Time and Temperature Control (TCS) Foods: What is the Temperature Danger Zone?

In the food and beverage industry, there's nothing more fundamental than food safety. The results of poor food safety can be devastating to your reputation and bottom line.  Fines, poor inspection ratings, and lawsuits are very real risks, but perhaps worse is the black mark on your reputation.  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 put "word of mouth" on steroids.

One of the key strategies for preventing food-borne illness in your kitchen is Time and Temperature Control for Safety (TCS).  It's impossible to eliminate bacteria entirely from food or a food prep environment, but TCS protocols leverage what we know about bacteria to prevent unsafe pathogen levels in what you serve. We'll outline the basic principles of TCS, why it works, and some of the best practices below.

TCS Foods: What and Why

Some foods provide a better environment than others for rapid bacterial growth: those that are moist, high in carbs or protein, 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 that contain any of these elements should also be handled according to TCS protocols, including pastries, pies, custards, mayonnaise, and prepared salads. For shorthand, all of these are referred to as "TCS foods."

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.


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5 Tips for Maintaining TCS Safety

General Practices

  • 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.
  • Check Temp 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 Temperature Danger Zone—you should assume it's been there long enough to become hazardous.
  • Store Deliveries Quickly. Make sure to schedule deliveries for off-peak times, so that food doesn't sit outside proper storage for too long.
  • 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

Food should never be thawed at room temperature, outdoors, or in warm water.  There are four methods for safely thawing food:

  • Moving food from the freezer to the refrigerator guarantees the food will thaw entirely outside the Temperature Danger Zone. 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 Temperature Danger Zone too long.
  • Only thaw food in a microwave if you plan to immediately cook it since it results in patchy temperatures.
  • 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

  • Hold Outside the Temperature Danger Zone. Once batches of TCS food are prepared, hold dishes outside the Food Safety Danger Zone (above 135°F, if served hot, or below 41°F, if served cold)
  • Monitor Frequently. Food should be checked every 2 hours to ensure you’re maintaining proper temperature control.  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 Temperature Danger Zone for undetermined amounts of time.

Cooling Tips

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

If it's intended for immediate serving, TCS food can be reheated to any temperature.  If it's destined for hot-holding, there are a few extra 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 with Food Safety Training

Everyone needs to be properly educated in TCS procedures, from management to back-of-house and front-of-house staff.  It takes the entire team to ensure food safety.  We offer online food safety training that’s consistent, comprehensive, and up-to-date for your location.  For businesses, check out our solutions for a package that addresses all your training needs.

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