How to Keep Food Fresh and Safe During a Power Outage

Know what you can keep and what to throw out.

Fridge containing healthy food
Photo: Peter Dazeley/Getty Images

When the power goes out, a rush of panic inevitably sets in for so many reasons. And if you cherish the contents of your fridge and freezer, that dread may quickly spiral into: What about all my food? It's a valid concern. If you want to know how to keep all of your food safe during a power outage—think meat, cheese, condiments, and more—keep reading for a series of expert tips and tricks.

How to Prepare For a Power Outage

If you live in an area where power outages are common, invest in an appliance thermometer that can let you know what the temperature is in your fridge at any time. A working refrigerator should be at 40 degrees or below, as bacteria can grow at any degree above this safe temp, called the "danger zone." Any typically refrigerated food that's been in the danger zone for a few hours risks being contaminated with a foodborne illness.

Since there's a limit on how long your fridge will stay cool once the power goes out, it's also a good idea to keep a supply of non-perishable foods, which don't need to be refrigerated, in your pantry. Staples such as canned goods like beans, soup, and even fish are all good bets, as are items like nut butter and protein bars.

Lastly, if you're anticipating a potential power outage, fill your freezer with large ice bricks, which can be made in takeout containers, gallon bags, or other sealable vessels, which can then be used in a cooler in a power outage. If made from drinking water, they can also be used for hydration in a pinch.

How to Keep Food Safe During a Power Outage

Typically, fresh food is only considered safe in the fridge for about four hours once the power goes out. After that, it's advisable to toss perishables like raw meat, thawing meat, eggs, open sauces, and leafy greens. Other items that have a one-way ticket to the trash include most leftovers, such as pizza, egg or tuna salad, and cooked pasta, rice, and potatoes, as well as milk, opened creamy dressings, and cooked tofu.

You'll want to keep the fridge door closed as much as possible, to trap in the remaining coolness while the electricity isn't working. The good news: Several items are considered safe to keep beyond the four hour rule, so if you live in an area where extended power outages are common, you may want to amend your grocery list.

It Safe to Eat Food After a Power Outage?

A few safe-to-keep foods include hard cheeses, processed cheeses (not shredded), butter, uncut fruits and vegetables, open condiments like peanut butter and jelly (definitely not mayo) and non-creamy sauces like vinaigrettes and soy sauce.

As for your freezer, a full freezer has about 48 hours in the safety cool zone before you have to start tossing. A half-full freezer warms up quicker, so consider insulating it with some refrigerated items (like cut fruits and veggies, shredded cheese, and eggs cracked into a container can work) to spare your grocery bill and food waste, and keep your freezer chilled for two days. Again, you'll want to keep it closed as much as possible. After 48 hours passes, if the food is still cold to the touch, as if refrigerated, it should be fine to refreeze. If the food has defrosted, it's likely best to toss.

Power still out? Consider a few options to keep your food cool and safe. An insulated high-end cooler, like a YETI, can keep food cold for up to five days in a row. Pack it tightly, and add ice, ice packs, or even dry ice if you can secure it (some ice cream parlors and restaurants will vend it), to keep food at a safe temperature.

No big cooler? If your oven is able to run on gas, now's the time to get dehydrating. If conditions are safe, turn your oven to a low temperature, about 200 degrees, and start dehydrating perishables, like leafy greens, to make kale chips, or cutting thin strips of beef or fish to make jerky. It's a slow process, but the lights are out, and you need entertainment.

Consider baking shredded cheese into thin crackers (no refrigeration needed assuming you eat them in a couple of days, which you will) and blend already cut veggies into smoothies, gazpachos, agua frescas or sauces you can enjoy immediately or share with neighbors. Air-dry fresh herbs to use at a later date, or add them to small bottles of high-proof alcohol (like vodka or gin) to infuse with flavor. Nothing like a post-blackout souvenir to remember your time in the dark.

This can also be a time to get into countertop pickling, which leans on natural fermentation to turn harder veggies like cucumbers and beets into pickles. Kimchi, made from cabbage and sometimes radishes, is also made this way. There's perhaps no better time to embrace traditional food preservation techniques than during a power outage. Pickling by candlelight is a classic pastime.

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