When you get home from the grocery store, you might be in a hurry to get everything put away and relax, but taking a little extra time to organize your refrigerator properly can extend the life of your food and make it safer.
Prep the Fridge
If you are giving your refrigerator an organizational overhaul, start by removing everything and washing the inside thoroughly. Make a solution of 1 part vinegar to 3 parts water in a spray bottle; spray the walls and shelves and wipe them down.
While most frost-free refrigerators maintain the 40 F temperature fairly evenly, some areas might be a bit colder than others. Always make sure the temperature is 40 F or below. If your refrigerator does not have a built-in thermometer, keep a refrigerator/freezer thermometer on one of the shelves to monitor the temperature. As little as two hours above 40 F can render leftovers and many perishable foods unsafe to eat.
Cold air is denser than warm air, so keep that in mind when you put your food away. Here are some basic guidelines for door and shelf storage.
Because the fridge is opened frequently, refrigerator door compartments tend to be warmer than the inside and back of the refrigerator. The butter compartment is okay for storing butter, but milk, eggs, and most other dairy products should be in the coldest part of the fridge.
Use the door storage for items that can stand warmer temperatures, like condiments, sesame and walnut oils, jams and jellies, sauces, sodas, juice, water, and opened fortified wines (e.g., Madeira, Marsala, Sherry, Port Wine, and Vermouth). Some condiments, such as barbecue sauce and ketchup, can be stored in the pantry after opening but will last significantly longer if stored in the fridge.
The upper shelves tend to be the warmest (up to 40 F). Store yogurt, leftovers, hummus, fruit cups, and other items that do not fit in the door shelves. Grains and flours—especially whole grain flours—can become rancid over time; store them on the top shelf in airtight containers so they won't absorb moisture and odors. Store open bags of shelled nuts in the refrigerator as well.
The bottom shelf is typically the coldest part of the refrigerator. This shelf is where you should store eggs, milk, and meat. Meat should be placed on trays or in bins to prevent contamination of other foods.
Deli or Meat Drawer
Some fruits release ethylene gases, which can have an impact on vegetables and hasten decay. Most refrigerators have two crisper drawers with sliders for high or low humidity. The items that release the ethylene gases should be kept in a low-humidity drawer, while other produce belongs in the high-humidity drawer.
- Scallions/Green Onions
- Leafy Greens
Use chalk markers or sticky labels or tape to label your leftovers with names and dates. You might even add tags to the refrigerator shelves so the whole family will follow through with your organization.
What Not to Store In the Refrigerator
- Tomatoes: Green or unripe tomatoes are ripened on the counter, but ripe tomatoes are most flavorful when stored at 55 F. Unless you have a wine refrigerator, ripe tomatoes should be kept in a cool, dark place. Or, if you must store them in the fridge, Harold McGee, in his book On Food and Cooking, recommends taking ripe tomatoes out of the refrigerator a day or two before eating them. The warmer temperature will restore the fresh flavor.
- Bread: You can freeze bread for up to 3 months, but it will dry out in the refrigerator.
- Garlic: Store unpeeled garlic in the pantry and peeled garlic in the fridge.
- Onions: They belong in a cool, dry area, and away from potatoes. If you use only half of an onion, chop or slice the rest and store it in the freezer.
- Potatoes: Keep them in a cool, well-ventilated area away from onions.
- Coffee: Coffee absorbs odors, so it should not be kept in the refrigerator.
- Honey: There's no need to store honey in the refrigerator, but do store maple syrup in the fridge or freezer (it won't freeze) after opening.
- Some Sauces: Soy sauce, fish sauce, and hot chili oil.
- Most Kinds of Vinegar: Check the labels, but most don't need to be refrigerated.