Refrigerating leftovers — hot or not?

Originally Published: July 1, 2011
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When cooking and you have leftovers, should they be put in the refrigerator while hot? Or should you cool them first?

Dear Reader,

Despite what you may have heard, you do not need to wait for hot food to cool before putting it in the fridge. Your fridge is designed to cool things down, so let it fulfill its refrigerating destiny! In fact, leaving food out to cool before tucking it away in the fridge gives bacteria the chance to multiply. So unless you want a side of germs with your leftovers, it's a good idea to get them into the fridge ASAP.

When it comes to storing leftovers, make sure they are covered to keep in moisture and prevent them from drying out. Of course, covering hot leftovers then throwing them in a cold fridge may keep in too much moisture in the form of condensation. If you want to avoid this, you could try letting them cool in the fridge without a lid for a few minutes before covering them so as to minimize unwanted condensation in their container. Or, if you're truly opposed to putting hot foods into the fridge, just remember, the longer food is kept at room temperature, the higher the likelihood that unwanted bacteria might take up residence. Instead of giving the bacteria the opportunity to enjoy your leftovers before you do, place the containers of food in an ice or cold water bath to cool them as quickly as possible before storing them in the refrigerator.

For quicker cooling, you may also want to consider splitting up your leftovers into smaller, shallow containers. This is especially helpful for soups or large portions of protein like chicken or beef. One tidbit to keep in mind when refrigerating soups and other liquids is that if left uncovered in the fridge, they may release moisture that could cause the compressor (the mechanism that allows it to create a cool, bacteria-unfriendly environment for your food) to work extra hard.

Overall, a general rule of thumb is to keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. This sounds pretty simple but the lesson to take home is that leftovers (whether hot or cold) need to be reheated or refrigerated within two hours to prevent a garnish of bacteria that could potentially put you at greater risk of becoming sick.