July 16, 2019

Temperature Variance in Your Fridge

A nice, hot summer day is welcomed by most of us, right? On the other hand, some grumble about the weather being "too damn hot". One of them is your fridge, or would be if it could talk. Summer is the time of food safety hazards, but those can be averted actually rather effortlessly.

The refrigerator is a marvel of modern invention.  There aren’t very many other pieces of technology that have as much of an impact on our everyday lives as the humble fridge. We don’t have to go back very far in history (in fact, just about 100 years if we’re talking about in-home fridges) to get to a point where keeping food fresh and edible beyond a day or two was virtually impossible. Can you imagine not being able to grab some meat and cheese for a quick sandwich or a cold beer from your fridge on a whim?

While the fridge is awesome, it’s hiding a dirty secret that you may not know about.  Actually, it may not be that dirty of a secret, but it's certainly conspiring against you to make your refrigerated goods not last as long as they could.

Your fridge’s dirty secret

All refrigerators have a temperature setting.  If you’re like me, you probably set it once and forgot all about it.  If you’re a little more observant than I am, you may have actually read the manual and set it to the temperature the manufacturer recommends – and then you forgot all about it.  But here’s the thing: fridges don’t stay a constant temperature, no matter what you set that dial to.

As a matter of fact, there are some distinct “zones” in each fridge – and I’m not just talking about the meat drawer or the vegetable crisper.  Generally speaking there are four different temperature zones in a fridge (five if you count the freezer).  These are as follows:

  1. The upper shelves
  2. The lower shelves
  3. The crisper drawer(s)
  4. The door(s)

The actual temperature difference in these zones will vary between different models of refrigerators.  It also depends upon how you have your fridge organised.  The only way to know the exact temperatures is to use some sort of temperature monitoring device.  You’re no doubt familiar with the old-school mercury thermometer, but there are some interesting electronic temperature monitors on the market nowadays too.  If you’re serious about this, you’ll want some sort of logger as well.  This could be something as simple as manually logging the temperatures in a spreadsheet if you’re going the old-school thermometer route.  However, if you opt for an electronic monitor it will likely have some sort of logging capabilities as well.

Why should you care?

I’m sure at this point you’re scratching your head a little bit and wondering why any of this matters.  The truth is that food spoilage is a massive issue. It causes enormous amounts of food to be wasted every year the world over due to insufficient refrigeration during shipping. It costs your local grocer a pretty penny every year when their refrigeration units fail or are improperly calibrated. Ultimately, these costs are passed down to you as a consumer, leading to higher overall food costs.

Again, you’re probably saying to yourself that there’s nothing you can do about food spoiling during shipment or while sitting on the shelves at the market.  And you’re absolutely right.  But you’re still affected on a personal level by food spoilage.  If the food in your fridge doesn’t last as long as you need it to so that you can use it, you’re literally throwing money away.  You also run an increased risk of food poisoning by eating something that may have gone off without you realising it.

How to make the most of your fridge

Here’s how you should be using each zone of your fridge to make your food last the maximum amount of time:

  1. Put your drinks, pre-packaged meals and leftovers on the upper shelves of your fridge.  If you like to put a dash of some delicious herbs in your meals, you should keep them up here too.
  2. Put your raw meat, eggs and dairy products on the lower shelves of your fridge.
  3. Put your vegetables and fruits in the crisper drawer(s) of your fridge.  This will keep the humidity higher so that they stay fresh longer.  You’re probably already doing this, but you may not realise that you should never ever store them side by side.  This is because fruits release a natural chemical as they ripen which will cause your vegetables to ripen (and ultimately spoil) like they’re on the fast-forward setting.
  4. Put your water and condiments in the door(s) of your fridge.  Any other drinks that are spoilage resistant like juice or beer would also be okay to put here.

If you follow these four simple guidelines, your food will last longer, and you’ll get the best bang for your buck out of all the electricity you use to keep your fridge running.

Did you like this post, or feel the topic is important? Take a look at the posts The Challenges of Fresh Produce Logistics and Food Spoilage is a Bigger Problem Than You Think (Part 1 and part 2).