Learn Your Refrigerator’s Zones for Optimal Food Storage

Dear Home-Ec 101,

I need help!  I like my milk very, very cold, so the temperature in my fridge is very low (38 degrees), but my produce keeps freezing.  I do keep some produce in the produce drawers, and some I put on the top shelf to see if that worked better, and the jury is still out on that one.  Some things did better and some did not.  How can I have my milk cold and my produce crisp?

Signed,
Limpy Lettuce

Heather says:

38 is actually a great temperature for your refrigerator, but my theory is the cooling space of your appliance isn’t all sitting at 38F.

Get to know your refrigerator’s zones.

Your refrigerator may have very distinct zones and these zones may be much colder (or warmer) than the temperature indicated, depending on the location of the sensor. Get yourself a thermometer for your refrigerator, they are quite inexpensive -$5 on Amazon¹, significantly cheaper than a service call, no?

Over the course of a day or several days, set the thermometer in different locations in your fridge. Shut the door and allow the refrigerator to do its thing undisturbed for a couple of hours. Please don’t just pop the thermometer on a shelf, and stand there waiting for the needle to stop moving. You won’t get accurate results. The door needs to be shut long enough for the refrigerator to cycle and the temperature to return to normal. Write down the temperature of each zone and create yourself a map of your refrigerator.

How do I know where my refrigerator’s zones are?

Well, it’s going to depend a lot on the layout of your particular appliance, but generally the upper area is cooler than the bottom. In general drawers are more about either organization or humidity than temperature, unless there is a drawer at the bottom of the appliance for holding meat. This drawer may have a small vent from the freezer that keeps this portion of the refrigerator extra cold.

You may find that the temperature of your refrigerator is different from the one indicated. Adjust your refrigerator’s thermostat accordingly or simply change your storage habits. If it’s wildly different, it may be time for a service call.

Ivy, my former partner here, once wrote about How to Minimize Food Waste by Thinking Like a Kitchen Manager. It’s a great post explaining the first in first out concept and other ways to reduce the amount of food waste in a home kitchen.

Additionally know that storing produce in a refrigerator isn’t as simple as just opening the door and plunking it on a shelf. Produce is very persnickety about silly things like humidity. Aside from cooling food one of your refrigerator’s most important jobs is removing excess humidity. The slider on your refrigerator’s produce drawer is more than just a nifty little decoration, it opens and closes a vent to allow or prevent the circulation of moisture from the drawer.

The Unclutterer has an old, but highly useful guide to storing produce in a refrigerator.

Have fun getting to know your appliance.

Submit your questions to helpme@home-ec101.com.

¹Affiliate link

The Freezer Was Left Open, Now What?

Dear Home-Ec 101,

My youngest decided to get a popsicle from my deep freezer and didn’t bother to make sure the door was closed. I know not to eat the meat products since I am not sure if they thawed and refroze, but what about the veggies? Must I throw out the ten tons of french fries and corn on the cob?

(And yes, I’ve invested in a freezer door lock with a padlock to guard against future booboos)

Signed,

Thawing in Thermopylae

Heather says:

I have good news and bad news, depending on whether or not you’ve already thrown everything out.

All of the food in your freezer is fine to cook or refreeze as long as there were ice crystals still in it. If your meat hasn’t reached more than 40°F it is still safe to cook and eat. Same with your vegetables. If there are still ice crystals it’s perfectly fine to refreeze them as well. What you don’t want to do is reach a point where bacteria can multiply quickly, freeze and not kill off all of those bacteria and then thaw again where the bacteria again have a good chance to multiply.

Just as an FYI, vegetables can also harbor bacteria. Have you seen the news from Europe? However, do not freak out contamination like that is much LESS likely in frozen foods that have to be blanched before freezing. I’m just noting this after someone was rather smug about not being affected by a beef recall.

If your freezer door was left ajar for a few hours and some foods partially thawed, not fully, they are safe to use. I’m actually more concerned about the motor of your freezer. I hope the freezer is the type that shuts off while the door is ajar so there wasn’t a lot of unnecessary wear on the unit. If your deep freeze was left ajar for several days, you are correct, most of the food is a total loss.

If you have a lot of ground beef to use, simply brown it and store. You can season it if you like, just be sure to label it for its intended future use.

If you have stew beef, go ahead and brown and stew the beef.

Poultry toss into your slow cooker and then separate from the bones to use in a bunch of different recipes. Then use the bones to make chicken stock.

Good luck, I hope this doesn’t prove to be too major of a loss.

Submit your questions to helpme@home-ec101.com.

How to Clean Kitchen Laundry in a Public Laundromat

Dear Home-Ec 101,

I love your website, your tips have been extremely helpful to me. I have a question, though, whose answer I couldn’t find in your archives.Maybe you can help me out?

I don’t have a washer at home so I take most of my laundry to a laundromat. I’ve been washing my dishcloths in a bucket with regular laundry detergent and dish washing liquid for stains. But when it comes to bigger items like aprons and table cloths… I’m embarrassed to say, I’ve been buying new ones because it just feels strange to wash them on a public laundromat, even if I wash them separately from my clothes.

If I don’t have a washer, how should I wash kitchen things?

Thanks a lot,
Clueless Germaphobe

Heather says:

If you had your own washing machine and knew what exactly was being washed and when I’d suggest you take a deep breath and not worry. You can always disinfect your own washing machine after doing something awful like cleaning up after a toilet overflow or dealing with toddlers and potty training accidents. Let’s face it, not everyone out there is considerate and when it comes to food safety, go ahead and let your germaphobe tendencies run free.

The following information is from the New Mexico State University Agricultural Extension:

Use a disinfectant when washing at a laundromat. Illness from another family can be passed on if the washing machine is not disinfected before it is used. Wipe off the surface of the machine with a disinfectant, then add disinfectant to the wash cycle. Follow the directions on the disinfectant’s label.

We’ve talked, in the past about how to use chlorine bleach safely.

First of all, in your situation it makes more sense, both from an economical and food safety sense to use paper towels for any clean up involving the preparation of raw meat and grease.

Next, you most need to remember when laundering your kitchen dishtowels, aprons, and dish cloths in a public laundromat is to not overload the machines. Your wash cloths and towels need enough room to move freely and enough water for the the dirt and germs to be suspended in the wash water so they do not end up re-deposited on the clothing.

Use the dryer on the hottest setting possible. Most bacteria can’t survive the heat of a dryer.

Don’t use the same laundry basket you used to bring the icky dishcloths and towels in -use a laundry bag that also gets washed- to transport the clean laundry home. OR simply give it a good wipe down with a sanitizing solution while you wait for your clothing to dry.

So here’s the short and sweet answer:

  • Use chlorine bleach – not the fancy scented kind, the traditional, plain sanitizing sodium hypochlorite version in your wash water -this is why I highly recommend buying cheap bar towel style dish cloths and towels.
  • Disinfect the surfaces of the machine and the folding table. Pretty much assume someone has used it as a changing table without cleaning it.
  • Use the largest load setting possible and don’t overload the machine. Use an appropriate amount of detergent.
  • Use the hottest setting of a dryer.

 

Send your questions to helpme@home-ec101.com

Ground Turkey and Meat / Food Safety

Dear Home Ec 101,

We want to start using ground turkey instead of ground beef. There is a fantastic sale on Jennie-O ground turkey, but I know they had a recall last year due to salmonella poisoning. If we cook the meat to the right temperature, and wash our hands well after handling the raw meat, should we be safe eating it?

I also noticed that the recall was announced in June 2011, but the meat it applied to had a sell by date of December 2011. I had no idea meat was sitting around for that long. I’m just curious if they freeze it or if it can really be safe for that long? I’ve never purchased meat that had a sell by date 6 months out.

Signed,
I was the turkey all along!*

Heather says:

Washing your hands and cooking ground turkey to 165°F is exactly the right procedure to prevent food poisoning.

Don’t forget to thoroughly clean any surfaces which come into contact with raw meat products. Just don’t forget that sanitizing is a two step process.

I spent some time researching the Jennie-O Ground Turkey recall and the recall applied to frozen ground turkey patties. The reason the ground turkey had such a long sell-by time was the product was frozen, not fresh.

Freezing food does not necessarily kill bacteria.  Typically freezing a food just keeps the bacteria from multiplying, while refrigerating simply slows the bacterial growth rate.

Here are some previous Home Ec 101 posts on Freezer Safety:

How to Freeze Food (part 1)

How to Freeze Food (part 2)

How to Cook Homemade Frozen Foods

Food Safety and the Deep Freeze

Can you put hot food into the refrigerator?

I hope these articles help you feel confident in avoiding food poisoning in your home kitchen.

*You win one Internetz if you can tell me where I got this quote?

Submit your questions to helpme@home-ec101.com.

Chicken Stock, Bacteria, and Food Safety Guidelines -Oh My

Hi there,

Why can chicken stock only last for 2-3 days in the refrigerator? If it’s refrigerated wouldn’t it be good for 4 or 5 days? I made some homemade chicken stock on Saturday and never got around to using it for soup. Is it really no longer good?

Signed,
Boiled in Boston

Heather says:

I spent quite a bit of time in the airport this past week (and I’ll be spending more this weekend and trust me there is a segue here). Foodsafety.gov is currently engaged in a massive public service campaign to educate the public on proper food safety precautions. I have a lot of people ask me questions like yours, “Well I know what the guidelines are, but can I?”

I cannot, in good conscience recommend anything but the official guidelines for food safety.

Why?

Because food poisoning can have serious and occasionally fatal consequences and I’m not willing to dole out advice that could harm someone’s family. I couldn’t live with that on my conscience.

You may think that the cooking process of making chicken stock would kill all the bacteria and that the food would then be safe for an extended period of time. If your home were a clean room in a lab, that could potentially be true. However your home is not a clean room, this is especially true if you have children and / or pets. Kids don’t wash their hands, pets walk in litter boxes and then on counters or shake and their slobber goes flying.

Forced air heat and air conditioning pipe dust from one end of the home to another, this dust lands on uncovered food, carrying with it whatever spores or dander it came into contact with.

Additionally, some forms of bacteria are encapsulated by a protective protein coating and can survive high temperatures in a sort of self-made survival pod. Once the temperature drops below the temperature they can’t tolerate they start dividing and by dividing, I mean multiplying.

Do you see where I’m going with this? Just because your chicken stock is relatively low in bacteria immediately after it is cooked, there are many points at which new bacteria could be introduced to your stock and wet foods are a great growth medium. If you choose to make the personal choice -and I still would not recommend this-  to ignore food safety guidelines, know that reheating the stock to 150°F for one minute will kill active bacteria and boiling for ten minutes will break down the dangerous botulism toxin.

Now what you absolutely must remember is this:

Heating food to 150°F is not the same as heating it to a palatable temperature.

Use a thermometer to ensure your food is being heated to the proper temperature.

Know that refrigeration only slows bacterial growth, it does not eliminate it.

Know that pushing the guidelines increases your risk even though I can’t tell you by how much due to the incredible number of variables involved.

Submit your questions to helpme@home-ec101.com.

Source: FoodSaftey.gov
Recommended reading: Bending the Rules on Food Safety