Professional kitchen tipsmichael williams
This edition of From The Flavor Bench is dedicated to your safety in the kitchen. Chefs work smarter not
harder by knowing the little steps and tricks to keep things safe and reduce unwanted costs.
First, let’s talk temperatures. You are in control of the safe storage and holding of your foods. As a
general statement the temperature of the food displayed at the grocery is likely the same temperature
you should use at home for storing the food. For example, fresh tomatoes are sold from a middle floor
display and should not be stored in the refrigerator until you put a knife to them. Once cut, they need
refrigeration. Of course, you can rinse and chill whole cherry tomatoes for a salad or crudité. Chefs don’t
consider that storage, we refer to that as holding (short term temperature change for eating
In the produce section of the grocery, some items are displayed on a sloped shelf and are frequently
showered. Those items can go directly to your refrigerator or crisper bin, dry off excess moisture on thin
skinned items. Produce that has a firm base (head lettuces and celery) are trimmed by the produce staff
and then displayed. This is done to allow for extended freshness. FYI lettuce is the only vegetable that is
never sold canned or frozen. You’ll need to trim (sharp knife) away that visible rust too. These head
lettuces feed (moisture) from that base, keeps them crisp.
What are the proper temperature storage conditions? There are four storage environments: Dry, Cool,
Cold, and Frozen. Cool (45°F-55°F) is the not commonly used due to space needed for an extra unit, it’s
for a few specific items: Fresh basil, un-cut tomatoes, whole citrus, and some loose leaf lettuces come to
mind. As with any produce, never stored rinsed (wet). That will quickly begin the degradation and
Mushrooms. Buy the whole ones and clean or brush away the debris and cut them yourself. At the store,
turn them over and or look to see that the gills (those fins under the cap) are not exposed. Intact and
covered gills indicate freshness. Except for the big portabellas. Those are fully matured crimini and their
gills will be exposed. As with morels or other exotics like chanterelles, oysters, and trumpets – look out
Citrus and melons. Simple rule is they should feel heavy for their size (better flesh development). So
hold two of equal shape/size in your hands and pick the heavier one. Pineapples. Again, heavy but what
is most important is the top inner fronds should easily pull out, indicating ripeness. There’s nothing
wrong with the sniff test, avoid any soft spots which indicate bruising on fruits. Stone fruits (cherries,
plums, peaches, nectarines, apricots) often bruise during shipping. An Interesting fact with peaches is:
There are two types, clingstones, and freestones. This refers to the fruit’s flesh either attaching or not to
the “pit”. That makes a difference in shipping and shelf life. Because of that, you rarely see the
Here’s a quick season guide to traditional fruit harvest time in our hemisphere. Citrus is first – they are a
winter crop. Then the berries come in, followed by my favorite – the stone fruits, and last in the autumn
are the tree fruits including grapes (tomatoes and pumpkins too).
Ok, let’s get back to temps. Your refrigerator is probably too warm (and overly filled, preventing air
circulation). Sorry, but that is the truth. It should be 34°F-41°F. And your freezer is probably too warm as
well. Ideally it should be below 0°F ideally -10°F, but most residential freezers cannot achieve that and
your ice cream would be a spoon defeating brick. Ice cream for commercial holding has special units
that are around 12°F, allows for scoop ability and proper eating ability. So keep your home freezer as
close to 5°F as possible. Hint, go to the DYI store and purchase a refrigerator/freezer dial face analog
thermometer for each unit. Don’t drop them, they’ll lose proper calibration. There’s a coil behind the
dial face that expands and contracts with temperature changes and thusly moves the needle. Same
thing with those stem instant read thermometer you see in a chef’s jacket pocket.
Here’s a simple guide for freezer storage. The more a food (meat) is mechanically processed the shorter
the storage time. Ground meats are optimal before 3 months, sliced or cubed by 6 months, smaller
whole muscle cuts (steaks and chops) by 9 months and larger whole muscle pieces by one year. That
suggests uninterrupted temperature of 0°F, storage time diminishes if frozen temperature really rises
past 15°F. I know what your thinking, 32°F is freezing. That is the freezing point of water, not an
indicator of conditions. Here’s the physics: the freezing point is the temperature of a liquid at which it
changes from liquid to solid. At freezing point, the two phases – liquid and solid – exist simultaneously
meaning both solid and liquid are in a balance so to speak. A single boneless skinless chicken breast
takes 48 hours to completely freeze (to its geometric center) in a typical residential unit. Oh, by the way
never place hot (if you see steam coming off the food, it’s hot) in the freezer or refrigerator. These cold
storage units work by reducing the ambient air temperature inside the box to the thermostat setting.
Placing something hot in that box temporarily raises the temperature of everything else in the box. Plus
can add unwanted moisture too. Better to stir or reduce size (think volume, mass, depth, and thickness)
then place the food in the refrigerator or freezer. Professional kitchens use up to two hours to get the
temperature from 135°F to 70°F, then it can go in to the unit where it has four hours to get to less than
41°F. Stirring, cutting down the size, or even using zip lock bags of ice if appropriate will help. Once cold,
cover with a lid or plastic wrap for storage.
If you see icy clumped foods or ice crystals in frozen bagged foods it indicates the food has been
warmed above freezer temperatures (thawed), then re-frozen.
Thawing safely. There are just four methods to safely thaw foods (think raw meat), and the countertop
is not one of the methods – particularly dangerous with raw fish. The safe methods are: Under
refrigeration (best method but takes the longest – plan ahead and use a pan to catch drips); under cold
– only cold – running water in a clean sink or in a colander in the sink (effective but needs to be
monitored for splashes and duration); in the microwave as long as the food is then immediately cooked
by any cooking method; and finally a food is safely thawed if cooked from being frozen (like deep frying
bagged frozen breaded items or a frozen patty in a pan or on the grill or even french fries in the oven).
Frozen French fries are almost a leftover – yep, they were par-cooked before you purchased them, often
steamed, before being frozen and bagged. Otherwise the potato fries would be brown and take a much
longer time to cook. Other leftovers include deli meats, canned veggies, and potted meats. Bet you
didn’t know that. Condiments are unique and you should follow label storage directions. Do you
refrigerate ketchup – why?
Two words about frozen produce. Buy it. Whether it’s berries, peas, corn, etc. they are picked at peak
ripeness and commercially flash frozen. Often “fresher” than what you see in the produce section. Buy
them last at the store and keep them frozen and get them in your home freezer fast. Consider having a
pre-chilled cooler or specifically designed lined bag to transport your most perishables home. You spent
good money on these foods, protect your investment. You can thank Mr. Clarence Birdseye, yep in the
early 1920’s he really invented that whole quick freezing process beginning with fish fillets.
Dry storage. Your pantry and shelves should be dry, dust, and draft free. Hopefully you achieve about
70°F and 70% R/H. The hotter and more humid it is, the inventory has reduced shelf life, especially for
root vegetables. Your potatoes will eye and your onions will sprout. Use them more quickly, purchase
smaller amounts to avoid waste.
The meats. Very important to store fresh meats and other foodstuffs in a correct manner. Vertical
storage is based on the final safe cooking temperature of each protein type. Always store raw poultry in
any form below everything else. Always store leftovers, salads and any food that is not going to be
heated again above everything else. In between goes: ground meats below cut meats, then fish and
seafood above those. Purchase and either freeze or prepare foods in a timely manner. All perishable
foods, which includes un-frozen or not in a can leftovers, should be safely consumed or thrown out by
seven days. The day you make something is considered day one.
Completely wrap stored foods to prevent drips and drying. Place in a dish or on a plate, then wash the
dish/plate once the food is removed. Example of a common error: Raw chicken, salmon, or burgers for
the grill are held on a plate then taken to the grill. Then that same (nasty dirty) plate is re-used for the
foods coming off the grill. Don’t ever do that, it’s called cross-contamination. And is a leading cause of
household illnesses. Get a second clean plate for the finished grilled items. Be smart, be safe. I use a
plastic coated paper plate to hold my raw seasoned to be grilled foods, then an appealing dinner plate
for service. It’s ok to remove and reserve cooked foods from skewers or cut cooked foods such as flank
or skirt for fajitas, then put back onto that clean dinner plate. The meat was properly cooked.
Just remember raw meats and poultry contain bacteria and you must wash your hands after handling
them, which means don’t touch any handles (refrigerator or grill), door knobs, even tablewares, as they
can be easily become contaminated. Wash your hands.
There is a proper way to wash your hands. First, turn on the water to a warm comfortable degree (mixed
hot and cold is best); Second, add soap to your hands and a little water; Third, vigorously and
aggressively work the moistened soap in and around your hands and fingers, and get down to the wrists
– do this action for 20 seconds (sing “happy birthday” to yourself); Fourth, rinse away the dirty soap and
Fifth, dry your hands with a single use disposable towel (paper towel). A few words on hand soap. Anti-
bacterial soap is not as important as proper handwashing technique, “foaming soaps” are great because
as they work, they capture and lift the dirt and debris away from the skin.
Ok, enough of that.
Towels and cutting boards. Knives and work areas. First rule is keep everything clean and ready for use.
Never attempt to catch a falling knife. Also never allow a knife blade or its handle to hang over the edge
of a surface where it can easily be bumped or fall. Use clean dry cloth towels for touching hot surfaces
such as lids and handles. Always lift a lid with the exposed opening side away from you – this prevents
steam burns, allow the steam to escape. Hold and carry a pan from its opposite corners. This gives you
control of the pan and the hot contents in case you are bumped or have to abruptly stop walking.
This is how to properly fold a towel: Lay it out it length ways in front of you on the countertop, then fold
it in half lengthwise, next start at one end and fold it over itself by a third, then again by the remaining
third. That gives you six dry layers of protection from heat. Once a towel or hot pad gets wet stop using
it, heat easily transfers through wet material and you will be burned quickly – often it’s a steam burn.
The cutting board. Always place a damp cloth towel or a few sheets of wetted paper towel under your
cutting board to keep it securely in place before cutting on the board. Clean and sanitize the board
surface after contact with raw meats, poultry, fish, or seafood. Professional kitchens will often have
several boards ready to be used and sometimes the boards are colored. White for general use or ready
to eat foods (like cutting a sandwich or slicing loaf bread). Blue boards are for fish and seafood, yellow
boards are for poultry, red for meats, brown for slicing and serving cooked roasts, and green for produce
work. You may look for packs of these at the local restaurant supply store. I suggest you investigate such
specialty stores, often they allow sales to the public and are fun to wander through. Just remember how
much space you have in your kitchen, commercial kitchens and bake shops are big and most commercial
items are sized for large production.
Those were some very general but useful habits chefs use every hour in the kitchen. So remember when
in the kitchen you are in control of your food’s safety and your personal safety. No one wants to get sick,
toss out costly foods, be burned, or cut. Work smarter, not harder.
Cook more, live happier.
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