To Chill or Not to Chill: Everything You Need To Know About Food Refrigeration
Nandini Bhatia | Updated: July 19, 2017 12:34 IST
Fact: At room temperature, the number of bacteria causing foodborne diseases can double every twenty minutes!
A chilling thought, isn’t it? Food needs to be refrigerated in order to arm against harmful bacterial action. But do we know what and what not to chill? We all know milk, meat, eggs and vegetables belong in the refrigerator. Did you also know that ketchup needs to be chilled to be stored for longer? Or ripe bananas should immediately be popped in the fridge? Their skin may turn brown but the fruit will stay ripe and edible.
Yes, there are many tips and tricks to storing food in the fridge. Especially in tropical countries, such as India, extra care must be taken with this regard. For example, you must always cover the food before putting them in for cooling. Not only with it prevent the various odours from diffusing into the food items, but also keep the food from drying and losing its flavours.
Here's bringing you the lowdown on the basics of refrigeration -
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Refrigerating your food immediately keeps illness-causing bacteria from growing on it, hence keeping it out of the danger zone. Dr. Anju Sood, a Bangalore-based nutritionist, says, “Ideally the temperature of the refrigerator should be set at around 4°C and the freezer’s should be just below 0°C. This is not the ambient temperature for growth of microorganisms and hence delays spoilage.”But make sure to check if the door seal is doing its job every month or so. We just want to cool the food inside, not the entire kitchen!
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Quick Tip: Let your food cool down to room temperature before you put it in the fridge. This will also help save energy.
Where Should You Store
The fuller your refrigerator, the more it will maintain the temperature when you open/close it, hence less energy will be consumed. While a well-stocked fridge is advised, jam packing it is bound to affect its efficiency. Your fridge has an ideal place of storage for each food item. The coldest parts of the fridge are at the back and the bottom. The back because the cooling mechanism is installed there and the bottom because hot air rises up to the top. So any food item that may be getting frosty should not be kept here. The door is one of the warmest places of storage. That means condiments go at the door, with butter in covered section, meats at the bottom and everything else wherever it fits.
Quick Tip: For maximum effectiveness, minimise the number of times you open and close the door.
Beat the Clock
Perishable food should be kept in the refrigerator within two hours, if you wish to avoid harmful bacterial activity on the items. If ambient temperature is high, then this time period reduces to just one hour! Always cover the food and then store it. The air inside is dry and can dry out the food and make it unappetising. It also prevents bland foods (for instance, milk) from acquiring strong odours of other items (like cabbage).
Quick Tip: Every three weeks, empty out the fridge and wipe all the internal surfaces with a baking soda solution and put back everything quickly, bearing the two hour rule in mind.
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How to Store Food
Still wondering which food items should be kept in the fridge to chill and which should not? We have listed some daily-use ingredients -
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Fact stands that keeping bread in the fridge dries it out very quickly, so that option is definitely ruled out. Bread should either be wrapped in plastic or foil and frozen or it should be kept wrapped at room temperature where it might lose its freshness, but will not dry out as quickly.
Dr. Sood busts the myth, “In the fridge, bread stales out faster but the growth of mould does not take place. It is a common misconception that no mould means no spoilage. Truth is, bread should only be stored at room temperature and consumed within a day, as mentioned on the label.”
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Another misconception, we find in Indian kitchens, revolves around storage of fruits. Chef Vaibhav Bhargava, ITC Sheraton, Delhi, clarifies, “People usually keep bananas and apples in the fridge while it is not actually mandatory. Fruits like watermelon and musk melon must be chilled and stored, when cut.”
Even tomatoes, for that matter, lose their ripe flavour in the fridge as it hinders the ripening process. Keep them out in a basket to retain their fresh flavour. Stone fruit like peaches, apricots and plums should be kept in the refrigerator basket if not consumed immediately. Bananas should only be popped in;the fridge once they are ripe, it’ll give you an extra day or two to consume them.
Dr. Sood advises, “First wash your fruits and vegetables thoroughly, then dry and store them in their proper divisions in the fridge, which is usually the tray at the bottom.”
Nuts and Dried Fruit
The unsaturated fat content in nuts is pretty fragile and can go rancid, which does not affect the health, but does alter the taste. It is wiser to store them in a refrigerator in an air-tight container. Same goes for dried fruit. Even though it has less moisture than normal fruit, they stay healthier for longer when chilled and stored.
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While condiments like ketchup, chocolate sauce and maple syrup come with their share of preservatives, it is advisable to keep in the fridge if you wish to store them for longer than a couple of months.
Dr. Sood says, “I’m surprised people even store ketchup in the fridge right after purchase. We should understand that it is already acidic and has a shelf life of 1 month. It is only if you wish to store it for longer, should you keep it in the fridge. Same goes for spices. If you plan to consume them within a month, there is no need to chill them.”
I’m sure your grandma has already lectured you on the importance of keeping all the finger lickin’ chutneys in the fridge to keep them fresh. Heat, light, moisture and air are enemies of spices and herbs and it is important to store them away from extreme temperatures in cool, dark places.
Surprisingly, in many households, even pulses are stored in the refrigerator. Dr. Sood clears the air, “Chilling is not the answer to protecting the pulses from insect infestation. The solution is to put a few cloves and store them in an air-tight container.”
Did you know that fresh whole or pieced poultry will essentially only last for a day or two in the fridge? Cooked dishes will probably just last for a couple of days longer. Freeze the fresh poultry and it’ll last you up to a year.
Dealing with Leftovers
Chef Bhargava clears the air on storing and reusing leftovers, “Leftovers, if necessary at all, should be stored in the fridge in air-tight containers so that there is no bacterial growth. When reheated, all products, especially liquids like milk, should be boiled properly before consumption. Even fish and raw food items should either be consumed as soon as they’re opened or should be deep frozen. Frequent temperature changes can cause bacterial growth.”
Quick Tip: Never thaw or marinate food at the food counter. Make sure to thaw the food products in cold water or microwave to restrict growth of bacteria at room temperature.
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