Don’t eat beef stew that you accidentally left in the slow cooker overnight. Contrary to what many home cooks think, heating it won’t make it any safer to eat either.
It can happen to anyone, especially on a weekday. You cook beef stew in the slow cooker, then the evening’s chores get in the way and you forget it’s even there. It sure happened to me—and since you’re here reading this post, I assume it’s the same for you.
The next day, you crack open the pot and, lo and behold, the beef stew is still inside! The only question is, can you and your family still eat it? Well, let’s just say it’s a good thing you stopped by because the long answer short is a resounding, unequivocal no.
Read on to find out why.
If you accidentally left beef stew in the slow cooker overnight, don’t eat it. Although it may still smell and taste fine, it can be overgrown with pathogenic bacteria that can cause food poisoning.
One of the most important rules when it comes to food safety is to never leave food at room temperature for more than 1-2 hours.
The reason, you may be wondering? Bacteria.
Bacteria are all around us. They’re in the air, in the soil, and—you guessed it—in our food. Some of these bacteria, like those that make yogurt sour or give blue cheese its color, are generally harmless.
Others, like those that cause food poisoning, are anything but harmless. And the key to keeping your food safe is to minimize the growth of these bacteria by storing the food properly. “Properly” means keeping cold food cold and hot food hot, but never exposing it to room temperature for too long.
How Long Can Beef Stew Cooked in the Slow Cooker Sit Out?
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, cooked food shouldn’t be left to sit out for longer than 2 hours (or 1 hour when the outside temperature is 90°F/32°C and higher). Beef stew is no exception.
So keep hot food hot and cold food cold, but let hot food cool to below 140°F (60°C) or cold food heat to above 40°F (4.4°C) and you have a problem.
That’s because bacteria multiply the most rapidly in the temperature range between 40°F (4.4°C) and 140°F (60°C), which home cooks know as room temperature and food safety experts call the danger zone.
Leave beef stew in the slow cooker for longer than 1-2 hours after it’s cooled down to less than 140°F (60°C), and it will get overgrown with pathogenic bacteria that give you—and anyone else who’s at the table—food poisoning.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that the young, elderly, pregnant women, and those with weakened immune systems are most at risk for food poisoning.
So if you’re cooking for someone who belongs to one of these groups, be extra careful; when it comes to food safety, the rule is better safe than sorry.
What to Do With Slow-Cooker Beef Stew Left Out Overnight
The big question is whether your slow cooker was on and maintaining a temperature of at least 140°F (60°C), or off and exposing the stew to the danger zoon for far too long.
If the slow cooker was on and kept cooking the stew overnight, then, at least theoretically, the stew is just fine. If it was turned off and only served as a food storage container, then I have bad news for you.
From a food safety perspective, the only thing to do with beef stew that you accidentally left in the slow cooker overnight is to throw it away. (For eco-friendly disposal, compost it or put it in the organic waste bin.)
Reheating the stew doesn’t make it safer for consumption. Yes, prolonged exposure to heat kills the pathogenic bacteria it contains—but it doesn’t inactivate the disease-causing toxins they’ve left behind.
Food safety experts unanimously agree that these toxins can just as well cause severe food poisoning, especially in those who are at higher risk of contracting it in the first place.
Don’t eat beef stew if you accidentally left it in the slow cooker overnight; you’re risking a trip to the ER. The CDC estimates that 48 million Americans contract food poisoning every year, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die.
For obvious reasons, you want to keep yourself and the ones you cook for far away from those statistics. When in doubt, follow rule number one of food safety and throw it out.