Tip: Your fridge isn't just a closet for food—it’s a high-tech device that helps you store all of your favorite snacks, condiments, and meal-fixins in optimal conditions. Not only do refrigerators have different compartments that serve different purposes, they also have different temperature zones. This means that if you’re storing things in the wrong place, you're not taking advantage of the modern miracle of refrigeration. And that leads to loss of food, loss of money, and less desire to cook at home. (Who wants to face down a crisper drawer of wilted greens? Talk about a bummer!)
Food needs to be maintained at cold temperatures to prevent the growth of bacteria and other microbes that make food spoil—and can make people sick. Refrigerators should be kept at 40 F or lower, and freezers should be set to 0 F. But even when the refrigerator is sufficiently cold, the temperature will vary in different parts of the fridge depending on how close they are to the cooling element. Master the art of the refrigerator, and your food will last longer.
Your Game Plan
Let’s start with the obvious stuff: Freezers are for storing frozen things (duh!). Your ice goes in the freezer, as do frozen fruits, veggies, meat, stock, and other items. You can also store a surprising number of other foods in the freezer for later use, such as tortillas, pasta sauce, and even eggs. (Note: You can freeze bread for up to three months, but don’t store it in the fridge or it’ll dry out.) The trick with freezers is to pack foods tightly in their containers and keep things well organized, since this optimizes storage and also saves energy (and moolah on that energy bill). Rather than using glass jars, which can break, freeze foods in stackable plastic containers or in plastic freezer bags laid flat.
Doors are the warmest part of the fridge and should be reserved for foods that are most resistant to spoiling. Keep condiments, juices, and other foods that can stand up to temperature fluctuations here. (And remember that even condiments have a shelf life). Since fridge doors can get warm (particularly when they're opened often), eggs and dairy shouldn’t go here, even if you guzzle milk straight from the carton all the live-long day. (Although if that’s how you roll, you have bigger bacteria to worry about.)
The upper shelves of the fridge have the most consistent temperatures, while the lower shelves are coldest. One pro strategy from restaurant kitchens is to place foods that don’t need to be cooked near the top of the fridge. This includes leftovers, drinks, and ready-to-eat foods like tortillas, hummus, and deli meats. Herbs can be kept fresh by placing them upright in a vase or jar with water and loosely covering it with a plastic bag. You’ll also want to keep berries up here for easy access (see the crisper section for more berry info).
The lower shelves are your best bet for raw meat, eggs, seafood, and other dairy to be stored at the coldest temperatures. To prevent raw meat’s bacteria from spreading to other areas, assign a particular section of the fridge as your meat locker. Keep meat in its original packaging, and place it on a plate or in and improvised bin that’s cleaned regularly.
Overall: Don’t crowd your shelves too much. Unlike the freezer, the fridge shouldn’t be totally packed. Cold air needs to flow here, and if it can’t, you’ll get inconsistent temps with pockets of heat and warmth. (Lukewarm yogurt, anyone? Didn’t think so.) Leaving a little wiggle room between your leftovers will also help keep down your energy bill.
The purpose of crisper drawers is to maintain moist conditions that help preserve fruits and vegetables. But don’t make the mistake of jumbling all your produce together in a fruit and veg free-for-all. Many fruits, including apples, peaches, plums, pears, and cantaloupes, produce ethylene, a chemical that helps them to ripen. Unfortunately the ethylene produced can also promote ripening in other plants, causing vegetables to go yellow, limp, or even sprout. For this reason, keep veggies in one drawer and fruits in another.
Fruits and veggies should be washed before eating, but too much moisture can cause foods to flip from ripe to rotten before you can get your antioxidants on. The goal is to wash fruits and veggies when it’s convenient, but not so far in advance that they are likely to spoil before you eat them. When washing fruits, remove extra moisture by draining in a colander, blotting with paper towel, or using a salad spinner. Berries are particularly fragile, so handle with care and gobble them within a day or two of washing. (Storing them on the top shelf of the fridge will help with that.) Once washed, put greens and herbs in a plastic bag or container with a square of paper towel to soak up excess moisture and everything else in clean (and preferably clear) containers. Put the containers back in the crisper for longer-term storage or on the top shelf where you’re more likely to see them and eat them up quickly.
On Top of the Fridge
If you’ve been using the top of your fridge like a food attic, stacking bottles of Merlot or loaves of bread up there, stop. Even if your kitchen is tiny and that space feels super convenient, it’s not a smart idea. To regulate cold temps inside, the fridge’s condenser coil pumps warm air out, and that heat rises around the appliance’s cabinet. Result: It gets pretty warm up top. Heat is Kryptonite to wine. And it’ll make bread mold faster. (We’d rather get our spores from blue cheese. Amirite?) The best use of this space? Store appliances or supplies like paper towels or a stack of cookbooks.
To Fridge or Not to Fridge?
One of the tougher questions is figuring out if something goes in the fridge in the first place. Certain foods don’t belong in the fridge. Tomatoes will turn mealy and odorless in the fridge—keep them comfy at room temperature. Onions, squash, and potatoes do best in a cooler environment with low moisture, so store them in a dark cupboard or other place outside of the fridge. Avocados and many fruits are just fine being left on the counter to ripen, but also can go in the fridge to slow the process down if needed. Herbs can be kept in the fridge or in a vase on the countertop if they’ll be used with a few days.
Then there’s the gray zone: foods that can be refrigerated to maintain maximum freshness and quality but don’t have to be refrigerated if you use them up relatively quickly. For example, nuts, nut flours, and many nut butters are just fine to store in the cupboard but refrigeration will help to maintain the natural oils and keep nut butters from separating. Refrigerate these items if your house is warm or if you won’t be using these products up within a few weeks (or both).
Likewise, whole-grain flours (which contain healthy oils and nutrients) and oils low in saturated fat such as canola oil, safflower oil, and olive oil will last longer if stored in the fridge away from warm temperatures. But again, if you’re making almond-meal muffins every week, storing that flour at room temp is just fine. Bottom line: if these products are laying around your kitchen for a long time, putting them in the center or upper shelves of your fridge (or even freezing flours) will help prevent off flavors that can develop over time.