Because Hurricane Irma’s path is not yet known, most Tampa Bay families are still on the fence: Do we stay or do we go? If we stay, the next couple days will be spent amassing sufficient water and shelf-stable foods for an indeterminate number of days without power and/or running water.
Here’s how to prepare and how to know that you are maximizing the longevity and safety of your food.
In advance of the storm:
Freeze containers of water for ice to help keep food cold in the freezer, refrigerator or coolers in case the power goes out. You can also use the melting ice as drinking water. Purchase or make ice cubes and freeze gel packs in advance for use in coolers. Fill your coolers and pack the freezer with ice as close as you can before the storm makes landfall. Put drinks in the fridge and move them to the cooler when they are cold to preserve the ice. If the power goes out, you’ll have cold drinks, at least for a while.
Store some bottled water where it will be as safe as possible from flooding.
Use appliance thermometers in your refrigerator and freezer. In case of a power outage, thermometers will help you determine if the food is safe. Freezer temperature should be between zero and five degrees; the refrigerator should be between 36 and 40 degrees.
Conduct an inventory of your pantry. You may already have foods appropriate for an emergency such as peanut butter and canned goods. Eat what you’ve got in the fridge before it goes bad, then dip into the shelf-stable stuff. Who, and how many, will you be feeding? Dietary restrictions have to be taken into account, and don’t buy what your family won’t eat (sorry, Beefaroni).
What if your canned goods are a little long in the tooth? Most canned products will store, unopened, for a minimum of a year, most jarred goods will last even longer, but bear in mind that the lives of these items are cut in half by every increase of 18 degrees in your storage space. Metal cans are susceptible to rust in humid or salty marine environments, tending to rust along seams and dents (all the more reason to select undented cans). After opening, jarred foods should be refrigerated and canned foods should be removed from their metal home (the oxidizing metal may taint the contents), transferred to plastic or glass, and refrigerated.
With storing meats, the big thing to worry about is cross-contamination. Raw foods are teeming with bacteria that you want to keep away from cooked foods. For this reason, always store cooked foods above raw meats in the refrigerator in case of drips. Fish, poultry and meat should be removed from permeable butcher paper and transferred to an airtight container or double wrap of plastic wrap. Even kept at an ideal temperature of 35 to 40 degrees, most meats begin to break down in just two days (with smoked fish you have a little longer, with ground chuck you may have even less time).
Milk, half-and-half, cream and so forth will keep twice as long if you transfer them from cardboard cartons to screw-top glass jars before refrigerating (and they won’t pick up any off flavors that way). Store eggs in their own cardboard carton on a refrigerator shelf, not in the egg holders set into the refrigerator door. They’ll last longer in the refrigerator’s interior, with fewer fluctuations of temperature.
After the storm, in the event of no power or water:
Keep the refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible. A refrigerator will keep food cold for about four hours if you keep it closed. A full freezer will keep temperature for about 48 hours. Use your cooler(s) for the food “in play,” as in, what you are eating and drinking today.
Water should be at a rolling boil for one to three minutes to kill bacteria. If you don’t have a heat source, 1 gallon of water can be purified with eight drops, or 1/8 teaspoon, of new, unscented household bleach. Wash fruits and vegetables with water from a safe source.
Which foods spoil quickly? Meat, poultry, fish, eggs and egg substitutes (raw or cooked), milk, cream, yogurt and soft cheese, casseroles, stews or soups, lunch meats and hot dogs, creamy salad dressings; custard or chiffon pies, refrigerated cookie dough, and open mayonnaise, tartar sauce and horseradish will be spoiled after eight hours without refrigeration.
The following foods keep at room temperature for a few days: butter or margarine, hard and processed cheese, fresh fruits and vegetables, fruit juices and dried fruit, opened jars of vinegar-based salad dressings, jelly, relish, taco sauce, barbecue sauce, mustard, ketchup, olives, fresh herbs and spices, fruit pies, breads and cakes, except cream cheese-frosted or cream-filled. Discard anything that turns moldy or has an unusual odor.
When power is restored:
Check refrigerator and freezer thermometers. If the freezer reads 40 F or below, the food is safe and may be refrozen. If you did not use a thermometer in the freezer, check each package. If the food still contains ice crystals, it is safe to refreeze or cook. Discard any perishable food that has been kept above 40 degrees for two hours or more.
Do not eat any food in nonwaterproof containers that have touched floodwater because it carries bacteria. This includes boxes of cereal or pasta. For canned foods, discard paper labels and note the contents with a marker directly on the can. Disinfect cans with a solution of 1/4 cup household bleach and 1 gallon water.
Wooden cutting boards, plastic utensils, baby bottles and nipples should be discarded. Metal and ceramic utensils and cookware should be washed with soap and hot water, then sanitized in a dishwasher or in a bleach and water solution.
Compiled by Times food critic Laura Reiley with information from Times files, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration and Clemson University Cooperative Extension.