We already discussed how important temperatures are to controlling bacteria growth in food, now let’s go a little further with how to properly store your food. There’s a lot of confusion about what should be stored in the pantry and what goes in the refrigerator so I thought the subject was worth a post.

Let’s start with how to arrange your refrigerator. I’ve seen several diagrams that outline exactly where to store every type of food but I think when you get overly detailed, it’s hard to remember and therefore is useless information so I’ll try to keep it as simple as possible.

In professional kitchens, there is only one acceptable method for storing refrigerated foods and it is decided by the recommended internal temperature of the final product; items that must be cooked to a higher temperature are stored on the lower shelves and vegetables and ready-to-eat foods (foods that require no additional cooking) are stored on the upper shelves. We learned in the last post that poultry requires the highest internal temperature so raw poultry should always be stored on the bottom shelf. Drips happen more than you think they do so imagine you stored some raw chicken on the middle shelf and you had a little drip down onto a salad on the bottom shelf. You’ll cook your chicken to 165º so it’s perfectly safe. However, your salad is already prepared so the chicken bacteria that dripped in will not be cooked out. That could make for a long night of trips to the bathroom. Proper storage can prevent these types of issues.

Ideally, your chicken would go on the bottom shelf, red meats and pork stored above the chicken, and fish above red meats and pork. That’s pretty unrealistic considering how most refrigerators are designed so store your meat products on the bottom shelf on separate pans or plates and you’ll be just fine. A lot of refrigerators these days have a big drawer in the bottom so if you have one, use it for your raw meats (I’d still use a pan or a plate under raw meat to prevent cross-contamination and to make clean-up easier). Since most refrigerators still have vegetable crispers in the bottom and since crispers are ideal for environments for veggies, we’ll have to improvise. Store meats on the bottom shelf, just above the crisper (on plates or pans, of course). Just be sure to remove the pan when you remove the meat; don’t leave it in there permanently because it needs to be washed after every use.

The warmest areas in your refrigerator are in the door and on the top shelf. We’ll reserve those spots for condiments, jarred foods like pickles and jellies, etc. The middle shelf stays cooler than the top shelf so it should be reserved for dairy items like milk and cheeses, eggs, and ready-to-eat foods like leftovers and deli meat. Yes, deli meat is ready-to-eat so don’t store that with your raw meats.

Let’s review: condiments and jarred foods in the door and on the top shelf; dairy, eggs, and ready-to-eat foods on the middle shelf; raw meats on the bottom shelf (on separate plates or pans with a lip); fruits and vegetables in the crisper.

When deciding which fruits and vegetables should be refrigerated, your best bet is to store them the way they’re stored at the grocery store. That means all green veggies go in the refrigerator. Same with mushrooms and carrots and everything else that’s refrigerated at the grocery store. Some fruits are sold at room temperature (including tomatoes) but if you like to eat them cold, you won’t hurt them by refrigerating them. Except bananas, never refrigerate bananas.

Potatoes, onions, and garlic like cool, dry environments but the refrigerator is cold and damp so it’s not ideal. I read some recent studies that said potatoes will brown faster after slicing if they’re stored in the refrigerator. A cellar is optimal but if you don’t have one, store them low in a pantry. I’ve heard that you shouldn’t store onions and potatoes next to each other because they’ll cause each other to spoil quicker but I don’t know if that’s true.

Once you cut into a fresh fruit or vegetable, it should always be refrigerated. Same goes for products labeled “refrigerate after opening”. Not all of them actually require refrigeration (like yellow mustard and ketchup) but if they’re labeled that way, it won’t hurt to refrigerate them.

Butter should be stored in the refrigerator but will last several days at room temperature. Homogenized milk and cream should also be stored in the refrigerator but are usable and perfectly safe at room temperature, just not for extended periods. Think Temperature Danger Zone to be on the safe side.

I’m sure I’m leaving something out so if you have questions about specific products and where they should be stored, ask away! Proper Freezing and Thawing Techniques is next so stay tuned.

Next Post: Food Safety & Sanitation, Part 3: Freezing & Thawing
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