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Aug 13, 2001 01:42 PM

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,

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  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.


                    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.