While running any establishment dealing with food preparation or catering professionally, there are multiple factors to take care of. Right from how the raw ingredients are procured to the prepared food being served to the clients at the correct internal temperature, every step needs to be followed carefully to ensure the food you served is fit for consumption. Any slip-up at any stage would introduce pathogens or contaminants that alter the food chemistry or cause gastrointestinal ailments that will result in a bad name, a hefty fine from the state health department, and possibly an expensive lawsuit from any affected clients.
In the worst-case scenario, your kitchen can temporarily be impounded by the health department, or your establishment is permanently closed. Even after practicing hygiene best practices, one of the common places where most kitchen staff face challenges is in storing food (cooked and uncooked.)
In this article, we shall list out different ways to increase the shelf life of a food item and how to store the different types of food correctly to ensure that it remains palatable later.
Benefits of proper food storage
In addition to increasing the food’s shelf life, proper food storage also has other novel benefits:
- Reduces food wastage
- It keeps pests and rodents from contaminating the food.
- It helps you in purchasing raw materials in bulk. This indirectly helps you save money as well.
- Keep seasonal fruits fresh to use, especially when not in season.
- Keep the cooked food ready to serve when catering outdoors.
- It reduces meal prep time.
Do you need to store all types of food?
The ingredients you use in a restaurant can be classified into three broad categories:
These are food items such as dried spices, pulses, or food items in non-reactive casings such as a metal can, VacuPak or tetrapak. These can last for months under ideal conditions.
Food items such as flour or spice powders that can be spoiled unless kept dry or grains, dry fruits, which can fall prey to insects if not kept in an airtight container, are categorized as semi-perishables. Jams or fruit preserves made without preservatives are also semi-perishable. When optimally handled, such food items can last from six months to even a year.
Any cooked, semi-cooked, or raw vegetables, dairy & poultry products, and meat products are considered perishable. They need to be refrigerated or deep-frozen for storing for an extended time (max period: 3-7 days). Fresh fruits can be kept in the open, but you need to store certain fruits such as bananas and avocados separately to stop them from releasing ethylene gases which can spoil other non-similar farm produce.
What are the major causes of food spoilage?
Food spoilage can happen from multiple causes but can be divided into two general categories:
- Biological Contamination
When any biological microorganisms such as bacteria, viruses are introduced into your food due to food handled by unwashed hands, cross-contamination from infected food, or environmental inclusions, they make the food their home. At favorable temperatures, these microorganisms multiply quickly. When they enter the human body, they can attack different parts and cause various ailments ranging from severe diarrhea, stomach cramps, dehydration, and inflammations.
- Chemical Alteration
When left exposed to the open air, certain food items may undergo chemical alteration and release toxins. This can trigger allergic reactions when consumed (histamine) or straight-up food poisoning. There is significantly less chance of consuming a portion of food once it has undergone chemical alteration; it releases a sharp odor and will taste different, alerting the customer.
Different Food Storage and Preservation Methods
Most food items tend to go bad when they are stored under the following two criteria:
- Ample moisture
- Correct ambient temperature
When you eliminate any one factor, the chances of food spoilage is significantly cut down, and there are six major types of preservation methods when it comes to increasing the food shelf life:
This involves adding natural acids such as lemon juice or vinegar and the food to be preserved in a self-sealing jar with an airtight lid. Later the jars are placed in boiling water or a pressure canner to make them sterile. While this significantly improves the shelf life, some of the flavor & nutritional values are lost in the process. Even after sterilization, the food is susceptible to mold growth if the seals are not strong.
Through natural means or artificially, the food’s moisture content is evaporated in this method till it reaches 20% of the original value. The food is briefly placed in boiling water to be blanched and then placed in either direct sunlight or a synthetic dryer for dehydration. This is the most time-consuming and energy-demanding method and only fruitful when used to preserve a large amount of seasonal fruits.
Instead of allowing disease-causing microbes from making their home in the food you prepared, you allow probiotic bacteria to grow. The process involves:
- Choosing a starter culture.
- Adding the brine solution and preserving vegetables in an airtight container.
- Placing the container in a cold environment.
Owing to the brine solution the preserved food can be used as the salt source for any other food preparations. The only care needed to be taken is the use of distilled water and fresh vegetables to reduce the chances of food going bad.
Pickling is a similar process to fermentation, except instead of brine, the vegetables are drenched in a highly acidic solution of vinegar and salt (or sugar). The same level of care needs to be taken in pickling as expected in fermentation.
Shelf life of liquids such as soups, stews, purees, and broths, and raw meats are best stored by freezing. While this process will not make your food immortal, it will allow the food to be stored for a longer period before spoilage. Once taken out, you need to thaw the food before reheating, and you should never refreeze a thawed out food.
- Cold storage
Cold storage is an excellent option for keeping the food in a thermally regulated environment for more extended periods. These are larger versions of the refrigerators, and each shelf remains at a different temperature. This allows you to store different types of food together, provided you are careful about cross-contamination.
Proper Food Storage Methods
- Practice FIFO
When placing food in cold storage or pantry, always adopt the practice of ‘ensure First Out’ (FIFO.) This way, the rotation is maintained to make sure the food doesn’t stay longer than its expiration. Keep a track on reading the ‘best before dates and place a ‘use-by-date’ tag for prepared food such as sauces, broths, etc. Practicing this ensures that the food wastage is significantly reduced as you will only order specific items when they are depleted.
- Storage Temperatures is Vital
Different food products have a temperature threshold for the temperature at which they should be stored. Dry items such as flour, pulses, canned food can be kept at room temp while fresh fruits, vegetables, raw meat, etc., should be kept at a cooler temperature. While refrigerating, the shelf order should be as per cooking temperatures.
- Topmost shelf of a refrigerator – Ready to eat and cooked food
- Second shelf – Cheeses and canned food
- Third shelf – Raw fish, shellfish, and any food cooked at 145oF
- Fourth shelf – Raw pork, beef, veal, or any food cooked at 155oF
- Bottom shelf – Ground meat and whole eggs
- Always Label your food
During rush hours, it might be challenging to keep track of ingredients used at different stations, and the sauces prepared may look similar but have particular purposes. At such critical moments, some pre-closing practices of labeling everything before storing it will help you differentiate different products and their current state. Moreover, while accepting deliveries, labeling can help track who received the delivery and has the items been inspected.
- Transparent Bins
Another way to keep track of the stored food during rush is by having transparent bins. Not only will the food remain protected, but you can also quickly ‘inspect’ the content at a glance.
Food safety is unavoidable. Not only do you dump money down the drain, but you also end up wasting valuable resources when not practicing food safety protocols. Institutes like Easy Food Handlers that provide Utah food certification course. Food handlers permit and training to make it a point to teach about the different food safety protocols and tips to follow. The above tips are just a glimpse of what is covered in training but cover the most common practices following in most restaurants.