In ServSafe training, we learned proper methods for cooling cooked food and thawing frozen food. I think this information is valuable for every cook, not just in restaurants, so here are the basic ideas.

You technically have 4 hours to bring hot food down to below 41ºF but it doesn’t have to take that long. Ideally, you should cool your food as quickly as possible by using proper techniques to discourage bacterial growth. The methods vary depending on the type of food so I’ll break it down into 2 major categories: liquids and solids.

Solids (meat, vegetables, etc) cool relatively quickly at room temperature. Large cuts of meat will take longer (a pot roast, for example) so you can always cut it or shred it into smaller portions. The smaller the surface area, that faster it will cool throughout. Once your solid foods come close to room temperature (below 80ºF), they’re good to move to the fridge. When cooling your food at room temperature, make sure it’s uncovered to prevent condensation.

It’s always best to cool liquids (soups, stocks, etc.) as quickly as possible. In restaurants, we often put a huge pot of liquid in a deep, empty sink, fill the sink (around the pot) with ice water, and stir the liquid with an ice wand (a hollow, plastic wand filled with water and frozen). From there we can either portion it or move the entire pot to the walk-in cooler. Since home cooks are working in much smaller batches, I recommend simply portioning the liquid into smaller containers (more surface area means faster cooling) and setting the uncovered containers on the counter until the temperature falls below 80ºF, usually an hour at most. Then cover and refrigerate or freeze.

I freeze a LOT of food. I usually make big batches of whatever I’m cooking and freeze what I won’t use right away; stocks, soups, cookies, breads, casseroles, leftover fruit,… you name it. I even chop up onions and bell peppers that are about to go bad and freeze the pieces. Here are a few tips I can give you about freezing products:
  • Always let your food come down to at least room temperature before you freeze it. Better yet, make sure it’s fully refrigerated before freezing it. Putting hot food in the freezer will not only make your freezer work overtime and raise your electric bill (every cent counts these days) but it will cause ice crystals to form on your food. Ice crystals damage the structure and quality of food so you’ll have better leftovers if you freeze them properly.
  • Portion out your food first. Instead of freezing a whole lasagna or casserole, cut it into an appropriate serving size and wrap and freeze each piece separately. That way you don’t have to thaw a huge dish if you only need to feed a couple people. 
  • Same with soups and stocks… I freeze mine in pint containers because I almost always use 2 cups before it goes bad. Some like to freeze stocks in ice trays and that works, too, but I usually need more than a couple ice cubes of stock at a time. Do what works best for you.
  • If you have fruit about to go bad, freeze it! Peel your banana, wrap it, and freeze it whole so you can use it in pancakes or bread later. Separate your berries on a sheet pan, wrap it, and freeze. Once the berries are frozen, pour them into a freezer bag.
  • Same for onions and bell peppers about to go bad; cut them into a useable size, spread them on a sheet pan, wrap, and freeze. After an hour or so, portion them into freezer bags.
  • You can even freeze butter. Real butter, that is. Not the imitation stuff. I go through a lot of butter so when a local grocery store sold it 2 lbs for $4 (without a limit, wha?!), I stocked up! I dropped it in the freezer in its original packaging (cardboard box and all). It’ll keep for about 8 months but I’ll use it up well before then.
There are 3 acceptable thawing methods as far as ServSafe is concerned:
  • In the fridge – Place food product on a plate or a pan with a lip (to catch any juices that may run) and let it thaw in the refrigerator for the necessary time. The larger and more dense the food product, the longer it will take to thaw, so plan ahead.
  • Under water – You can thaw uncooked food quickly under water. I use this method for fish, seafood, chicken (sometimes), and some vegetables (like frozen spinach). Place the food product in a large container where the food can be completely submerged in water, like a large bowl. ServSafe says you should have a constant stream of water running from the tap into the bowl.
  • In the microwave – Use the defrost feature on your microwave, following the manufacturer’s instructions. Foods thawed in the microwave must be cooked right away. I only use the microwave to thaw when I’m desperate 
Avoid thawing meats in a hot pan. Take ground beef, for example. Don’t put a huge chunk of hamburger meat into a hot pan and scrape off the outer layers as it cooks. The meat on the outside will be way overcooked before the stuff on the very inside even starts to heat. I’ll give you more details on cooking ground beef when we get farther into the lessons and you’ll see what I mean. For now, you just have to trust me. 

At home, I usually break the ServSafe rules for thawing. While I can’t encourage you to break the rules, I also can’t pretend like I always follow them. I usually set beef or pork out on the counter to thaw. And when I thaw fish and seafood in water, I don’t leave the tap running. I know, shame on me. I’m quite the risk taker!

We have just one more post on Food Safety and Sanitation and it will cover some general kitchen cleaning guidelines and cross-contamination. After that, we’re moving on!!

Next Post:  Food Safety & Sanitation, Part 4 – Kitchen Cleanliness
Previous Post:  Food Safety & Sanitation, Part 2 – Storing Food