Tag Archives: storing food

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.

Freezing soup

Who doesn’t enjoy freezing cold soup in the wintertime? …after it’s reheated, of course! Another option for soup lovers who don’t want to pull out the pressure canner this season is to freeze soups. Here you’ll find how-to tips and recommendations for freezing soups successfully.

24 hours before putting soup into your freezer, drop the freezer temperature to -10°F. Once soup has frozen, hold at 0°F. If you already have a freezer that’s set to the 0°F and there’s space open in it, then freezing is more likely to be an economical choice for food preservation. If you also have airtight containers to use instead of buying new ones, then the cost is even less.

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Which kinds of containers work best? Rigid containers like plastic cartons or glass jars designed for canning and freezing. Keep in mind thought that many common household containers are not suitable because you’re looking for moisture- and vapor-resistant materials that produce an airtight seal (i.e. not your average yogurt or milk container). Hint: wide-mouth jars make it easier to remove the contents before complete thawing. One other option is to pour the soup into ice cube trays!

An advantage of freezing soup is that you can portion individual servings (or servings for 2, 3, 4…), making it easy to reheat just one portion at a time in order to produce your desired quantity. No container should be so big that the soup will take a long time to become frozen; that leads to poor quality. Another benefit of freezing is that certain ingredients intensify in flavor after freezing, such as pepper, cloves, garlic, green pepper, celery seasonings and some herbs…but beware; they could also become bitter overtime. Other cautions: onion and paprika change flavor, curry develops and off-flavor and salt loses flavor. Simple solution: season lightly before freezing then add more seasonings after reheating.

Just like some fruits and vegetables freeze better than others, some soup recipes will maintain a higher quality than others. It’s generally suggested that you leave out potatoes from soups that you plan to freeze. Another tip for best quality is to concentrate the product by using less liquid. You can always add more liquid (broth, tomato juice, cream, water) when you reheat it.

After preparing your delicious soup, it’s important to cool it quickly, so that large ice crystals don’t form- that would lead to a mushy consistency. To do this, put the pot of soup in a pan or sink of ice water. When cool, package and freeze immediately, placing containers against the surfaces of the freezer for the fastest freeze. For highest quality, enjoy frozen soup within 4-6 months.

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Do not put hot glass in the freezer (or in ice water); it may break. It’s also important to leave headspace so that the soup doesn’t break the container as liquids expand in the freezing process. The exact amount of headspace needed depends on the contents of your soup, but leave at least ½-inch for mostly solid soups and 1½-inches for mostly liquid soups.

Unlike other frozen foods, it is recommended that you do not thaw your soup, but rather reheat it immediately after removal from the freezer. Heat it to a rolling boil, or at least 165°F. If it’s a cream soup, then heat over boiling water, double-boiler style. Soups with dairy may curdle and separate, so stir while reheating to keep smooth. Here’s another tip: add a waxy rice or corn flour as a thickener.

Information in the entry comes from ‘Freezing Prepared Foods’ and So Easy to Preserve.

Beat the Bacteria Buffet

Spread cheer, not the worst foodborne illness of the year!

We love sharing foods this holiday season, but unfortunately, sometimes in the process we also share foodborne bacteria causing illness. Buffets and potlucks are particularly popular, but come along with certain risks. Make your hearty gatherings the most healthy (and happy!) by practicing these food safety tips from USDA.

Keep Clean
Wash hands, wash dishes, wash utensils, and clean kitchen surfaces. Wash well and wash often.  Invite your guests to also wash their hands as you welcome them.

Cook Completely
Cook foods to safe temperatures. Measure their temperature internally with a food thermometer, before removing from heat source. Cook beef, pork, lamb and veal steaks, chops, and roasts to at least 145°F. All raw ground beef, pork, lamb, and veal needs to be cooked to no less than 160°F. Poultry must be cooked to a minimum of 165°F. You can cook any of these meats to higher temperatures, but not lower.

Store Shallow, Serve Small
To store cooked foods before serving, store them in the refrigerator or freezer in a shallow dish to encourage rapid, even cooling. Most foods, and especially all meats, poultry, seafood, casseroles, and soups must be reheated to at least 165°F before eating again; serve them in small portions and continually replace platters when empty. This way, foods stay a safe temperature for longer and growth time for bacteria is minimized.

2:02 is Two Too Much 
It is best to discard perishable foods after they sit out at room temperature for more than two hours.  Otherwise, keep them below 40°F or above 140°F. Of course, it’s okay to keep out foods that are stored at room temperature for longer times, like uncut apples and crackers.

Cold means Cold, Hot means Hot
Use chafing dishes, slow cookers, and warming trays to keep hot foods at 140°F or warmer. Nest dishes in bowls of ice to keep cold foods at 40°F or cooler. Otherwise, keep swapping in foods from the oven or refrigerator.

Hidden in Handling
Remember that harmful bacteria capable of causing illness usually cannot be seen, smelled, or tasted. Three common bacteria found partying at food festivities are Staphylococcus aureus, Clostridium perfringens, and Listeria monocytogenes. If anyone does feel ill, please remind them to contact a health professional and describe their symptoms.

The information in this entry comes from the Holiday or Party Buffets Factsheet by the United States Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service.