In the restaurant as well as the hospitality industry, food handling is a crucial aspect. This is not restricted to food preparation but also how the ingredients were procured and how the food is handled before reaching the customers’ table. It is very important to keep the food out of the temperature danger zone i.e., the range between 41˚F and 135˚F where any microbes in the food can multiply faster.
This is not an issue when you are preparing food fresh and it is being served to the customer immediately while the internal temperature is >165oF. When the prepared food is not served in a short while after taking it off the stove, you need to properly cool it to pass through the danger zone rapidly. You may consider putting it in the refrigerator soon as the food is prepared but this is hazardous in two ways:
- The hot food will increase the overall temperature of the refrigerator and put other stored foods at risk
- The refrigerator needs to work extra hard to keep the internals cool and this causes a spike in the utility bill and is not an energy-efficient move.
So, you need to take additional steps to cool the prepared food properly and avoid any microbe multiplication.
Common Reasons for prepared food not cooling quickly
Depending on multiple factors, you may have difficulty in cooling the prepared food quickly enough to avoid the food remaining in the danger zone for too long. Let’s see the common reasons:
Too Large Stored Volume
When you place a large container in the refrigerator, owing to the high volume of food stored inside, the food doesn’t cool evenly. The cooling happens radially with the outer surface getting cooler while the core still remains hot. So, you also run the risk of overcooking the food at the core while waiting for the food to cool down.
When storing specialized food such as different cuts of meat or deep pan dishes such as lasagna, shepherd’s pie, etc. the dense portions make it difficult for them to be cooled evenly.
Deep and Narrow Containers
Deep and narrow containers are great for preparing food items such as soup, broth, or stews but not ideal for storing them in the refrigerator. When the food is placed in deep bottom pans instead of shallow containers, the food inside takes more time to cool.
How to cool down prepared food properly?
Derived from the reasons mentioned above, to cool food quickly, you can use any of the following methods:
Divide the food into smaller containers
Dividing the food into smaller containers, you reduce the volume while increasing the surface volume. Smaller batches mean the comprehensive time taken for cooling would be significantly less compared to cooling it in a single container.
Metal Utensils cool faster
This might sound like a piece of advice that need not be mentioned, many restaurant workers tend to overlook such a small mistake. Stainless steel or cast iron utensils are thermally conductive and hence can transfer heat quicker than insulative materials such as plastic, glass, or silicon.
Use Ice or water baths
The sudden drop in temperature can cause microbes to become active and multiply faster. Placing the prepared food in a container that is immersed in water or an ice bath, you can gradually lower the temperature but this would be quicker than air cooling. It helps a lot if you keep stirring the food while in a bath as it allows the air to circulate through the food while being cooled by the bath. When cooling down liquids such as soups or broth you can drop in ice cubes or frozen vegetables to help with reducing the temperature.
Loosely wrap while refrigerating
While placing the food in a refrigerator, loosely wrapping it allows cold air to enter and bring the temperature to 41oF. Once cooled, you can close the container with an airtight lid to prevent any further contamination.
Useful Tips while cooling food correctly
- The overall food temperature needs to be reduced to 41oF within six hours of taking off the stove. The process can be broken down into two sections
- The temperature should come down to 70oF within two hours
- The temperature should come down to 41oF or lower within four hours
- Invest in a food thermometer. Periodically check the temperature to ensure proper cooling. If the food hasn’t reduced to 70oF within two hours, you need to reheat it and bring it to 70oF.
Things to consider while thawing/reheating food
While thawing out or reheating the earlier cooled food, never thaw at normal room temperature. Use any of the following methods to do so:
- In a walk-in refrigerator (where the temperature doesn’t exceed 41oF), keep the cooked food in the lowest pan, right below the ready to eat foods.
- Place it in a container and thaw under running water of 70oF or lower temperature
- Non-interrupted thawing in the microwave
- Place in boiling water as part of the conventional cooking
Food handling is difficult but with time and practice, it will become easier. All you need to remember is how to cool prepared food and reheat later. It would be suggested to label the food containers with important information such as time and date of preparation. This and much other vital information regarding food handling is available in the food handlers certificate that acknowledges your in-depth information about handling food professionally.