How long do you wait before putting hot prepared food in the fridge? If you’re like many people, you wait until the food has sufficiently cooled, cover it, then set it in the fridge to cool down. This habit might be due to an old food myth: putting hot food in the refrigerator will cause it to spoil.
The Alaska Food Safety and Sanitation Program says that this myth isn’t just wrong, it is straight up contradictory. It is perfectly safe to put hot food into the refrigerator; it is keeping it out at room temperature that is unsafe.
Food Spoilage Danger Zone
The USDA says that the food “Danger Zone” is between 40 degrees and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. While in this zone, the bacteria in food grows at a rapid pace, sometimes doubling in just 20 minutes. This means that when a hot meal is allowed to cool down before being refrigerated, it spends much more time in the Danger Zone and is therefore much more susceptible to food spoilage by bacteria. Food should never be allowed to remain unrefrigerated for more than two hours, and if temperatures exceed 90 degrees Fahrenheit, that time limit drops to one hour.
Minimize Food Spoilage Risk
The real drawback to immediately refrigerating hot food is that it puts strain on your refrigerator. A hot meal inside the fridge means the icebox must work harder to keep the temperature down. One way to reduce strain on your appliance while avoiding the Danger Zone is to use an ice bath. Place your food container in a larger container filled with ice and stir. This method will also quickly cool down food, which will minimize spoilage bacteria. Shallow containers are also recommended. You can also try dividing large items into smaller portions to speed up cooling time, or even freeze your leftovers.
All food naturally has bacteria, and that is okay. Some foods are even rich in good bacteria, like those found in probiotics like yogurt or kefir. But many food borne bacteria like salmonella and E. coli can be very dangerous. Minimize your risk by avoiding the food Danger Zone, and keep your family healthy!
- “How Temperature Affects Food”, USDA
- “Food Myths”, Alaska Food Safety and Sanitation Program
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