In the Midwest, coleslaw is almost always a staple of potlucks, cookouts, and barbecues; the list could go on. However, it does have a time frame for how long it can sit out before bacteria decides they want to join in on the fun.
Even though summer vacation for the kiddos may be starting to wind up, the heat continues in most places, so many are still enjoying the outdoors and respective cookouts. A staple of many cookouts is the side dish of coleslaw.
Granted, most of us have probably heard by now that you can’t leave mayonnaise-based dishes like, say, potato salad or coleslaw out for too long, particularly in the throngs of the summer heat outdoors. Perishable food does need to be refrigerated. As Nick DeSimone writes for AllRecipes, it’s not the mayo in coleslaw that makes for a bacteria hotbed; it’s the cabbage.
Regarding food safety, most vegetables (such as cabbage) are low-acid foods. This means insufficient acid within that particular food to keep bacteria at bay. Compounding that is that foods containing a lot of water, such as cabbage, become even more dangerous. This results from when the product is cut, and the juices can drain out; bacteria look at that as a go-ahead to get rolling.
If that food has a more extensive cut surface area, then that results in even more moist nooks and crannies for the bacteria to thrive. So coming back to our example of coleslaw, when the cabbage is shredded, there’s even more room for bacterial growth.
What’s It Slaw’ll About?
Coleslaw is a chilled salad usually made from shredded cabbage and then tossed with a sweet and tangy mayo-based dressing. Of course, ingredients can vary, but other veggies like shredded carrots, sliced onions, or scallions can also be added. These veggies, too, can also become playgrounds for bacteria. While coleslaw dressing can often acidulate the salad, it’s usually not enough to tell bacteria “do not pass go.”
Alright, So How Long Can It Sit Out?
Per the USDA, the United States government agency that oversees food safety rules, prepared foods such as coleslaw can be left out at room temperature for up to two hours. After those two hours have elapsed, harmful bacteria can decide it’s go time. Regardless if the ’slaw was refrigerated before being set out, it could quickly dip into the “Danger Zone” of 40 – 140 degrees Fahrenheit after being set out – the range of temps where bacteria thrive.
However, the two-hour rule is a guideline. It may not be possible to refrigerate coleslaw after being out for two hours, such as at your backyard barbecue, where all food usually gets set out, and guests serve themselves for the barbecue. In such events, it’s good to remember that if coleslaw is exposed to the summer heat (or left out in direct sunlight), the time it can be out of the fridge gets cut in half.
When In Doubt, Toss It Out?
Guessing that you’re storing your coleslaw in the refrigerator, which hasn’t come out after a certain period and been put back in – coleslaw can safely last up to five days. Remember, though, that this is the maximum amount of time it should be kept. It can affect the shelf life if it’s seen the light of day outside of your fridge or depending on the freshness of the ingredients used.
If you’re second-guessing yourself, it can be best to err on the side of caution and throw it out. Yes, wasting food is a downer, but food poisoning can be even worse. While it may seem common sense, a good trick can always be to keep an eye on the “expiration dates” of any homemade food by taking some masking tape and a permanent marker, jotting down the date on the tape, and sticking it to the container of food.
Can It Be Frozen?
Yes, it is perfectly safe to freeze coleslaw. You could freeze it without risk if the slaw weren’t left out before freezing and thawed slowly in the fridge.
Will it taste as good once it’s thawed? Probably not. Dishes with mayo are almost always lacking in the flavor department after frozen. Mayo is made with emulsification of oil and water, which gives you that creamy texture. But once that freezes and thaws, that emulsion is broken, leaving you with a yucky, watery, grainy mess.
Cabbage releases much water when it gets cut and even more once frozen and thawed, leaving a soggy mess.
Hopefully, this helps you enjoy your next barbecue even more while being mindful of food safety!