If you’re anything like us, when you come home from a trip to the grocery store, the first thing you do is take all of your perishables and toss them into the fridge, freezer, and pantry (respectively). But have you ever stopped to think if the cheese you’ve purchased for tonight’s dinner party should be refrigerated at the same temperature as the chicken you’ll be serving? Or why that beautiful bag of lettuce you purchased so optimistically wilted to a sad demise while your eggs and milk seem to sit in there for weeks absolutely unruffled by the cold?
You know that the right thing to do is to put these items in the fridge (what else would you do with items straight from the grocery store freezer?) - but what if you knew the exact temperature points at which food items thrived or perished?
According to the FDA, it’s suggested to keep your refrigerator temperature at or below 40° F (4° C), and the freezer temperature should be 0* F (-18° C) - so let’s assume that that’s, generally, the temperature at which your fridge operates. (We’ll give you a second to get up and check your own.) As you probably know, food such as dairy products, meats, poultry, eggs, and fresh fruits and vegetables, will spoil rapidly if not stored at proper temperatures. So with that said, read on for three common perishable food categories that you probably didn’t realize that you’ve been storing incorrectly.
While there is certainly a large breadth of subcategories that can be included in the dairy category, we’ll focus here on the dream trio of milk, eggs and cheese. For quality and safety, most dairy products should be stored at refrigerated temperatures between 34°F and 38°F - but continue reading for a deeper dive on the how and why.
By law, when being stored in commercial environments, Grade A milk must be maintained at a temperature of 45°F or below, as bacteria in milk will grow minimally below 45°F. However, temperatures well below 40°F are necessary to protect the milk’s quality. It is critical that these temperatures be maintained through warehousing, distribution, delivery and storage. The cooler refrigerated milk is kept, the longer it lasts and the safer it is. As the product is allowed to warm, the bacteria grow more rapidly. Properly refrigerated, milk can withstand about two weeks’ storage.
Eggs should be purchased, refrigerated, and stored in the refrigerator in their original carton between 33°F and 37°F. As tempting as it may be to move your eggs from the store carton to one already in your fridge, the storage of eggs in the original carton reduces absorption of odors and flavors from other foods stored in the refrigerator. Leftover egg yolks and egg whites may be stored in the refrigerator covered for 2 and 4 days, respectively. Hard-boiled eggs may be stored in the refrigerator for 1 week, whereas pasteurized liquid eggs may be stored in the refrigerator for 10 days. If you’re planning on going out of town and are worried about your eggs spoiling, you can also crack them open and store your egg whites and pasteurized eggs in the freezer for up to one year! (Shelled eggs, however, should never be stored in the freezer - when raw eggs freeze, the liquid inside expands, which can cause the shells to crack. As a result, the contents of the egg can spoil and are at risk of bacterial contamination. Additionally, freezing raw, shelled eggs can negatively affect the texture, as the egg yolks become thick and gel-like, which may affect the quality of your final product.)
The recommended temperature range for storing cheese is between 35°F and 45°F at a high humidity level, preferably in the bottom vegetable/fruit bin. To avoid accidentally freezing the cheese, don’t store it near the freezer compartment or in the meat bin. In general, never freeze natural cheeses, as they may lose their texture, and in some cases their flavor profiles will be seriously altered. If you must freeze cheese, allow the cheese to thaw slowly in the refrigerator prior to use and use it for cooking, as the texture will become crumbly and dry after it is defrosted.
Here’s where it starts to get tricky. Due to the wide variety of fruits and vegetables available at our fingertips, it’s nearly impossible to make a single recommendation for cool storage of all produce. Climate of the area where the crop originated, the plant part, the season of harvest and crop maturity at harvest are important factors in determining the optimum temperature. Read on for our suggestions!
A general rule for vegetables is that cool-season crops should be stored at cooler temperatures (32°F to 35°F), and warm-season crops should be stored at warmer temperatures (45°F to 55°F). Lower temperatures slow respiration rates and the ripening processes, which prolongs storage life. Low temperatures also slow the growth of pathogenic fungi which cause spoilage of stored produce. The University of Maine created a helpful chart with the ideal storage temperatures of many popular fruits and vegetables, which can be used as a jumping off point if you’re not sure if your produce should live inside or outside of your fridge. The length of time vegetables can be stored also varies widely - for example, hardy vegetables such as carrots and cabbage will last for weeks, while delicate vegetables such as lettuce should be consumed as soon possible after purchase, as their disintegration rate tends to be quite rapid.
Most fruit should be stored in the refrigerator between 36°F and 39°F to ensure freshness and to prevent rapid deterioration. There are, however, a number of exceptions, including potatoes and bananas, which should be stored at higher temperatures. Conversely, if you’re seeking to ripen your fruit rather than preserve it, you may expedite the ripening process by allowing your fruit to sit at room temperatures of 50°F to 59°F. As mentioned above, there are exceptions to this rule, however, so it’s important to remain mindful of fruits that require special storage conditions. For example, bananas stored in the refrigerator turn black quickly - so bananas should be stored under conditions where the temperature range is 50°F to 59°F.
And now we get to the meat of it - literally! These items are the most difficult to store and likely some of the most expensive food items that you’ll bring home from the market, so it’s essential that you store them in a way that maximizes both the quality of the product you’ve purchased as well as ensures its maximum shelf life.
It’s important to keep in mind that fresh meat should not be kept too long prior to consumption. Boned meat should be kept no longer than three days, and individual cuts should be used within two days, preferably on the day they are cut. The ideal temperature for the storage of fresh meat is 28°F to 32°F. As storage temperatures approach 40°F, perishability increases, and rapid growth of bacteria begins at about 50°F. Meat in transit from the place of purchase or left to thaw at room temperature invites the growth of spoilage organisms. If meat is not going to be used within a few days after purchase, it should be frozen as soon as possible to preserve optimal quality.
First and foremost, to prevent cross-contamination in the grocery cart or in your refrigerator, always place poultry in plastic bags to keep juices from leaking or dripping onto other food items. Raw poultry should be stored in a bowl or on a platter in the bottom of the refrigerator at approximately 38°F to 40°F and for no more than one to two days. It is best to use any cooked chicken (that has been safely refrigerated) within three to four days. Additionally, it is always best to marinate your meat in your fridge and thaw in either the fridge, microwave, or cold water rather than on the counter - the change in room temperature can attract unwanted bacteria and make a perfectly good meal go bad very quickly.
Although there are many types of seafood available from commercial sources or from recreational fishing, all fish and shellfish are highly perishable, and the same basic storage and handling guidelines should be followed: Keep It Cold™, keep it clean, store it quickly, and prepare and cook it properly. Fresh seafood should be packed in ice, stored between 30°C to 34°F, and used as soon as possible. Fish will lose quality and deteriorate rapidly with higher storage temperature – so use ice when you can. Always purchase seafood last during your shopping trip, and bring a cooler to transport it home. If you have caught your own fish, do not let them sit on the deck until you come back to the dock - but instead, bury them in ice immediately or use an ice slush with approximately 2 parts ice to 1 part water to keep your catch cold.
While you probably don’t need to dive into the semantics for every piece of cheese or slice of lox you serve your guests at your upcoming dinner party, it’s important to remember that something as seemingly minimal as a few degrees can make a world of difference - especially when considering that many of the people who are tasked with remembering these nuggets of information are the people transporting mass amounts of food, medicine, and other perishables around the country and globe.
In future blogs on this account, we’ll discuss the ideal temperatures for other perishable items, including alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages (have you ever considered what the ideal temperature for water is? We have!), flowers (think about the Rose Bowl - how do transportation services ensure that the 60,000+ flowers used for those iconic floats don’t wilt before the big show?), and even medical and recreational items such as vaccines and marijuana!
All of the Keep It Cold™ units can be set as either a freezer or a fridge, so whether you want a crisp 36°F or an Arctic blast of -10°F, we can make it happen. So when it comes to food safety and quality, leave it to the professionals - and we’ll ensure that every item not only arrives in front of you at the exact right temperature, but that its conditions were carefully monitored and ensured every step of the way. When you book with us, you know we won’t leave you out in the cold.