Q: Can fresh, store-bought meats (or poultry or fish) be placed directly in the freezer compartment in the store packaging -- that is, in their Styrofoam tray covered with plastic film? Or is it better to unwrap the meats, then rewrap them in freezer paper?
A: Styrofoam is an excellent insulator. It keeps the meat cool while it's en route from store to home, but then insulates the meat in the freezer and it takes longer to freeze.
From a microbiological perspective, leaving the meat in its Styrofoam tray is no worse than refrigerating it until one has the time to rewrap it. But texturally, slowly frozen meat loses much water when thawed and cooked due to an increase in evaporation, spattering and oozing rates. Slow freezing produces ice crystals many times larger than those formed by quick freezing in large blast freezers. The large crystals perforate cell walls and push muscle cells apart. The result? A texture of cooked cotton.
If the packaging of meat is "family size" and you are a family of one or two, separate portions and wrap in freezer wrap or plastic film. Unless one has a bandsaw or plays Rambo with the meat cleaver, one cannot separate frozen meat without thawing it first. And refreezing thawed meat is risky at best.
When buying fresh meat during hot weather, don't plan on keeping it in the refrigerator for more than two days. If you go to the supermarket every 5 to 7 days, freeze all fresh meat not to be consumed within 48 hours. Or plan to use meats that were purchased frozen, cured meats such as smoked sausages or hams. Another alternative is to cook some of the fresh meat one or two days in advance. Stews, braises and saute's can all be prepared in advance and consumed several days later if they have been quickly cooled (in a running, cold water bath) and promptly refrigerated.
Q: Tell us about cold-oven cakes -- that is, cakes that you start in the turned-off oven. Are there special recipes? How do these cakes compare with cakes baked in a preheated 350-degree oven?
A: There really is no such beast as a cold-oven cake recipe. You can start any cake out in a cold oven. It will rise, and it will set. But the cake may be pale on top, dark on the bottom. In addition, these cakes have crumbly, dry textures.
One preheats an oven for two reasons: First, to warm the walls and ceiling so they will radiate heat and produce even browning. And second, to minimize the time the burner stays on while the food is in the oven. Length of burn, called recovery time, is directly proportional to color intensity -- the common symptom being burned bottoms and sides.
Although a gas and an electric oven might have similar recovery times, the electric oven radiates far more heat from below. Hence, if you want to start a cake in a cold electric oven, place the cake pan on a square of aluminum foil, shiny-side-down. This will reflect the radiant energy and allow only conduction to heat the pan. The gas oven, on the other hand, convects heat and distributes it quite evenly throughout as the burner brings the oven's temperature to 350 degrees. For the most even color, bake in shiny aluminum pans.
Dryness and crumbliness of cold-oven cakes is unavoidable. The slower a batter reaches setting temperature, which is between 170 and 185 degrees, the more water its starch granules absorb from the surrounding batter. And the more they absorb, the drier the cake's crumb. This is especially apparent in poundcakes, whose only added water comes from the eggs mixed into their batters. It may not be so noticeable in a cake-mix, which contains far more water.