The last installment of the Amoretti Blog Proper Food Handling series will cover how to prepare both fresh and prepared foods to be stored safely, and how long you can realistically expect to keep food in your refrigerator or freezer. You need to know not only how to store food, but also how long it will be safe and maintain quality.
Timing Is Everything
All perishable foods should be packaged and stored within two hours of serving. Bacteria that cause food poisoning can multiply to dangerous levels on perishable food left longer than 2 hours at room temperature. Stuffing should be removed from prepared food and packaged separately because stuffing has a shorter storage life than prepared foods. Gravy should also be packaged separately because it, too, has a shorter storage life.
Pre-stuffed raw food products must be cooked from frozen. If the item has thawed, safely dispose of both the food item and the stuffing.
Your refrigerator should be kept at 40°F or below and your freezer at 0oF or below. Assuming your refrigerator and freezer are kept at these temperatures, most perishable foods, properly packaged, will last in the refrigerator for 2 to 4 days or in the freezer for 4 to 6 months. If you are certain that you will not be using any food item, raw or cooked, within 2 to 4 days, package it accordingly and place it directly into the freezer.
To store food safely, you need to properly package it to keep out air, which causes the quality of food to deteriorate. Food should only be stored in its original packaging or in food-grade wraps or containers. Do not use packaging materials not intended for food use. Packaging materials, from wraps to glass, plastic and ceramic containers that are intended for food use are clearly labeled as such.
Plastic wrap is an excellent packaging medium for solid foods like meat, poultry and fish because it will cling to the food to help keep out air. For loose foods like vegetables; prepared potatoes, macaroni and rice; or liquids such as soups stews, and gravies; glass or reusable or disposable plastic containers are best for refrigerator storage. Large quantities should be divided into smaller portions and stored in several serving size containers because food in small amounts will get cold more quickly and they are more convenient to store and reuse. For freezer storage, consider repackaging the food items in zippered bags so that you can squeeze out excess air to help prevent freezer burn. Freezer burn is white, dried-out patches on the surface of food that make it tough and tasteless. If you freeze a significant amount of fresh or leftover food, you might want to consider buying a vacuum packaging and sealing system to ensure your frozen items remain fresher longer
Date your packages and use the oldest ones first. Foods frozen longer than recommended may remain safe, but can become dry and lose flavor, but food in the refrigerator should be disposed of after 4 days. Remember that just because there is nothing nasty growing on it doesn’t necessarily mean it is something you want to eat.
Using Frozen Foods
Frozen foods thawed in the refrigerator may be refrozen without cooking, but some moisture may be lost due to the thawing. Previously frozen foods may be refrozen after cooking, but the same 2 hours at room temperature time limit applies.
Power outages are sometimes unavoidable, but you can be plan for them. To ensure the safety of refrigerated and frozen foods during a power outage, keep the refrigerator and freezer doors closed until power is restored. Food in the refrigerator will remain safe for up to 4 hours if the door remains closed. Food in a full freezer will remain frozen for up to 48 hours, and a half empty freezer for half that time. If you anticipate the power outage will be longer, block ice can help keep the refrigerator below 40°F for several more hours and dry ice will keep a freezer below 0°F for up to two days. Know ahead of time where block ice and dry ice can be purchased.
Raw foods that have been thawed by a power outage may be safely refrozen if the food still contains ice crystals or is has remained below 40°F, or it can be cooked and refrozen. Any refrigerated food that has been above 40°F for more than two hours must be discarded. An instant read thermometer can help you determine the temperature of refrigerated foods once the power has been restored. You will have to evaluate each item separately. Remember the old adage: When in doubt, throw it out. Coolers and frozen gel packs are also a great help for keeping refrigerated food cold if the power will be out for more than 4 hours. Be sure to store a few frozen gel packs in your freezer.