Cooling Food at Room Temperature for Hours
I used to be really guilty of this. I would do a massive batch cook and lay out my meals on the kitchen table to cool. I’d wait until everything was cooked before I labelled and froze it, mostly because it felt really satisfying looking at all of the full containers before they disappeared into my freezer.
The problem is, if you leave food out at room temperature for longer than an hour or two, bacteria will start to develop, and this puts you at risk of food poisoning.
Cooking your food until piping hot can kill off some bacteria, but it won’t necessarily kill it all off. To avoid the bad bacteria altogether, you should cool your food as quickly as possible (always within 2 hours).
Cooling Hot Food in the Fridge or Freezer
When you do this, you raise the temperature inside the fridge or freezer, which isn’t good for the other food. This is especially the case in the freezer where your other food might thaw slightly and re-freeze. It may also hold food within it’s ‘danger zone’ for longer, increasing the chance of bad bacteria developing.
To cool food down quickly your best options are:
If you’ve just got one or two portions of food for the freezer, stand outside with it for a few minutes whilst stirring (I find this works very well to cool my baby son’s food too!)
For bigger quantities, transfer to a large cool dish, spreading the food out as much as possible to allow the heat to escape. Stir it often. If you don’t have a large enough dish, you can split it into small portions (i.e. straight into foil trays). If you are putting it into freezer bags, allow it to cool a little before transferring it into the bags as they won’t stand very high temperatures.
If you are freezing portions of food in foil trays or resealable freezer bags, fill a large dish, or the bottom of your sink with a little bit of cold water and place the containers into the water (being careful not to let the water splash into your food). You can change the water every 10 minutes or so or add some ice cubes to speed up the process.
Defrosting Food at Room Temperature
This is my other mistake. I used to do this all the time. As far as I’m aware, no one got sick, but then it can take two or three days (sometimes even longer) for the effects of some bacteria to take hold, so who knows for sure?
By leaving your food at room temperature, you once again give that nasty bacteria time to develop.
There are three recommended ways to defrost food:
In the bottom of the fridge overnight (it will then be fine to cook up to 24 hours after the point at which it has thawed). Always place in a dish to avoid cross-contamination with other foods.
In the microwave on the defrost setting, following the manufacturer’s instructions. It is vital that you then cook the food immediately though as it’s at this point when food-poison-causing bacteria would otherwise develop. Be sure to remove your food from the freezer bag before defrosting in the microwave.
In its resealable bag, in a COLD dish of water (not warm or hot). Keep removing the ice and changing the water if you want to speed up the thawing process.