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How to Cook During a Power Outage

This article on cooking during an outage was originally published by Nola.com in the aftermath of Hurricane Isaac but is, of course, applicable during winter or in any “no electricity” scenario. 

Hundreds of thousands in the metro New Orleans area were without power after Hurricane Isaac passed this week. The tricky thing about storm preparedness is the several eventualities.

Here are some coping ideas for those who are hunkering down at home.

First of all, your freezer and refrigerator. An unopened full freezer will keep food safe to eat for about 48 hours without power; a half-full one for 24 hours.

If the contents still have icy crystals inside them, they can be refrozen, although texture may be affected.

Several variables can affect how long food will stay cool or frozen. Chest freezers may keep contents safe longer than upright ones. One big factor is the ambient temperature. The hotter the area where the appliance sits, the sooner the food inside will warm, too.

In an unopened refrigerator, highly perishable food will last four to six hours.

The American Red Cross suggests keeping an instant-read thermometer to check the temperatures of foods. Or test by feeling the package of food. The temperature you want is 40 degrees (refrigerator temperature) or below.

If food is refrigerator-cold or if it has been above that temperature for less than two hours, it probably is safe to use. In general, perishable food held above 40 degrees for more than two hours (at a picnic, on a buffet table or in a refrigerator without power) may be unsafe to eat, because bacteria can multiply rapidly between 40 and 140 degrees.

Ice or dry ice can be put inside a refrigerator or freezer to keep contents cool when the power is off. Thirty pounds of dry ice should keep the temperature inside a full, normal-size freezer below freezing for at least a couple of days, according to the LSU AgCenter’s Food Safety After Power Outage publication, which is available online.

Dry ice should never be touched with bare hands; place it on cardboard or empty shelves in the freezer.

As a storm approaches, turn the temperature gauges on your refrigerator and freezer to maximum to get things as cold as possible, in case the power goes out. (And remember to turn them to normal later when the threat is over.)

Ice can serve as your signal, too. If you leave town, put a bag of ice cubes in the freezer. When you return, look at it. If the cubes are intact, you didn’t lose power, or at least you didn’t lose power long enough for them to thaw.

Another freezer trick: Put all food in the freezer inside garbage or other plastic bags, and then put it back in the freezer. If the power is off several days and you have to throw it all away, you will have much less mess to clean.

If the power is off and food inside the freezer feels cool enough to be “refrigerator temperature,” cook the most perishable food, seafood and ground meats, first, as soon as possible.

In an emergency, you can heat or cook food on: 

  • Grill
  • Camping cookstove
  • Candle- or Sterno-fired fondue pot, chafing dishes, candle warmers
  • Food also could be heated in an indoor fireplace. Be sure to open the flue.
  • Under NO circumstances attempt to grill indoors on a charcoal or gas grill, which will produce potentially lethal carbon monoxide.
  • Boy Scouts make foil packs of food, and you can too. Wrap seasoned slices of raw fruits, veggies or meats in heavy-duty foil, seal and put them on the grill.

You all know the foods list: Peanut butter, black beans and other beans;, canned fish and meat, crackers, etc. But check your pantry for these other items to add interest and a twist to dishes you create.

  • Canned coconut milk, shredded coconut
  • Boboli, pizza sauce in a squeeze bottle, summer sausage, dry salami. Don’t forget the parmesan cheese in the green container.
  • Bulghur wheat (tabouli) does not require cooking. Hydrate, fluff it with a fork, add chopped vegetables and herbs.
  • Low-salt broth
  • Canned, chunk high-quality ham
  • Dijon mustard, Creole mustard
  • Dehydrated mushrooms to add to soups; reconstitute for other dishes
  • Real bacon bits in a jar to flavor bland dishes
  • Instant pudding to prepare with evaporated or powdered milk
  • Unsalted nuts
  • Individual tea bags that don’t require hot water
  • Instant coffee, creamer packets
  • Small condiment packages

I learn something every hurricane season. This year: Parmesan cheese in the green can does not have to be refrigerated! At all!

These are items you may have stored in the refrigerator, but which will keep several days at room temperature.

  • Catsup, mustards
  • Jams and jellies
  • Peanut butter
  • Oils, butter and margarine (yes, the butter will get very soft)
  • Bread
  • Unopened salad dressing or other condiments
  • Hard cheeses (eat the Brie, cottage cheese or cream cheese, if they’re still cold, right away, as they spoil quickly)
  • Barbecue, soy and Worcestershire sauces
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