Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Freezing (even without a freezer) and some food safety tips

I said that I freeze and freeze and freeze - I've worked out some useful ways to do that (and useful quantities) and learnt a lot about food hygiene from Will's restaurant experience. We now have two freezers: one is part of a fridge-freezer; the other (same size, about waist height) we got for twenty quid off The Daily Info (Oxford's lovely classifieds site) in April, when my endo was coming back and I wanted to be able to more in-advance cooking. We also spent three years living with just an icebox, though, so I'll add what I learnt from that, and also totally ice-zone-free fridge-only suggestions. Whatever you're using, though, HEALTH WARNING: FOOD SAFETY.

Food safety

This bit is going to put the fear of God into you, because this is important. So here are the food safety rules, each illustrated with a nasty evil you're preventing:

Food cooling on a cold tile outside on a very cold day. Cool fast, heat fast!
  • wash your hands even if they're clean: Most people have Staphylococcus aureus on their skin; these bacteria can multiply and create a toxin which gives you severe food poisoning. Don't think of hand-washing as washing dirt off your skin - you're washing your actual skin. (When washing hands, most people miss the back of their hands and the palm nearest the thumb, so think about those parts.) This is also why restaurants have to throw away any food that's been out on a buffet: if there's a chance people have touched it, there's a chance it's contaminated.
  • cool fast, heat fast: the nasties (food-poisoning bacteria) grow best between 5-63°C. Food needs to spend as little time at those temperatures as possible. The best temperatures for bacteria to grow is between room temperature and body temperature - 20-37°C - so if you leave food out in a room you're comfortable in, the bacteria are comfortable too, and breeding like rabbits. Restaurants have the advantage of special fridges to cool food rapidly, but don't put your hot food in a fridge that has other food in it - it'll only heat up the whole fridge and put everything at risk. I usually put food out overnight to cool, which is a good option in England, especially in winter.
  • smaller containers cool faster: when you've made a vat of something, it will cool slowly, unless the temperature is very low. If you don't have a helpful freezing winter night, put your vat in smaller bowls. You can't put hot food in its to-freeze tupperware right away, mind.
  • cover your food: don't take lids off to help stuff cool faster and don't leave food uncovered. The air is full of bacteria, which is great when you're doing a controlled fermentation, not so good if you're not.
  • reheating doesn't kill everything - reheat twice maximum: For years I believed that bringing food back above 100°C reset everything to zero. This isn't true. Many bacteria can survive. In particular, Clostridium perfringens and Bacillus cereus (found in soil and dust) aren't killed by cooking; they just huddle up and will start to breed again every time that the temperature's back between 5-63°C. So if you keep heating food up and then letting it cool slowly, it has plenty of time to breed. So again, cool food fast, heat food fast; only reheat food twice if you've really cooled it fast.
  • it's not just meat: a lot of food-safety concentrates on the risk of meat, because you're exposed to whatever the animal was exposed to. Lots of these bacteria come from other places, though - soil, dust, air, hands - so you need to be careful with everything, and the nasty Bacillus cereus is especially fond of starchy foods.
  • beware the cloths: The washing-up cloth is the worst culprit for food bacteria. It touches lots of dirty food, sits in a warm room, often quite damp, and is wiped all over surfaces - which food then goes on. Wash it in scalding water before and after use, let it dry completely (not slump on the side) and change it regularly - every couple days would be good. Just chuck it in the washing machine. Drying-up cloths and teatowels can also be a travel-agency for bacteria - you get something on your hand, wipe it on a cloth, cloth stays at room temperature, later dry a plate, and so on. Have enough cloths so you can constantly throw them in the washing machine. Having different colours also helps, because then you remember more easily how long it's been there.
So! Now that I've put terror in your heart, let's go back to the happy freeze-freeze-freeze thing!

Freezing supplies

You will need...
  • plenty of stackable rectangular / square tupperare: 250ml, 500ml, 1 litre (or higher)
  • masking tape
  • a Sharpie

Sainsbury's basics tupperware is perfect for freezing. It's all square / rectangular, which takes up less space in the freezer. It's stackable, so it doesn't clog the cupboard when it's not in the freezer (and the relevant lids for the stack tuck nicely in the stack). It comes in a good range of sizes - 250ml, 650ml, 1 litre, and above - though I wish they did a 300ml and 500ml one! And it's cheap. It is really, really cheap. £2.30 for 5 250ml (46p each); £1.65 for 3 650ml (55p each); £3 for 5 1-litres (60p each). Plus, because they're square / rectangular, they fit in the freezer really tightly, which saves on electricity too. Fancy cliplock tupperware is brilliant for taking soups or salads to work, but it's just a waste using that stuff for the freezer. I used to save various food tubs (margarine, ice-cream, etc) but they're hard to fit in and not very durable.

When you freeze stuff, cut a strip of masking tape, stick it on the tupperware, and write the food-stuff and the date (and the portion size, if you'll need the reminder). I sometimes think I'll remember / be able to see, and then defrost some bolognese for supper only to discover it's an insufficient portion of veg soup. Here's one I made earlier, defrosting...

As we've spent a lot of time doing stock-takes of the freezer to see what we've got in there, I got all fancy-pants a few months ago and bought two wipe-clean boards from WH Smiths, which we've stuck on the boiler (behind its cupboard door). This way, we can write down what's in the freezer instead of spending ages getting frostbite digging through drawers. (And erase stuff when it's taken out.) A few years ago, I tried laminating my own designs for this, but the laminate plastic didn't take well to the board pens - it was too hard to erase things.

This is what's in my freezers at the moment. It's a bit wild, because I already had a good amount in there, and then went crazy cooking the cooking-for-one week 2 plan, and then when the freezer was stuffed to the gills started on a curry fest, because my godfather was coming to visit. I probably don't need to cook for several weeks. Also, Will needs to eat that langoustine bisque.


Obviously this depends on the actual food stuff and also your own appetite - I don't eat much and Will does, so I reckon between us we about even out! I've got gradually better at freezing the right quantities, even though rectangular tupperware makes it look like far too little. These are my quantities for assorted foods...
  • soup: 300ml per person (so I freeze in 650ml, not quite full, and eat the same soup for lunch two days running)
  • bolognese: 250ml per person for spaghetti bolognese, 125 ml per person to make tortilla
  • stew: 500ml per person (unless it's very heavy - probably 250ml per person of the Moroccan stew, assuming it'll be served with couscous and veg)
  • curries: 125ml per person (assuming you'll have 3-4 dishes, plus rice)
  • kedgeree: 500ml per person

Just an ice box

You can actually store a surprising amount in an icebox, if you don't store frozen peas, chips, and ice in it. (Or not much ice.) Depending on its height, you could get 24 of the 250ml tupperwares in there - two deep, two high, six across - and still have space for an ice tray tucked vertically. So to squander all that space for chips...!? Let's not be crazy, though, chips are amazing. I'm not going to tell you to go dig up the potatoes you planted months before, wash them, peel them, chop them up, and deep-fry them, every time you want chips, though I will admit Will once did that for me when I was desperate for chips on a rainy all-the-shops-are-closed evening. When we only had the icebox, chips and peas were the special shopping-day treat: small bag of each, plus Will's extraordinary steak and pepper-cream sauce. I no longer order steak and pepper sauce in restaurants. I know it will never be as good. If I can persuade him and it won't destroy the magic, I'll get some photos and overshare that. So give the icebox over to tiny tupperware, and let chips be the special treat. (I don't do icecream, not out of any special virtue but I just don't have a sweet tooth, but that could also be an I've-been-shopping treat-night special if you like icecream. The half-tub of Haagen Dasz mentioned on the freezer list has been there since our old house, so that's at least two years. Come to think, we should probably chuck that.)

Just a fridge

If you have no icebox and just a fridge, the fridge is probably also quite small, so be canny and use the tiny stacking tupperware. You know how when you push things right against the back of the fridge (like cucumbers), they go half-frozen and ruined? HARNESS THAT! Turn your fridge as low as you can and push your tiny tupperware right up against the back, so it's almost frozen anyway. Your veg won't freeze, because the tupperware is forming a protective wall between it and the back of the fridge. Between tiny tupperware, good food hygiene, and pushing food-to-store right up against the back, you can probably push the three-day rule to five days, safely. Label food as you would if it were going in the freezer, so you don't forget how long it's been in there. Put the meal-cascades on a slightly faster rota. And for curries - I haven't posted this yet, but I used to do it when we only had the icebox, curry on the first night became coconut curry on the second night became curry bake on the third night, and that curry bake was so damn good that I'd make a curry because we wanted to reach curry-bake day.

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