I usually do an awful job of cooling hot food, and I used to be even worse about leaving meat in a bowl on the counter when I marinated it (who knew?).  So I decided to do some research on how to correctly chill hot food.

It seems the challenge is in letting the hot food cool down long enough before putting it in the refrigerator so it won’t cause the temperature of the refrigerator to rise to dangerous levels. At the same time, you don’t want to leave the hot food out for too long or it will grow gnarly bacteria that can cause your body to hurl fluids from both ends.

While most people usually cook food at high enough temperatures to make it safe to eat, it’s the cool-down period that can get you in trouble. That’s because bacteria thrives in food that’s between 140 and 40 degrees for longer than four hours. (Even a turkey that’s refrigerated soon after you take it from the oven will stay in the 140 to 40 degree range for longer than is probably safe. And it seems that cold food that’s left out for longer than two hours can easily get warmer than 40 degrees and become bacteria’s best friend, unless you keep it on ice.)

So the first thing I did was check the websites of various State Extension offices, which was a dumb idea. There was plenty of advice, but how many of us are going to buy $35 ice wands to put into hot food to help cool it down faster–especially when the ice wands get mixed reviews at best?

The advice I eventually found that actually made sense was from Cook’s Illustrated The Science of Good Cooking which is a book I like a lot. Before this book arrived, I had paid $35 for another cook book on the science of cooking that the Chicago Tribune described as being indespensable. It looks beautiful from across the room, but it’s so overwhelmingly massive and in need of editing that it makes me wonder what planet the cookbook reviewers at The Tribune live on. So I’ll happily stick with The Science of Good Cooking, and here’s what that book has to say about cooling stuff down:

They tried putting a pot of boiling soup (212 degrees) directly in the refrigerator. This cooled the soup down to the desired 40 degrees in a little more than 4 hours. However, it also raised the temperature of the refrigerator to 50 degrees, which endangered the other food. So they let the boiling soup sit out to cool on the counter until it went from 212 degrees down to 85 degrees, which took about an hour. Then they put it in the refrigerator, and it cooled down to 40 degrees within 4 hours and 30 minutes, without raising the temperature of the refrigerator high enough to allow the other food to potentially spoil.

Here are other steps to consider that I found in articles and posts that have been done on this subject:

—If putting frozen peas, corn, carrots or other frozen food won’t harm the taste or integrity of the hot food, this will help cool it down much faster.

—Separating the pot of hot food into two or three containers can help.

—Placing the container of hot food in an ice water bath in your kitchen sink can cool it down much faster than leaving it sit on a counter.

—Stainless steel or metal containers seem to allow hot food to cool off faster than other kinds of container, especially if you put them in a cold water or ice water bath.

Here is an only somewhat confusing fact sheet from the Department of Agriculture. An equally unappetizing “bacteria-free buffet” fact sheet from the FDA. And here’s from FoodSaftey.gov.

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