Cold Comfort


Cold Comfort

Desirable refrigerator and freezer temperatures; relative humidity … What foods should be stored in the refrigerator … Guidelines for refrigerator storage: how to store butter, coffee, spices, oils … Should you leave supermarket wrappings on? … Avoiding refrigerator odors; which foods cause and take odors … How to refrigerate produce; which fruits and vegetables should be placed in bags … When a cool storeroom would be better than a refrigerator … Refrigerating eggs, leftovers, fresh herbs, ROP or MAP foods … How long leftovers will keep … Freezer storage; which foods should not be frozen … Power outages

The refrigerator—the reason we get to eat fresh foods all year long—has taken the place of the hearth as a symbol of the comfort of food. The image of a woman’s face lit by the fire as she stirs a cheerfully bubbling pot has been replaced by the image of someone’s face lit by the refrigerator light as he or she peers in, looking for something to munch on. Fires and hearths were beautiful and inspired hundreds of poetic images, but few poets have composed verses about refrigerators, which are ungainly and ungraceful. In fact, to compare someone or something to the homely refrigerator is a common form of humorous derogation. The associative power of food, however, is such that, despite the refrigerator’s aesthetic deficiencies, we are comforted by its hum much as people were once comforted by the crackling of the fire, and when we open a malfunctioning refrigerator to find darkness and warmth we feel an emptiness that is something like what people used to feel when the fire was dead and cold.

Despite how important our refrigerators are to us, practically and emotionally, most people probably underuse or misuse these splendid machines. Experts on home food storage would like us to rely on them even more than we have been accustomed to, and to be a bit more careful in doing so.

Refrigerator and Freezer Temperatures

Generally Speaking. To keep your food safe and ensure its long life, you must keep your refrigerator cold. The USDA says to keep your refrigerator at 40° and your freezer at 0°F. Other food-storage experts say that your refrigerator compartment is best maintained at temperatures above 32° and below 40°F, say 34-38°F. The ideal storage temperature for many refrigerated foods, in fact, is as close as you can get to 32°F without freezing. But according to the 1999 Food Code (a U.S. Public Health Service set of model regulations for food services without the force of law), studies show that home refrigerators are far too warm, with typical homes showing refrigerator temperatures between 41° and 50°F, one in four with temperatures over 45°F, and one in ten showing temperatures of 50°F or higher!1

Because it is so important, and so difficult, to gauge whether your refrigerator is actually in the safe temperature range, get a thermometer for your refrigerator and another one for the freezer compartment. “Refrigerator-freezer thermometers,” which register temperatures from 70°F down to −30°F, can be bought at a hardware store or home center. The thermometers will tell you quickly when something is going wrong and will help you select the desirable control setting. If you do not have a thermometer, you can tell that your refrigerator is too cold if milk or leftovers get ice in them. It is too warm if you notice that milk turns sour too quickly or that things do not feel quite cold to the touch.

Frequently opening the refrigerator raises its temperature, so you should avoid doing so unnecessarily. The refrigerator may also tend to warm up in hot, humid weather. The more foods you crowd into your refrigerator, too, the warmer the foods may be; crowding interferes with the free circulation of air. Aside from these factors, your refrigerator may also have warmer and colder regions inside, depending on its type and design.

Frostless and self-defrosting refrigerators tend to have uniform temperatures throughout. But the coldest place in many refrigerators is likely to be the bottom, because heat rises. The meat drawer is often thought of as the coldest spot, but it may or may not be so. In manually defrosted refrigerators, in which the meat tray is right under the freezer, this may be the case. (If you are in doubt, use your thermometer to find out.) The bottom of your refrigerator, too, may not be much colder than the top nowadays because fans in many refrigerators circulate the air and keep the temperature much more uniform. The difference between the bottom and the top of my own refrigerator is only one degree. Wherever your refrigerator is coolest, and at the back of the shelf, is where you should keep fish, fresh meats, poultry, and milk and other fresh dairy products, as well as any other foods that need cold temperatures. (Remember that fish spoils even more readily than meat; it should always be kept very cool.) Ideally, all these would be stored just above freezing, at 33° or 34°F. (Don’t let them freeze.) But if your refrigerator will not keep things this cold, do not worry; they keep well as long as temperatures are at 40°F or below. Most leftovers should also be kept at 40°F or below.

The refrigerator’s door shelves are likely to have a more variable temperature because the door gets the most exposure to the room air and its shelves are shallow; the butter compartment, which is in the door, is likely to be the warmest place on the door. Even if the door gets as cool as the rest of the refrigerator overnight, when no one is opening it, it will probably have a more widely fluctuating temperature during the course of the day as people open it. The fronts of all the shelves, like the door shelves, are likely to be warmer and have a more widely fluctuating temperature during periods of high use than the backs of the shelves. For this reason, do not store eggs, refrigerated biscuits, rolls, pastries, or cookie dough in the refrigerator door; place them at the back of the shelf. Butter, too, should be placed neither on the refrigerator door nor in the butter compartment, as it should have chillier storage. (See pages 146 and 153, below.) You may safely keep on the refrigerator door (within proper storage time limits, as shown in the Food Keeper, pages 131-41) opened bottles of pickles and vinegary relishes, maple syrup, jams, preserves, ketchup, mustard, and horseradish; ground coffee in an airtight glass container (but see page 74); soft drinks; beer; wine; and oils.

Keep your freezer at 0°F or even a bit colder, but remember that this will make for slower thawing. If your freezer does not reach this temperature, you cannot rely on your frozen foods to stay fresh and safe for the periods ordinarily recommended for frozen foods (see the suggested storage periods in the Food Keeper, pages 135-41); store foods in such a freezer for only a few days. If your freezer holds steady at 0°F or colder, you can assume your food will be safe for the recommended periods. Be sure to date foods when you freeze them so that you know how long they have been stored.

Use a thermometer to test the temperature in various parts of your freezer. If you find that some areas are colder, place new additions to the freezer in those areas so that they freeze as quickly as possible. Move them later, after they are frozen.

Humidity in the Refrigerator. The most humid places in your refrigerator are likely to be the fruit and vegetable drawers; being closed, they retain moisture that evaporates from the produce they contain. If your model has a lever for controlling the humidity, it probably works by closing or opening air holes. The highest humidity is produced by closing them altogether. The bad news, however, is that these drawers often do not really make much of a difference. Using a “hygrometer” (see chapter 29, “The Air in Your Castle,” page 401), I found throughout my refrigerator a relative humidity considerably lower than ideal. Depending upon the day and what was stored, the relative humidity of my refrigerator shelves ranged from about 55 percent to 40 percent, and in the produce drawers from 85 percent to 40 percent. When I called the manufacturer to inquire about this, I was told that low refrigerator humidity, even in produce drawers, is typical. And many refrigerators provide even less humidity than mine because they recirculate air from the freezer into the refrigeration compartment, and the frigid freezer air is exceedingly dry.

Thus your refrigerator air is likely to be quite dry, unless you accidentally (and temporarily) steam it up by putting in, say, a bowl of hot soup without a tight cover. Cover hot or warm liquids; you don’t want odors or steam condensing in your refrigerator. Circulating dry refrigerator air helps discourage mold, but it can also dry and shrivel, harden, or impart odors to foods and fresh produce that are left uncovered.

Which Foods Should Be Stored in the Refrigerator?

In some instances the choice of refrigeration storage is simply a matter of how long the food will look or taste best. In others, it is a matter of life and death. Read labels! If a product label says to refrigerate, refrigerate! If it says to refrigerate after opening, it is extremely important that you do so. As the lists below show, nowadays it is considered best to refrigerate many items—such as whole-grain flours, sauces and condiments, maple syrup, some spices, and certain oils—that most people used to keep on a pantry shelf. Read through the lists and make a mental comparison with your own practices to see if you wish to make any changes in your habits. Some of the foods listed below are discussed at greater length in the paragraphs following the lists.

The following foods must be stored in the refrigerator:

Fresh milk and cream of all types; whipped cream, sour cream, and whipped and sour cream substitutes


All cheeses: cottage cheese, farmer’s cheese, ricotta cheese, grated cheese, cream cheese, processed cheese, soft and hard cheeses. (Exception: processed cheese in aerosol cans should be stored at room temperature or the spray will not work.)

Eggs and any food containing eggs (even one yolk or white) such as custard, pudding, and egg-containing or chiffon pie fillings or toppings, including pumpkin pie and pecan pie

Fresh meats, poultry, and fish, processed and cured hams, sausages, luncheon meats, and frankfurters. (Exception: canned hams or meats with labels specifying refrigeration only after opening.) Note that some canned hams must be refrigerated even before opening; check labels.

Leftovers of all sorts: meats, fish, poultry, casseroles, vegetables, fruit salads, pasta, rice

Tofu (and change the water daily after you have opened a sealed package)

Most fresh produce (exceptions are listed on pages 149-50)

Whole-grain flours and meals, wheat germ—store in airtight, moisture-tight containers. (Whole-grain products contain oils that will turn rancid quickly unless refrigerated. In very hot weather, refrigerate all flours.)

Bacon bits and similar products of textured protein

Dry yeast

The following foods must be refrigerated after opening:

UHT milk

Canned milk

Baby food and formula

Canned food of all sorts (remove from can for refrigerator storage; place contents in glass or plastic container with tightly fitting lid or plastic wrap)

Maple syrup, genuine (but you probably need not refrigerate molasses, honey, corn syrup, imitation maple syrup, or other pancake syrups)2

Chocolate syrup

Jams and jellies

Marshmallow cream

Peanut butter, natural

Dried fruits

Nuts and seeds, in or out of the shell, and any canned or packaged nutmeats (including pine nuts)

Nut and seed oils, such as peanut, walnut, macadamia, or sesame oil


Canned shredded coconut

Icing or frosting

Grated cheese





Paprika, red pepper, chili powder

Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, barbecue sauce, and other sauces

Butter turns rancid if not kept quite cool. If you regularly keep it cool enough, in fact, you may find that you become more sensitive to rancid undertones in your butter. To ensure that it stays fresh, the best policy is to freeze most of your butter, keeping on a cool refrigerator shelf only as much as you will use in the next few days. Be sure to wrap or cover butter well; this also keeps it from becoming rancid by preventing oxidation. Never leave butter standing at room temperature to keep it soft. If you need soft butter in a hurry, microwave it for a few seconds.

Peanut butter that contains hydrogenated oils may be stored outside the refrigerator in the pantry. Peanut butter that does not contain hydrogenated oils will separate—oil will rise to the top—and will not stay fresh unless you refrigerate it. Hydrogenation is the process that transforms vegetable oils that are liquid at room temperature into oils that are solid at room temperature; this is done by artificially “saturating” unsaturated fats. Health authorities usually recommend you avoid hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils. Thus it is probably better to buy unhydrogenated—and unsweetened—peanut butter and store it in the refrigerator.

I feel it is probably best to refrigerate after opening all cooking and salad oils that you are going to keep for more than a few weeks—including corn oil, canola oil, and olive oil. Most food-storage experts (including the authors of the Food Keeper) believe this unnecessary, but there are a few experts who recommend it on the ground that all oils will become rancid faster when exposed to higher temperatures. I side with what seems to be the minority because at times I used to pick up rancid flavors in my shelf-stored oils, which never happened again after I moved all the oils into the refrigerator. Note that olive oil thickens when refrigerated but quickly liquefies again when it warms to room temperature. You can keep some in a small bottle that can be set out ahead of time to warm quickly when you need it. Or running warm water over the tightly closed bottle will liquefy the oil very quickly.

Store ground paprika, red pepper, and chili powder in the refrigerator after opening; they mold rapidly. Other spices may be stored in the pantry, but refrigeration will extend the life of all spices, as their oils are vulnerable to heat, air, and light just as other oils are. Refrigeration makes good sense when you have no cool, dry place outside the refrigerator to store spices. Fresh and freshly ground spices are far superior to dried and ground ones.

Low-sodium soy sauce must be refrigerated immediately after opening. Regular soy sauce kept at room temperature after opening will retain its best taste for about a month. After that, you can cook with it for another two months, but the flavor will not be good enough for uncooked dishes. Unopened soy sauce will keep in a cool, dark pantry for two years.

Coffee stays freshest longest if it is kept cool, dry, and in the dark, but many experts think it should not be refrigerated. However, coffee beans can be frozen for long-term storage—more than a couple of weeks. Use an airtight glass container in the freezer so as to prevent the beans from absorbing freezer odors. (See page 74 on refrigerator and freezer storage of coffee.)

Vinegar is said not to need refrigeration. If it turns cloudy, it is still good. However, once or twice I have found mold on wine vinegar, so I now refrigerate it. If you find mold on vinegar, throw it all away.

General Guidelines for Safe and Effective Refrigerator Storage

Do not overload your refrigerator. A crowded refrigerator cannot keep foods cool enough. Leave room for air to circulate, for that is what is doing the cooling.

Keep your refrigerator stocked in an orderly fashion. Not only is this attractive and soothing, it is more efficient and safer. Rotate foods so that you use the old ones first. When you buy new things, place them behind the old ones. Become familiar with the refrigerator and freezer lives of the foods you ordinarily eat. Throw away items that have been stored for longer than their recommended storage periods. Signs of spoilage or age include decay, browning, sliminess, softness, curdling, and off odors or tastes. (If you suspect that food has begun to spoil, do not taste it to find out; even a taste can sometimes be deadly.) Decay and mold spread from food to food, so go through bags and pick out and discard pieces that are molding or going bad. It is true that one rotten apple, or potato, can spoil the whole bag.

As to supermarket food wrappings and packages, see the discussion below about worries over DEHA in plastic cling wrap. If the plastic wraps on your food are of a safe type:

• Keep cheese in the supermarket wrap until you open it. Then rewrap it tightly in a plastic bag or waxed paper to prevent mold.

• Leave ricotta cheese, cottage cheese, and yogurt in the supermarket cartons or plastic tubs they come in, even after you open and use them. (However, once you have removed some for serving, never return it to the tubs or containers.)

• Leave all meat, poultry, and fish that you intend to use soon on a refrigerator shelf in the store wrapping. Wrapping and rewrapping just multiplies the opportunities for bacteria to get in and out of the packages.3 Put a plate beneath them to catch any drips, or put them in drip-proof plastic bags, or place them on the very bottom of the refrigerator if it is cold enough there. You do not want bacteria-laden drips to contaminate other food, especially food that will be eaten without being cooked.

After pouring milk or cream from the carton into a bowl or pitcher, never pour it back. Put the pitcher in the refrigerator, covered, or pour the contents into a clean, tightly covered plastic container. Always keep milk and dairy products in tightly closed, lidded, or covered containers.

Recent newspaper reports have raised questions about the safety of some brands of plastic cling wrap used by supermarkets and people in their homes for wrapping food. Some of these, it appears, contain a plasticizer known as di-(2-ethylhexyl) adipate, or DEHA, which can leach into food, particularly food with a high fat content, such as cheese and cold cuts, and is feared by some researchers to be an “endocrine disrupter” and a health hazard. It is still unknown whether DEHA is safe or unsafe at the levels at which it leaches from plastic wraps into foods, and respectable experts offer opinions on both sides of the issue. Pending resolution of the safety debate, or until reliable authorities inform us that manufacturers are no longer making DEHA-containing plastic wraps, some experts think it may be wise to remove all plastic cling wrap from supermarket-wrapped meats, cheese, and cold cuts. Before rewrapping them, use a cheese slicer to remove the outside layer of cheese and try to slice or scrape off a fine layer of meat. Then rewrap such foods in safe plastic bags or cling wraps. Those labeled “polyethylene” on the box are among the types that definitely do not contain DEHA. Or, if it is appropriate for the type of food you are storing, place it in a Tupperware or similar container and close the lid tightly. You can also try to buy meat from a butcher and have him wrap it in paper; and have your cheese sliced from a wheel and wrapped in paper or placed in a plastic bag. When you put plastic wrap over food in bowls, do not let it touch the food. Avoid microwaving foods covered with plastic wrap.

Whenever possible, store foods in smaller, flatter containers rather than larger, taller ones, and use two or more containers or packages rather than one for faster chilling. Buy two smaller packages of meat instead of one large one. This is safer because the smaller containers chill faster. Glass and plastic containers designed for food storage are good for refrigerator storage; they will not taint the flavor of the leftovers or leach metals or other chemicals into the food.

To avoid refrigerator odors, clear the refrigerator of old, rotting, spoiled, or molding foods, and follow the cleaning instructions set forth on pages 115-17. Carefully wrap the following foods, which commonly cause refrigerator odors, or store them in airtight plastic containers:

Strong cheeses

Cooked cabbage, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and other cooked vegetables of the cabbage family

Cooked or cut raw onions and garlic, chives, and other members of the onion family and foods containing them

Fresh basil

Bananas and foods containing them

Cut melon

Cooked poultry, such as roasted or stewed turkey or chicken

Hard-boiled eggs

The odor of chopped raw onions and garlic always seems to get out no matter how tightly lidded their storage containers. Unpeeled garlic and onions, in their papery skins, cause no refrigerator odors so long as they are fresh and hard. (Use mesh bags or no bags at all to help prevent rotting by allowing air circulation.) When onions and garlic get old and soft, the problem starts; mushy onions cause a bad refrigerator odor.

Some foods, including the following, are especially likely to absorb refrigerator odors, and they too should be carefully wrapped or stored in closed containers:

Milk Eggs Butter and margarine Dairy foods

I have read that grapes and celery absorb odors, but I myself have never experienced problems with these.

About Refrigerating Produce

By and large, it is a bad idea to wash fruits and vegetables before putting them away in the refrigerator. It is especially bad for soft things such as berries and mushrooms, for you will inevitably bruise them while washing and you will not be able to dry them, and then they will rot and mold quickly. The same is true, to a lesser degree, of most fresh produce. Besides, you will have to wash it again before cooking or eating it, so you do not gain much.

Most fruits and vegetables keep best when they are stored at quite cool temperatures of just over 32°F. (Exceptions are discussed below.) Typically, higher temperatures do not ruin them but shorten their lives. Beware of freezing them, for they generally have a spoiled taste or texture or rot quickly once they have been frozen. Although they usually do not freeze except when the temperature is at least slightly below 32°F (the freezing point of plain water), do not take chances.

If you find that your fruits and vegetables wither fast—if they quickly get wrinkly skins or go limp—they are probably too dry. Most fruits prefer a high relative humidity of 85 to 90 percent, or even higher for pears and apples. Most vegetables like anywhere from 85 to 95 percent relative humidity. A few like a humidity level that is a bit lower than this, say between 65 and 75 percent; these include garlic, onions, winter squash, and pumpkins. Refrigerator air is usually much drier than this. Produce will keep best in the fruit and vegetable drawers, where it is protected from the drying, circulating air in the refrigerator.

But even though you put your fruits and vegetables in the produce drawers (separate drawers for fruits and vegetables), you still need to put most of them in bags or other containers to make sure they do not shrivel and dry out. Perforated plastic bags are usually best. Perforated bags hold moisture from the produce but permit air to circulate so that moisture does not condense in the bag; this delays rot and mold. Or you can use plastic containers with loose lids or regular plastic bags, leaving them open or poking a few holes in them. Just be sure that you get air circulation somehow.

You need not bag oranges, lemons, grapefruits, and other citrus fruits; winter squashes; cucumbers, eggplants, and other items with thick skins; or onions, shallots, or garlic in their papery skins. (You can keep those with papery skins in a mesh bag for convenience. Leeks and green onions or scallions should be stored in perforated plastic bags.) Remove the leafy tops of carrots, beets, radishes, and turnips before bagging and refrigerating, and they will last longer. (The tops may draw moisture out, causing these vegetables to shrivel. Leave an inch or so of stem so as to avoid breaking the flesh.) One expert on food storage recommends that you store mushrooms in an open carton or box (the cardboard box they come in) with a damp paper towel on top to prevent withering. Figs should be stored in unperforated plastic bags.

Whatever you store your fresh fruits and vegetables in, keep each different type of fruit or vegetable in a container separate from the others—only apples go in the apple bag, only carrots go in the carrot bag. This is necessary because different sorts of fruits and vegetables give off different gases that can cause others to deteriorate. For example, the following types of produce do not get along well with each other in storage and should be kept apart:

Store carrots away from apples, as the gas emitted by the apples may give the carrots a bitter taste.

Store potatoes away from apples. Gas from the apples may make the potatoes sprout, and the potatoes may make the apples mold or rot.

Store onions and potatoes separately. Each emits a gas that will shorten the storage life of the other.

Store leafy greens separate from eggplants and tomatoes, which will cause the greens to go bad faster.

When a Cool Storeroom Would Be Ideal for Produce, But You Do Not Have One

Most, but not all, of your fresh produce will last longest if stored in the refrigerator. In other cases, there is a judgment call: the food would be better off in a cool storeroom than in a refrigerator, but it is better off in a refrigerator than at room temperature. Those who have a subsidiary cooling unit that could be kept slightly warmer than their refrigerator could use that for several of the foods discussed in this section. A wine cooler, too, can serve this purpose. A cellar, pantry, attic, window well, porch, or garage might provide good storage conditions in the winter months, if you can ensure adequate humidity and you are sure the foods will not freeze.

Here is a list of foods that, at least ideally, would not be refrigerated:

Fruit that you wish to ripen should not be refrigerated.

Bananas should not be refrigerated. They blacken in the refrigerator after a couple of days. Their odor can also easily taint the taste of other foods in the refrigerator. You can freeze peeled bananas.

Grapefruit may be stored in a cool, dry place outside the refrigerator or in the warmest place in the refrigerator. Storage temperatures of about 50°F would be best. Other citrus will be better off in the refrigerator.

If your refrigerator is quite cool—below 38°F—ideally you would not store your potatoes in it. Below this temperature range, their starches turn to sugar and they begin to sprout. The best place to store potatoes is in a cool, dark, humid place—at 40°F and 90 percent relative humidity. If they are stored in a light place they become green and bitter. (If this happens, you can cut off the green part and use the rest.) If you have no cool storage space outside the refrigerator, you are probably better off putting potatoes in a perforated plastic bag in the warmest place in your refrigerator. You can usually get quite a few into the door shelves.

Sweet potatoes would find 55-60°F, 80-90 percent relative humidity ideal. If you have a cool spot outside the refrigerator for these, that would be best. If you do not, you are probably better off putting them in the refrigerator. As with regular potatoes, you might find they do better on a shelf in the door. Throw them away as soon as they show mold. (Study them closely at the market, too, to see if they are already moldy, as I find they frequently are in my neighborhood.)

Once tomatoes are ripe, they also keep best at 55-60°F in a very moist environment. (This temperature will also keep unripe tomatoes from ripening.) At lower temperatures they tend to become mealy. If you cannot provide relatively cool temperatures outside your refrigerator and you cannot yet use fully ripened tomatoes, you are better off putting them on the refrigerator door, or in the butter compartment, rather than letting them rot.

Dried peppers should be hung in a cool, dry, airy place, where they will keep for about a year.

Sweet peppers, which do best at 40-55°F and 90-95 percent relative humidity, will last far better on the refrigerator door in a perforated plastic bag than on a warm, overdry shelf.

Pumpkins and winter squashes will not keep very long in the average city apartment. They are ideally stored at 5055°F and 70-75 percent relative humidity. Pumpkins go bad fairly fast at room temperature, so when they are small enough to fit, keep them in the refrigerator. (Remember to avoid any with a bruise, cut, or puncture, for pumpkins go bad even faster after any break in the skin.) Winter squashes can also be stored in the refrigerator.

Some people recommend storing onions and garlic outside the refrigerator in a cool area, with humidity at about 68-75 percent. I find that refrigeration, however, is superior to storage at warm room temperatures. Onions and garlic will sprout, soften, and rot fairly quickly when stored at warm temperatures.

About Refrigerating and Freezing Eggs

Count on keeping eggs no longer than three to five weeks from your date of purchase.

At home, do not wash the eggs. Doing so removes a natural protective coating from the shell. Keep eggs in the store carton and put them at the back of your coldest refrigerator shelf, not on the refrigerator door. Keep the egg cartons closed to protect the eggs from odors and from the drying effects of the air circulating in the refrigerator.

If you crack any eggs transporting them home, you can salvage them. Break them into a clean container, cover it tightly, and refrigerate. But use them within two days. This is also what you should do with leftover whites or yolks when your recipe calls for yolks or whites only. You can cover the yolks with cold water so that they do not dry out.

You can freeze eggs if you first beat the yolk and white together. You can also freeze whites alone. But, one cooperative extension service recommends, to freeze yolks alone, mix four yolks with a pinch of salt and one and a half teaspoons sugar or corn syrup. They will be good for up to six months. If eggs are accidentally frozen in their shells, keep them frozen until needed; then defrost them in the refrigerator. But discard any eggs that crack when frozen.

About Refrigerating Leftovers

Do not refrigerate any leftover canned food in its can. Remove the food from the can and place it in a clean plastic or glass container, either lidded or tightly covered with plastic wrap, and place it on a refrigerator shelf. The cans would leave a metallic taste, and although it is against the law to use lead in the cans, the seams of a few cans—imported ones—are still soldered with a material containing lead. Once such a can is opened, lead may leach into the food.

For safety reasons, all leftovers should be immediately stored in the refrigerator in airtight, leakproof containers or wraps. If there are large quantities, divide the food into smaller batches and place it in separate shallow containers so that it cools as fast as possible. Remove the stuffing from poultry and meats and refrigerate it in a separate container. If left in, it might take longer to cool than is safe.

About Storing Fresh Herbs

Fresh herbs such as dill, parsley, cilantro, mint, tarragon, and basil generally preserve their flavor better in the freezer than in the refrigerator. Wash, drain, and pat them dry with paper towels. Wrap small quantities in freezer wrap, or place them in separate freezer bags and seal tightly. Freeze. These will be good for cooking but not attractive enough to use as garnishes.

For short-term refrigerator storage, most herbs can be placed in plastic bags or tightly lidded plastic containers and washed just before using. Basil, however, is hard to store outside the freezer and will not last long anywhere. It tends to turn black quickly both in a very cool refrigerator (and makes strong refrigerator odors) and in a very warm room. If you buy it with roots, it will last a little longer. Try making a basil bouquet: put the roots in a glass of water and loosely cover the leaves with plastic wrap or damp paper towels. Experiment to see if it lasts longer in your refrigerator or on your countertop. Or, try wrapping it in damp paper towels and placing it in an open plastic bag in the refrigerator. (You can make bouquets of other herbs as well; but always store other herbs in the refrigerator.)

Ginger root, which is a spice, not an herb, can be stored in the refrigerator in a perforated plastic bag. Periodically slice off what you need. It molds readily, so examine it before using. Be sure to cut off the moldy parts plus at least one and one-half inches more.

A Note on Refrigerating Reduced-Oxygen or Modified-Atmosphere Packaged Foods

Many foods in the market are offered in “reduced-oxygen packaging” (known as ROP) or “modified-atmosphere packaging” (known as MAP). Such foods often require continued refrigeration, at the store and in your home, and always must be used by the dates stamped on the packages to be safe. In addition, some ROP foods are precooked and some are not. You must always follow package directions as to refrigeration, dates, and cooking. See chapter 13, “Reduced-Oxygen or Modified-Atmosphere Packaged Foods,” pages 187-89, for more information.

Freezer Storage

Freeze all fresh meats, poultry, and fish that you are not going to use in a few days. Freeze all leftovers that can be frozen if you are not going to use them within the time periods specified in the Food Keeper, pages 131-34, or the Cold Storage chart, page 151. The colder your freezer, the faster foods freeze, and the faster foods freeze, the better the quality and safety of the food. Slower freezing causes bigger ice crystals to form in the food. These puncture cell walls and cause more damage. The foods’ texture and taste decline. (Slow thawing of meat is preferable, however, as it keeps in more juices—another reason to prefer thawing in the refrigerator. You might remember the maxim: Freeze fast, thaw slow.)

The guidelines below set out some basics of safe and effective freezing. For more detailed information on blanching and otherwise preparing fresh foods for freezer storage and on foods that freeze well, consult a basic all-purpose cookbook such as The New Good Housekeeping Cookbook, or call your local cooperative extension service. Many cooperative extension services have posted excellent and detailed information about freezing foods on the Internet. (See “Acknowledgments and Sources” for information on the cooperative extension system and how to contact your local branch.)

General Freezing Guidelines:

• Do not overload the freezer. Make sure air has room to circulate.

• Wrap foods in safe material designed for frozen-food storage, and seal it to be air-and moisture-proof.

• Put dates and content labels on packages before you freeze them. Otherwise you will not know what is in each package or when you must use something because it is near the end of its storage life.

• Food that comes in great volume or quantity should be broken into smaller packages for faster freezing. Use shallow containers, and when you are freezing more than one, spread them around the freezer so that air can circulate, causing them to freeze faster. Once they are frozen, you can stack them together for convenience and saved space. Stacking them together after they are frozen will in some instances help to prevent freezer burn too.

• Freeze no more than three pounds of food per cubic foot of freezer space within a twenty-four-hour period. Your freezer cannot freeze more than this efficiently. Too much food added at one time may cause the temperature to rise temporarily, shortening the life and quality of the foods already in the freezer and causing the freezer to take too long to freeze the new food.

• Do not refreeze thawed meats.

• Twice-frozen foods are of poor quality because the ice crystals increase.

• If foods begin to thaw but still contain plenty of ice crystals, it is probably safe to refreeze them.

• When you buy fresh or frozen meats, fish, or poultry, freeze them in their original store wrappings. But if you want to store them for longer than two months, overwrap them with freezer wrap or a plastic bag to make the wrapping air- and moisture-proof. Fresh meats, and sometimes frozen ones, are packed in a permeable plastic that is inadequate for longer-term freezing. Freezer wrap is designed to be more moisture-vapor-proof and keeps meats, poultry, and fish better than ordinary plastic wrap.


Whitish or discolored areas on the surface of solidly frozen foods is probably freezer burn. This is simply a dried-out area caused by air, usually owing to a hole in the package. Food that has freezer burn is safe to eat. Just cut off the portion that is freezer-burned because it probably will not taste good.

• You must be especially careful to wrap meats well because fats, especially the unsaturated fats that occur in fish, pork, lamb, poultry, and veal, oxidize (become rancid) readily when exposed to air. Fat that oxidizes tastes bad and is unhealthy. Beef freezes best because its saturated fats oxidize less easily. Cut off fat from all meats, and wrap the meat tightly in air- and moisture-proof freezer wrapping. Try to squeeze out all air from under the wrapping. Or overwrap the store wrap carefully. Oxidizing occurs even more rapidly in the presence of salt, and that is why bacon and ham can be stored only for a relatively short period in the freezer.

• Fried and broiled meats can be frozen, but they tend to become tough and dry.

• Fish freezes less well than meat. It tends to be dry or stringy after freezing.

• Bread should be frozen in tight wrapping. (I have read that when thawing bread you should wait until the moisture inside the package is reabsorbed by the bread; otherwise the bread will be too dry. This sounds right to me, but if I’m in a hurry I never do wait, and the bread always seems to be of fine quality.)

• Keep butter (but not whipped butter) in the freezer unless you are going to use it within a few days, in which case it may be refrigerated instead.

• When you can, season foods after freezing and thawing, when they are to be eaten, rather than before freezing. Various seasonings may grow stronger during freezer storage—black pepper, cloves, onions, and garlic, for example. But do not worry unduly about freezing foods that contain these ingredients. In my experience, it usually turns out well.

• The following items should not be frozen:
Salad greens
Raw cabbage
Raw celery
Raw tomatoes
Corn on the cob (it loses flavor)
Whipped butter (it separates)
Sour cream
Cream cheese
Neufchâtel cheese
Eggs in shell
Creamed cottage cheese (dry curd is all right to freeze)
Ricotta cheese
Whipping cream (ultrapasteurized)
Hard-boiled eggs (the whites get hard, rubbery)
Luncheon meats (they weep)
Cured meats for longer than one month (they are salty and thus become rancid quickly)
Milk sauces and gravies (they may curdle)
Cake batter
Cream pie filling or custards
Salad dressing

Power Outages

In case of a power outage affecting either a separate freezer or your refrigerator, keep the room in which the appliance is located as cool as possible.

The refrigerator compartment can keep the food cool for about four to six hours, depending on whether the room in which the refrigerator stands is warm or cool. Leave the door of the refrigerator closed so that the cold air is retained. You can also try to keep it cold inside by putting in block ice. If you have a refrigerator thermometer, take readings as best you can (but do not open the door only for that purpose) to try to determine just how warm the food got and for how long.

If fresh meats, fish, poultry, milk, leftovers, and other foods that must be kept chilled reach the danger zone—over 40° and under 140°F—for two hours, throw them away. See chapter 13, “Safe Food.”

The freezer may keep food frozen for two days if it is full. If it is half full, it will keep food frozen for about one day. You can add dry ice—not regular block ice—to keep it cool. (Dry ice is colder and will not melt and leave your freezer full of water.) But be careful not to touch the dry ice with your bare hands or to breathe its fumes. Follow the directions that your supplier gives you for the use of dry ice.



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