6 min read.Updated: 28 Jun 2013, 01:05 AM ISTMadhu Menon
Like most, you depend on buying your meat supplies. But do you know how to store it properly to prevent spoilage?
Like most people, you probably don’t own a farm to raise animals for food and have to depend on buying your meat supplies from someone. But do you know how to store it properly to prevent spoilage and avoid a serious case of food poisoning? You probably think you do, but some of the things you’re about to read may be a revelation, and that’s precisely why I wrote on this seemingly mundane topic.
A freshly killed animal almost never has bacteria in its muscle tissue. That’s the good news. The bad news is that as it makes its journey from a butcher’s knife or a commercial meat-processing operation to your home, it comes into contact with various surfaces that will probably introduce bacteria to it. These bacteria then start multiplying rapidly while feasting on the flesh, and in the process release toxins that spoil food. Some of these can also be harmful if ingested into the human body, and food poisoning is a serious affair that can lead to death in some cases. No Butter Chicken is worth that risk, I assure you.
You might think that warm temperatures are the most conducive to bacterial growth, but you’d be mistaken. The so-called ‘‘danger zone" for this is a pretty wide range: 5 degrees Celsius to 60 degrees Celsius. That’s just a degree or two above your typical refrigerator temperature ranging to hotter than peak summer in the Middle East. The longer you leave it in that zone, the worse it is for your meat products. (Oh, this applies just as much for cooked food, too, so leaving that fish curry out at room temperature is not something I would advise. As a rule of thumb, don’t leave cooked food out for more than four hours. Go to www.stilltasty.com for a great reference on food storage.)
Animal flesh spoils a lot faster than plants, and harmful bacteria are just waiting to get their hands on meat to break it down. Fat on muscle tissue, too, starts getting rancid when exposed to oxygen and light, especially in poultry and seafood, leading to funky smells. If not meant to be consumed immediately, you need to refrigerate meat. Refrigeration doesn’t kill off bacteria; they are extremely hardy creatures. It just slows them down, preventing them from multiplying (which they do rapidly) and working their way into our bodies. If you’re buying freshly slaughtered meat, always transfer it as fast as possible to the fridge, and use within two-three days. Keeping it covered in cling film has two advantages: it prevents the cold air in the fridge from drying out the surface of the meat, and prevents its smell from spreading to other foods. The downside is that it also acts as an insulator and slows the refrigeration, but that’s an acceptable trade-off.
Buying chilled or frozen meats is another matter. You have to be much more careful when buying these. The companies that supply these probably have an established and reliable cold chain to keep the correct temperature all the way to the retailer, but you as a customer have no way of knowing how it’s handled after that. It could’ve been lying there unrefrigerated for a while, spoiling, and only later refrigerated. It could’ve been kept in a refrigerator that was either too crowded (preventing cold air from circulating and lowering the cooling efficiency) or possibly switched off at night to conserve electricity (don’t be shocked; some supermarkets have actually done this.) While fresh meat will keep for three days or so, the same is no guaranteed for pre-cut chilled meat. In such cases, let your eyes and nose be your guide. Does the meat have strange aromas? Is it sitting there in a pool of liquid? (That’s a sign of cell damage, which I’ll talk about in a bit.) If so, chances are it won’t last very long in your house, especially given that it won’t be kept cold on your way back home.
But you think to yourself, hey, it’s cool, you’ll just take your chilled meat and stick it in your freezer and all will be well. Do not ever do this. Refreezing thawed meat is a terrible idea. For one, it doesn’t kill bacteria; it only deactivates them. Second, your home freezer actually takes a long time to freeze things. The slower the freezing action, the larger the ice crystals that form within the muscle tissue (meat is mostly water after all; upwards of 70%). These crystals puncture the cells walls of the tissue, and when you thaw meat, the ice melts and a fluid containing protein, vitamins and salts leaks out, making it dry and tough when cooked. You don’t want that, do you? Commercial meat processing plants have equipment that rapidly freeze the meat, so the size of the ice crystals in the frozen product you buy is much smaller. The lesson for us is that if you’re buying frozen meat, keep it frozen till you need it, and if you thaw it, use it all up.
The most dangerous of all is minced meat. While bacteria exist only on the surface of regular meat most of the time, mincing meat exposes all the flesh to them and the spoilage. Be extra careful when buying your kheema. If possible, do not buy meat that has been minced in advance. Have fresh meat ground in front of you. This may not be possible in supermarkets, but it doesn’t hurt to ask. If you’re a crazy chef like me, you take two nice big cleavers and mince your meat yourself. Fortunately for you, you’re not that crazy.
Another mistake I see a lot of people making is in how they thaw frozen meat. Leaving it out on your kitchen counter is about the worst way to do it. You’re essentially exposing it to the “Danger Zone" for a very long period, giving bacteria a free pass to go wild on the flesh. Please don’t do this. The safest way is to leave it in the refrigerator meat compartment overnight where it will slowly move up in temperature from 0 degrees to about 4 degrees. Unfortunately, it’s also the slowest. Not everyone has that luxury. Sometimes you just need to quickly get it ready to cook. In that case, put your frozen meat in a large pan covered with cold water, and stick it under a tap of running water. This will get it ready to cook in about 10-15 minutes. The running water (while a bit wasteful) also rapidly conducts heat away and is more efficient than still water. Modern microwaves also have ‘‘thaw" features, but I’m wary of these because they actually start the cooking process, and that’s not something I want to do yet.
Once thawed, cook it as fast as possible. Searing meat on high heat has the advantage of not only killing off most surface bacteria, but also browning the meat and activating the Maillard reaction (see my previous column in Mint Indulge on meat), which is responsible for those lovely ‘‘browned meat" aromas and flavours. Of course, searing may not be an option for all recipes, but I’m just letting you know because, hey, it’s my job.
Next month, we shall move to herbivorous matters, where I’ll tell you how to spot fresh veggies and how to store them right.
Madhu Menon is a chef, restaurant consultant and food writer. He is on Twitter at @madmanweb