BACKUP MEALS | Safe Thawing Practices [8 min 30 sec]

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Safety in Freezing 

I wish I had a sexier name for this lesson. But the fact of the matter is, safe practices in the kitchen are (duh, you know this) extremely important. Freezing meals for later use isn’t as simple as just popping a baked or prepped casserole in the freezer; there are a few practices you need to do and remember to keep food safe for you and your family to enjoy at a later date. 

Safe freezing: 

Want to know a secret? Just about any food can be frozen safely and consumed at a later date. Yes, even eggs and dairy products! I’ve included a handy chart below that you can print out of items that go in the freezer, how they need to be stored, thawed, and what they’re good for once they’re out. 

What all frozen foods can’t do, though, is be guaranteed to always be the exact same once they’re thawed. Freezing changes the structures and moisture content in foods, and thawing or reheating can’t bring those original proteins and structures back to life. So, if we’re going to freeze foods we have to be ready to adjust and plan for the changes it can bring to meals. 

Let’s touch first on how to safely freeze foods. 

This fact sheet from the USDA is full of really useful information about safe freezing techniques. Some highlights: 

  • “Freezing to 0 °F inactivates any microbes — bacteria, yeasts, and molds — present in food. Once thawed, however, these microbes can again become active, multiplying under the right conditions to levels that can lead to foodborne illness.” 

What they mean is: While freezing will kill bacteria on the surface of foods, thawing brings that bacteria back to life again. So always practice safe kitchen techniques- avoid cross-contamination of knives, cutting boards, and surfaces when handling raw meats and vegetables, wash your hands often, and make sure to wipe down any areas where meat was prepared thoroughly, before packaging your meal for the freezer.

  • “Freezing keeps food safe by slowing the movement of molecules, causing microbes to enter a dormant stage.” 

What they mean is: Freezing food means that the breakdown of food from fresh to inedible is stopped for the duration of the freezing time. It preserves nutrients, vitamins, and, in most cases, flavor. Once thawing starts, those molecules start moving again.

  • “It is safe to freeze meat or poultry directly in its original packaging, however, this type of wrap is permeable to air and quality may diminish over time.” 

What they mean is: make sure your foods are wrapped in airtight, nonpermeable packaging. Plastic tupperware is perfect for this since foods will expand slightly as they freeze, and plastic storage containers will expand along with the food. 

When you’re packing food to be frozen, keep in mind that we want to lock air out from accessing the food. That’s why vacuum packaged foods freeze and thaw so well; the lack of air in the packaging maintains the quality of the ingredients inside. 

A note about freezer burn:

That same air we’re trying to keep out is what gives freezer burns to food when it has access; The air on foods’ surface will discolor it, strip away moisture, and makes the food taste off. Freezer burned food is not actually bad for you, but it doesn’t taste good. If possible, cut away the freezer burned section of the food before preparing. 

If you take away anything from this lesson, make sure it is this: when you are cooking foods to freeze, you must first let any hot foods sit in their container with no lid on until they are at room temp or just above before putting them in the freezer. 

Why? The main reason is this: the longer foods sit at a “danger zone” temp, which is when they are in that in-between temperature of hot and chilled, the more hospitable it becomes to multiplying bacteria. Once food is cooked, you want to bring it to a safe temp as quickly as possible before freezing. BUT, if you put hot food straight into the freezer, the temp of that hot food will bring down the temperature of the entire freezer, placing the rest of the food stored inside at risk, since their temps will start to drop as well. 

So how do you mitigate this “danger zone” from occurring? Once your meal is cooked, place it in the container you intend to freeze it in, with the lid off. Let it sit in a cool part of your kitchen or dining area until it is no longer too hot to handle with bare hands. We want that lid off because it helps bring the temp down faster, without trapping the heat inside. After the item becomes comfortable to the touch, the lid can be added and it can be labeled and placed in the freezer.

The big exception to the “lid off” thing is storing in ziploc bags, although similar rules apply. Ziploc freezer bags are thin enough to allow for rapid cooling; just place the food in a ziploc bag and seal it, then lay the bag flat (a flatter surface area means it will cool quicker) and once comfortable to the touch, place it in the freezer. 

So once our food is properly packaged and frozen, what do we do when we’re ready to eat?

When we’re preparing freezer meals, it’s important to be cognizant of safe practices in the kitchen. 

Here are some basic truths to follow for safety: 

Be aware of cross-contamination; make sure to handle raw meat in a space away from other products, and wash all utensils and cutting boards after

That being said, the USDA recommends that foods stored at 0*F for a few hours will kill many harmful bacteria, including salmonella. 

Here are three main ways to thaw your frozen foods: 

Running under cold water 

While the food is sealed in its freezer packaging, place it in a large bowl or dish in the sink. Run cold water over the food continuously, so that the water is constantly sluicing off and pooling up  around the item in the bowl/dish. Using cold water instead of hot makes sure the temp of the frozen food doesn’t rise too fast. Let the water run for a few minutes, then turn it off and let the item sit in the cool water for another 10 or so minutes, until it is thawed enough to handle and further defrost or cook.

Place in the fridge for 24 hours

The fridge follows the same idea as the cold water; it allows the temp to come down from frozen without placing that food in a temperature danger zone. After 24 hours, even if the food isn’t completely thawed, it’s usually thawed enough to cook or prepare. 

Defrost in the microwave

We’ve all done it; using the microwave is often the quickest way to defrost. To prevent discoloration and partial cooking, make sure to turn the item every minute or so so it defrosts evenly. 

Defrost on the stove

I got this idea from my friend Jacqueline at MamasRealMeals.com. She brings a pot of water to 140*F on the stove and then adds frozen meat in a well-sealed bag to the water. She constantly monitors the water with a thermometer, making sure it never goes above 140*F. This will defrost most cuts of meat in about 10 minutes, and it discolors them slightly but afterward they’re perfectly pliable and thawed enough to prepare. If you’ve got 10 minutes to keep an eye on the pot, this is a great alternative to the microwave!

I really don’t recommend thawing on a countertop; it’s too easy for the temperature of the food to come down to a danger zone without realizing it. If you’re not thawing in the fridge, stay close to your frozen foods as they defrost and then prepare them immediately after. 

A quick word about cooking straight from frozen: 

My honest take? I do this all.the.time. I place frozen foods straight into my oven, Instant Pot, or crockpot, and they cook fine, although they take a bit longer to cook, obviously. I recommend doing this more in the Instant Pot or the oven since the temperatures are hotter. A word of warning: the USDA does not recommend this, although anecdotally, every meal planning platform, chef, etc I know do, and they’ve all lived to tell the tale. So take from that what you will. 

I hope that helps! Let me know if you have any other questions about safe thawing practices, and what that should mean for your fmaily.