How Long Can Meat Sauce Sit Out? [Store-Bought & Homemade]

So you’ve finally had the time to make homemade meat sauce for family spaghetti night. But, after a busy night of feeding the family and errands, you discover you’ve left the meat sauce out at room temperature for several hours. Can you keep it?

You should generally toss cooked meat sauce that has sat out for more than two hours. You can usually refrigerate both homemade and storebought meat sauce left out for two hours if you plan on eating it in the next few days.

However, canned and unopened meat sauce can usually stay safe at room temperature for up to two years. 

Note that most meat sauces have a Best By date that indicates how long the contents will maintain their best texture and flavor. You can safely keep cans of meat sauce shelved and unopened past the Best By date, but know that the contents may not taste as great later.

However, if your can of meat sauce has an actual expiration date, indicated by EXP or Expiration Date printed on the label, you need to throw the can out even if it is unopened once that date passes.

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Meat Sauce Sit Out At Room Temperature

The USDA recommends that you not consume any food left out at room temperature for more than two hours because bacteria thrive at room temperature. Plenty of people have eaten sauce that has sat out overnight without problems, but the USDA doesn’t recommend it. Here’s why:

Room Temperature Exists In the Danger Zone

Room temperature, generally agreed on as being near 70-degrees Fahrenheit, sits within the USDA’s “Danger Zone,” a range of temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit that bacteria love to grow in. 

After exposure to room temperatures for more than two hours, foods susceptible to bacterial growth can become unsafe to consume and lead to food-borne illnesses. Therefore, any meat sauce left out at room temperature for over two hours can pose a risk to your health.

Ingredients In Meat Sauce 

Meat sauce contains meat, but the type of meat can vary; popular types include Italian sausage, andouille, beef, chicken, and steak. Typically has a base of an acidic sauce like tomato marinara. In addition, most sauces contain spices that include salt, pepper, garlic, basil, and thyme. Finally, many producers use vegetables like onions and peppers to add flavor and texture to their meat sauces.

The Importance Of Refrigerating Meat Sauce

Opened or fresh, homemade meat sauce is not inherently shelf-stable. Meat is a low-acid food, meaning that bacteria thrive in it unless you expose it to heat or high pressure. Because of the low-acid nature of meat, you need to refrigerate meat sauce needs if it is homemade with no preservatives or is an opened store-bought can. 

The Science Behind Refrigerating Meat Sauce

Bacteria do not thrive in cold temperatures. Therefore, meat sauce will not develop bacteria as quickly when refrigerated. Always keep meat sauce refrigerated unless you plan to heat it up and heat it in the next hour. Meat sauce left out for more than a few minutes can begin developing bacteria. After two hours, bacteria may be at an unsafe level, and you should discard the meat sauce to avoid getting food poisoning from it.

Best Practices For Keeping Meat Sauce In the Fridge

Homemade meat sauces can safely store in the fridge for up to three days if you keep them immediately after cooking and do not expose the sauce to room temperature again. Homemade meat sauces won’t last as long in the fridge as store-bought options because they don’t generally contain any preservatives.

The Shelf-Life of Unopened And Canned Homemade Meat Sauce

The USDA notes that low acid foods, like meat, keep their best quality when stored for up to five years. Additionally, if you canned the meat sauce correctly, it can last indefinitely but will slowly lose nutritional value, texture, and flavor after five years.

Meat Sauce Made With Raw Meat

You’ll be hard-pressed to find a store brand producing meat sauce in the store that uses raw meat. While it is possible to make and store meat sauce containing raw meat safely, manufacturers avoid that kind of process due to the risks of food poisoning and botulism in consumers.

However, you can choose to make your own meat sauce at home using raw meat. Just know that you have to follow specific steps to correctly and safely make and store your meat sauce. 

Canning Home Made Meat Sauce With Raw Meat

According to the USDA, the only way to make meat sauce with raw meat is through high-pressure canning. When subjected to high pressure, bacteria in raw meat die, leaving the meat raw but free of dangerous bacterial growths. 

You will need a specialized pressure canner to can raw meat. To can a meat sauce, you’ll add your tomato sauce, spices, vegetables, and meat to the can before pressurizing it. Once you finish the canning process, cook and consume the sauce within one year to ensure the best nutritional value and flavor.

Note, it’s best to brown meat before canning it whenever possible. Cooked meat is safer than raw meat, and the meat sauce itself won’t need cooking nearly as long as raw meat sauce after you open the can.

Refrigerating Opened Store-Bought Meat Sauce 

It’s not uncommon for people to keep opened cans of meat sauce in the fridge for up to a month, but it isn’t safe to do so. Because the sauce contains meat, a magnet for bacteria, it’s best you throw any opened meat sauce out after five days. 

Room Temperature Shelf-Life Of Unopened Cans Of Meat Sauce 

You can safely store unopened meat sauce at room temperature indefinitely as long you have stored it in optimal conditions. For example, a cool, dry place will keep your meat sauce stored at its best. However, you should check the Best By date before storing the can.

The Best By Date vs. Expiration Date

While the Best By date does not indicate an expiration, it does tell you when the can’s contents will start losing their texture, flavor, and nutritional value. So, if you want to eat a can of meat sauce that’s sat on the shelf for a questionable length of time, keep in mind it may not taste the best.

Keep in mind that some meat products have an actual expiration date. So if the jar of meat sauce states EXP or Expiration Date anywhere, you need to follow the date listed and throw out the sauce after the date passes.

Unopened Meat Sauce Does Not Need Refrigerated

Unless a manufacturer recommends it, you do not need to store unopened meat sauce in the fridge until you open it.

Bring Hot Meat Sauce To Room Temperature Before Refrigeration

Yes, you should let meat sauce come to room temperature before refrigerating it, but only if you can do so within the two-hour mark advised by the USDA. If you are cooling a large pot of meat sauce that will take longer than two hours to reach room temperature, you can move the hot sauce into the fridge to prevent bacterial growth.

Storing Hot Food In the Fridge Is Not Unsafe

It is not unsafe to store hot food in the fridge immediately after cooking. However, it can produce condensation in the storage container that can alter the taste and texture of your food. That said, it is still safer for you to store hot meat sauce in the fridge immediately after cooking than it is to let it sit out too long to come to room temperature.

Safely Storing Meat Sauce In the Fridge

You should always store meat sauce in an air-tight container in the fridge. You can use saran wrap if it produces a tight seal. However, if you are cooling down a large amount of hot meat sauce, you can speed up the cooling time by splitting the sauce into smaller, shallow airtight containers before storing them in the fridge. 

Signs You Need To Throw Out Meat Sauce

Canned

Dents in the can.

Dents in the can point to possible contamination by bacteria from the points of damage.

The container shows signs of rust.

Rusting containers can allow bacteria to grow in the sauce.

The container has cracked.

Cracks or damage to the container allows bacteria and mold to grow in the sauce.

Swelling of the container.

Swelling containers indicate a change in pressure often caused by bacterial growth.

Foul odors are coming from the can.

Bacteria produce bad odors; the more bacteria in a container, the worse its contents will smell.

Any of these signs in canned meat sauce indicates a risk of bacterial contamination of Clostridium botulinum, which causes botulism, a severe illness that can cause death.

Refrigerated

The containers show signs of damage.

Damaged containers can lead to cross-contamination, excess moisture, and point to the presence of botulism-causing bacteria.

You lost power for more than fifteen minutes.

If you experience a loss of power for more than two hours, toss the meat sauce, as the temperature in the fridge may have increased to allow for bacterial growth.

The meat sauce changed colors or smell.

Bad odors or color changes indicate bacteria has grown in the sauce.

Any of these signs can point to botulism-causing bacteria or other bacterial sources of food poisoning.

Room Temperature

The meat sauce is cold to the touch.

Cold meat sauce indicates that it has sat out at room temperature too long, and you should throw it out rather than risk food poisoning.

The meat sauce stinks.

In general, don’t eat something that smells weird. Mold and bacteria produce gross odors as they grow, so if a sauce doesn’t smell great, don’t give it a chance to make you sick.

You can’t remember how long it’s been out.

 If you can’t remember how long a sauce has sat on the stove, chances are, it’s been too long.

The Dangers Of Consuming Bad Meat Sauce

Canned goods carry an increased risk of botulism, a severe and sometimes fatal foodborne illness. It requires immediate treatment by a medical professional. Signs of botulism include:

vomiting, diarrhea, nausea, blurred vision, and muscle pain.

Safety Rules For Reheating Leftover Meat Sauce

As a general rule, the USDA recommends you reheat any previously heated foods to at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit. However, they also suggest that any sauces (including meat sauces) reheat to a boil.  Meat Sauce

Tips To Safely Reheat Leftover Meat Sauce

It’s essential to reheat meat sauce correctly to prevent any bacteria-related illness. Reheating the sauce to a boil, or at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit, helps kill any bacteria that may have grown in the sauce during its storage.

From Frozen

When reheating meat sauce from frozen, you should allow the sauce to thaw in the fridge until it has returned to a liquid consistency. Then, reheat the sauce either on the stovetop or in the microwave. Heat the sauce until a meat thermometer reads 165 degrees or the sauce comes to a boil. 

From Refrigeration

If you are reheating a meat sauce directly from the refrigerator, you can use the stovetop or microwave. Just make sure to reheat the sauce until it comes to a boil or reaches 165 degrees Fahrenheit. 

A Note On Reheating Meat Sauce In The Microwave

If you plan to use the microwave to reheat the sauce, make sure you use a microwave-safe dish to do so. Additionally, periodically stir the sauce as it reheats to ensure even heating.

Storing Meat Sauce In The Freezer

Yes, you can freeze both store-bought and homemade meat sauce. Frozen meat sauce can keep for up to six months without sacrificing flavor or nutritional value. Technically, meat sauce will keep in the freezer indefinitely if stored constantly at zero degrees Fahrenheit will last indefinitely but lose its taste and texture over time. 

Methods To Freezing Meat Sauce

When freezing meat sauce, keep in mind the following key steps:

First, freeze in an air-tight container designed for freezers. 

Using freezer-safe bags or Tupperware will prevent freezer burn or damage to the meat sauce. Do not keep store-bought meat sauce in the original container unless it says it is freezer-safe.

Freeze immediately after opening or making. 

Immediately freezing meat sauce prevents the development of bacteria.

Discard or consume if the power goes out and the sauce has started defrosting. 

If meat sauce begins to defrost, it can develop bacteria and become unsafe to refreeze.

Tips To Defrost Meat Sauce Safely

You can defrost meat sauce safely in one of three ways:

Microwave

You can microwave the meat sauce on the “defrost” mode or “low” heat. Stir the meat sauce as you defrost it to ensure even defrosting. 

Cold Water

You can place the sauce container in a bowl of cold water to defrost it. Ensure the water covers the container in about an inch of water to ensure even defrosting.

Refrigerator

If you have the time, defrost the sauce in the fridge. Then, simply place the container in the refrigerator for three to four days to allow for even defrosting. 

Never Refreeze Defrosted Meat Sauce

You should not refreeze defrosted meat sauce. Once the meat sauce has defrosted, it can start developing bacteria. If you want to keep large amounts of sauce in the freezer for multiple meals, divide the sauce into smaller batches to defrost for individual meals. 

Shelf-Life Rules For Defrosted Meat Sauce

How long defrosted meat sauce lasts depends on how you defrosted it. You should discard any leftover meat sauce defrosted by the cold water or microwave method – do not refrigerate, as the defrosting process might have introduced bacteria into the food. 

However, if you defrosted the meat sauce in the fridge, you can usually keep it in the refrigerator for another three to four days after defrosting. Just make sure to keep the sauce refrigerated, do not let it come to room temperature, and then re-refrigerate, as that can lead to bacterial development. 

Final Reminders

It’s best to follow the “two-hour rule” for meat sauce. Always refrigerate, freeze, or consume your meat sauce within two hours of cooking it. And, if your sauce’s container shows any signs of damage, toss it and get a new one to avoid any chance of food poisoning. Enjoy!

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