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How Did All This Stuff Get in My Fridge?
Have you ever stopped to wonder if something you always keep in the fridge — like mustard, let's say, or maybe eggs — actually needs to be kept in the fridge?
Of course you have. You're human. And like the rest of us humans, you probably concluded: well I'm not sure, so I'll keep it in there just in case.
Which is perfectly reasonable. After all, you don't want to end up with a case of food poisoning.
On the other hand, you don't want to overcrowd your fridge. It wastes energy, and your fridge will break down sooner.
Plus, some things just don't belong in the fridge. If it's meant to be soft and spreadable, or maybe poured over something hot off the griddle, then keeping it in the fridge is probably not a good idea.
(And listen, if after you read this, you decide to go ahead and continue to store these items in the fridge, at the very least you'll know that if you ever accidentally leave one of them out on the counter all night, you won't need to freak out and throw it away the next morning.)
By the way, there's no point keeping something in the fridge if your fridge isn't the right temperature. The inside of your refrigerator should be 40°F or colder. One of these inexpensive refrigerator thermometers is the perfect tool to make sure your fridge is cold enough.
Let's take a look at a few foods you might be surprised to learn do not need to be refrigerated.Continue to 2 of 15 below.
02 of 15
Ketchup is one of the most popular condiments in the nation, known to be served on everything from scrambled eggs to steak to pizza. Not to mention french fries, tater tots, onion rings, chicken tenders, aka everything you feed your kids.
Despite how you might happen to feel about ketchup on pizza, I think we can all agree that the quickest way to ruin an order of fries is by dousing them with ice cold ketchup. Not that ketchup should be hot. But certainly not ice cold. Even so, bottles of ketchup are inexplicably chilling in refrigerators all across this great land of ours.
Oddly enough, restaurants, diners and cafes everywhere make it a point to have bottles of ketchup on the tables when guests sit down. And there those bottles sit, all day, right alongside the salt, pepper, and sugar. And it's not like anyone's gathering it up at the end of the night, either. No, friends, all that ketchup really does sit out night and day.
Which is perfectly OK. That's because acidity (as measured on the pH scale) happens to be one of the six factors that contribute to the growth of bacteria in food. Most harmful bacteria require a neutral to mildly acidic environment, with a pH level of 4.5 or higher. Because of its acidic ingredients (tomatoes and vinegar), ketchup has a pH between 3.5–3.9.
Conclusion: Keep your ketchup in the cupboard, not the fridge.Continue to 3 of 15 below.
03 of 15
Cold maple syrup is the bane of pancakes everywhere. And just like ketchup, there is no situation where you would ever specifically want your syrup to be cold.
Sure, you can warm it up, but that requires time, and energy (whether it's heating up water or running the microwave or whatever), besides which, it's wholly unnecessary.
That's because of water, another thing bacteria need to survive. In the culinary arts, the moisture content of food (i.e. how much water it contains) is described using a measurement called "water activity," which is notated aw.
To support the growth of bacteria, a food needs to have a moisture content that corresponds with an aw value of .90 or higher. Raw meat, for example, has an aw of 0.95. Syrup, on the other hand, has an aw of around 0.80, which means bacteria won't grow in it.
(By the way, this goes for real maple syrup as well as pancake syrup, i.e. the stuff that comes in a squeeze bottle.)
Syrup can sometimes get moldy, but as everyone knows, mold can grow in the refrigerator, too. And in any case, if you see mold, just throw it out.
Conclusion: Keep your syrup in the cupboard, not the fridge.Continue to 4 of 15 below.
04 of 15
Peanut butter needs to be spreadable. On bread, specifically, although there are exceptions.
At a minimum, though, you ought to at least be able to get a spoon into it. But that's exactly what you won't be able to do if you keep your peanut butter in the refrigerator.
At my house growing up we used to get those "natural" peanut butters, and we kept it in the fridge, which I grew up thinking was the normal thing to do. And our peanut butter would be completely solid, like a jar of cement. I'm pretty sure I spent the entire age of nine waiting for the peanut butter to soften. If you average it out, I mean.
Peanut butter is an interesting case, because protein happens to be another one of the six factors I mentioned earlier. High-protein foods like meat, eggs and milk are especially attractive targets for the bacteria that can make us sick. And peanut butter is undoubtedly a high-protein food.
Peanut butter also happens to have a very low aw, around 0.70, which is even lower than syrup. Bacteria aren't going to grow in it.
One caveat is that peanut butter can sometimes go rancid, particularly the natural kinds, and especially when exposed to heat, light and oxygen. But all that means is, keep it in the cupboard, with the lid on tight, and the cupboard doors shut. Not on the counter, uncovered, right beside the stove.
Conclusion: Keep your peanut butter in the cupboard, not the fridge.Continue to 5 of 15 below.
05 of 15
Jams and Jellies
So we've talked about water activity (aw) with syrup and peanut butter, and we've talked about acidity (pH) in the case of ketchup. But with jellies and jams, we get to talk about both.
Jellies and jams, it turns out, do not need to go in the fridge. That's because they have a water activity of around 0.80, and their pH is usually around 3. So, not enough moisture to support bacteria, and too acidic for them as well.
It's unclear what major drawbacks, if any, there are to keeping jams and jellies in the refrigerator. Let's say you made homemade biscuits, and you want eat them warm, and you're thinking maybe the cold strawberry jam might be going to spoil it somehow. In that scenario it might matter. But really, this one's up to you. Cupboard or fridge, it's a personal preference.
(Disclosure: I keep mine in the fridge.)
Conclusion: Keep your jams and jellies wherever you want to.Continue to 6 of 15 below.
06 of 15
Barbecue sauce has a very similar profile to ketchup, owing to the fact that the two condiments contain all of the same primary ingredients: tomatoes, vinegar, sugar and salt.
The median pH value for commercial barbecue sauce is 3.92, and it ranges from 3.47–4.15. And as we discussed when we talked about ketchup, a pH value lower than 4.5 is too acidic to support the growth of spoilage bacteria. Which means it's perfectly safe to store barbecue sauce at room temperature, in your cupboard or pantry or whatever.
Having said that, there are a couple of ways you might use barbecue sauce. One, obviously, is to brush it on ribs or chicken prior to, or during, cooking. Using it this way means it's going to get hot while the food cooks, so it doesn't matter if it starts off cold. If that's how you use barbecue sauce, then there's no reason not to keep it in the fridge.
On the other hand, you might use it as more of a dipping sauce, like for chicken nuggets. And if you do that, you run into the same problem we talked about with french fries, which is that ice-cold dip on a hot food item is less than ideal. Ultimately, this one comes down to a matter of preference.
Conclusion: Keep your BBQ sauce anywhere you want.Continue to 7 of 15 below.
07 of 15
This is the one that throws people for a loop. Everyone knows butter shouldn't be cold. But we put it in the fridge anyway, and just keep trudging grimly along.
But we don't have to. Butter is mostly fat, with a very small amount of protein, not enough to support the growth of bacteria. Salted butter, by the way, has an even longer shelf life.
Butter can go rancid if exposed to oxygen, light and heat, just like we talked about with peanut butter. But as long as you keep it in an opaque butter dish, and use it in a reasonable amount of time, it's perfectly OK to store your butter on the kitchen counter.
Conclusion: Keep your butter in a butter dish on the counter, not in the fridge.Continue to 8 of 15 below.
08 of 15
Refrigerating potatoes causes the starches to turn into sugars, affecting not only the flavor but also the texture. The ideal temperature for storing potatoes is 55 to 60 F, but if you use them within a week, room temperature is fine. More important is keeping them out of the light, like in a paper bag, so that they don't develop a green-colored toxin called solanine. Try to keep them away from onions, which emit moisture that can cause potatoes to sprout.
Conclusion: Keep potatoes in a cool, dark place, away from onions.Continue to 9 of 15 below.
09 of 15
There's no complex chemical reaction happening here other than the fact that refrigerated honey will harden into an amber-like consistency that makes it impossible to pass through the tiny nozzle of the bear-shaped squeeze bottle, let alone eat. Moreover, it's completely unnecessary. Archaeologists in Egypt have found pots of honey that is unspoiled after thousands of years, making it literally the most shelf-stable food in the history of the planet.
Conclusion: Keep honey in the cupboard. (Or in your tomb, if you so desire.)Continue to 10 of 15 below.
10 of 15
Oils go bad by becoming rancid, which is caused by exposure to oxygen, light and heat. So while you don't want to store your cooking oils near your oven, refrigerating them isn't necessary. In some cases, they will cloud or even harden in the fridge.
Conclusion: Keep cooking oils tightly sealed in a cool dark cupboard and use them within 3 months. Exceptions: Nut oils like walnut and hazelnut oils are particularly prone to rancidity, so refrigerating them is not a bad idea.Continue to 11 of 15 below.
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Breads and Baked Goods
The issue with breads and other baked goods (like cakes and cookies) is not bacterial spoilage but rather, the fact that they go stale--which is another way of saying they dry out and get hard. This happens to all baked goods, but the process is much more rapid in the refrigerator, as the cold accelerates the re-crystallization of the starches. Oddly enough, freezing halts the process.
Conclusion: Store bread and baked goods in airtight bags or containers at room temperature if you'll use them within a week, or in the freezer for longer storage.Continue to 12 of 15 below.
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Chilling does two things to tomatoes, and both of them are bad. First, it halts the enzymatic process that produces the chemical compounds that give a tomato its flavor. Second, it damages the cell walls of the tomato, giving it a grainy, mealy texture.
Conclusion: Store unripe tomatoes at room temperature. As for ripe ones, don't store them, eat them!Continue to 13 of 15 below.
13 of 15
While you do not want your bar chocolate to get too warm, it is perfectly fine to store it between 65 and 70 F, provided you keep it away from direct sunlight and you keep it tightly sealed to protect it from moisture. The issue with the refrigerator is not so much that the cold damages it as the fact that when you take it out of the fridge, condensation will form, which the sugar to bloom, producing white blotchy patches on the surface.
Conclusion: Store bar chocolate at room temperature, tightly sealed.Continue to 14 of 15 below.
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Onions keep best in in a cool (55 to 60 F), dark place with plenty of ventilation, which is why they come in a mesh sack rather than a plastic bag. But provided you use them within a week, room temperature is fine. The cold damages their cell structure (like tomatoes), and the humidity of the fridge can encourage mold growth.
Conclusion: Store uncut onions at room temperature for up to a week.Continue to 15 of 15 below.
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Garlic is a member of the same family as onions and responds to cold in much the same way: the flesh can become mushy, and mold can grow beneath the papery skin. They prefer cool, dry places with good ventilation (i.e. not in a plastic bag).
Conclusion: Store garlic bulbs at room temperature for up to a week.