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    November 7, 2003    PAGE NINE      
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        Food Storage Guidelines by Jarret Hughes


Jarret Hughes has held numerous cooking positions at cafes, diners, and family restaurants. He takes a "keep it simple" attitude toward cooking, preferring olive oil to truffle oil. Jarret strives to inform readers about the history of various foods while offering professional advice regarding food purchase and preparation.


                          Revisiting Mom's Slimy Turkey and Grandpa's Fuzzy Cheese
Thanksgiving is right around the corner. That means one thing — it's leftover season! I have childhood memories of cold turkey sandwiches on the Friday after Thanksgiving. We'd have cold turkey again on Saturday. Then for a change, on Sunday we would warm it up again and dump a quart of gravy on it. This would continue in a vicious cycle for over a week. By about the fifth day, the mere thought of turkey made me green around the gills. I couldn't wait for the turkey to be gone so I could move on to pizza or a cheeseburger. Just when the turkey started to get a slimy coating on it, mom stuck it in the freezer. "We can enjoy the turkey all the way up to Christmas!" she would exclaim. Oh joy. Guess what my family cooked for Christmas dinner? That's right — more turkey.

As scary as that leftover turkey was year after year, it was gourmet compared to the horrors of grandpa John's refrigerator. I'll never forget the time my parents left me in his care for a weekend when I was around 11 years old. He offered to make grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch the first day. One of my favorites as a kid! Grandpa removed the slices of cheese from the refrigerator and slapped them on the kitchen table. They were absolutely disgusting. The cheese slices looked like a leopard — fuzzy white and green spots consumed the pale yellow squares. This was cheese?! Grandpa muttered something about penicillin being good for you and threw the "cheese" inside two slices of bread. To make matters worse, grandpa didn't drink regular milk. He only drank goat's milk. I was open to giving it a try until he started pouring it in the glass and chunks starting sliding out of the container. I was horrified. Needless to say, I wasn't very hungry that weekend.

We all know that chunky milk isn't fit for human consumption. That is, all of us except grandpa John who seemed to savor it as some sort of divine delicacy. But just how long can we expect various foods to last in the refrigerator or freezer? Let's investigate...

Refrigeration:

Your refrigerator should be kept at a temperature of 40-32 F. If you don't own a refrigerator/freezer thermometer, I'd highly recommend getting one (I actually keep one in my refrigerator and another in my freezer). At 40 F bacteria growth slows down dramatically, but growth doesn't stop. These bacteria cause food to taste bad and, eventually, spoil.

Is it OK for grandpa John to eat that moldy cheese? Absolutely not. Even if he cut the moldy parts off the cheese, it has already been contaminated below the surface. If you find a moldy item in your refrigerator, cut your loses and throw the item away.

Here are some basic tips for refrigerator storage:

  1. Don't overcrowd your refrigerator. Give the cold air a chance to circulate around every item.

  2. Keep refrigerator doors shut as much as possible (especially in the summer).

  3. Clean your refrigerator shelves at least once a month.

  4. Keep cooked foods on the shelves ABOVE raw foods in the refrigerator. This will prevent raw food from dripping on cooked food.

  5. Chill recently cooked food on ice or cold water before placing them in the refrigerator. If you put hot items in the refrigerator, they will take several hours to cool - giving them more of an opportunity to grow bacteria. Placing hot/warm food in the refrigerator may also make the temperature go above 40 degrees.

  6. Keep eggs in their carton in the back of the refrigerator. Avoid taking them out of the carton and putting them in the refrigerator door (where they are more susceptible to changing temperatures).

Freezing:

Unlike refrigeration, you can freeze food forever at 0 F or colder and it will always be safe to eat. However, that doesn't mean it will taste good! After a certain amount of time (depending on how well the food is wrapped), food will suffer from freezer burn. Freezer burn appears as pale spots on food and is not to be confused with icy food. Burn occurs from exposure to oxygen, and ice occurs from moisture and/or an improper freezer temperature.

Wrapping food well in freezer paper or freezer bags is extremely important to delay freezer burn. Grocery store packaging is often not suitable for freezing. Those foam packages of meat with plastic wrap around them, for example, don't work worth a hoot for freezing. If you don't want to take the time to totally repackage your meat, just toss it in a large freezer bag and it will keep much better.

I'm sure you've seen those vacuum sealer infomercial on TV about a zillion times. Let me tell you something — vacuum sealing works! I've got things in the freezer that have been there for months, and they still look just as good as the day I put them in. There are three big problems with vacuum sealers. First, they are a pain in the rear to use. Who wants to pull out the sealer machine and special bags every time they want to freeze something? Second, if you don't use them properly and get a good seal, you might as well put the food in the freezer bare. And it's easy to get a bad seal — especially if you are vacuuming something with the slightest bit of liquid in it. Lastly, they can be quite expensive if you use them on a regular basis. Even though you can find the bags at many discount stores and wholesale clubs, it can still be a pricey endeavor.

As soon as you take your food out of the freezer, bacteria starts to become active. For this reason, it is important that you thaw food in the refrigerator and NOT on the kitchen counter. If you leave frozen food on the counter, the surface of the food will thaw quickly and become prone to harmful bacteria while the center remains frozen. Microwaves can be used to thaw food safely as long as you are going to cook the food right away.

General Guidelines:

The following table illustrates some general guidelines for how long food can be kept in the refrigerator and freezer before taste begins to suffer and/or spoilage starts to occur. For packaged foods (such as hot dogs), the time given begins when the package is opened. These times assume that the food item is fresh when you purchase it. Obviously, if the item is already old when you buy it, it won't last long!

   

When in doubt, throw it out!   If the food item looks or smells bad, it will probably taste bad too.

I'd like to propose a toast. Here's to slime-free turkey and fuzz-free cheese. May all your food stay below 40 F and remain free of freezer burn. Cheers.

                                                            

Copyright © November 2003  Jarret Hughes and Low Carb Luxury




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