Safely Handling Frozen Foods, from Receiving to Storage to Defrosting
At 50 degrees F – cooler than room temperature – bacteria on food can double as often as every fifteen minutes. Making sure your frozen foods are handled properly in all the stages of storage and thawing can help prevent bacteria breeding grounds in your kitchen, and keep your customers healthy and coming back for more.
Speed is of the essence when receiving frozen foods; you want to move the product through the unrefrigerated receiving area as quickly as possible. However, there are some steps you should follow as you receive frozen food, or even refrigerated food that you will be storing in your freezer until you need it.
- Each box and product should be inspected as it arrives.
- All cold food should be at 41 degrees F or lower, and frozen foods should be frozen solid.
- For frozen products, look for evidence that it may have thawed and refrozen, such as fluid stains on the packaging or frozen fluids on the packaging or product.
- In addition to your own inspection, all sushi-grade foods should come with documentation that the fish has remained frozen throughout its storage and transportation to you.
- Label and date all product as you place it into your freezer, so that you can maintain ‘first in, first out’ procedures that will allow you to serve the freshest food possible.
Doing all of this as quickly as possible not only protects the safety of your food, it also protects its quality. Allowing the exterior temperature of the food to rise to or above 23 degrees F can create crystallization, which can degrade food quality.
The most important thing to keep in mind when storing frozen foods is that a constant temperature must be maintained; fluctuating temperatures can allow bacteria growth. Having a properly calibrated thermometer that is checked regularly can help assure that temperatures inside the freezer are holding steady at 0 degrees F or lower.
All boxes and product should be stored in such a way that air is able to circulate throughout the freezer; boxes should never sit flat on the floor, but on a shelf or pallet so air can flow underneath. Also, be aware of how long products can stay frozen, and keep this in mind when ordering. Food is safe to store at 0 degrees indefinitely, but after a certain point the quality will start to deteriorate. Look up how long each of your products can be frozen without a reduction in quality, and order accordingly to minimize product loss.
Power outages can be costly if you store large amounts of frozen food, but with a little planning, the losses can be alleviated or even prevented altogether. The most important thing is to have written protocols that all of your employees are familiar with, to prevent panic-induced forgetfulness if a power outage ever occurs. Confirm you have accurately calibrated appliance thermometers. Know a nearby source for dry or block ice. If you choose to use dry ice in an emergency, be sure that you and your employees are trained on dry ice safety precautions. Keep the freezer doors closed as much as possible, and do not add hot food in an attempt to save it; this will rapidly raise the temperature of the entire freezer and could end up ruining all of the food in it. Once the power comes back on, discard anything that was at 40 degrees F for more than two hours. A good indicator for frozen foods is ice crystals; if the food still has ice crystals on it, it is generally safe to be refrozen.
There are several safe methods of defrosting to choose from, so you can pick the one that best suits your foodservice operation.
The most recommended method of defrosting food is to move food to the refrigerator and let it slowly defrost to a refrigerated temperature. Make sure all thawing foods are placed on the lowest rack, so that they do not drip water or juices on product below; this is particularly important when defrosting meat. Additionally, place an empty baking or steam pan below the items, so potentially germ-laden condensate doesn't get all over the floor of the refrigerator.
Another defrosting method is in cool water. Use running water at around 70 degrees F to envelope the food, slowly defrosting it. If you cannot use running water, the food can be submerged in water, as long as the water is changed every 30 minutes.
Food can also be defrosted in the microwave, with the caveat that it must be cooked immediately afterward. Even on the ‘defrost’ setting on the microwave, food can become too warm or begin cooking, which can encourage bacteria growth if the food is not cooked quickly after being thawed.
The last option is to thaw the food as part of the cooking process. Many foods can be thawed while they cook by adding about 50% to the normal cooking time. However, with this method it becomes even more important to ensure the food gets to the internal temperature required to kill bacteria for that item. That's because the longer cook time means more time in the temperature 'danger zone.'
The best way to ensure that all frozen foods are being handled properly is to keep a temperature log. This ensures accountability in the kitchen and can also be used as evidence in court, should a customer ever claim improper food handling caused an illness.
Make sure all employees are trained to keep the temperature log up to date. The log should record freezer temperatures, checked at specified intervals, and should record defrosting methods and temperatures. If any food is left out too long or if anything goes wrong in the thawing process, record what corrective action was taken. This log can protect you and your employees, and is also a great tool to use in case of a power outage.
Frozen Food: Handling and Merchandising. Frozen food Handling and Merchandising Alliance. Accessed August 2015.
Temperature Logs: A Misunderstood Liability. Food Safety News. Accessed August 2015.
The Big Thaw – Safe Defrosting Methods for Consumers. United States Department of Agriculture. Accessed August 2015.
Food Service Delivery: Guidelines on When to Reject Items. Gordon Food Service. Accessed August 2015.
Food Safety During Power Outages in Food Establishments. Minnesota Department of Health. Accessed August 2015.