Wondering what happens to cooked ham when you leave it out? A good question calls for a good answer, and that’s what we’re here to give you.
So you have cooked ham left over?
Maybe you’re planning to eat it later, and you’re wondering whether you should refrigerate it or can leave it out overnight. Or maybe you did leave it out overnight and, now, you’re not sure if it’s still safe to eat or not.
The USDA says that cooked foods shouldn’t be kept at room temperature for a long time, and ham is no exception. In this article, you will learn how to store cooked ham, how long it will keep with each storage method, and what to do if you suspect that it has gone bad.
Why You Shouldn’t Leave Cooked Ham Out
Cold foods should be kept cold, below 40°F (4.4°C), and hot foods should be kept hot, above 140°F (60°C), but they should never be kept in the temperature range in between.
While we home cooks call this temperature range “room temperature” or “ambient temperature,” food safety experts have dubbed it “the danger zone.” That’s because pathogenic bacteria multiply most rapidly in the temperature range of 40°F (4.4°C) to 140°F (60°C).
Pathogenic bacteria, such as Escherichia coli, Listeria monocytogenes, and Salmonella, are the species of bacteria that can cause food poisoning if they enter your body in large numbers through the foods you eat.
These bacteria are not like spoilage bacteria, whose activity you can easily detect by the foul smell and icky texture of your food. On the contrary, they are odorless and textureless, and a ham that looks perfectly fine may still be overgrown with them.
How Long Does Cooked Ham Last?
The shelf life of cooked ham depends on the storage method.
At room temperature, cooked ham will stay safe to eat for 2 hours. In summer, when the outside temperature is 90°F (32°C) and above, this time is reduced to just 1 hour. After this time, there’s no way to determine if the ham is still safe to eat or not, so you should throw it away.
Stored in a ham bag or a damp tea towel, cooked ham will keep for 3-4 days in the refrigerator. Wrap the ham loosely so it can breathe and store it on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator where it is coldest.
Put in freezer bags or food storage containers, frozen cooked ham will stay safe to eat forever. However, the ham will only retain its best qualities for 1-2 months, after which it will begin to dry out and lose flavor.
Generally speaking, freezer-burnt ham is completely safe to eat. But the parts of the ham that suffer from freezer burn won’t taste good, nor will they have a good mouthfeel. Cut them off and discard them.
Telling If Cooked Ham Has Gone Bad
Remember: pathogenic bacteria and spoilage bacteria are not the same things.
If you suspect that a piece of ham has been sitting on the counter or in the refrigerator too long—or that was already spoiled prior to being frozen—err on the side of caution and throw it away. It may still seem fine, and you yet may still get food poisoning from eating it.
Spoiled ham is no better and should be thrown away. So let’s talk about the tell-tale signs of spoilage when it comes to this staple meat in the household.
The best way to determine if cooked ham is spoiled is to look for sour odor, a gray color, and sticky and slimy parts of the meat. If this is the case, you should consider the whole ham unsafe to eat and throw it away so that nobody in your household makes the mistake of eating it.
Will Re-Cooking the Ham Make It Safe to Eat Again?
Despite lore to the contrary, heating or recooking spoiled ham won’t make it safe to eat again.
Heat kills the living bacteria on the ham, there’s no question about this—especially if the ham has been exposed to the heat for long enough—but it doesn’t inactivate the poisonous toxins left behind by those bacteria.
To put it simply, it’s not a good idea to reheat or recook a spoiled ham. You and your family can still get food poisoning from eating it, even after thermal treatment. It’s best to play it safe when it comes to the food you eat, so don’t take chances.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 48 million Americans contract a foodborne illness every year. 128,000 of them are hospitalized, and 3,000 are estimated to die.
How to Store Cooked Ham
If you have guests over and you’re planning to serve ham, you might be wondering how to prepare it the day before and store it overnight.
Fortunately, there are several different ways you can go about this. If you are not going to serve it at the party, you should let it cool down, wrap it tightly, and store it in the refrigerator. To keep it fresh and prevent it from drying out, wrap it loosely in a ham bag or a damp tea towel.
When storing store-bought ham, you have several options. First, you can freeze the ham whole in its original packaging. Or, if you plan to eat it in portions, you can cut it into meal-sized portions to make it easier to grab and thaw out.
To thaw cooked ham, transfer it from the freezer to the refrigerator the night before. Place it in a large bowl or tray to catch drips, and place it in the bottom shelf of the fridge where it is coldest. The ham should thaw completely within 12-24 hours.
Disease-causing bacteria love ham as much, if not more, than ham-eating humans.
This is why you shouldn’t leave ham out for longer than 1-2 hours at room temperature (the hotter the weather, the shorter the ham’s shelf life) and 3-4 days in the fridge.
Freezing puts bacterial activity on pause. So, technically, frozen ham stays safe to eat forever. However, the ham eventually loses its best quality—typically after only 1-2 months—so do not wait too long to eat it all up.
When it comes to food safety in the home kitchen, rule number one goes like this: “When in doubt, throw it out!” Food poisoning is not to trifle, and your responsibility as a home cook is to prepare and store food so that it is not only tasty, but safe to eat.