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Cooked Ribs Left Out Overnight? (What to Do)

What happens when the perfect dish becomes no longer safe to eat? All you need to know about the safety of ribs left out overnight.

So you cooked ribs and they came out finger lickin’ good. But life threw distractions your way, and you accidentally left them out on the counter or in the oven overnight.

Now, it’s the next day. And, having reminded yourself of the rack of ribs, you couldn’t help but to wonder: are they still safe to eat? The long and short of it is a definitive “no,” and you are about to find out why.

Cooked ribs shouldn’t be left out for longer than 1-2 hours, or pathogenic bacteria may grow to dangerous levels inside them and make them unsafe to eat.

To keep yourself and the family members at the table safe from food poisoning, always err on the side of caution when it comes to the food that you bring to the table.

When you’ve left a rack of ribs out overnight, throw it away and don’t try to eat them. Just because they aren’t slimy, don’t smell off, or don’t taste bad doesn’t mean they can’t cause food poisoning.

Seal them in a plastic bag and throw them in the garbage can, so that domestic pets and wildlife won’t be able to get to them. If it’s too far from collection day, transfer the meat to a freezer bag and store it in the fridge until it’s time to throw them away.

Why Ribs That Sit Out Are Unsafe to Eat

Two types of bacteria grow on meat: spoilage bacteria that worsen its texture, aroma, and flavor, and pathogenic bacteria, called “pathogens,” that render it unsafe to eat. Whereas our senses can detect spoilage bacteria, they have no way of detecting pathogens.

These bacteria thrive at room temperature. This is why meat, whether raw or cooked, should never be left out for more than 1-2 hours. The bacteria will start to feed on the proteins in the meat and multiply at an astounding rate, doubling their population every 20 minutes.

If you store ribs in the refrigerator, you slow this bacterial activity down. Refrigerated, leftover cooked ribs will keep for 3 to 4 days. Freezing halts this activity, so frozen ribs stay safe to eat indefinitely (although they eventually dry out and are not as appetizing as they once were).

Will Reheating the Ribs Make Them Safe to Eat?

The key to answering this question is understanding that, as a general rule of thumb, there are two ways to contract food poisoning: infection and intoxication.

Infection takes place when someone eats a food with too many living bacteria, which attack the gut. An example for this is salmonellosis, the infection caused by ingesting Salmonella. (According to the Minnesota Department of Health, 40,000 cases of salmonellosis are reported in the United States every year.)

Intoxication is when someone ingests the toxins that these bacteria left behind. The toxins basically act as poison to our bodies, and its harm is not to be underestimated: ingesting that poison, depending on the concentration, can have severe to fatal consequences.

Pathogens also produce toxins in your food, and many of these toxins are resistant to heat. Although high heat will kill most of the pathogenic bacteria on (and in) the rack of ribs, it won’t get rid of the toxins left behind.

Simply put—and contrary to what a great deal of home cooks think—cooking or reheating meat that’s sat out for too long won’t make it any safer to eat.

How Serious and Likely Is This, Anyway?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 48 million Americans contract food poisoning every year. Of them, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die. It goes without saying that you don’t want yourself or your loved ones anywhere near these statistics.

To put these numbers into perspective, this means that 1 in 6 Americans gets a food-borne illness every year, with adults aged 65 and older, children younger than 5 years, pregnant women, and individuals whose immune systems have been weakened being at greater risk than their peers.

Final Tips for Food Safety in the Home Kitchen

Shop safely. Add frozen or refrigerated meats to the cart right before you check out. Don’t leave grocery bags in your car for too long. Unpack the bags and refrigerate all animal products (meat, dairy, eggs) as soon as you’re back home. The longer you keep them at ambient temperature, the less they’ll last.

Wash your hands, cutlery, and cutting board after handling raw meat. Cross-contamination, the transfer of bacteria from one food item to another, is the top cause of food poisoning. To prevent it from happening, wash up and—clean up all kitchenware and working surfaces—immediately after handling raw meat.

Cook all meat thoroughly. Beef, pork, veal, lamb, and venison should be cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 145°F (63°C) when whole or cut up, and to 160°F (71°C) when ground; poultry to 165°F (74°C), whether whole, cut up, or ground. During cooking, test the meat for doneness with an instant-read thermometer.

Store meat properly. Meat, raw or cooked, shouldn’t sit out for longer than 1-2 hours. Unopened meat should be kept in the fridge and cooked before its best-by date. Refrigerated, opened raw meat lasts for 1-2 days and cooked raw meat for 3-4 days. Frozen meat stays safe to eat indefinitely, but, within several months, it will dry out and become unappetizing.

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Written by

Jim is the former editor of Home Cook World. He is a career food writer who's been cooking and baking at home ever since he could see over the counter and put a chair by the stove.