When it’s hot out, it’s hot dog time. But how long will your hot dogs last, and what’s the right way to store them?
Everyone loves a good hot dog in the summer! Whether we’re talking franks or wieners, these delicious sausages are pre-cooked, smoked, and ready to boil in a pot of boiling water or sizzle on the grill.
Wrap them in potato buns and smear them with mustard—or prick them on a stick, coat them in cornmeal batter, and deep-fry them until they get crispy and golden brown—they’ll turn out just as filling and delicious.
But how long do they last?
You know… with the long ingredient list on the back of the package and all, you might think that hot dogs have a pretty long shelf life. So do they?
Hot dogs are a meat product, and meat products must be refrigerated for safe storage. According to the USDA, unopened hot dogs will keep for 2 weeks, opened hot dogs for 1 week, and leftover hot dogs for 3-4 days as long as they’re stored in the fridge.
Of course, if you bought a big package of hot dogs—a three-pack of Kirkland Signature Beef Hot Dogs from Costco, for example—and you want to store them longer, you can leave them in their original packaging and freeze them. Frozen hot dogs will stay safe to eat forever, but they’ll only retain their best quality for 1-2 months.
How Long Can Hot Dogs Sit Out?
Don’t let your hot dogs sit out for too long, or harmful bacteria can grow on the surface and make them unsafe to eat.
Remember that hot dogs are a highly perishable food item. The typical hot dog is made of up to 55% emulsified skeletal meat, 30% fat, 10% water, and 5% additives. It must be stored in the fridge and mustn’t be left to sit out at room temperature for extended periods of time.
This leads us to the question, exactly how long is too long?
As a general rule, hot dogs shouldn’t sit out for longer than 2 hours at room temperature, or 1 hour when the temperature outside is 90°F (32°C) and above.
This doesn’t mean that hot dogs that have been outside longer than required are guaranteed to make you sick. It just means that pathogenic bacteria have grown to such high counts on them that they’re no longer safe to eat.
The temperature range from 40°F (4°C) to 140°F (60°C) is known as the “danger zone” for good reason. Within this range, the number of pathogenic bacteria on the surface of your food doubles every 20 minutes. Leave food out for long enough, and a few germs can multiply to the range of thousands.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 48 million Americans get food poisoning every year. 128,000 of them get hospitalized and 3,000 of them die. So keep yourself, your family, and your friends away from the statistics by playing it safe when it comes to your food.
How to Handle and Store Hot Dogs
The fact that hot dogs shouldn’t sit out for more than 1-2 hours has important implications for how you shop for your food and what you do with it after you’ve cooked and served it on the dining table.
For starters, if you just got out of the grocery store and you bought a bunch of packaged hot dogs, the first thing you do is go home, unpack your grocery bags, and make sure to refrigerate or freeze the hot dogs.
Don’t go running errands around town with the hot dogs in the trunk of your car, especially on hot summer days. If pathogenic bacteria grow on the hot dogs, those bacteria can survive refrigeration, freezing, and cooking—and give you a foodborne illness.
If you fired up the grill for a backyard barbecue, keep the hot dogs in the fridge and don’t take them out until it’s time for them to go on the grill. Many home cooks make the mistake of taking all the meat out and leaving it next to the grill (and in the sun) for a few hours. By the time it’s done, it’s already unsafe.
Refrigerate leftover hot dogs no more than 1-2 hours after cooking. And throw away any hot dogs that you suspect have been sitting for longer.
The pathogenic bacteria that can make you sick are not the same as the spoilage bacteria that make your food icky. It’s easy to spot hot dogs that have gone bad because they smell bad and look funny. But you have no way to sense the bacteria that cause food poisoning.
Can You Eat Expired Hot Dogs?
With all the above said, can you eat expired hot dogs?
The answer to this question is both “yes” and “no,” depending on when and where the hot dogs expired.
If you froze the hot dogs before the expiration date and you kept them in the freezer the entire time, then yes, you can eat them.
But if the hot dogs expired in the store or in your fridge—and you put them in the freezer after they were already past their prime—then they are anything but safe to eat and you should throw them away. (As we already established, you have no way of knowing whether or not they’ll make you sick.)
Frozen hot dogs will stay safe to eat forever, but they will only keep their best quality for 1-2 months. Packaged hot dogs will keep in the refrigerator unopened for 2 weeks, opened for 1 week, and leftover for 3-4 days.
The trick is not to let the hot dogs sit out at room temp for more than 1-2 hours. Ideally, this time span should include the trip back from the store, the time they sat on the counter, and the time they spent on the dining table.