According to the USDA, most cooked food can only be left at room temperature for up to two hours. And if the temperature is hot (90°F or higher), that drops to only one hour.
You can read more about the “two-hour rule” here on the USDA website.
Baked goods like pies, cakes, bread, and cookies are safe to leave out overnight at room temperature. Apart from pre-cooked snacks like pretzels and chips, these are the only cooked foods you can leave out for several hours or more than two hours.
Foods That You Can Leave Out for Several Hours
Most cooked foods require refrigeration and are unsafe to leave out overnight. However, most baked goods can stay safe to eat when left at room temperature for several days. Still, you’ll want to keep these goods in a sealed container to prevent them from going stale.
Let’s briefly explore the types of baked goods that are safe to leave at room temperature overnight. That way, you can ensure that your favorite snacks, meals, and desserts are just as delicious and safe to consume as when they’re fresh out of the oven!
Store-bought and homebaked fruit pies are safe to leave out overnight, especially when kept in a sealable container. However, refrigerated pies (like lemon meringue and key lime pie) aren’t safe to leave out overnight and should be refrigerated within two hours of sitting at room temperature.
You could leave a fruit pie (apple, blueberry, cherry) on your kitchen counter for up to two days without worrying about spoiling. Naturally, it’s best to keep a fruit pie in a sealed container (like a pie plate with a lid) to keep insects away and maintain freshness.
Even though fruit pies generally contain more moisture than bread or cookies, their high sugar content acts as a natural preservative, helping to inhibit bacteria growth. Essentially, the sugar in a fruit pie affects bacteria by dehydrating it and preventing it from reproducing.
Salt can do the same thing to bacteria. Notably, many types of fruit pie contain a few hundred milligrams of salt. For example, the average slice of store-bought apple pie contains more than 200 mg of salt!
Although most cakes are moist, which theoretically makes them a breeding ground for bacteria, the average cake is safe to sit at room temperature for up to four days without developing dangerous levels of mold and bacteria.
Unfrosted cakes without fillings tend to last the longest at room temperature, as they don’t contain any liquid components (like jelly fillings or liquidy frostings) that can increase their spoilage or bacteria growth. These cakes can remain safe to eat for up to five days after sitting at room temperature.
However, multi-layer cakes with frosting, fresh fruit, or preserves have a much shorter countertop shelf life. These types of cakes can begin to spoil in as little as two days, with an average maximum “safe to eat” limit of four days.
As with other types of baked goods, keeping a cake inside a sealable container is one of the best ways to preserve its freshness and keep it safe to consume. Refrigerating a cake can significantly extend its shelf life, allowing you to continue enjoying it for up to one week.
Because baked bread contains very little moisture and doesn’t require refrigeration, it’s safe to keep out overnight. But it would be best to keep bread in an airtight container or resealable bag to prevent spoilage and maintain freshness.
Baking a fresh loaf of bread or a few dinner rolls is a great way to fill your kitchen with a pleasant yeasty smell and entice houseguests to eat. Fortunately, homebaked bread (and most store-bought bread) doesn’t require refrigeration and is safe to leave out overnight.
This is because the water content of baked bread is minimal, and any moisture inside of baked bread is protected by the bread’s exterior, which is often hardened or more solid than its fluffy, pore-filled interior. Most bread can stay safe to eat for one week when left at room temperature.
Sliced bread is most prone to spoiling when left out overnight, as its moist interior is exposed, allowing for increased bacterial growth. However, you can reduce its spoilage rate by keeping it in an airtight container or sealed bag.
Store-bought and home-baked cookies are safe to keep out overnight. When kept in sealable containers, cookies can remain safe to eat for up to three weeks (or by the store expiration date). Refrigerating baked cookies can extend their shelf life.
When cookies bake, the moisture in the cookie dough evaporates, leaving a minimal amount of moisture inside the cookie.
Additionally, most cookies contain salt and sugar. These are natural preservatives, helping cookies avoid rampant bacterial growth when left out at room temperature.
Still, you’ll want to keep cookies in a lidded container to preserve their freshness. Plus, you can freeze baked cookies for up to one year without negatively impacting their quality.
Muffins can remain safe to eat (when kept at room temperature) for two to four days. Keeping muffins in airtight containers is the best way to keep them safe from mold growth and insects, and it’s also a great way to keep them moist and tasty.
Muffins that contain dry ingredients like raisins or chocolate chips tend to remain food-safe the longest, while those containing wet ingredients like fresh fruit or jam spoil more quickly when kept at room temperature.
If baking muffins at home, you’ll want to let them cool before storing them in a container. Hot muffins produce steam, which can form condensation inside an airtight container. This moisture can cause muffins to spoil prematurely, even when refrigerated.
Foods That You Can Leave Out for a Few Hours
Cooked foods like meats, vegetables, pasta, and soups are safe to leave at room temperature for up to two hours. The same is true of cooked dips and sauces. After two hours, these foods must be refrigerated to remain safe to eat.
While baked foods are essentially the only cooked foods that can remain safe after spending all night out on the kitchen counter, there are several types of cooked foods that you can leave out for a few hours (two hours maximum).
So, suppose you’re planning a party and would like to know which pre-prepared cooked foods can withstand a few hours out on the buffet table.
In that case, you’ll be glad to know that most meats, vegetables, and snack dips can hang out at room temperature for a couple of hours before becoming hazardous.
Cooked meats, like oven-baked ham, sliced deli turkey, and fried chicken wings, are safe to keep out at room temperature for up to two hours. After this point, bacteria levels in the food may make it unsafe to eat.
Keeping cooked meats at a temperature of 140°F (60°C) or higher can extend the time it stays in a “safe to eat” state.
Although many raw vegetables can resist spoiling when kept at room temperature for several days, cooked vegetables are unsafe to eat when left at room temperature for more than two hours.
Are you planning to serve cooked vegetable dishes to houseguests or household members? If so, you’ll want to keep those veggies at a temperature of 140°F (60°C) or higher to inhibit bacterial growth. It’s recommended to toss the cooked vegetables out after they’ve sat out for two hours.
Cooked pasta can be dangerous to consume once it has sat at room temperature for more than two hours. Even refrigerated, cooked pasta dishes can be unsafe to eat, especially after two days.
When serving pasta, either serve and consume it within two hours or place it in a chafing dish to maintain a consistently high (140°F or 60°C) temperature.
Although soup might be tasty, whether hot or cold, cooked soups are only safe to eat for two hours after they’ve finished cooking (or boiling). Keeping soup in a crock pot capable of maintaining temperatures of 140°F (60°C) or higher is a great way to keep it safe to eat.
Soups containing pasta are prone to developing high bacteria levels when kept at room temperature. If you’re making a soup containing pasta, refrigerate any excess soup immediately (within two hours of preparing it) to prevent it from developing unsafe bacteria.
5. Dips and Sauces
Cooked snack dips and sauces are safe to leave out for up to two hours. The same is true of dips and sauces containing cooked ingredients. After this point, you must refrigerate or dispose of the dips and sauces.
Melted cheese dips, heated marinara dips, and any type of dip that’s been heated up can become a bacteria-rich safety hazard if left at room temperature for longer than two hours.
Why Can’t You Leave Most Cooked Foods Out Overnight?
You can’t leave most cooked foods out overnight due to bacteria growth. Unlike raw unrefrigerated foods (vegetables and fruits) or zero-preparation snacks (chips, pretzels, roasted nuts), cooked foods can become bacteria-ridden hazards when left out for more than two hours.
Many pre-prepared foods and snacks contain natural or artificial preservatives that inhibit bacterial growth. Others are extremely dry, making them poor habitats for bacteria and mold, both of which prefer moist conditions.
For example, potato chips can be left out overnight. Though they might go a little stale, their lack of moist surfaces and high sodium levels prevent most bacteria from reproducing. This lack of moisture is also why most baked goods remain safe to eat, even when kept at room temperature for several days.
The same cannot be said for recently cooked foods like chicken, pasta, or boiled vegetables. These cooked foods contain porous, moist surfaces, making them ideal bacterial breeding grounds.
Although the bacteria on these foods might become inactive when exposed to hot or cold temperatures, they flourish in room temperature environments, particularly temperatures between 40°F and 140°F (4.44°C to 60°C).
Is Pizza OK if It Sits Out Overnight?
It’s not safe to eat pizza that has sat out overnight. The only possible exception is pizza reheated at 350°F (176.6°C) for two minutes or longer. At this temperature, bacteria will die, making the pizza safer to eat.
If you have leftover pizza, the best thing to do is put it in the fridge or freezer. When you’re ready to finish eating it, you can place the slices on a pizza pan or baking sheet and reheat them in the oven.
Keeping cooked pizza (or any other cooked food) in a refrigerator is an excellent way to inhibit bacteria growth, thus keeping it safe to eat.
Can You Eat Pasta Left Out Overnight?
Eating pasta left out overnight isn’t safe. At room temperature, strains of Bacillus cereus, a bacteria naturally found in pasta, can begin to reproduce rapidly. This bacteria can cause severe food poisoning, especially when consumed in large quantities.
For this reason, it’s best to refrigerate cooked pasta (within two hours of cooking it) and consume it the next day. It’s unsafe to eat cooked pasta, even refrigerated pasta, that’s over two days old, as wet pasta attracts mold and bacteria.
For more, check out How Long Can A Sandwich Sit Out Unrefrigerated?
Anne James has a wealth of expertise in a wide array of interests, including quilting, cooking, gardening, camping, and making jelly.
She has a professional canning business and has been featured in the local newspaper, and has been her family canner for decades. Anyone growing up in the South knows that there is always a person in the family who has knowledge of the “old ways,” and this is exactly what Anne is.
With over 55 years of experience in these endeavors, she brings a level of hands-on knowledge that is hard to surpass.
Lovingly known as “Jelly Grandma” by her grandkids, Anne hopes your visit here has been a sweet one.