Proper cooling and reheating of food is one of the most crucial aspects of food safety, whether at home or in a professional food service setting. These are the times when food is in the "danger zone" for rapid growth of potentially hazardous microorganisms, raising the risk of food-borne illness. The two-step cooling method used in restaurants is designed to maximise food safety, and control the risk of pathogen growth.
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The first stage in the two-stage cooling process is to reduce the temperature of the dish from 60 degrees Celsius to 21.1 degrees C, within a two-hour time frame. At 60 degrees C, foods are cool enough to permit microorganisms to begin reproducing once more, but are still emitting enough heat that they could compromise the safety of other foods, if they were put in the cooler immediately. At 21.1 degrees C this is no longer the case, and foods can be refrigerated without further risk.
Techniques to Speed Cooling
A restaurant-sized pot of soup or chilli could take several hours to reach a food-safe temperature in the middle. Professional and home cooks can use a number of techniques to cool food more quickly. An obvious choice is to divide the food into smaller portions, which will cool more rapidly. Large pots can be cooled by setting them in a bath of cold water, and stirring them regularly to disperse the heat. Commercial suppliers also carry specialised freezer packs in the shape of large paddles, which are used to simultaneously stir and chill the food.
The second stage of the cooling process drops the food from 21.1 degrees Celsius to below 41 degrees, at which point microbiological activity effectively stops and the temperature is considered food safe. At room temperature the food can be packaged or covered, if desired, and placed in a refrigerator, walk-in cooler, or freezer. The second stage of cooling can take no longer than four hours, giving a total elapsed time of six hours from the end of cooking to a food-safe storage temperature.
Considerations for Second-Stage Cooling
When foods are refrigerated for second-stage cooling, it is important to ensure that the cold air of the walk-in can circulate freely around the containers. The rolling racks used in restaurants are excellent for this, allowing a large quantity of food to be stacked in just a few square feet. When possible, foods to be chilled should be placed in the coldest part of the cooler. Use wire shelving, to allow cold air access to the bottom of the containers. If no shelf space is available for a large pot, expose the bottom by standing it on bricks.
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