From a food safety perspective, it’s totally not necessary to bring food down to room temp before popping it in the fridge, as the refrigeration process will rapidly cool the hot food and prevent bacterial growth, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.
Still, you may want to consider letting hot dishes chill on the counter for a bit to preserve their taste and texture. “For example, if you make a baked mac and cheese with a crispy crumb top, then cover it and put it in the fridge while it is still hot, the heat will cause condensation to occur on the lid of the container, which will then rain down on the crispy topping and leave it soggy in texture,” says Ashley Schuering, a ServSafe-certified food safety expert and author of the blog Confessions of a Grocery Store Addict. “In this instance, I'd let the casserole cool to room temperature before covering and refrigerating.”
Perhaps one of the biggest reasons to consider letting food cool before refrigerating is its affect on the other contents of your fridge. “If your refrigerator is set at 39 degrees and you put a pot of hot soup right off the stove in and close the door, that temperature can drop, and it can take a while for it to climb back up again,” says dietitian and food safety expert Kelly Jones, LDN. “In order to maintain a safe temperature in your refrigerator, most foods, especially those that are liquid, should be cooled close to room temperature before being stored.” Smaller foods, like a slice of pizza or single serving of chicken breast, may not have a big impact on fridge temperature, but larger quantities, such as soups, stews, or casseroles, as well as big-batch cooked grains and proteins, can impact the temp.
For best results and safety measures, per the USDA, you should store food in the fridge within two hours of sitting out to best guarantee safety and quality for later use. As a general rule: “Food should be cooled to 70 degrees within two hours, then cooled to 41 degrees or lower within four hours to prevent bacterial growth,” says Schuering. And if you’re concerned about the waiting time, these tips will help cool food a bit faster.
Tips to cool hot food down faster
1. Give it an ice water bath
“Place the food into your storage containers, then immerse the container (without entirely submerging it) in ice water, stirring the food as needed, or you can twist the container back and forth to agitate the food and help it cool faster,” says Schuering.
2. Transfer large servings to smaller containers
“Take large batches of food such as big soup pots and transfer into more shallow [containers], so it cools down more quickly,” says Kelli Lewton, an executive chef and author of the upcoming book Make Your Own Party: Twenty Blueprints to MYO Party!. Plus: “Smaller sized portions are less likely to have an impact on the temperature of your fridge or freezer, and can usually be placed in the fridge within a few minutes of packing into a smaller container,” Schuering adds.
3. Remove food from heat source asap
Not letting hot dishes sit on stovetops as they cool is step one. But step two should be removing them from their heated pots or pans. For example, if you make a soup or stew in a cast iron dutch oven, they tend to hold onto heat for a long time, so remove the soup or stew and transfer them to food-safe storage containers in order to expedite the cooling process.
4. Take advantage of air flow
Even an oscillating fan in the kitchen can help create airflow to cool food faster, so put a few out, when possible. Every bit helps! For similar reasons (i.e. air flow) try using a rack for cooling larger cuts of meat. “Remove a roast carefully from a super-hot pan, then transfer into a room temp or cold pan and let it sit on top of a rack where air movement is more fluid,” says Lewton.
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