The Purge: Perishable Food and Power Outages

September 10, 2020 § Leave a comment

Typically I clean out my refrigerator on Wednesdays (hence the Waste-less Wednesday posts) to make room for the fresh CSA box I pick up on Thursdays. 

This week, I got an early start on that project thanks to a Labor Day weekend power outage—which of course, happened during the worst heat wave of the year. And wouldn’t you know that I had already spent hours on mise en place for recipes I had planned to make on Labor Day? I  had containers of cut fruit ready for compotes and sorbet, cooked rice for one-bowl lunches, and hard-to-get end-of-season farm eggs for assorted baking projects. Not to mention that I was in the middle of making a curried squash soup—cooked, but not yet puréed to the silky consistency I’d been craving—when the power cut out.

PG&E had said that there would be no Bay Area outages during the holiday weekend, so I wasn’t exactly prepared for this mini crisis. My neighborhood had two teaser outages of an hour each during the weekend, but the big one came at about 6:30 p.m. on Sunday and lasted 20 hours, after a tree branch fell on a transformer, taking the lines down.

After a couple of hours without power, I thought things might be alright, as long as I kept the refrigerator door shut (after a quick open-and-close to grab a bottle of rosé and some salad fixings immediately after the outage). But as two hours became four, then six, hope dwindled because I knew that the interior temperature of my refrigerator (and likely the freezers, too) was going up by the hour, pushing perishable food into the danger zone. sigh. The thought of tossing so much fresh food! By the time the power came back on, the fridge’s interior temperature was 50-something degrees. 

Even with 20 years of food-safety certification in my back pocket, there were a few items that gave me pause. So, maybe you’re in the same boat and wondering what to keep and what to toss when the power goes out? If you find yourself with a warmer-than-usual fridge or freezer after a power outage, the first thing to know about food safety is that time and temperature matter.

Bacteria love warmer temperatures and will increase rapidly as storage temperatures rise into the temperature danger zone of 40°F–140°F—which is why you want to make sure you’re storing food at correct temperatures to start with.

If you don’t have a thermometer in your refrigerator and freezer, I highly recommend getting one for each space ASAP. I use this one by Taylor; it’s inexpensive and will give you a good indicator of what the temp is. 

Picture of Taylor 5925N thermometer inside refrigerator
Taylor 5925N inside my refrigerator

If you want something fancier, check out this ThermoWorks thermometer, recommended by America’s Test Kitchen.

Make sure to keep your fridge at 40°F or lower and your freezer at 0°F or lower. Maintaining these temperatures gives you a bit of insurance when the power goes out, as long as you keep refrigerator and freezer doors closed. This nifty infogram from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) spells it out:

Infogram source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (https://www.cdc.gov/foodsafety)

Every time you open the door to grab something, though, you’ll affect the temperature, decreasing the amount of time food will have in safe zone. 

So, what if you’ve experienced a long power outage and ended up with a fridge or freezer full of food that might be in the danger zone? Foodsafety.gov can help you figure out what to toss or keep with two helpful charts: one for refrigerated foods and one for frozen foods.

Source: foodsafety.gov/food-safety-charts

The charts are also downloadable in PDF format to keep on hand for reference or print and use a checklist should you find yourself having to do a major cleanout. 

The documents cover most food items (including condiments like fish sauce—who knew?), taking the guess work out. Cut fruit, meat or seafood soups, cooked rice, leftover pizza: they all have to go. Doesn’t matter if they look or smell ok; if they’ve been in the temperature danger zone (above 40°F) for more than two hours, toss ’em. 

In truth, it felt like a waste to dump so much food, especially given not only the time and money spent on my end, but also the farm labor that went into growing, harvesting, and delivering that food. But foodborne illness is no joke. Been there, done that. I’m with the CDC on this one: “When in doubt, throw it out.”

Waste-Less Wednesday: Fresh Herbs

March 4, 2015 § 3 Comments

Earlier this year, a reader posted a great question to 650Food’s Facebook page:

I have a “minimizing food waste” question. I bought loads of fresh herbs for holiday cooking. Some I have in a cup of water in the fridge, but others are in their mini plastic clamshell awaiting turning into mush before being dumped unceremoniously into the compost bin. What’s the best way to preserve these herbs? Thanks!

So much parsley! What to do...?

So much parsley! What to do…?

Great question (thank you Amy)! Sound familiar? How often do you buy a bunch of herbs, but only need, oh, a tablespoon or a few sprigs for a specific recipe and are then left wondering what to do with the rest? Herbs are mostly delicate little things and have a short lifespan, even if you store them properly.

So, how to get the most out of your herbs without wasting them? You have options! If you want to save herbs for a later use or have a garden surplus, then consider preserving by drying or freezing. Whether you choose to freeze or dry your herbs, make sure you wash and pat them dry first. Here are two simple options for freezing herbs:

  • Herb cubes. Chop herbs finely, place into ice cube trays, and gently top off each ice cube mold with water before freezing. After ice cubes have hardened, you can remove them from the tray and store them in freezer bags. Need a visual? Check out Organic Gardening’s slide show.
  • Keep herbs whole and store in freezer bags. If you want to skip the chopping and just get to preserving, package your whole herbs into freezer bags. Make sure to press as much air as possible from the bags before sealing. Better Homes & Gardens recommends freezing for these more commonly used herbs: basil, chives, dill, lemongrass, mint, oregano, sage, tarragon, thyme.

While I’ll always take fresh herbs over dried, having a stash of dried herbs on standby is a great option when you don’t have access to fresh or frozen herbs. There are a variety of methods for drying herbs, including air drying, low oven (180° F for 2-4 hours), dehydrator, and microwave. I’m old school and go for the air-drying method (least amount of work, too!):  I tie a bunch together with a pretty ribbon, then hang them upside from a hook in my kitchen. After the herbs are dried, I remove the leaves/buds from the stems and store them in a glass jar or plastic container.

So that covers preserving, but what about ways to use up fresh herbs before they start to turn brown or drying becomes your only option?

Honestly, once herbs go into my refrigerator, I forget about them. When I had herbs growing in my garden last summer, it became an evening routine to grab a pair of scissors, head out to the yard, and just snip as much as I needed for the evening meal. But somehow when I buy herbs from the market, I don’t feel as inspired to use them on a daily basis and factoring them into daily cooking takes a bit of effort. Here are some of the ways in which I’ve been using — and using up — herbs.

Simple Syrups
Herb-infused simple syrups can be used for flavoring cocktails, making non-alcoholic spritzers, dressing up a fruit salad, sweetening lemonade… just to give you a few ideas. Best herbs for simple syrup infusions include lavender, rosemary, and sage.

Sage simple syrup pairs well with whiskey and gin cocktails.

Sage simple syrup pairs well with whiskey and gin cocktails. Try it with Belmont’s own Rusty Blade gin.

Herb Butter
Herb butter is so easy to make it’s ridiculous! And it’s sooo good on bread, crackers, fish, potatoes… pretty much anything that can serve as a butter-delivery device. Want to make it right now? Put 1 stick of butter into a microwave-safe bowl (remove the wrapper first), heat in the micowave until soft, then mix with a spatula until smooth. Add 2 tablespoons of finely chopped herbs (try parsley, chives, oregano, or thyme) and ¼ teaspoon of salt. Mix again until smooth. Level up? Add two roasted garlic cloves (smoosh and mix into the butter).

Parsley butter with roasted garlic

Parsley butter with roasted garlic

Herbed Roasted Vegetables
Herbs and vegetables are a natural combo: parsley and potatoes; oregano, tomatoes, and eggplant; thyme and radicchio just to name a few. My new fav? Roasted sweet potatoes, finished with a drizzle of local orange blossom honey, crushed red pepper, and finely chopped rosemary.

Spicy, salty, herbal, sweet: roasted sweet potatoes with a drizzle of local honey, crushed red pepper, ground sea salt, and fresh rosemary.

Spicy, salty, herbal, sweet: roasted sweet potatoes with a drizzle of local honey, crushed red pepper, ground sea salt, and fresh rosemary.

Herbed Pasta
When I’m absolutely too tired to cook and too hungry to wait for delivery, I’ll make soba noodles and top them with whatever I can assemble in the four minutes it takes the noodles to cook. If there are no leftover roasted vegetables ready to go, then finely chopped herbs, olive oil, a sprinkling of sea salt, and a handful of shredded Asiago cheese will do the trick.

How do you preserve or use up fresh herbs? Share your ideas in the comments below!

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