An "Ask Alyce" question: What's the big deal about food temperatures? One of our blog readers had heard from a restauranteur about how ticky the health department can be about food temperatures. I can sympathize with the reader; I remember my grandmother working in the cool of the morning preparing a great big ole meal (called dinner) served to the working men on the farm at noon or thereabouts. After they were done, the fire got banked in the wood-burning stove so it wouldn't be quite so hot in the house, and plates got turned upside down on the bowls of food to keep the flies out. In the evening she took off the plates, made fresh cornbread or biscuits and that was supper. Why aren't we all dead of food poisoning?
I don't know why, but a few years in the business have allowed me to hear and read about enough horror stories to take the food temp edicts very seriously. So, food must be kept either above 140F or below 40F to be safe. Spoilable food kept in the middle of those temperatures risk bacteria growth after a short time, and after a couple of hours can become a hot house of nasty stuff!
That said, I still love the hors-d'oeuvre variĂ©s in France, or tapas in Spain, or antipasti in Italy, mostly made earlier in the afternoon and left at room temperature. I eat them with no hesitation at all and have never gotten sick. Foods with plenty of vinegar or some other acid are much less likely to grow evil critters. I certainly have no problem marinating meat a few hours at room temperature, especially if I don't have long before cooking. The flavor seems to penetrate better at room temperature.
To be safe, if you have any concerns, follow the healthy rule of under 40F or over 140F and you should have no problems!