Preventing Waste While Preserving Freshness: My 3 Food Preparation Tips
Spoilage and loss are a reality that simply must be expected and budgeted for in food retail, at least to some extent. However, each load of product that goes bad literally represents money being thrown in the dumpster. You're naturally taking measures to minimize spoilage, but are you doing everything possible to keep money from being hauled off to the landfill?
The problem becomes even greater when you are preparing food on-site for later purchase, such as at a deli counter. You now face not just the problems of proper storage, but those of safe and sanitary preparation. Microorganisms can cause hundreds of different types of known illnesses, salmonella and norovirus among the more commonly encountered and more serious in terms of health consequences. There's also the issue of toxic chemicals seeping into foods by way of everything from prep tools to storage containers. Not only is this a public safety issue, but it is also an issue that potentially has much greater financial consequences for your business than food waste!
Below you'll find our three best tips for preparing and storing food safely. Your customers will get the freshest and best-tasting product possible, and you'll be writing less of it off as a total loss.
1) Ensure Refrigeration is Operating at Peak Efficiency
Before you even start prepping food, you should ensure that the place it's being stored is set up for optimal efficiency and food safety. All that prep work and material is wasted if the food spoils before it can be sold! These tips also extend to your storage of raw materials in the kitchen.
The USDA guideline for the operating temperature of refrigerated foods is 32-40 degrees Fahrenheit. However, there's more to this process than simply throwing a thermometer in the refrigerator.
Different portions of the refrigerator can actually be at different temperatures. The front of the refrigerator will generally be warmer than the back, because warm air enters whenever it is opened. And cold air will tend to collect at the bottom of the fridge, so the front area of the uppermost shelves will generally be the warmest portion, unless they are immediately underneath a freezer. The thermometer should be placed appropriately so that it is measuring the warmest part of the refrigerator.
It's also important to do a calibration check on thermometers at least once every few months, and more often if the temperature display seems to be fluctuating in an odd way. The accuracy of the thermometer can also be checked more regularly by placing it in water for five to eight hours.
Air circulation is critical to maintaining an even temperature throughout the refrigerator. This gets interrupted when the fridge is overpacked, or items are packed too tightly next to each other. Open shelving with slots helps greatly in keeping air circulation flowing properly. It's also important to keep certain types of fruits and vegetables that emit ethylene gas (such as avocados and tomatoes) away from other types, as this will cause the other produce to degrade faster.
Finally, be sure to check door seals regularly, and keep dust from accumulating in the grills that provide outside air flow to the refrigerator's condenser.
2) Avoid Cross-Contamination
It's mandatory for those preparing food to wash their hands at certain junctures, such as handling raw meats and after visiting the bathroom. For the sake of safety, food preparers should make a habit of washing their hands at regular intervals as well. At this time, the FDA recommends only washing with hot water and soap, as alcohol-based gels (such as those used in hospitals) show poor activity in some tests against common foodborne pathogens
In a food prep setting, however, washing your hands means more than simply passing them under water as if you're rinsing some residue off your hands after a meal at home. It should be thought of like a surgeon preparing for an operation; microbes need to be eliminated not just from the fingers, but from any part of the hand and arms that could make contact with food or food prep devices.
Most responsible food handlers do a good job of keeping their hands clean when prepping consumables. An area that tends to be a bigger point of trouble is cross-contamination by utensils used in food prep, especially when a kitchen gets very busy. Some examples would be cutting tools that go immediately from raw meats to vegetables or other foods, the same rag being used to clean a cutting knife and then a prep surface, or produce that has been rinsed being put back into its original container. The surest way to prevent this type of cross-contamination is by having a separate set of utensils for each different type of food that is being prepared, as well as their own set of cleaning items.
3) Follow Good Freezing Practices
It's usually best to gradually cool foods before putting them in the freezer, especially if they are hot. A hot food can elevate the temperature of the freezer and cause other foods to begin to thaw. Rapid freezing is best for produce, however, as it will cause less change in texture.
Unlike a refrigerator, it's actually best to have a freezer as full as possible since air circulation isn't required and a packed freezer will operate with much more efficiency. If the freezer is not full, consider putting half-full bottles of water in between items to pad out the space.
Finally, be aware of the types of food that simply don't react well to being frozen. Most creams, yogurt and liquid cheese will go watery when frozen. Raw eggs still in the shell will crack, while hard-boiled eggs will turn rubbery. Vegetables that retain a lot of water will go mushy, and soft herbs will often turn brown and undergo a change in flavor.
Following optimal prep and storage procedures produces more and better quality food, which makes customers happy, which creates a feedback loop of improved sales! While it might seem like you have bigger things to worry about than cleaning the grill of a refrigerator or keeping separate sets of utensils for preparing different food types, taking time for these little tweaks can add up to major benefits in the long run.
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