I was was helping with the after dinner cleanup at my cousin’s home last Christmas and as we were putting leftovers away, she asked me to check to make sure all leftovers were completely cool before putting them in the fridge. She said you should never place foods in the refrigerator until the food is completely cool or it will surely spoil.
Much of our everyday food storage is either in the fridge or freezer and we’d all like to avoid wasting food as much as possible. This conversation prompted me to start investigating the truth about ideas we’ve grown up with regarding storing food in the refrigerator and freezer.
1. “Placing warm foods in the fridge will cause spoilage.”
False, but there is a caveat. I found out that food should be refrigerated within two hours of cooking it, so it does not spoil. It is safe to place the food in the refrigerator when slightly warm, because the refrigerator thermostat will keep the inside of the fridge at a constant 40 degrees. However, you should not store a huge deep pot of hot food, since it will not cool evenly – you need to separate portions in smaller shallow containers to ensure that the food does cool properly.
2. “To keep bread fresher longer, keep it in the fridge and not the counter.”
False. I have actually tested this one. Bread gets moldy quickly here in Texas in the summer months, so I was looking for a way to make it last longer.
If you leave it in the counter, sliced bread (with preservatives) will last about a week, but fresh hard crusted bread either from the bakery or home made will only last for two days on the counter.
If you store bread in the fridge, it will dry out quickly and become hard. The best thing to do is store the bread in the freezer and thaw out the portion you will be using. Bread will keep well in the freezer for about three months. We’ve all heard this:
3. “If meats such as ground beef, chicken or beef have thawed out, you must use it right away and not refreeze it.”
The answer is not so clear-cut: it depends on how you thawed out the meat in the first place. If you thawed it out slowly: overnight in the refrigerator, or by soaking in cold (never hot) water, then you can safely refreeze the meat.
A couple of other ways to tell: If the food had been kept at a temperature of 40 degrees or lower, it is ok to refreeze. Also, if the food still has ice crystals, it is fine to refreeze.
Keep in mind that re-freezing lessens the quality or texture of the meat, so it is not a good idea to do this habitually.
However if you thawed the food out quickly in the microwave, it should be cooked as soon as possible.
If you have a power outage, and you are wondering whether it is safe to refreeze the meats that were in the freezer, the same rules apply: if the meat still has ice crystals, and the fridge temperature stayed at around 40 degrees, then it is safe to refreeze.
Another rule of thumb is, if the power was out less than four hours, and the fridge or freezer door was kept closed, then the food would still be safe.
4. “Never leave meat out in the counter to thaw.”
True. You must never leave meat to thaw on the counter, as it will thaw out unevenly: what happens is, the outer layer of the meat will warm up faster than the core. The warmed outer layer may breed harmful bacteria while sitting on the counter.
5. “Meat left in the freezer more than a year is unsafe to eat.”
False, but there is a reason why you should eat it within a year. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as long as meat is kept at 0 degrees, it will keep indefinitely. Therefore, as far as safety, it is okay to eat meat that’s been in a freezer a year or two. However, keeping meat in the freezer longer than a year will degrade the quality of meat. The meat may get freezer burned and may not be as tasty, the more time it is frozen. In an emergency, you may eat it anyway, but at least you know it is still safe to eat.
6. “If your power goes out in a snowstorm, take the food outside and place in the snow.”
False. Placing perishable food out in the snow does not guarantee they will be safe to eat. Temperatures outside rarely remain constant: food can thaw outside, and the sun may warm up parts of the food causing bacteria to grow. The food can also come in contact with animals or insects. A better solution is to place the food in a cooler and pack it with snow. Or make your own ice by leaving water bottles outside to freeze and using those to keep your food cold.
7. “A full freezer or refrigerator is more energy efficient.”
True. An empty refrigerator or freezer uses more energy than one that is occupied. When a fridge or freezer is full, there is less room for warm air to flow in and the cool items inside keeps cool down any air that does come in. Keep them full, but not overly crowded with items that air cannot circulate around. If your fridge or freezer is empty, store bottled water in the fridge and partially fill 2-litter soda bottles and allow to freeze, while allowing some spaces in between. This gives you extra water for an emergency, as well as ice to keep your freezer cold longer in a power outage. You will never has to buy ice for picnic coolers either.
8. Wash fruits and vegetables before storing them.
False. Avoid washing fruit and vegetables until you are ready to eat them. The moisture will speed up the spoiling process. The best method I found to ward off decay is to wrap vegetables in paper towels then bag in plastic. The paper towels absorb moisture, allowing the fruits and vegetables to last longer.
9. Use all dairy by the “sell by” date or they are no longer good.
False. If stored in the refrigerator at a constant 40 degrees most dairy products stay fresh past the sell by date. Milk can stay fresh 3-4 days past expiration, and I have seen yogurt stay fresh a week or two past expiration. Milk can be frozen to make it last even longer: empty out a small amount before you freeze to allow for expansion. (Note: I am not an expert on dairy foods so your results may vary. Just sharing what I’ve observed.)
To test for freshness, drop the egg gently in a cup of water-if it sinks, it is still fresh, if it floats then it is bad. We’ve tested coating eggs in mineral oil to keep them fresh for months. If you coat them in oil AND refrigerate them, they will last even longer.
10. “If your power goes out, you can check if food has gone bad by the taste or smell.”
False. You cannot always tell by taste and smell – bacteria may have grown on the food that cannot be detected by taste or smell. Besides if you taste the food that has already spoiled you may get sick just from tasting it. Throw out any perishable foods that have been above 40 °F for 2 hours.
Researching this article taught me a lot about food safety. As much as I hate wasting food, sometimes events such as an extended power outage will happen and food goes bad even with the best of intentions. Your health is not worth risk of eating unsafe food. “If in doubt, throw it out!” is also good rule to remember.
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For beginning preppers
Good ideas for building a food storage plan can be found here: