Monday, December 21, 2015

When Good Food Goes Bad

By mid December we already had two power outages due to the heavy winds pummeling our Island and the surrounding Coastal regions. 
I first published this material 3 years ago in the 'Denman Island Flagstone' but I am still getting questions about power outages and what to do with freezers, so thought I would run it again. The Denman Island ‘hurricane’ of December 11th, 2006 sparked the idea for this column. Our household on Denman Island was without hydro for 6 days. 

When your fridge or freezer fails or there is a power outage, don’t panic. 
All frozen foods should be stored at 0F(-18C) or lower, your fridge should be kept at 40F(4C) or lower. A fully stocked freezer will keep foods frozen for two days after losing power. A half-full freezer can maintain freezing power for roughly one day. Of course not opening the freezer during the outage is ideal and I have found placing a quilt over the freezer also helps.

When the power goes off in the fridge, you can normally expect your food to last at least four to six hours, depending on how often it is opened and how warm it is in your kitchen. You can add block ice to the fridge if available or if it is cold enough outside, move the perishables into a cooler with ice packs and place outside on the porch. If we have snow on the ground, although not common around these parts, I place the perishables in plastic bins and bury it in the snow on the deck.

If you have access to it, 25 pounds of dry ice should hold a 10-cubic foot freezer below freezing for 3-4 days. Dry ice must be handled carefully as it freezes everything it touches. Wear heavy gloves and have the merchant place it in your cooler or a cardboard box.

The key to salvaging food when the power fails is to react quickly. Perishable foods are not considered safe after they have been at room temperature for more than two hours. The following is a guideline for some common foods kept in our refrigerators and freezers. Commercially prepared mayonnaise, ketchup, salad dressings and steak sauces are generally high in acid and are probably safe to keep; however use these products up as soon as possible. Fresh or cooked eggs, meat, poultry or seafood should NOT be used if they have been at temperature higher that 40F(4C) for more than two hours. Cheese, pecans and other nuts should be safe unless they have mold on them. Frozen fresh fruits are relatively safe due to their acid content. When starting to spoil, they usually ferment. A little fermentation will not make the fruits dangerous to eat, but it will spoil their flavor. You can refreeze thawed fruits if they smell and taste good or you can use them in baking and cooking.

Here is a guideline for what foods can be refrozen. Please note; foods will not be fit for refreezing if they have reached temperatures of 40-45F after having passed through the slow temperature changes that occur in a freezer when not operating. Meats, fruits and vegetables that still contain ice crystals should be safe to refreeze. However, be aware that even partial thawing then refreezing will reduce the quality of the foods. Meats lose juices and flavor and become darker in color, fruit becomes soft and satisfactory only for use in cooking (e.g.; jams and jellies) and vegetables may toughen. The quality of red meat is probably reduced less than that of most other foods. Use refrozen foods as soon as possible.

Frozen foods that should not be refrozen are; ice cream, cream pies and poultry. Vegetables and prepared foods that were completely thawed should not be refrozen.

When the hydro is restored, it is very important to make a thorough examination of the freezer contents. Without knowing the condition of the food before refreezing it is impossible to determine its safety. You should look at the various foods for ice crystals. Some parts of the freezer may be warmer than other parts, so check food throughout the freezer. I have a client who is away for the winters, she places zip lock bags of ice cubes in various locations of the freezer. When home in the spring, if the bags contain cubes of ice, the freezer kept its temperature. If they contain melted and refrozen water, she throws out the food in that area. The upper baskets are a good location to place a bowl of ice cubes for a test of how well your freezer kept cold. 

During a power failure, cooking and eating habits must change. On Denman, most of us have a wood stove or outdoor BBQ, but cooking times must be considered and cook only the quantity that can be used in one meal. Many foods can be skewered, grilled or wrapped in foil to cook in a fireplace. Candle warmers and fondue pots may be used if no other heat sources are available. Never use fuel-burning camp stoves, charcoal burners or propane barbecues inside your home; the fumes can be deadly. 
Canned, powdered or processed milk may be substituted for fresh milk, although treat them as fresh after opening. 
Meeting Santa for the first time
If you have uncooked meat in your fridge when the power goes out, you can extend the shelf life by cooking it immediately to the proper temperature and keeping it on ice until ready to reheat and serve. 
Be sure to sanitize hands and surfaces (including taps, sinks, counter tops, fridge door handles) thoroughly before, during and after food preparation. Change cloth towels often, or use disposable paper towels. I keep a labelled spray bottle of bleach solution (1tsp/5ml household bleach to 3c/750ml water) and a container of hand sanitizer, or wipes beside the sinks during a power outage. 

And last but not least, avoid cross contamination; clean all knives, cutting boards and utensils used with raw foods before using them again. 
You cannot tell if food is safe by smelling or looking at it. IF IN DOUBT THROW IT OUT! 

Till  next week, from my home to yours... Merry Christmas and Bon Appétit!

Photo by Sally Rae 

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