tcs food storage and handling

What does TCS stand for?

In the food world, TCS stands for Time/Temperature Control for Safety. While any food has the potential to grow bacteria, TCS foods are especially prone to causing foodborne illnesses if they sit too long in the danger zone, between 41°F and 135°F.

Knowing proper TCS protocol and being able to easily identify TCS foods is key to keeping your guests safe and healthy.

List of TCS Foods

There are three things bacteria needs to grow – food, moisture, and warmth. TCS foods are high in carbohydrate and protein levels (what bacteria feed on) and contain moisture. When held within the danger zone, this creates the ideal environment for bacteria to thrive.

Below is a list of the most common TCS foods.

  • Fruits and vegetables – especially cut, processed, or cooked
  • Meat products
  • Eggs and dairy
  • Seafood
  • Cooked rice and pasta
  • Soups and stews
  • Casseroles
  • Dressings, sauces and gravy
  • Tofu, seitan, tempeh, and other meat substitutes
  • Potato dishes
  • Sprouts
  • Cooked beans
  • Cut garlic in oil


The Hourly Seafood Tower. PC: Joel Benjamin

Keeping TCS Foods Safe

TCS foods must be kept out of the danger zone in order to remain safe for your guests. The two ways of ensuring this, as the name suggests, are time and temperature.

Common TCS Foods Questions

How Long Can TCS Foods Sit in the Danger Zone?

You want to chill cold foods to 40°F or less and heat hot foods to 136°F or more as soon as possible when they are sitting in the danger zone. It’s a good practice to also check your foods every four hours to ensure they are maintaining the correct temperature.

How to Cool TCS Foods

In restaurants, we’re often cooking big batches of food to chill and reheat for service. The FDA recommends using a two-step process when cooling foods that are to be used later.

  1. Cool the food to reach somewhere between 135°F to 70°F within two hours
  2. Within four hours after that, the temperature has to come down to 40°F or below

There are a few ways of doing this based on what you are cooking and how much.

  • Separate out big batches of food like stews or veggie side dishes into smaller portions so they cool to 70°F within the two hours, then store them in the refrigerator.
  • For a large batch item that can’t immediately be broken down, like lasagna or casserole, use a blast chiller.
  • Foods like pre-blanched veggies can be submerged into an ice water bath then stored.
  • Use an ice paddle for large pots of soups or stock.

Remember: Refrigerators are not designed to chill hot foods. By putting a hot item into any refrigerator you run the risk of lowering the overall temperature, putting other foods you have stored at risk.

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How to Heat TCS Foods

When reheating foods that are going to be served immediately, you can heat them to any temperature as long as they have been cooled and stored in the right way.

However, if the food you’re reheating is going to be hot held it should be heated to at least 165°F within two hours or less of being removed from storage. Stored food won’t get hot enough to be considered safe if moved from cold storage right to a warming tray. It must be reheated to 165°F with a stove, oven, or microwave and stay at 165°F for at least 15 seconds before moving to a holding tray for service.

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How to Thaw TCS Foods

TCS foods that are frozen, such as raw meats, veggies, or pre-made processed items, should be thawed first before reheating or cooking. Depending on the type of food, there are a few ways to go about this.

  • Refrigerate: Let the item sit in a refrigerator or walk-in between 33°F-40°F until it’s thawed.
  • Microwave: In a pinch, frozen foods can be microwaved, but they should be cooked immediately after and not held at storage temp.
  • Cook: Smaller and quicker cooking items can be cooked without defrosting, such as frozen veggies thrown right into a pot of soup. This method is not recommended for larger or more dangerous items like meats or seafood.

We all want to prevent food waste and keep food costs low. Following proper methods for cooking, holding, and storing TCS foods will keep you from having to discard food in your restaurant or even worse – making a guest ill and losing their trust in your business.

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Written by   |  
Stephanie is a Providence, RI native and eight-year food industry veteran. As Upserve's Content Marketing Coordinator she creates materials that help restaurateurs, managers, and service professionals succeed. When she's not writing, Stephanie is most likely traveling, cooking, or trying new restaurants.
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