Posted On: June 25, 2020

Tips and Guidelines for Time and Temperature Control (TCS) Foods

There's nothing more fundamental than food safety in the restaurant industry.

The results of poor food safety can be devastating to both your reputation and your bottom line.  Fines, negative inspection ratings, and lawsuits are very real risks, but the black mark on your reputation might be worse. 

You can take steps to repair your inspection grade, but even if you turn over a whole new leaf, the public won't always give you a second chance. 

And online rating sites have given "word of mouth" a whole new level of permanence.

One of the key strategies for preventing food-borne illness in your kitchen is Time and Temperature Control for Safety (TCS). We'll outline the basic principles and best practices of this important tool below.

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TCS Foods: What and Why

It's impossible to eliminate bacteria entirely from food or food prep environments. However, some foods provide a better environment than others for rapid bacterial growth: those that are moist, high in carbs or proteins, and have a neutral or slightly acidic pH.

This includes:

  • Meat, Poultry, Fish, Shellfish, and Crustaceans
  • Egg and Dairy
  • Tofu and other Soy
  • Raw Sprouts
  • Cooked Potato, Pasta, Rice, Beans, and Vegetables
  • Cooked or Reconstituted Dehydrated Onions
  • Sliced/Cut Melons, Tomatoes, and Leafy Greens
  • Cut Garlic in Oil
  • Dishes containing any of the above, including pastries, pies, custards, mayonnaise, and prepared salads

For shorthand, all of these are referred to as "TCS foods."

Because TCS foods are a great environment for pathogen growth, they should always be handled according to Time and Temperature Control for Safety protocols.

Basic Requirements for TCS Food Safety

TCS protocols leverage what we know about bacteria to curb growth and prevent pathogens from reaching quantities that cause illness.

What is the Temperature Danger Zone?

The "temperature danger zone" (Temperature Danger Zone) in food prep ranges from 41° to 135°F.  Within that range, pathogens double every 20 minutes and reach numbers high enough to cause illness within 4 hours. That means, for proper "Time and Temperature Control," you must:

  • Keep cold foods cold: below 41°F

  • Keep hot foods hot: above 135°F

  • Move foods through the Temperature Danger Zone quickly

On a practical level, it's slightly more complicated. The tips for daily TCS logistics below illustrate how to put those three rules into practice.

Within the range of 41° to 135°F, we know that pathogens double every 20 minutes. We call that the "temperature danger zone" (TDZ) in food prep. TCS foods that spend time in the TDZ can reach unsafe pathogen levels within 4 hours.

Therefore, to achieve proper Time and Temperature Control, you must either:

  • Keep foods below 41°F
  • Keep foods above 135°F
  • Move foods through the TDZ too quickly for unsafe pathogen levels to form

Three easy rules. Easy, right? (That was sarcasm, for those playing along from home).

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Tips for Practicing TCS Food Safety

On a practical level, putting those three rules into practice can be complicated by the bustle of a busy kitchen and the number of people involved in food preparation and service.

Then, of course, there are factors other than food safety that also impact food preparation protocols, like timely service, cost efficiency, and the subjective quality of the dishes you serve. 

The tips for daily TCS logistics below illustrate how to put these three rules into practice in the real world.

General Best Practices for TCS Food Safety

To ensure TCS food safety, you should always:

  • Keep Temperature Logs.  Consider which temperature log method is right for your business, then carefully maintain one for each stage of food prep and storage.  This should include a schedule for checking the temperature of food storage areas.
  • Store Deliveries Quickly. Make sure to schedule deliveries for off-peak times, so you can inspect deliveries for quality and ensure that food doesn't sit outside proper storage for too long.
  • Check Temperatures on Deliveries. Only work with reputable food suppliers who use proper temperature controls during storage and transit. Before you accept delivery, make sure the food is at a safe temperature.  Refuse the product if it's in the TDZ—you should assume it's been there long enough to become hazardous.
  • Work in Batches. When moving deliveries into the freezer, divide food into smaller quantities where appropriate, to achieve reasonable thawing times.  For food prep, never exceed a batch size you can serve within 2-4 hours.

Thawing Tips for TCS Food Safety

Food should never be thawed at room temperature, outdoors, or in warm water. 

There are four methods for safely thawing food:

  • Refrigeration. Moving food from the freezer to the refrigerator guarantees the food will thaw entirely outside the TDZ.  This is the safest, most reliable option, but it requires forward planning and enough notice, particularly for large containers.
  • Running Water. You can thaw food somewhat faster by submerging it under running water.  Just make sure the water temperature stays below 70°F, or uneven thawing might cause the outer edges to stay in the TDZ too long.
  • Microwaving. Only thaw food in a microwave if you plan to immediately cook it, since it results in patchy temperatures.
  • Cooking.  Expect a 50% increase in cooking time if you're starting from a frozen state. 

TCS foods can safely be refrozen if they were refrigerator-thawed or if they were completely cooked.  Refreezing raw items after other thawing methods can be dangerous.

Holding Tips for TCS Food Safety

You need to take precautions to prevent unsafe pathogen growth after TCS food is prepared but before it's served. You should:

  • Hold Outside the TDZ. Once batches of TCS food are prepared, hold dishes outside the TDZ (above 135°F, if served hot, or below 41°F, if served cold)
  • Monitor Frequently.  Food should be checked every 2 hours to ensure proper temperature control is being maintained.  This interval leaves time for corrective action to help you avoid food waste.
  • When in Doubt, Throw it Out. Throw out food after 4 hours, or if it has entered the TDZ for undetermined amounts of time.

Cooling Tips for TCS Food Safety

Cooked TCS foods can be safely cooled for later use as long as the following precautions are taken:

  • Break Down Large Batches.  Cooling large volumes of TCS food in a single container is dangerous, because the food will cool too slowly.  Divvy it up, first.
  • Cool in Two Stages.  Regardless of the method, TCS food should be cooled to 70°F within two hours (stage one), then below 41°F within another four (stage two).  If stage one isn't complete within two hours, you either have to throw the batch out, or reheat and try again.  Total cooling time must be six hours or less.
  • Use Specialized Equipment. Blast chillers, tumble chillers, and cooling wands are all designed for rapid cooling. 
  • Use Low-Tech Methods and Pay Attention. Other methods don't require expensive equipment, just the knowledge of when each is appropriate, along with careful monitoring.  You can use ice-water baths, divide food into shallow pans or thinner portions, add ice or cold water, and in some cases, use cold-holding equipment.  Use temperature logs to ensure the food cools down within safe time constraints.

Reheating Tips for TCS Food Safety

TCS food can be reheated to any temperature if you intend to serve it immediately. 

If it's destined for hot-holding, there are a few caveats.  You must:

  • Use Proper Equipment. DO NOT reheat using warming trays or other hot-holding equipment—the temperature won't come up fast enough. Reheat the food with a stove, microwave, or oven before transferring it to hot-holding.
  • Heat to 165°F. TCS food must reach 165° or higher in two hours or less, then stay at that temperature for 15 seconds or more.

Get Everyone On Board

It takes the entire team to ensure Time and Temperature Control for Safety protocols are followed.  Everyone needs to be properly educated in TCS procedures, from management to back-of-house and front-of-house staff. 

We offer online food safety training that will ensure your training is consistent, comprehensive, and up-to-date for your jurisdiction.  Check out our business solutions for a package that addresses all your training needs.

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