Five steps to cooling food quickly and safely

In five easy steps, you can cool food quickly so that it will be safe to eat later.

Photo by Jeannie Nichols
Photo by Jeannie Nichols

Improper cooling of foods can be a major cause of food borne illness. Michigan State University Extension receives many consumer calls asking how to safely cool prepared foods. One of the questions in a recent email I received asked, “Is this soup safe to eat?” The consumer had prepared four quarts of soup the night before and put it in the refrigerator, before refrigerating, two quarts of frozen zucchini was added. After being refrigerated overnight, the soup was still warm. Is this soup safe to bring to a family whose mother is sick?

The answer to this question is NO. This soup is definitely not safe for anyone to eat. It must be thrown out.

Michigan State University Extension offers these suggestions for cooling food quickly and safely:
  1. Don’t put hot food in a refrigerator. Hot food can easily raise the temperature of everything in the refrigerator and may put it in the temperature danger zone. The temperature danger zone is 41-140 degrees Fahrenheit. Food does not move through the temperature danger zone fast enough if the food is still hot when placed in the refrigerator, or even the freezer.
  2. Place the hot food into smaller containers or cut large pieces of food into small pieces. As a side note, stainless steel transfers heat from foods faster than plastic.
  3. Then if your food is still hot or even very warm, place the containers in an ice water bath. An ice water bath is simply a pan, or sink, of ice and water that you can sit the container in. Stir the food so that it cools even quicker.
  4. Food should be cooled and ready to go into the refrigerator or freezer within two hours from the time that you took it off of the stove or out of the oven.
  5. When you put your cooled food in the refrigerator, loosely wrap it so that the cold air will get it to 41 F as soon as possible. When it is completely cooled, put a lid or tight wrap on the container.

If you are cooling soup, or stew, you can add frozen food, water or ice or any other liquid that would be part of the soup or stew and that will help it cool more quickly too. But as you can see from the question above, the person had added two quarts of frozen zucchini and it wasn’t enough to cool it adequately.

Food often needs help cooling down fast enough to be safe. Take the time to cool food within two hours and get it into the refrigerator or freezer so that you have a high quality safe food to eat later.

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