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1 October 2020

How to store food safely in the fridge

Follow our simple tips for more flavoursome and nutrient-rich food, less wastage and less chance of harmful bacteria in your fridge.
Man looking at food from the fridge.
PG
Patrick Gallagher



Your fridge and the way you're using it could mean your food is going off more quickly than you'd like. In the worst cases, it could even lead to you getting ill.

But it's about much more than simply twiddling your thermostat. From picking the right shelves for certain food types to handling leftovers properly, we run through some key tips to keeping your food safely stored in the fridge.

See our pick of the best fridges.

Keep an eye on fridge temperature



If you want to get the most out of your food, the temperature in your fridge needs to be between 0°C and 5°C. Anything over 8°C and you face a safety issue as most harmful bacteria can grow rapidly on your food if it's stored at these temperatures - it's commonly referred to as the danger zone for microbial growth.

The faster your fridge gets down to within that 0°C-5°C temperature range, and the longer it's able to stay there, is key to maximising the amount of nutrients in your food. 

Your fridge won't just automatically set to within that temperature range. You need to set it up using the manufacturer's recommended setting, which you'll find in the instruction manual. 

You also need a reliable fridge, as our testing has found that you can't always rely on these settings to work like they should. 

The manufacturer's recommended setting on the worst models we've seen sends the temperature in the fridge soaring above 10°C – warm enough to invite heat-loving bacteria inside. 

Every degree really does count. The wilted-looking leafy greens in the far right image below had been stored in a fridge for the same time as those in the middle image – just three days. 

The difference is that the wilted ones were stored at an average temperature of 6°C, while the fresher-looking ones were at 3°C.

Check our fridge reviews for those models that score a full five stars out for five for thermostat reliability to make sure your salad stays crisper for longer.  

If you're not convinced by the accuracy of your fridge thermostat, you can pick up a fridge thermometer for less than £10.

Storing food correctly inside the fridge

No matter how accurate your thermostat is, the temperature in your fridge will still vary between shelves. It's best to think of your thermostat temperature as an average for the fridge because, as a general rule, the higher the shelf, the higher the temperature will be.

But that's no bad thing – provided you make use of these different temperatures to get the best out of your food by storing it in the right position.



Top shelves

Try and keep the upper shelves in your fridge free for items that don't need to be cooked before being eaten, such as cured meats, leftovers or cream cakes.

Middle shelves

This area in your fridge is ideal for dairy products - cheese, butter, yoghurt - as well as eggs. Eggs are often stored on the door racks, but the door is commonly one of the warmest parts of the fridge and is also prone to temperature fluctuations. Your eggs will fare much better in the more stable and cooler temperatures around the middle zone of the fridge.

Bottom shelves

This is the coldest part of the fridge, making it perfect for storing raw meat, poultry and seafood, which should be kept between 0°C and 3°C in order to lock in freshness and prevent harmful bacteria from tucking in. Some fridges have a specific chill compartment that's specially designed to house these items, so of course make use of that if you have one. Raw meat, poultry and seafood should be stored in sealed containers, so they can't touch or drip onto other food.

Drawers for fruits and vegetables

Your fruit and veg will stay fresher for longer if you store them at the correct humidity. 

Vegetables tend to like high humidity, while most fruits prefer low.

  • If you have a humidity switch on your fridge drawer(s), make sure you switch it to high humidity for veg and low humidity for fruit. 
  • If you don't have a switch or only have one drawer, it's best to keep your veg in the drawer as that tends to prevent moisture from escaping and is therefore more humid. Your fruit can then go on a middle shelf in your fridge.
  • You shouldn't store fruit in a drawer that doesn't have a switch or contains vegetables. It's likely to produce ethylene, a natural gas that can over-ripen other fresh food when trapped in a confined space.
  • There are some exceptions to the rule to be aware of, though. Mushrooms are a vegetable that produces ethylene, while apples and watermelons are fruits that are sensitive to the effects of ethylene.

Are you storing your condiments correctly?

Open any fridge and you're likely to find a condiment of some sort on a door rack, which is exactly where they should be. The presence of natural preservatives, such as vinegar, in many condiments means they don't need to be kept in the much cooler parts of the fridge.

But if you find yourself stocking up on lots of different sauces and running out of room on the fridge door, you might be wondering if you could get away with keeping some out of the fridge.

We spoke with Dr Sarah Schenker, a public analyst, special adviser on food and drink, and registered dietitian, to find out which condiments should be kept in the fridge and which ones you can keep in the cupboard.

Keep these condiments in the fridge:

  • Mayonaisse: Although it contains vinegar, there’s not enough in there to safely store this creamy, egg-rich condiment outside the fridge. Refrigerating mayonnaise will limit the growth of bacteria that you might have introduced by dipping cutlery into the jar.
  • Pesto: Pesto should definitely be refrigerated. Nuts in pesto mean it can end up developing mould that produces toxic compounds called mycotoxins, including dangerous aflatoxin, a bacteria that can cause serious liver damage.
  • Tartare sauce: Tartare sauce contains egg, and also has low acidity and a high water content, which microorganisms love, so this is definitely one to keep in the fridge.
  • Salad cream: Although salad cream contains the preservative potassium sorbate, as well as spirit vinegar, it also contains egg. Therefore, much like mayonnaise and tartare sauce, it should be refrigerated.
  • Maple syrup: In anything with a sugar content of more than 60%, the sugar acts as a preservative to keep microbial degradation at bay. Maple syrup falls just short of this, allowing some moulds to get a hold, so store it in the fridge. If you keep it in a cupboard, you may find mould forming, especially on the lid because of its exposure to air when you open it.

To find out more on why these are all best kept chilled, and which condiments can stay out of the fridge, check out the full article on where to store your condiments.

Food you should not store in the fridge



There are a number of foods that are typically stored in the fridge that can actually quickly lose flavour and freshness as a result. Others can become outright unsafe if stored in cold conditions. Here are a few foods you might consider keeping out of the fridge in order to get the best from them and one you definitely shouldn't refrigerate.

Bread

The cool, dry conditions inside a fridge will dehydrate your loaf, leaving you with stale-tasting slices. Keep it in a bread bin instead. Alternatively, freezing it won't cause it any problems and you can resurrect your slices in a toaster or under the grill.

Cucumbers

This refreshing salad staple actually fares better when kept out of the fridge. Cold conditions can cause the skin to shrivel and the inside to become slightly mushy. For best results, store them in a cupboard if you have space or in a bowl on a countertop. If you want them cold for your salad then put them in the fridge an hour before prep and you'll get the refreshing chill without the cucumber feeling the negative effects of long-term cold exposure.

Tomatoes

Just like with cucumbers, low temperatures can alter the texture of a tomato, leaving it with a coarse feel in the mouth. Worse still, chilling tomatoes inhibits the activity of enzymes inside the fruit that help give it its flavour. Another one to keep in a bowl at room temperature.

Potatoes

You need to make sure that you don’t store raw potatoes in the fridge if you intend to cook them at high temperatures, such as by roasting or frying. This is because when stored in the fridge, more free sugars can begin to form in the potatoes. This enhanced sugar content can then lead to increased acrylamide levels in the potato, especially if they are then fried, roasted or baked. Acrylamide is a chemical substance formed when starchy foods, such as potatoes and bread, are cooked at high temperatures (above 120°C), and studies indicate it has cancer-causing properties. Raw potatoes should be stored in a dark, cool place at temperatures above 6°C.

Don’t stack food too high in the fridge



Once you have the gist of where to put what inside the fridge, you'll still want to avoid packing things so full that food on one shelf is touching the shelf above. 

Doing so can prevent cool air from circulating, pushing up the temperature in parts of the fridge and inviting heat-loving bacteria to tuck into your food.

As part of our tests, we measure usable volume so you know exactly how much storage space you're actually getting compared to what the manufacturer says you're getting. The worst will give you 34% less storage space than you'd been led to believe. 

Head to our fridge reviews to pick out a model that's big enough for your needs.

Let leftovers cool to room temperature



You should always let leftovers cool to room temperature before putting them inside your fridge. But take care not to leave them sitting out for more than a couple of hours.

Otherwise, the warmth of your recently cooked food will send the temperature in your fridge skyrocketing. 

Not only will that reduce the freshness of other food in the fridge – which needs to be kept at a stable temperature – it will also force your fridge to work harder to cool down, pushing up your energy bills.

See our guide to energy-efficient fridges.

Best-before and use-by dates



Paying adequate attention to the use by dates on any relevant products is another key part of ensuring the safety of any food stored in your fridge. You shouldn't eat, cook or freeze any food that has gone past its use-by date, even if it looks and smells fine, as it may be unsafe.

But also keep in mind that for the use-by date to be a genuinely useful guide, you must carefully follow the storage instructions as written on the label, such as 'keep refrigerated after opening'. Not following these instructions could lead to the food spoiling more quickly and increasing your risk of food poisoning.

It's possible to 'extend' the use-by date if you freeze the item before it expires, but make sure you follow any instructions on the pack - such as 'freeze on the day of purchase'. Likewise when you get around to cooking it, make sure you follow any additional instructions that might indicate it can be cooked from frozen or that it needs to be defrosted thoroughly and used within 24 hours.

Best-before dates 

Sometimes shown as BBE (best before end) on a product label, this date serves as an indication of when the quality of the food or drink may be beyond its best. For the most part it's not a safety concern if you eat food after this date, but the flavour or texture of the product might not be at the level you're expecting.

Eggs are an exception, though. Eggs will have a best-before date of no more than 28 days after they have been laid. By law, eggs must be sold (the sell by date) no later than 21 days from the date they've been laid. So from the time of purchase you'll have at least seven days to use them.

The quality of the egg will start to diminish after the best-before date, and in the rare instance that salmonella bacteria is present, it could begin to multiply to high levels that could make you ill.

If you decide to use eggs that are beyond the best-before date, make sure you do so in dishes that will be cooked completely.

If you're in the market for a new refrigerator our guide to some of the best fridges available can help you select one that's just right for you.

Cleaning your fridge



Along with ensuring it's set at the correct temperature, another way to prevent harmful bacteria from thriving inside your fridge is to clean it regularly.

You introduce new microbes into the fridge every time you unpack groceries, so it's no big surprise that most fridges are teeming with bacteria.

In many cases these are harmless, but during an investigation we carried out into the types of bacteria commonly found inside fridges, we were concerned by the presence of Aeromonas bacteria, Enterobactera clocae and Klebsiella oxytoca, among others.

These germs are linked with respiratory and urinary infections, especially for people with existing health problems or weakened immune systems. They’re likely to have come from unwashed vegetables, highlighting the importance of cleaning your fridge regularly.

Cleaning your fridge regularly will remove any lingering bacteria and prolong the life of your food. Cleaning regular touch points on the fridge, including the handles and the door trays, can also prevent the spread of bacteria.

How to clean a fridge in six simple steps

  1. Don’t wait until spilt milk or soggy spinach forces your hand. Instead, clean your fridge around once a month and, if needed, defrost the freezer at the same time.
  2. Cleaning the fridge will push the internal temperature up, so the best time to do it is before a big shop when the fridge is fairly empty.
  3. After removing the food, take all the shelves, drawers and door racks out of the fridge and wash them in warm soapy water.
  4. Wipe down the inside of the fridge with lukewarm soapy water. Make sure the water isn’t too hot and try to minimise the amount of time the fridge door is open as both will send the fridge temperature soaring.
  5. Using anti-bacterial spray in your fridge isn’t recommended as it could get on to your food.
  6. A mixture of water and baking soda is effective at removing stubborn stains, while a small cup of baking soda placed in the fridge will help to absorb odours over time.

We give every fridge we test a rating for how easy it is to clean. The worst have few removable parts and lots of nooks and crannies capable of harbouring stray crumbs. You can find out more about the tough assessments we carry out to separate the best from the worst by reading our guide on how we test fridges.

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