Article: Cooling food on the counter can be dangerous!


Timaree: My mother and grandmother always told me to let food cool on the counter before putting it into the refrigerator.  Should I be doing this?

Great question and timing, as September is actually National Food Safety Education Month! This question seems to come up in class every semester, but it is indeed a myth, and can actually be quite dangerous.

Bacteria and other potentially hazardous microorganisms in food will multiply most rapidly between 41F degrees and 140F degrees, so that range is called the “Temperature Danger Zone.” Since room temperature is smack-dab in the middle of that range, you’ll want to avoid letting food sit out and be sure to cool your food as quickly as possible. That means putting warm food in the refrigerator is OK.

When we only had “iceboxes” to cool our food, putting warm food into the icebox wasn’t a good option. With modern refrigerators, given enough space for air to circulate, prompt refrigeration of cooked food makes sense.

Important tips to keep in mind: Always move prepared food from the cooking vessel (pot/pan) to a shallow container (deep containers make it too difficult to get all of the food cooled quickly enough to be safe).

Be sure not to tightly cover warm food (leave the lid ajar until it cools), and don’t let your food be in the “Temperature Danger Zone” for more than two hours total. And remember, if in doubt, throw it out! Most people are unaware of the true dangers of food poisoning, but it kills more than 5,o00 people in the U.S. each year.

I will give more tips and hints in future columns, and for more resources and information about keeping your food safe to eat, visit

Timaree Hagenburger, is a registered dietitian and certified health fitness specialist with a master’s degree in public health. She is a nutrition professor at Cosumnes River College, does corporate wellness work, as well as professional speaking engagements and teaches hands-on cooking/nutrition classes.

My article was published in the Lodi News Sentinel on September 1, 2010.

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