Woman putting leftovers in the fridge

How To Cool Down Leftovers – The Best Way

This post may contain affiliate links which means that, if you choose to make a purchase, I may earn a small commission at no extra cost to you.

With money being tighter than ever, cooking at home is a great way to save some cash. Even better, cooking enough to have leftovers is beneficial for both your wallet and your time. So you may be wondering, what is the right way to cool down your leftovers before storing them?

There are 2 options to cool down leftovers safely. The 1st is splitting the leftovers into smaller portions and chilling. The 2nd is an ice bath before chilling. The most important thing is for food to cool from 140 °F to 70 °F (60 °C to 21 °C) within 2 hours before putting it in the fridge. If you leave dishes out at room temperature too long, they can give bacteria a chance to grow and lead to foodborne illnesses.

Why Cool Down Leftovers?

Foodborne Illness

The short answer is to avoid food-borne illness. What might seem like a random, unfortunate occurrence, food-borne illness can be prevented by implementing proper food safety practices. 

One of the most important of these practices is avoiding prolonged time spent in the “Danger Zone”. The danger zone is the temperature range 140 °F to 40 °F (60 °C to 5 °C).

Below 40 °F (5 °C)Between 40-140 °F (5 °C to 60 °C)Above 140 °F  (60 °C)

In this temperature danger zone, an exponential amount of bacteria growth can occur. Some of the varieties of bacteria that cause the most common foodborne illnesses are Norovirus, Listeria, Salmonella, and Campylobacter. 

To give yourself the best chances of avoiding these dreaded foodborne illnesses, follow the proper methods for cooling down food.

Avoiding Raising The Temperature In Your Refrigerator

What happens if you put hot food in the fridge? There is a common myth that putting hot food directly into the refrigerator will cause it to spoil or be more prone to bacteria growth. These myths are usually false! Still, there are a few things to consider.

A large pot of food that is very hot can potentially raise the temperature of the inside of the refrigerator. The proper temperature for a refrigerator to be is 40 °F (5 °C) or below. 

Most hot foods will chill fast enough to avoid long times in the danger zone, but very large, very hot dishes do run the risk of not chilling fast enough to get to a safe temperature zone quickly. This isn’t common, but it is still best to cool food before refrigeration, just to be safe. 

While a well-maintained refrigerator can usually cool everything down quickly enough to prevent any bacteria growth, some refrigerated foods don’t do well with being warm, even temporarily.

One example is fresh whipped cream or mousse. A big pot of hot soup too close to one of these delicious desserts can cause them to melt and deflate, leaving you with a sad liquid instead of something fluffy and sweet. 

So while it is usually safe enough to put hot food directly in the refrigerator, it isn’t recommended. That’s why learning to cool foods quickly and safely is important!

How To Cool Down Leftovers, The Best Way.

Smaller Portions, Quicker Cooling

Food storage containers from Amazon

The first of our proper cooling methods for food is splitting the food into smaller portions before chilling. Smaller portions of food, stored in smaller containers, will cool much faster and avoid long periods in the danger zone.

The most common way to do this is simply portioning your leftovers into multiple shallow containers, and then placing them into the refrigerator. When you portion the leftovers out this way, there is no need to let the food cool off before refrigeration. 

This cooling method is pretty basic, but there are a few tricks to make your leftover storage even safer and easier.

  • Whole chickens and other bone-in meats should be separated at the joint before portioning and chilling. Bones will retain heat longer than meat, so separating at the joints can help your meat cool faster.

Tip-Save your meat bones and veggie scraps to make stock! Homemade stock is leagues above store-bought and super simple to make.

  • Rice, stuffing, quinoa, and other dry foods can be cooled extra fast by spreading them across a sheet pan, covering, and chilling.
  • Lids can be left off of containers when they go into the fridge to encourage fast cooling. While this does speed up the process, don’t forget to replace the lids once the food has cooled. Uncovered food can dry out, and pick up tastes and smells from other foods in the refrigerator. 
  • Don’t crowd your refrigerator! An overfilled fridge blocks the proper airflow of the chilled air.
  • Don’t place hot food containers too close to each other. Generous space between hot storage containers allows more airflow and therefore quicker cooling. 
  • The portioned food can also go directly into the freezer. Just make sure your dish is okay for freezing!

With these tips and tricks in mind, you shouldn’t have any problem getting your leftovers portioned out for safe cooling!

The Ice Bath Method

Sometimes you don’t have a bunch of smaller containers with which to store your leftovers for cooling. I know in my house, storage containers can be a hot commodity. Or maybe there isn’t room in your fridge or freezer for a ton of containers. Not to worry!

The ice bath method is another simple way to cool down food quickly and safely. With just a clean sink, some cold water, and ice cubes, you can have your leftovers cooled down before you know it!

  • 1st, clean your sink. The best-case scenario is that your leftovers will never come into contact with the sink or water, but just in case we want to have a clean surface to work with.

Tip-White vinegar is a tried and true, food-safe cleaner. When mixed with water, at a 1:1 ratio, vinegar can clean all kinds of kitchen surfaces. It’s a great choice for sink cleaning, so if any food comes in contact with the sink itself, there are no harsh chemicals to worry about! 

  • 2nd, fill your sink with cold water, about halfway. A little less if you’re chilling a large amount of food. Make sure the water is as cold as your tap will get. We want to prevent the ice from melting right away.
  • 3rd, add the ice. You want enough to cover the surface, but not so much that it will make it hard to stir the ice water.
  • 4th, add the container of leftovers. There are 2 ways to do this. The 1st is a deep metal or ceramic stockpot. This will sink to the bottom, while also being tall enough to keep the top of the pot out of the water. The 2nd is multiple, smaller, floating containers with watertight lids. No loose lids! No one wants soggy leftovers.
  • 5th, you can either leave the food to chill or if you want to expedite the process, stir the ice water around the leftover container. Stirring the ice water helps avoid warm pockets in the water and keeps cold water flowing. 
  • After the leftovers have cooled to 70 °F (21°C) thoroughly dry off the containers. They are now ready to be stored in either the refrigerator or the freezer.

The Most Important Tool For Safe Leftover Cooling

Kitchen Thermometer from Amazon
Kitchen Thermometer from Amazon

The number 1, most important tool for safe food cooling, is a kitchen thermometer. There are a few different types of kitchen thermometers, but they are such a crucial part of any kitchen, that it is imperative to have at least one.

The most common type of kitchen thermometer is an instant-read thermometer. These thermometers usually have a digital screen and can switch between Fahrenheit and Celsius.

With an instant-read thermometer, you can accurately monitor the cooling process and keep your leftovers from staying in the danger zone.

Tip-My favorite instant-read thermometers are the ones where the probe is at the end of a long cord. These cords are heat-resistant and allow me to monitor the temperature of meat I’m roasting, without having to open and close the oven a million times! 

Food Safety For Leftovers Is A Big Deal! 

Now that you know what to do, it’s also important to know what to avoid.

The most important thing to avoid when cooling leftovers is to never let them cool at room temperature. It’s tempting to just turn your stovetop off and let your soup or chili cool off slowly, but it’s definitely worth the extra step to cool it safely.

Room temperature is guaranteed to fall within the temperature danger zone, and as the food cools slowly from its cooking temperature to room temperature, it is going to spend enough time in that danger zone for bacterial growth to occur.

This is also a good rule to use when defrosting frozen food. The slow change from frozen to room temperature leaves too much time in the danger zone. Room temperature is never the way to go, whether you are defrosting or cooling down.

It can be scary to think that if you cool your leftovers incorrectly, it could make you or your family sick, but proper food cooling is easy to do and doesn’t take much time at all. With a little bit of practice, it will become second nature to cool your leftovers down the best, and safest, way.

Similar Posts