HOME > Chowhound > General Topics >


Food storage -- Help settle a disagreement!

  • c

My boyfriend and I have an ongoing disagreement about storage of leftovers. I've always been taught that you should let the food cool till it is near or at room temperature before closing the container and setting in the refrigerator. I was told by my mother (who is never wrong :) ) that putting warm food in the refrigerator hastens spoiling.

Whatcha think? We have a supper of the other's choice riding on this.

Blue skies,

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. i don't know if it's scientifically correct or not, but i'm with you. i never put warm food in the fridge as in my mind it warms the air of the fridge up thus causing everything in it to get warmer and therefore spoil sooner.

    1 Reply
    1. re: Rochelle

      I think James Peterson would agree with Rochelle--at least when it comes to refrigerating stocks. In "Essentials of Cooking" he advises that stocks cool at room temp for an hour or two before being refrigerated, for the reason Rochelle cites: the hot stock raises the temp inside the fridge and you risk spoiling other foods in there. If it's really hot in your kitchen, speed up the cooling process by placing the goods in ice water. Ditto freezing. Peterson only addresses stocks but my Mom was always meticulous about not putting warm stuff in the freezer. Even the freshest vegetables from our garden got the full blanching--quick boil, then shocked in ice/ice water until cool. Always made sense to me and when Peterson agreed with Mom, well, there you have it. I'm with you on this one, Catherine.

    2. Remember that we chill down foods to slow bacterial growth (spoilage). Therefore the faster it is chilled, the less spoilage. So the argument that food spoils faster if we refrigerate it when warm or hot is not correct.

      It is true that cooling the food down before putting it in the frig avoids heating up the frig and the foods in it unnecessarily. HOwever, in hot weather, things dont cool down very fast at all. I believe the current advice from the experts is to get the food into the frig as quickly as possible rather than waiting for it to cool down before refrigerating. In practice, I would not put a HOT dish into the refrigerator. It can wait for a while outside until it was merely warm. If I were really concerned, and in hot weather I am concerned as much about keeping my refrigerator cold as anything, I would put the dish in an ice bath or something to bring its temp down.

      Also, if you are freezing something, the quality is usually better if it freezes faster, so getting an item quickly and thoroughly chilled before it goes into the freezer usually produces better results.

      7 Replies
      1. re: jen kalb
        Caitlin McGrath

        Another strategy, if you're putting a pot of something away and not too worried about heating the fridge (or smelling it up), is to put the pot in uncovered, and then cover it when it's cool; thus, it cools faster and you don't have the trapped steam issue.

        1. re: Caitlin McGrath

          Yes definitely cool things uncovered, regardless of if they are in the fridge or on the counter.

          1. re: babette feasts

            Why do you cool things (food or soup) uncovered?

            1. re: scapel

              Heat rises and escapes. Lids prevent that.

              1. re: babette feasts

                Hot air rises and escapes but heat can be given off by radiation (placing container in ice bath or frig). If the container is sealed and air cannot get back in as it cools it develops a vacuum. When canning tomatoes, one puts the tops on when they are hot. When they cool it creates a vacuum and seals the container. When they are opened and used, one always finds a vacuum seal or it is considered not good.

                1. re: scapel

                  I'm pretty sure the OP is not canning her leftovers, but yes heat does dissipate in more than one way. If you want to cool something by radiation through the sides of the container, isn't it correct that if you are going to cover the container, the food should be covered directly (plastic wrap touching) to force the heat out through the sides, rather than with a lid leaving space filled with warm moist air? I imagine a lot of people use plastic containers for leftovers, which insulate better than metal or glass and aren't going to be as good for that type of cooling. So a metal pan with the food covered directly will cool faster than a half-full tupperware with a lid holding in steamy air. It's that insulated steamy plastic container that I think it is important to avoid, that will keep the heat IN in multiple ways.

                  The majority of the time I am using an ice bath it is for a large amount of liquid that needs to be chilled, and stirred occasionally so I would not cover something in an ice bath. If you can have cooling by letting off steam AND radiating through the sides of the container, wouldn't that be the best?

        2. re: jen kalb

          If you put hot leftovers in a container and then put a lid on, the food DOES NOT cool down faster in the refrigerator than it would on the kitchen counter with the lid off. The heat needs to dissapate somewhaere. Through a container with lids significantly impedes that process.

        3. b
          Brandon Nelson

          Greetings Catherine

          There is what is know as a "danger zone" for food storage. Between 40 and 110 degrees (roughly, correct me if I'm wrong) is considerred dangerous. Any food held between these temperature for an excess of 4 hours should be trashed, high risk food (say mayo, anything with raw eggs etc.) are even less tolerant of this temperature range. There is nothing wrong with cooling food quickly. The only problem that is likely to occur is something getting soggy from trappped steam. The ice bath suggestion is a good one. Another suggestion is to divide hot food into smaller portions so they cool faster. Or use both methods to cool food even faster.


          11 Replies
          1. re: Brandon Nelson

            I'm not talking about food left on the counter for several hours, more like the difference between putting it up warm/hot (>120) within an hour of it being cooked. I completely agree with a danger zone, especially for high risk foods, but have seen pasta go bad more quickly when put up warm rather than room temperature (or just above).

            I nearly killed darling boyfriend the other night when he threw away 2 beautiful 14 oz strip steaks after they had sat out for an hour and a half after we finished eating, two hours after they came off the grill.

            I'll definitely try the ice bath suggestion in the future. If he throws away steaks like that again, I may have to take an ice bath myself. :)

            Blue skies,

            1. re: Catherine
              Brandon Nelson

              He what?

              Go ahead, kill him. We didn't see or hear a thing:)

              1. re: Brandon Nelson

                Holy Moley, just realised that this is an OLD thread.

                Anyway, What you said Brandon Nelson (If you are still alive).

                1. re: Naguere

                  *if you are still alive* LOLOLOL Can't Stop Laughing! :)

              2. re: Catherine

                Part of the answer to your question about food storage safety depends on whether or not you will be re-heating the food after it is stored. While bacteria will grow while the food is in the temperature danger zone, most of that bacteria will be killed when the food is reheated above 140 degrees for several minutes.

                Sauces and soups that will be reheated sufficiently need not be refrigerated immediately. But I suspect those strip steaks would not be re-cooked and should have been refrigerated faster than two hours off the grill.

                1. re: Deven Black

                  If you are talking about rare steak, fresh mayo or sushi, extreme caution is warranted. If you're talking about thoroughly cooked food, what introduces bacteria to the sterilized product to begin with? If we're talking about a stock that's boiled and reduced for hours, it's sterile. If we're talking about something like scalloped potatoes, they're sterile. Anything that's been cooked "through" should be sterile as it exits the oven. Use clean serving utensils and it should remain fairly free from bacteria as it cools. Much safer to let it cool than to heat up the entire fridge. As for the rare steak, mayo and sushi, they're already cool, so toss 'em on in the fridge.

                  1. re: Greg Spence

                    "Anything that's been cooked "through" should be sterile as it exits the oven."

                    Yes, but it resumes accumulating bacteria the second it hits the air.

                    1. re: C. Fox

                      I never said it would remain sterile. What I said was that it would remain fairly free of bacteria if it were exposed only to clean utensils. I would continue to contend that there's no harm in letting a stock cool or a dish that's been above boiling, simmering away in an oven, stay out until it's reasonably cool. Unless your home is absurdly filthy.

                      1. re: C. Fox

                        As long as the air just above the food is hotter than the air in the room, then with the principle of hot air rises, nothing is going down into the food. When the air temperature equalizes then you have the house air mixing in the food.

                    2. re: Deven Black

                      Leftovers should be reheated to 180F, at least according to local public health. 140 for long enough MAY do the trick, but go hotter to make sure.

                  2. re: Brandon Nelson
                    Peter B. Wolf

                    The "Danger Zone" is 40F to 140F.
                    Putting hot food in the fridge does not spoil it. But the temperature of it might raise the current temp of the fridge and thereby other foods allready in it, which then might spoil. Best bet is to really cool down your leftovers as cold as possible by ANY method. If your freezer is empty use it for that, place food in it, stirring the contents in the container often, then place in fridge.
                    About spoilage of dishes with mayo is myth!!. It only applies to homemade mayo with unpasturized eggs, as it was made by mother and Grandma. PH factor (acidity) in mayo actually retards spoilage.

                  3. e

                    Dear Catherine,
                    When I grew up - the usual procedure was as your mother did. However, the procedure for taking care of leftovers (prepared food) is too refrigerate IMMEDIATELY!! Letting the food cool makes a marvelous petri dish for ptomaine (as in poisoning)lk.

                    For further reference - go to The Splendid Table website at Minnesota Public Radio.

                    Lynne Rosetto Kasper is quite strict on this sort of thing and will explain the science for you.

                    Link: http://www.mpr.org

                    3 Replies
                    1. re: exileonmainstreet

                      Exile, couldn't find the specific point on the link but that's my problem because I'm notoriously impatient with searching web sites. But reading your post, I'm wondering if maybe the word "cool" is where the confusion lies. Because you're right...some foods, left to "cool" can turn bad quickly. Perhaps the real point is not to put "hot" food or "very warm" food in the fridge. Not that it has to be "cool" to the touch. With leftovers, they have probably already cooled -- or, more accurate, "de-hotted"--before you realize they're leftovers so you get them in the fridge before they go into petri dish mode, but without being so hot as to compromise other stuff already in there. I also think that you have to use basic common sense. For instance, in last week's heatwave, NOTHING stayed out of the fridge for than a minute or two in my un-AC'ed kitchen. (Nothing got cooked either!)

                      This is an interesting topic that I, for one, would like to learn more about. (Although I've yet to poison myself or guests...the only time that's happened was when the pros at restaurants were in charge. Knock on wood, Dee, or you'll be posting otherwise next week!) Thanks for the post, Catherine.

                      1. re: Dee Gustay

                        There's wisdom in what you've said. Putting hot food in the 'fridge can cause it to sour. We had that experience when my mother in law made a batch of chicken soup ahead of time for a family dinner, and put it directly into the refrigerator for the next night. When she reheated it to serve it the next night, it was soured and completely inedible.

                        1. re: LBQT

                          I find that hard to believe. I think there must have been another explanation for the sour soup.

                          Also, unless you are putting an enormous hot turkey or something similar into the refrigerator, the average temperature will not rise for long unless your refrigerator is broken. It is designed to maintain a certain temperature and a normal dish will not cause the temperature to rise for long enough to cause other food to spoil unless you have your settings too warm. A refrigerator should be set so it is just above freezing range.

                    2. One other thing to remember -- you don't want to put hot items directly on those glass refrigerator shelves; they can break. I've done it. When I bought a new refrigerator I tried to find one with wire shelves but they're all glass these days. If I'm putting something that is still hot at the bottom of the container into the refrigerator, I put it on a potholder or trivet on the refrigerator shelf until it cools down.

                      1. All of the "official" info I've ever seen on best food refrigeration practices (as opposed to anecdotal "my grandma said . . " sources) say that food should be refrigerated promptly. (Check the website below as a reference. I linked to it fron the U.S. Dept of Health and Human Services official website.)

                        Outside of putting a large kettle of soup direct from the stove into the fridge I think the argument about "heating the fridge up" really doesn't apply. If it does, it may be time for a new fridge.

                        Link: http://www.fightbac.org/chill_facts.cfm

                        1. If I have hot Gumbo or Soup I like to cover it and cool it down in ice bath and put in refrigerator.
                          Once it is covered air tight, the as it cools down the air condenses causing a sort of vacuum and I end up with vacuum sealed gumbo or soup. Why leave it uncovered to allow air spores and bacteria to enter the food. It may cool fast but If I cool it fast with ice bath I think the food is better protected from bacterial proliferation and air spores have not been allowed to enter. While cooking hot air rising allows things to come out and not drop into the fooe mixture, but once the hot air starts cooling then air particles will start to fall in the food along with spores and bacteria.

                          1. The Official USA govt site says this:
                            Hot food can be put directly in the fridge OR it can be rapidly cooled by putting in an icebath then refrigerating.
                            This to me means don't cool on the stove to room temperature.
                            HOWEVER putting hot food like a big pot of hot stew in the fridge directly WILL reduce the temperature of the fridge....
                            And Gordon Ramsay goes NUTS when people wrap up hot chicken breasts in plastic wrap and puts it directly in the fridge...

                            11 Replies
                            1. re: freia

                              Oh and I personally think that we in North America are a tad bit obsessive compulsive about germs. I've been to many countries where eggs stay on the counter for a good week, where refrigeration techniques are less than stellar, and everyone generally seems to be fine. Except for us North Americans whose stomachs can't tolerate anything because we have sterilized the crap out of everything, thus weakening our bodies' defense systems. I cool things on the stove, then put them in the fridge. I've been known to "discover" pizza in the oven overnight, and had it for breakfast. Sometimes --- gasp -- I'll forget to put my lunchbag in the fridge at work and will eat yogort thats been out of the fridge a good 6 hours. Honestly, the obsession with germs, and microbes and sterility in our culture does more harm than good. If you follow some basic common sense rules, like don't cut chicken on the same cutting board with veggies immediately after, get stuff in the fridge in a reasonable amount of time, make sure hamburger and poultry is cooked all the way through, and don't sweat the small stuff, you'll be much happier in the kitchen.

                              1. re: freia

                                +1. Agree with everything you just said.

                                1. re: freia

                                  If food was covered overnight like Pizza in the oven it could be ok, because it was not exposed to open air. Notice in restaurants how pie is displayed in a closed container to prevent bacteria and spores from getting to it. Carbohydrates are particularly sensitive to bacteria contamination since the bacteria thrive on it.
                                  If pizza or fried food is left out overnight to open air do not eat it. You might get away with sometimes, but staph food poisoning will get you eventually, particularly with fried fish.
                                  It must be covered.

                                  1. re: scapel

                                    Meh, even if uncovered and on the counter, I'd still eat it (if the cats haven't got to it first LOL). Pie might be in a closed container, but thats not to prevent spores. Jiminy crickets, spores and bacteria are SMALL, and a simple cover doesn't do the trick. They cover them to prevent hair and air particulates, dust, dander from getting on the food. Besides, the clear covers look retro and kind of cool, too. Think about any bakery you've been too -- the baked goods are in a case that is not air tight, and not refrigerated for the most part. Half the time there are flies in the cases too if you look hard enough. Covering a pie won't protect it from 'contamination' .
                                    Staph infections transfer to food by someone with a staph infection who touches the food or sneezes on it. So the best way to avoid a staph infection is to avoid places that require alot of food handling by people whose standards you don't know. And even then...how many mass cases of staph infections have occurred at all-you-can-eat buffet lines? Or at wedding receptions? Bar mitzvahs? ALL those catering jobs that involve serving food on a buffet line where the bulk of it is warm but uncovered or ones that feature dessert tables? Have you been to your local donut shop lately? Unrefrigerated baked goods often displayed without any protection for hours and hours. MILLIONS eat there daily, and I have yet to hear of a widespread problem at, say, Dunkin Donuts. There are occasional cases but those are the rare exception, not the norm. Seriously. I don't worry about getting a staph infection or any other kind of food poisoning from pizza that I have made myself and that has sat out overnight. The ONLY items I would worry about involve the toppings used (regardless of how long they have sat out in open air), such as processed meats and even then, I don't worry too much. The things I do worry about is undercooked hamburger and chicken at fast food joints, and the salads (don't know the food handling standards there) and even then, cases are a rarity not the norm.
                                    I think the biggest way to avoid risk is to make the food yourself, know where your products come from, be aware of recalls/issues such as E Coli on spinach etc, cook your chicken and burgers through or better yet grind your own burger (I do), don't eat out at dodgy places, put stuff away in a timely fashion, and when in doubt throw it out. And get used to the fact that EVERYTHING we touch has bit of contamination -- from doorknobs, shopping carts, your steering wheel, the seats at the movie theater, the books at the bookstore or library, your cell phone, exterior packages at the grocery store, your pet, your personal bedding, the spice jars in your cupboard that you used while cooking dinner last night, the couch you sit on to watch the game using your contaminated remote controls then diving fist first into a bowl of M and Ms or popcorn (did I mention you were sharing the bowl with 3 other people, too?), gym equipment, everything. EVERYTHING has "germs". Everything can be a source of illness. Pizza or soup left out overnight is the LEAST of your worries.

                                    1. re: freia

                                      Pastry and other dry baked goods are not considered potentially hazardous. Something like a cream cheese danish may be because of the moisture content, otherwise between the high sugar and low moisture, pastry is not hospitable to harmful bacteria the way something like potato salad is, or other moist, low-acid foods like refried beans or mashed potatoes. Pies tend to have both high sugar and high acid and will be OK at room temp for a couple of days. Don't worry about the donuts!

                                      1. re: babette feasts

                                        One of the popular items for sale in many antique malls is the pie safe, simply a cupboard with wire mesh windows in the sides and door, and mesh shelves. As the name implies, it was used to store pies after they were baked, and protect them from bugs and mice. This would have been kept in a relatively cool spot, but certainly not under refrigeration. There's a much more elaborate version of this adjoining the kitchen of the 1908 Gamble House, here in Pasadena: a whole section of the pantry with wire mesh shelves and a large opening to the cellar underneath, so that cool air would circulate upwards by convection, but it is carefully closed off to keep flies and dust away.

                                        1. re: Will Owen

                                          called a cooler, very common in california coastal homes in the early years of the last century. my grandmother's two bedroom bungalow had a cooler, but in her case there were two screened vents in the wall to let the cool fresh air in. doesn't quite meet current energy standards, but then there was originally just a wood burner on the stove for heat.

                                  2. re: freia

                                    This old thread predates Sam's, but, nevertheless, it makes me want to simply pine for a simple key that would automatically be triggered. It would just pop up, flashing boldly - "Magic House, Magic House."

                                    1. re: freia

                                      totally with you freia, butter stays on the counter top in a covered butter dish for a week or 2, I don't obsess over use by dates,I put hot stuff in the fridge to cool off, have left soups on the countertop overnight in the pot, don't refridgerate my sandwiches at work, reheat coffee with milk in the microwave at least 3 times cos I forget to drink it and am still here with zero stomach issues.

                                      1. re: smartie

                                        smartie, here's a story for you...I make potato salad in the summer like maybe twice a year. I made it this year for Canada Day. After we made it, and enjoyed it, and ate all of it, my husband decides to clean out the fridge. We check the big jar of mayo that I used for the potato salad. It was out of date by 8 months. it was the same jar I'd used the year before to make potato salad. Seriously. I had no idea -- I don't use mayo regularly but didn't think to check the expiry date! And guess what, we were fine! LOLLOLLOL! No issues, no stomach problems, but we did throw it out. LOL!

                                        1. re: freia

                                          Don't worry about that expired Mayo. Growing up, we kept the Mayo in the cupboard. We never got sick from it.

                                  3. Once upon a time, back when today's grandmother's were listening to their grandmothers, there was some sense to the advice. My grandmother grew up never putting warm food in the icebox as she always called it. But she called it that because until she was in her 30's that's what it was. An Icebox. It sat on the back porch, not inside the heated house, and it had a big compartment on top where the ice went. And that kept the food cold as it slowly melted. You wouldn't want to accelerate the melting because the ice couldn't keep up, and the ice man wouldn't be back till tuesday (or whenever.) With modern refrigeration there is no reason not to put warm items in the "icebox."

                                    1. Cooling over ice and small containers to speed cooling for sure. Also, I'm careful to put food that's still slightly warm in an area of my fridge that doesn't have sensitive foods like eggs and milk. Leftovers spend some time with the less temperature sensitive olives, pickles and mustard until they're nice and cold then they get moved to the best spot for whatever they are.

                                      1. Here are the recommendations from the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Servise:


                                        Discard any food left out at room temperature for more than 2 hours (1 hour if the temperature was above 90 °F).

                                        Place food into shallow containers and immediately put in the refrigerator or freezer for rapid cooling.

                                        Use cooked leftovers within 4 days.

                                        Reheat leftovers to 165 °F."


                                        2 Replies
                                        1. re: GH1618

                                          Those are the same guys who tell us to cook everything to cardboard. Reheat LEFTOVERS to 165º? When I cooked it to only 140º the first time? Bleagh!

                                          I'm no kind of anti-nanny-state ranter, but this kind of better-safe-than-tasty crap makes me crazy.

                                          1. re: Will Owen

                                            In effect, it would seem that as the food supply has been allowed to become increasingly tainted, there has been a concerted effort to shift the burden of food safety onto the consumer. It's easier and cheaper to post warnings and guidelines than it is to regulate industry. Besides, this way people who get sick have no one to blame but themselves.

                                        2. Today's fridges/freezers are not going to allow the interior temp to warm them up to the point were the other cold/frozen food/s will be affected. But a bowl of hot water in your freezer and in a minute it will be cranking out cold air to compensate. That's what they are designed to do.

                                          1. I called a restaurant one time to ask this exact question. I think the rule of thumb from what I remember is from start to finish a dish should not be left out more than three hours. This includes, prep, cooking and cooling time.

                                            Now we all know that in many cases this can be extended although this is a safe rule of thumb to go by if you want to use health department safety standards.

                                            1. I think it depends. But be sure to get back to us on who got to pick the supper and (of course) what it consisted of. I think putting warm leftover fried chicken in the fridge makes the skin all spongy. If you let the chicken cool the skin will stay a little crispy in my experience. I tend to let things cool but this is after my kitty went to feline heaven. When she was around she considered stuff left out as her own personal kitty buffet.

                                              1. I cool my food on a cooling rack before putting in the fridge for two reasons:

                                                1- Putting a hot pot in the fridge will add heat to your fridge and condensation which causes overall food spoilage.

                                                2- A hot food which is covered before cool could sour.

                                                In my domestic goddess opinion, your boyfriend owes you a meal.
                                                Also putting a hot food on a cooling rack allows the air to circulate around it.