Editor's Note: This article is adapted from my book, The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science. I hope you enjoy it. You can order the book here or on Amazon. Visit my personal website and sign up for the Food Lab newsletter to be the first to hear about my upcoming second book and live events.
Like cell phones and clean underwear, a refrigerator is one of those things that you never really consider the importance of until it stops doing its job (like mine did last week).* Organizing your fridge for maximum efficiency—in terms of food shelf life, food safety, and easy access to the things you reach for most—should be a top priority. It'll make all of your cooking projects go faster and more easily, and having more fun in the kitchen inevitably leads to more cooking. That's a good thing in my book.
* The fridge, not the underwear.
A fridge is basically just a big, cold box with a few shelves in it, right? Well, that's true, but where you store food in the fridge can have quite an impact on its shelf life. Most refrigerators have cold and hot spots, with temperatures that range from 33 to 38°F (0.5 to 3°C) or so. In general, the back of the bottom shelf, where cooler, heavier air falls to, and the back of the top shelf, closest to the fan and condenser, are the coldest spots, while the middle of the door is the warmest. How you organize your food in the fridge should be based on how cold it needs to be kept.
First, some basic tips on getting the most out of your fridge space on a daily basis:
- Get a fridge thermometer. There are a number of things that can cause your fridge to break down or lose power: electrical shorts or surges, clogged ventilation, et cetera. So it's possible that even with your temperature dial adjusted to the correct position, your fridge might be far warmer than it should be. A simple dial thermometer—like this cheap one from Rubbermaid—helps you monitor things to ensure that you're never caught in the dark.
- Transfer food to smaller containers. I keep a stack of pint and quart plastic deli containers (available on Amazon) to store almost all food once it's come out of the original packaging. Air is the enemy of most foods and can increase their rate of spoilage. By transferring them to smaller containers, you not only minimize air contact, but you also help keep your fridge organized and easy to navigate.
- Label everything. As soon as you transfer food into a smaller storage container, label the container, using permanent marker on masking tape, with the date of storage as well as what's inside. As much as I promote good science, there are some things that simply aren't worth experimenting with; creating life inside your refrigerator is one of them.
- Prevent drippage. To avoid messes and dangerous cross-contamination, always store raw meat—no matter how well wrapped—on a plate or tray to catch any drips.
- Keep fish extra cold. It's best to use fresh fish immediately, but if you must store it, wrap it in plastic, and sandwich it between two ice packs on a tray to ensure that it stays at 32°F (0°C) or colder until ready to use. (Don't worry—because of dissolved solids in its cell structure, it won't freeze until well below 32°F.)
Where to Store Food in the Refrigerator
There are three overriding factors to consider when deciding what to store where in the fridge.
- Food safety is of utmost importance. Fridges keep food fresh for longer, but that doesn't mean that harmful bacteria can't multiply to dangerous levels given enough time. To minimize risk, here's a rule of thumb: The more likely it is that a food could make you sick, and the higher the final temperature you intend to cook it to, the lower in the refrigerator it should be stored, both to keep it cooler and to prevent cross-contamination. For instance, don't store raw chicken above leftovers from the night before. Juices from the bird can drip down unnoticed, contaminating your food.
- Temperature varies throughout your refrigerator, with, as mentioned earlier, either the very back of the bottom shelf or the back of the top shelf, near the vent, being the coldest spot, depending on the model. For maximum storage life, your refrigerator should be set to hold a minimum temperature of 34°F (1°C) in these spots. No part of your refrigerator should rise above 39°F (4°C).
- Humidity plays a role in the freshness of vegetables. The crisper drawers in the bottom of your refrigerator are designed to prevent fresh cold air from circulating into them. Vegetables naturally emit a bit of energy as they go about their normal energy cycles, heating up the space in the drawer, thus enabling it to retain more moisture. Moist air can help prevent vegetables from shriveling or drying out. Most crisper drawers have a slider that controls the ventilation so that you can adjust the moisture level inside the drawer. The key is to maximize it, up to just below the point that moisture would start beading up on the vegetables' surfaces.
To give you an idea of good refrigerator storage organization, allow me to take you on a little tour of my fridge. Here's what you'll usually find there:
The Main Compartment
The Top Shelf
- Ready-to-eat prepared foods. Roasted red peppers, jarred tomatoes, a can of white asparagus, sun-dried tomatoes.
- Ready-to-eat condiments that I don't use too often. A variety of Chinese bean and chili pastes, curry paste, a half can of coconut milk, cans or jars of tahini, harissa, tomato paste, chipotles in adobo, olive tapenade, anchovies.
- Pickled products. Dill spears and chips, bread-and-butter pickles, ramps, jalapeños, capers, olives.
- Fridge-friendly fruits, like apples, oranges, berries, melons, and grapes.
The Middle Shelf
- Leftovers in sealed containers. Leftover mac and cheese, a few pieces of roasted chicken, my dog's food, braised asparagus, pizza sauce, salsa.
- Cheese (in its original packaging or wrapped in parchment and stored in a sealed baggie). A half hunk of goat's-milk Gouda, crumbled Cotija, homemade American cheese slices, sharp cheddar, a big hunk of Parmesan, Gorgonzola.
- Eggs in their carton. If it takes you more than a couple of weeks to go through a carton of eggs, store them on the back of this shelf, where it's a little cooler, to maximize shelf life. Otherwise, you can keep them in the door (despite what anyone tells you). They'll keep for at least a few weeks, even in this relatively warm environment.
- Cold cuts and sandwich bread. Martin's potato rolls, Arnold multigrain bread. Sliced sandwich bread will keep fine in the fridge. However, lean breads, like baguettes or Italian-style breads, should be stored at room temperature or in the freezer—the refrigerator will promote staling.
The Bottom Shelf
- Raw meat and poultry, wrapped carefully and on a plate. Ground beef, skirt steak, fresh pork belly, Italian sausage.
- Raw fish, in its wrapper and placed on a tray. I buy my fish the day it's going to be consumed, and you should, too.
- Milk and other dairy products. Heavy cream, sour cream, cottage cheese, cream cheese, homemade crème fraîche, buttermilk.
The Vegetable Crisper
- Vegetables, stored in breathable plastic bags or plastic bags with the tops left slightly open. Broccoli, celery, carrots, cucumbers, scallions, asparagus, radishes, turnips.
- Herbs. Parsley, cilantro, chives, thyme, rosemary, basil (in the summer). I wash and pick my herbs as soon as they get home, then store them rolled up in damp paper towels in plastic zipper-lock bags.
The Fridge Door
The fridge door is the best place to store frequently used items and those that don't require the coldest temperature.
The Top Shelf
- Eggs—if you go through a carton within a few weeks.
- Butter and frequently used cheeses. Cabot 83 unsalted butter, inexpensive Danish blue (love it on toast), Brie and other soft cheeses. Butter stays slightly softer in the fridge door, which makes it easier to spread on toast. If you eat a lot of cheese, you might want to store it here as well, so that it's not quite as cold when you grab it.
The Middle Shelf
- Condiments in their original packaging, or in squeeze bottles if homemade. Ketchup, chili sauce, several types of mustard, homemade mayo, Japanese barbecue sauce.
- Premixed vinaigrettes in squeeze bottles. Simple red wine vinaigrette, soy-balsamic vinaigrette.
The Bottom Shelf
- Drinks. Whole milk, freshly squeezed pineapple juice, pitchers of chilled tap water, the occasional Cheerwine or Mexican Coke. Milk should go on a shelf in the main fridge compartment if you don't use much, but for daily drinkers, the door is a fine place for it, as it is for juices, sodas, et cetera.
Everyone, of course, keeps frozen meats and vegetables in the freezer, but it's also an excellent place to store any heat- or light-sensitive items that might go rancid. In my freezer, aside from meat and veg, you'll find nuts (which can be toasted or crushed straight out of the freezer); cured meats, like salt pork, bacon, and guanciale; dried bay leaves (I buy them in bulk); chicken stock frozen in one-cup portions; bread crumbs; extra butter; yeast; sausage casings; whole-grain flours (they contain fats that can turn rancid at room temp); and fresh pasta, among other things.
Here are some tips for better freezer storage:
- Keep your vents clear. Make sure you don't stack food against the air vents, or you'll strain the freezer, greatly reducing its efficiency and efficacy.
- Transfer meat from its original packaging. To prevent freezer burn as well as to freeze the meat as quickly as possible (the faster it freezes, the less damage it will incur in the process), transfer it to flat, airtight packaging. Best of all is to use a vacuum sealer, like a FoodSaver, which will completely eliminate the possibility of freezer burn. Next best is to wrap the meat tightly in foil, followed by several layers of plastic wrap (plastic wrap on its own will be air-permeable), or to use a freezer bag designed for long-term storage.
- Freeze flat. Wide, flat shapes freeze faster and can be stacked more efficiently than bulky packages. Freeze meats and liquids in a single layer in vacuum-sealed packages or freezer bags. Not only will this help you organize your freezer space, it'll also greatly cut down on defrosting time.
- Label everything! All packages should have the contents and dates written on them. Nobody likes to play the frozen-mystery guessing game.
- Defrost safely. The best way to safely defrost meat is on a plate or a rimmed baking sheet in the refrigerator. Be aware that it'll probably take longer than you think: Allow at least overnight for thin items, like steaks, burgers, chicken breasts, and the like; up to two days for beef and pork roasts or whole chickens; and up to three or even four days for large turkeys. In emergencies, thinner foods can be rapidly defrosted by placing them in a bowl of cold water under a slowly running tap, or, better yet, placed on an aluminum tray or pan, which will very quickly transmit energy from the room to the food. Steaks will defrost about 50% faster on an aluminum tray than on a wooden or plastic cutting board. Turn them over every half hour or so as they thaw. Do not try to defrost large items rapidly—the risk of dangerous bacteria growing on the exterior before the interior defrosts is too great.