Enter the world of big-batch cooking

Call me quirky, but high up on my wish list is a walk-in refrigerator. My friend Sharon has one, and her life is so much easier because she does.

Leftover turkey? The entire carcass goes directly into the walk-in until she has time to hack it into manageable parts for soup. Gallon crocks of homemade pickles? You guessed it: straight into the walk-in. Giant batches of homemade stock, spaghetti sauce and chili? In they go, oversized pots and all, to cool their heels until she's carved out a convenient moment to redistribute the mixtures into freezer containers.

So during these recent cold spells, I've enjoyed a taste of what Sharon's world of big-batch cooking is like. I started with 2 gallons of spaghetti sauce, timed to finish cooking in the late afternoon when the day's high of 39 degrees began its inevitable plunge, enabling me to leave the pot out overnight in a subfreezing environment.

Next, I loaded up the same big stockpot with whole chickens, along with a generous layering of vegetable trimmings — celery, onions, chunked-up heads of fresh garlic and fresh herbs — and enough water and wine to cover the birds. Another simmer session cooked the chickens and then, instead of fretting over how to shoehorn the poultry and broth into my kitchen refrigerator, I simply placed the birds in smaller, covered pots out of critter reach and left them overnight on the deck to cool safely in the freezing night air.

The next day, it was simply a matter of plucking the juicy and tender meat from the bones and packing it into smaller containers, providing more tasty options in my freezer cache for winter cooking, along with several containers of flavorful chicken broth (after skimming off the fat).

Of course, you don't have to wait until the next cold front. But big-batch cooking shouldn't be attempted unless you're willing to acknowledge the importance of temperature control. It's one of the most critical aspects of food safety when dealing with large pots of blazing-hot food.

Most of us have heard the adage "keep cold foods cold and hot foods hot." That's referring to the food "danger zone" — between 41 and 140 F — where pathogens grow most quickly. So when you remove a big batch of soup or chili or spaghetti sauce from the burner, your most important task is to get the food cooled quickly enough so that it passes through that danger zone in two hours or less.

There are two easy methods for accomplishing this task:

1. Increase the surface area of the food. To do so, transfer the food from the large, deep pot into two wide, shallow roasting pans or cake pans. Then cover each pan with a cloth or foil and, when the contents have cooled off a bit, place them in the refrigerator (or outside in the freezing night air) to cool thoroughly and quickly.

2. Place the large, deep pot in an ice-water bath. To do so, fill a clean sink with ice and a little water to make a slush. Place the pot in the center of the slush, making sure the icy water comes up as high as the contents inside the pot. For even and speedy cooling, stir every few minutes so the cooler, outer edges of the food are incorporated toward the center.

In either case, it's a good idea to insert a thermometer into the food so you can evaluate how quickly the food is cooling down.

Here are a few of the recipes I like to cook in large quantities because they freeze well and taste wonderful.

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, cookbook author and artist. Readers can contact her by e-mail at janrd@proaxis.com or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com.

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