Never trust a packet of frozen food by its feel and looks. And, when you shove uncooked food into the freezer, ensure it’s in meal-sized portions.
I got this email from Yousuff Ahmed (who asked me to make sure that I mentioned that he lives in Kuala Lumpur): “…which is the best way to thaw non-veg — a two step process: remove the packet from the freezer at night, keep in fridge, take out from the fridge in the morning and allow natural thawing at room temperature? Or take the packet out from the freezer before cooking, put running tap water and quicken the process to thaw?”
I’m no refrigeration and food safety expert, merely a domestic cook (and drudge) but I told him what I do. I immerse the packet in a large bowl of tap water and change the water a few times until the contents are thawed.
But that was just me being Miss Goody Two-Shoes. What I really wanted to tell him was of my experience at Delhi’s INA market. INA market is wonderful for perishables, people swear by the freshness of the vegetables and meat, but I find that negotiating the smelly warren of lanes with uncovered drains isn’t worth it for a handful of rocket leaves at 150 rupees. Though the availability — in season — of haak saag leaves makes it worth my while, once a year. Also I’m of the aseptic meat-buying school and prefer not to choose squawking birds and have their necks wrung before my eyes. Buying Kashmiri spice cake is another reason to venture there, so I make the effort, once in a while.
One time I walked into a huge shop, straddling both sides of a lane, attracted by the pyramids of soya sauce bottles, different strengths; and shelves spilling with marmalade, thick cut and bitter or translucent and sweet. There was a chest-type freezer, full of Canadian back bacon, Norwegian smoked salmon and such. I pulled out a packet of bacon and it was cold but limp. When challenged, Mr. Vicky said there had been an all-night power failure, but now that the electricity was restored, everything would soon be frozen stiff. I asked him whether he knew that once food was thawed, it should be used at once or else discarded, not re-frozen. He couldn’t understand. Or wouldn’t. Again and again he said, “Behenji bas kal saari raat bijli nahin thi, ab sab theek ho jayega.”
I know that everything will be frozen solid, given a little freezing, but in the meanwhile, while the meat was warm, ugly-bugglies, always present, would have multiplied and infested the warm meaty environment, sealed snugly in high quality polythene. I suppose it is remotely possible that freezing, thawing, and freezing again need not spoil food. But that is with the assumption that when the food was first frozen, it was completely microbe-free, the packaging was sterilised in an autoclave, and the handlers’ hands were boiled in chlorine bleach.
Since we know that none of the above are true, it’s safest to assume the worst and either consume tout de suite or throw into the trash. Or else buy only from a shop that has power back up. Because, had I not walked into Mr. Vicky’s shop at melt-down time, I would have felt bacon frozen solid, and never known that this was the second incarnation of Mr. Pig.
That’s why I like to freeze food in meal-sized portions. When I buy meat or mince, I come home and pack it in flat parcels in freezer-safe polythene bags, one meal’s quantity in each. And fish: if it’s filleted, sliced or cubed, I make a rough estimate of how many pieces I need in a meal, and freeze in two layers, first in polythene, then in metal. Because — I’m told — metal prevents deterioration that would occur if the fish touched the freezer; it would get “freezer burn” and the texture would suffer. So if I don’t have enough metal containers, I wrap the polythene-sealed fish in aluminium foil. Far better than freezing a big fat fish whole — that would take longer to freeze and to thaw, and then I would have to thaw the whole thing before I could cut out as much as I needed. Prawns too. If you’re not buying them fresh, you’ll end up buying what most supermarkets offer, a “brick” of frozen crustaceans. Then you would thaw it at least a little and hack it with a machete, mutilating many pink creatures and getting either heads or tails, but rarely the twain together. Some big man I met at one of the multinational wholesale companies said that all food deteriorates over time, even frozen — it mightn’t rot in an obvious way, but the feel would certainly change — and that even in industrial cryostats, let alone home freezers. Some fish like basa, the staple in every restaurant I’ve eaten at in recent years, appear unaltered despite freezing, which is apparently the reason why cold-chain and restaurant owners prefer to stock and sell it.
One of the greatest benefits of modern technology is “flash” freezing. I don’t know how they do it, but some very fast freezing — sometimes on trawlers out in the high seas — results in prawns that smell absolutely fresh and are frozen “discreetly”: a kilo of them come loosely packed in a bag, a bit like popcorn — and you can take out a handful at a time without thawing the rest and use as many as you need at a time. They make “best practice” easier: frozen food doesn’t get a chance to spoil by repeat thawing.