Tag 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)

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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.

It’s Berry Season!

Some of us are in the middle of it, some have seen strawberries come and go for this year, and some of us are still waiting for blueberries. Berries are a favorite for jams, whether a full flavor using one berry, or in combinations that allow our creative streak to show.  Strawberry-raspberry, blueberry-blackberry, or even 3 or more berries in combination.  Yum! As I write this, I’m past my morning breakfast decisions but now my mind is thinking ahead to what I can stir into my yogurt at lunch.

Another way to preserve our delicate, hand-picked berries is by freezing. Now we can start thinking about future pies, cereal toppings, or a quick, refreshing smoothie.

A dry pack is simply placing clean berries in freezer containers, sealing the container, and freezing. Unless they are tray packed (see below), they might clump together and be difficult to separate into individual berries.  Note:  If you do wash blueberries before freezing, dry blueberries completely after rinsing, or else the moisture on the blueberry skin will cause tougher skins.

A tray pack works well to help maintain the shape of each individual berry and keeps them easy to remove from the container and separate from each other. This method is called a tray pack because after rinsing the berries, you spread them in a single layer on a shallow smaller_Blueberry tray close-uptray (like a cookie sheet), then carefully lift the tray into the freezer without causing berries to touch each other.  As soon as they freeze, seal the berries in an airtight container and place them back into the freezer so they don’t get freezer burn.

A sugar pack is like a dry pack but with one extra step – gently mix ¾ cup sugar per 1 quart (1⅓ pounds) berries before filling into freezer containers, sealing, and placing in the freezer. You can view step-by-step directions and photos for a sugar pack by selecting the PowerPoint presentation under “Strawberries” on the National Center’s ‘Freezing’ page.

A syrup pack surrounds the berries in a sweetened liquid, changing the sweetness and texture of the berries quite noticeably. Based on the natural sweetness of the berries and your own preference, you can decide the proportion of sugar to water from very light syrup (10% sugar) to very heavy syrup (50% sugar).  More tart berries may produce the most desirable flavor from using a 40%-50% syrup.  Exact proportions for the range of syrups are listed on this Syrups chart, along with directions to make the syrup and notes about replacing part of the sugar with corn syrup or honey.

Crushed or puréed is an option for berries like blueberries and huckleberries that you might use an ingredient in other recipes. The berries can be crushed, pressed through a fine sieve or puréed in a blender or food processor.  Mix 1 cup (or 1⅛ cups) sugar with each quart (2 pounds) of crushed or puréed berries.

IMPORTANT! If you add sugar to the berries before freezing (as in the sugar pack, syrup pack, or crushed/puréed), then label the container with exactly how much sugar you add, so that you can include that quantity as part of the amount of sugar called for on the ingredient list of your final product recipe.  If you know you want to use the fruit in jam later, you can also measure the amounts of sugar and fruit now for a specific recipe and freeze those together; then use the total contents when thawed to make the jam.

For all types of pack, remember to leave at least ½-inch headspace (more for some styles of pack; see chart for exact measurements) between the berries and the lid of each container so that the containers don’t break open while expanding in the freezer.

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And most importantly, protect your fragile berries with the right kind of packaging for freezing. You don’t want the air inside the freezer to dry out your packs, or for flavors from one food to mingle with others. Freezer-weight plastic bags with good tight seals are a must if going the bag route. Glass jars with straight sides or wide mouth openings, plastic freezer boxes or re-purposed plastic tubs from frozen whipped toppings work well (as long as the seal between the lid and bottom is still intact and not misshapen from use).

Be Safe When Using Frozen Foods

hereMany of us use our freezers to put up goodies from the frozvegfresh harvest season. Others use the freezer to put together homemade meals or recipes ready to be cooked or reheated when cooking from scratch just is not on our schedule for the day or week. Freezing prepared foods in advance allows us the satisfaction of homemade meals with the convenience of store-bought ones.

Freezing foods does not improve on poor texture, flavor or quality of foods, so choose your ingredients and products well. The way foods are prepared and packaged for freezing, as well as the temperature of the freezer, will greatly influence how well food will keep in the freezer. Quality in, quality out.

What I would like to emphasize is keeping food safe during thawing and later use out of the freezer. 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 reheated using a double boiler and can be thawed that way also. 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. Plan ahead because refrigerator thawing can take some time. If you thaw potentially hazardous foods in the microwave, you should go ahead and finish the cooking and not store the thawed food as is.  The cooking can be done in the microwave itself, or using other cooking methods.

Breads, cakes, and cookies without cream fillings 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. Specifics for different kinds of foods can be found in Freezing Prepared Foods.  Other freezing pointers on thawing, packaging, freezer management, and foods that do not freeze well can be found here.

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 of last minute preparation. But be sure to keep food safety in mind when it’s time to serve your goodies.