The beloved refrigerator, if it’s running, can keep the family running too! Cool temperatures help ensure everyday food items like milk and meat maintain their shelf life and stay safe for you to eat. But if your fridge is set close to freezing, then some items may start showing frost on them. Correct fridge and freezer temperatures not only maintain the longevity of your foods, but also keep them safe from harmful bacteria.
To maintain food safety standards, it’s recommended that you always keep the fridge below 5°C and the freezer below -18°C. According to the CSIRO:
- The ideal temperature setting for the fridge is 3°C
- The ideal temperature setting for freezers is -18°C to -20°C
However, this might vary depending on the type of food and produce you keep in your fridge. It would be wise to check storage directions on product labels. Each section of the fridge can differ in temperature and we detail below where specific food items should be stored.
What’s the best temperature to store food in a fridge or freezer?
According to the Australian Institute of Food Safety, foods in your fridge should ideally be kept below 5°C for optimum freshness. Meanwhile, foods stored in the freezer should be kept below -18°C to prevent them from spoiling or being contaminated. While freezing does not kill most bacteria, it does stop bacteria from growing. Placing your food in the freezer may also decrease the quality of the nutrients in your food.
Freezing food is claimed to help make it last longer because the water content of the food freezes, preventing bacteria growth and food spoilage. When thawing frozen food, the item should be stored in the fridge at no more than 5°C until it’s ready to be prepared.
Keep in mind that freezing food doesn’t eliminate bacteria and when food thaws, bacteria begin growing again. It’s also important to avoid refreezing foods which have already been frozen and thawed, because when food is frozen for a second time, it’s more likely to have a higher bacteria count. A fridge or freezer that’s overstuffed or doesn’t close properly (i.e. because the sealing is weak or the freezer needs to be defrosted) can also put your food at risk of spoiling.
Grey or brown leathery spots sometimes found on frozen food are freezer burns. These occur when the food is not sealed properly, causing dry spots on the food. It can also be caused by the fridge being too cold.
Where should you store fruits & vegetables in the fridge?
A refrigerator comes with several compartments, each offering a different temperature range. Here’s a breakdown of what you can expect:
- Fridge door: warmest section
- Top shelf: slightly warmer section
- Middle shelf: colder section
- Bottom shelf: coldest section
- Crisper: maintains humidity
The fridge door is typically the warmest part of the fridge – largely because it’s the area exposed to the outside world when you open the door – and in particular, the top shelf of the door will be warmest. The products you store in the door can easily get up to as high as 15°C, so it’s recommended to avoid putting food items that are particularly sensitive to spoilage in the door. That’s why the top compartment of the door is usually the best place to store butter and soft cheese since these can be at a ready-to-serve temperature as soon as you take them out from the refrigerator.
Different types of foods you can put on the shelves of the fridge door include:
- Condiments (i.e. mayonnaise, BBQ & tomato sauce)
- Butter & margarine
- Soft cheeses (i.e. brie, cream cheese, feta cheese).
Door fridge aside, the top shelf of the fridge itself is slightly warmer compared to the sections below. This area is suggested to be used for ready-to-eat foods. This may include:
- Dairy products
- Yoghurts and cream
- Ready-made meals & packed foods.
Keeping these foods at the top also helps to minimise the transfer of any bacteria from raw foods.
The middle shelf is a colder section compared to the top. There is less temperature fluctuation in this area and it provides well-circulated air. It can be used for:
- Cooked meats
This is the coldest section of the fridge. To prevent food from going off, make sure that these items are sealed securely to prevent food from leaking and potentially transferring onto other items.
Here’s what you can store in the bottom fridge compartments:
- Raw meats
The crispers, or humidity drawers, will usually be slightly warmer so that the fruits and vegetables don’t freeze. Typically, this section can be adjusted – low to high – which simply opens or closes a window in the drawers. Greens including spinach, broccoli, and herbs require high humidity levels as these products are sensitive to moisture loss. Fruits including apples, mangoes, pears, and avocados are not sensitive to moisture, and thus require a lower humidity level.
How long can you leave food out of the fridge?
When placing produce in your fridge, keep in mind the following items that are often classified as ‘high-risk foods’:
- Cooked rice
- Cooked pasta.
This also includes ready-made meals that have ‘high-risk foods’ as ingredients, such as pizza, pasta salads, casseroles, quiches, sandwiches, and cakes. By keeping these ‘high-risk foods’ under 4°C it stops them from entering the ‘danger zone’ – temperatures between 5°C and 60°C. This particular temperature range gives bacteria an ideal environment to grow and multiply to numbers that cause food poisoning.
Additionally, all perishables should be placed in the fridge or freezer right away, while fresh produce like vegetables and fruits should not be left at room temperature for any longer than two hours. If you’ve neglected to properly refrigerate something, it’s usually best to throw it out.
10 ways to tell if your food is off
Food can spoil for different reasons, such as temperature fluctuations, storage at an incorrect temperature, weak or damaged packaging as well as bugs or rodents. Aside from leaving a bad taste in your mouth, consuming spoiled foods can result in adverse reactions and symptoms of food poisoning including nausea, stomach cramps, vomiting, diarrhoea, fever, and other issues associated with food poisoning. Yuck!
Here are some common tell-tale signs that your food may be off or spoiled:
- Change in texture
- Bad smell
- Unpleasant taste
- Mould or yeast
- Slimy film
- Swollen or dented can
- Can sprays or hisses once opened
- Food is past its use-by date or shelf life.
Although as a general rule, it’s probably better to be safe than sorry: If in doubt, throw it out.
The bottom line on fridge & freezer temperatures
Maintaining the ideal fridge and freezer temperature is important. The ‘temperature danger zone’ between 5°C and 60°C can potentially give rise to harmful bacteria. But storing perishable foods at, or below 5°C can prevent bacteria from multiplying, so don’t forget to check your thermometer regularly.
Plus, did you know that you could potentially be paying more for electricity just because your fridge and freezer aren’t at the correct temperature? Keeping your refrigerator below the recommended temperature can make your fridge work harder to achieve colder temperatures inside the unit, forcing it to use more energy than it would otherwise need to.
Other helpful tips include:
- Avoid keeping the fridge door open for prolonged periods
- Cover liquids stored in the fridge because these items release moisture, which makes the compressor work more
- Keep an eye on temperatures using a thermometer – if your fridge doesn’t come with an in-built thermometer, you can purchase one and place it below the top shelf, towards the door to give a general indication of the fridge temperature
- Regularly check your fridge and freezer’s temperatures and adjust the thermostat accordingly
- Defrost your fridge and freezer regularly to avoid frost build-up, which decreases the energy efficiency of the appliance. Although many refrigerators now come with a frost-free feature, which automatically defrosts it for you.
If you’re in the market for a new fridge, why not check out our online ratings and see what refrigerator brands are keeping Aussie consumers happy?
Picture credit: Yashkin Ilya/Shutterstock.com, Andrey Armyagov/Shutterstock.com.