

10. What will the Environmental Health Officer (EHO) check?

natalie inspect

You may be wondering, what exactly will the EHO check during your food hygiene inspection in relation to hot holding? Now, every EHO is different. But if you are hot holding food during the inspection they are likely to check the core temperature of that food to make sure it is above 63°C.

Alternatively, they may ask a staff member to demonstrate how they check the core temperature.

If you are using the 2 hour exemption, you will need to explain this to the officer and how you are keeping track of when food needs to be thrown away.

They are also likely to want to see that your Food Safety Management System covers hot holding and that you have records available.

TL;DR

  • Hot holding is where you keep cooked food hot for many hours before or during service.
  • When food is in the danger zone (between 5°C and 63°C) for too long bacteria can grow very quickly.
  • It is a legal requirement that food is hot held at or above 63°C.
  • There is a hot holding exemption that means that you can keep food that is to be served hot, below 63°C for one period of up to two hours.
  • You should use a clean and disinfected digital temperature probe to check that the centre or thickest part of any food being hot hold is above 63°C.
  • Hot holding temperatures should be periodically checked and recorded.

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