Q: My church group and I are making spaghetti sauce for a fundraising dinner, for 200 people, for our local Relay for Life. We are making the sauce in the church kitchen because it gives us an opportunity for fellowship. The recipe instructions say to simmer the sauce for 30 minutes after all the ingredients are incorporated. If we do that, it will be hot and we won't be able to refrigerate it right away. I'm sure after having spent a couple hours, in the evening, at church people will want to get home. I don't want to haul the sauce home in case it might spill. I'm wondering if we can cook the meat and mix it with the rest of the ingredients for the sauce (unheated), without simmering it. We would then freeze the sauce in containers. On the day of the dinner we would simmer the sauce. So I'm wondering if the flavors need to meld prior to freezing or if they can meld after freezing if allowed to simmer.
—Patty Dunn, Colstrip, Mont.
A: Although your question concerns cooking for 200 — not something most of us will ever do — I think there are lessons here we all need to be aware of, especially as we swing into summer's indoor/outdoor mode of entertaining. Honestly, the whole idea of making this sauce in stages as you describe makes me nervous from a food safety perspective.
The bacteria that causes food poisoning flourishes best in what the federal website http://www.foodsafety.gov calls the "Danger Zone," which is between 40 degrees and 140 degrees Fahrenheit — that includes "room temperature." Mixing together cooked and uncooked ingredients in quantities large enough to feed 200 people — 20 pounds of ground beef, 10 pounds of Italian sausage, for starters — in a multi-step process of heating, cooling, freezing, thawing and reheating can be risky, especially if you all are, as I presume, home cooks and not professional chefs or caterers used to cooking "big."
In a follow-up email, you told me of plans to pour the sauce into "empty ice cream buckets" for freezing. I'm not wild about that option either. The foodsafety.gov website, which is maintained by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, recommends using "several clean, shallow containers" so foods chill faster.
"This is a food safety challenge for sure," wrote Debbi Beauvais, a nutrition director for three public schools in Rochester, N.Y., in an email. I had forwarded your question and sauce recipe to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the "world's largest organization of food and nutrition professionals," which includes registered dietitians and nutritionists. Beauvais replied; she is one of the Chicago-based academy's volunteer spokespeople.
Beauvais wrote that you need to cook the meats thoroughly — 160 degrees Fahrenheit — and you need to cool the meat before mixing in the other uncooked ingredients.
"Mixing (the meats) into cold items when (they are) hot and then storing in gallon buckets will surely have the food in the temperature danger zone where it will be at great risk for food borne illness," she wrote.
Beauvais said she thinks you should make the sauce from start to finish on the day of the event. I totally agree. But, if you can't do it, here's her suggested action plan — note she's talking about preparing this sauce over a number of days.
Day 1: Cook the ground beef and the sausage separately. Make sure the cooking temperature reaches 160 degrees. "Place the cooked meat in shallow pans no more than 2-3 inches deep, place in the refrigerator to cool," Beauvais wrote. You can, if you wish, saute and refrigerate the chopped onions the recipe calls for at this time.
Day 2: Portion out into your storage containers the cold meats (and onions, if sauteed) and freeze until needed. "Plan enough time to thaw the meat in the refrigerator before the day of the meal service," she noted.
Day of the meal service: Beauvais wrote: "Combine the cooked meat with the other ingredients in the recipe. Cook the sauce mixture to a temperature of at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit to assure the food safety of the mixed product and then simmer for the desired amount of time until ready to serve. While serving, the food needs to be held at 140 degrees or hotter to assure it remains food safe. Any remaining sauce at the end of the event should be allowed to cool in the refrigerator in the 2-3 inch shallow pans and at the time it is reused heat it again to 165 degrees Fahrenheit."
Key to making this or any recipe? Having an instant-read food thermometer handy and taking the food's temperature as you go, Beauvais wrote.
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