Category Archives: Freezing

Holiday Dinners Often Mean Leftovers

We have just finished one big U.S. holiday centered around big family meals and celebrations.  What comes with those times might be a table full of leftovers.  You may be happy with the way you managed the Thanksgiving leftovers or wish you had done some things better.  Since another holiday season with many food-filled activities and events is upon us, I thought I would review some food safety advice for handling leftovers.

One really important task is to get the “perishable” leftovers into the refrigerator or freezer and cooling within two hours of the cooking.  By perishable, I mean those foods that require cold storage to be held safely. And yes, that means conversation and games at tableside might have to be cut short for the person or people who put up the leftovers!  But if someone gets sick from eating leftovers not stored safely, future good times will be cut off, too.  Time-temperature abuse as well as possible post-cook contamination during the meal means even well-cooked foods can be future hazards.  Cooking doesn’t remove all bacterial concerns from foods; they still have to be kept at recommended temperatures.

To get started on those leftovers, make sure you have clean hands, work surfaces like cutting boards and counters, food storage containers, and utensils.  A clean apron can help protect you as well as the food you work over. It would be best to start with a clean apron and dish towels or wipes and not those you used in meal preparation and now have been sitting around dirty with food residues at room temperature themselves.

To prevent bacterial growth, it’s important that food will cool rapidly to the safe refrigerator-storage temperature of 40°F or below. For example, divide large amounts of food into shallow containers. Cut or slice roasts, hams and whole turkeys into small pieces and fill into small containers. Legs and wings can be left whole. Other larger items like big casserole dishes should be packaged in smaller portions if you have a lot leftover. It is best to separate the turkey, stuffing and gravy into separate shallow containers.

Package your leftovers in tightly sealed containers or wraps for best quality. For freezer storage, packaging should be moisture-vapor resistant materials to prevent freezer burn. Plastics should be “freezer-weight” or composition, glass jars that are meant for freezing, and all sealing areas should be tight-fitting. For freezing, be sure all sealing areas are also clean and dry and to leave recommended headspace for expansion (https://nchfp.uga.edu/how/freeze/headspace.html). Moisture left on sealing surfaces can expand when it freezes and create air gaps in your seals. Clearly label each package with the name of the food, ingredients, and packaging date. Package foods in amounts you will be likely to use at one time.

Do not overload the refrigerator or freezer with warm leftovers causing the temperature to rise above the recommended storage temperature. The small containers of your warm food can be spread out until cooled or frozen; you can then go back and stack or organize them differently if desired.  A large stack of warm containers will cool more slowly, as if you had used a large container instead of many shallow ones. The refrigerator temperature should keep foods at 40°F or below, so you might need the interior cabinet temperature to be around 38°F. The best freezer air temperature should be 0°F for best food quality and storage times.

Use turkey and stuffing within 3 to 4 days for safety; gravy might be best used within 1-2 days. It is safe to refreeze leftover cooked turkey and trimmings even if you purchased them frozen. Frozen typical turkey meal leftovers are best used in 3-4 months; although safe if kept frozen longer, they start to lose noticeable quality when kept longer in the freezer.

When it’s time to enjoy the leftovers from the freezer, the safest way to thaw them is in the refrigerator. If foods are then to be reheated, reheat leftovers to at least 165°F and check the internal temperature of the thickest part with a food thermometer. Bring gravies, sauces, and soups to a rolling boil as added safety.

Food safety steps for correctly storing the turkey and trimmings are critical when preparing your favorite sandwiches, casseroles, and soups from leftovers. Avoiding illness is important so don’t take short cuts or waste time in getting to this task quickly at the end of the meal!  Remember, harmful bacteria grow rapidly between the temperatures of 40°F and 140°F. Even recommended cooking temperatures can result in some bacteria still contaminating the food. Some pathogens contaminate food in a heat-resistant “spore-form that survives cooking.  These spores do not make us sick if ingested in that form, but temperature abuse during serving and holding food will result in those spores germinating to forms of bacterial cells that can make us sick or even produce toxins that will make us very sick if ingested.

After food is safely cooked, enjoy your meal, but within 2 hours of cooking food or after it is removed from an appliance keeping it warm above 140°F, leftovers must be refrigerated.

Additional resource: You can see more about recommended food storage times and tips for safe preparation in the FoodKeeper.app. The database is searchable online or available as a mobile app for Android and Apple devices. (https://www.foodsafety.gov/keep/foodkeeperapp/index.html)

###

Advertisements

Freezing Ahead for the Holidays

There is nothing like a hot bowl of homemade soup on a chilly winter’s day. But who has time to make it? Schedules are busy during school days and holidays. Just imagine having a freezer full of delicious, homemade meals ready to be heated and served when you get home from work. Even better than that, picture yourself stress-free during the holidays because you prepared and froze your holiday meals and treats in advance. Freezing prepared foods in advance allows you the satisfaction of homemade meals with the convenience of store-bought ones.

There are just a few things to keep in mind when freezing prepared foods. Freezing will not improve the texture, flavor, or quality of food. It simply acts to preserve the quality of the food. Therefore, you should only freeze high quality products. After cooking the food you plan to freeze, be sure it is cooled quickly to maintain the safety of the food. Be sure to package foods for the freezer in moisture-vapor resistant materials to prevent freezer burn. Clearly label each package with the name of the food, ingredients, packaging date, special instructions, and the amount of food. Package foods only in amounts that you will be able to use at one time. Freeze food as soon as it is packaged and sealed, and place in the coldest part of the freezer. Remember to research the ingredients ahead of time to see what foods do not freeze well (http://www.uga.edu/nchfp/how/freeze/dont_freeze_foods.html), and to see if there are any special instructions for preparing and freezing your product (http://www.uga.edu/nchfp/publications/uga/FreezingPreparedFoods.pdf).

Several options are available for thawing prepared foods. The frozen food can be taken directly from the freezer and immediately placed in the oven for thawing and heating as long as it is in a freezer-to-oven safe container. Some foods are best thawed and heated using a double boiler. Foods that contain fish, meat, eggs or other high protein ingredients should be thawed in the refrigerator or microwave. To ensure the safety of your food, do not allow these potentially hazardous foods to stay in the temperature danger zone (40°F-140°F) for more than 2 hours. Breads, cakes, and cookies that are precooked may be thawed at room temperature. Reheat all prepared foods except non-meat baked goods, sweets and fruits to at least 165°F quickly, within 2 hours.

Planning ahead and freezing prepared foods is a great way to keep homemade food on your dinner table without all of the stress and hassle.

Summer is a Good Time to Think About the Cold

Why do we emphasize storing frozen foods at 0 degrees F? Even though other freezer temperatures can stop the growth of microorganisms, quality will continue to be lost even at these cold temperatures. The recommended shelf life listings we have for frozen foods are based on a storage temperature of 0 degrees F. and expected retention of good quality. Warmer temperatures, even though the food may still be frozen, will result in shorter retention times for quality.

Even though blanching for specific time at a given temperature is recommended to inactivate enzymes, oxygen around the food as well as the dryness of the air in a freezer will cause other quality losses. And foods that are not blanched, or are inadequately blanched, will have active enzymes. Enzymatic and oxidative changes in stored food will occur more slowly at freezer temperatures than higher ones, but they still will proceed. One chemical reaction that will proceed, even though slowly, in the freezer is oxidative rancidity of fats (including those contained within meats, poultry, etc.).

Another way to protect quality of frozen foods is to achieve a fast rate of freezing. The faster that the water in foods gets frozen, the more protective for quality. Fast freezing promotes the formation of smaller ice crystals than slow rates of freezing. The smaller the ice crystals, the less damage done to cell walls and the texture of foods.

Fast freezing can be promoted by making sure hot or warm foods are completely cooled before putting them into the freezer, using small package size, and then spreading your packages out within the freezer until the food is frozen. The packages can then be stacked or arranged together if you wish, but while they still becoming frozen, make sure the cold air can surround all sides of the package. It is a good organizational plan to package your foods into suitable serving sizes anyway, but a good rule of thumb to promote fast freezing is to keep each package size fairly small. If you know you will be placing a large quantity of foods into the freezer at once, consider setting the temperature control of your freezer to -10 degrees F. or lower about 24 hours in advance. Usually about 2 to 3 pounds of food per cubic foot of storage space can freeze within 24 hours.

Speaking of freezing foods that are first blanched or cooked, make sure they are completely cooled before even putting them into your freezer containers or bags, also. An important reason is to promote quick freezing once inside the freezer for food quality and energy efficiency; however, another reason is the size of those ice crystals again! Moisture that condenses on a lid or sides of a package from hot steam will lead to quality-damaging large ice crystals inside the package.

Freezing food is an excellent way to preserve the freshness in most foods, as well as the nutrients, colors and tastes. However, there are best practices to make sure these advantages are realized. For more readings on this topic:

Freezing Pointers: http://nchfp.uga.edu/how/freeze/pointers.html

General Shelf Life of Frozen Foods: http://nchfp.uga.edu/how/freeze/freezer_shelf_life.html

How to Freeze Specific Foods: http://nchfp.uga.edu/how/freeze.html

Frozen Shouldn’t Mean Lack of Action

I have a confession to make. No, it’s not that I’ve been silent on this blog site for 11 months. Our followers know that, and I am sorry.  My confession is that despite my teaching others to manage their inventory of frozen foods well, it turns out I am not a good example this month.

IMG_1781For the past few weeks I’ve had to clean out some freezers in our food preservation lab. Some foods were missing labels and dates and others obviously had been poorly packaged (but just a few of them, really!).  I am sure the intent of our workers had been to take care of an immediate need cleaning up after a workshop or late night experiment. But the outcome was that no one had gone back very quickly and corrected the situation.  And that chest freezer, where there was not a great demand on the space, had become quite unorganized and full of really old and some freezer-burned food near the bottom.

Now I want to clean out my home freezer so I can buy a new one. The labeling of packages is in much better situation at home. However, I am finding some that “got lost” and pushed to the back of this upright.  They are older than should still be in there.  So here is my message for beginning of summer.  This article starts a short series on freezing of foods.

Freezing is a great food preservation method, especially for being able to store uncooked, or barely cooked, foods that can be used in many ways when thawed. I am dreaming of the fresh strawberries now in our fields, and the blueberries, blackberries and other fruits to come this summer.  If frozen without sugar and tray-frozen before packaging, I know I can decide later whether to make jam, syrups, cobblers or pies. However the quality of foods in the freezer will deteriorate over time.  Certain practices can better preserve that quality.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Choose packaging (e.g., bags, wraps, boxes or jars) that will prevent moisture loss from the food. Moisture and oxygen can pass through some packaging material itself and of course through poorly connected lids and seals. Drying of food surfaces (i.e., freezer burn) results in poor quality texture and taste. Best packaging also prevents transmission of odors within the freezer. Most people prefer bags and wraps, although glass jars and rigid plastic freezer containers with tight seals keep food quality very well. Choose plastics and foils that indicate freezer quality and weight (versus just those marked “food storage”). Not all plastics and foils are the same in the way they allow or block transmission of moisture and oxygen.

Whether you choose boxes, bags or wraps, make sure all seals and folds are very tight and prevent air loss or entry. Boxes with snap-on lids and jars with twist-on lids are not all the same, either. Snap-on lids should have a deep and tight overlap of the lid channel for sealing and the top rim of the bottom part.  Twist- or turn-on lids should have some type of gasket to prevent air gaps.

freezerheadspaceThe shape and type of package, as well as type of food, can also influence how much headspace is needed. Headspace is empty space between the food and top of the container (or bag) that allows room for expansion as water in the food freezes to ice.  But, too much air left in the package is not good for food quality.  See guidelines for headspace at our website.  More about packaging  is written here.

After packaging your food, label it with the food type and date. Then, actively manage your inventory. One option is to make a table or chart of foods going in your freezer by date that can be checked off as your remove items. Paper and pencil work as does one on a tablet or computer. (Some of you may be lucky enough to have built-in computer technology on your newer freezer!)  If you are not a person to keep up with lists, at least re-organize your inventory when you add new foods. Put the newest foods toward the bottom or back and bring older foods toward the front or top.  Labels should be easy to read and follow.  Find a system that works for you.  It’s a shame to waste good food, let alone the time and expense of packaging you put into preserving your food.

In my next article, I’ll cover some other tips for successful freezing. You can also read more at the National Center for Home Food Preservation website, under “How Do I…..Freeze.”

Oh, and actually, that lab freezer still will be storing some of that freezer-burned food. I need those example for the next class I’m teaching or photos!  But your own, real food supply, like mine, shouldn’t include those items.