Health

What you should never refrigerate — and other foods to chill or keep warm

July 2, 2014 at 9:27 AM ET

If you’ve ever opened a jar, bottle, package, or container of food — and then wondered where to store it, you’re not alone. The right choice between the refrigerator or room temperature can save you money by reducing food waste and keep you from getting sick. 

When it comes to storage, both food safety and optimal taste are key factors. The location of your pantry — kitchen temperature— also impacts how long your food remains stable at room temperature. For refrigerated foods, you’ll optimize freshness by keeping a food thermometer handy, to validate the temperature ( below 40 degrees, and as low at 37).

Video: TODAY health and diet editor Madelyn Fernstrom quizzes Willie Geist and Tamron Hall on how to properly store foods, and explains whether they belong in the fridge or the pantry.

And for many shelf-stable foods that you don’t use regularly, avoid the temptation to buy giant “value” sized versions, that might spoil, or expire long before you use them.

  • Mustard/Ketchup: Stable at room temperature for up to a month. Store in refrigerator for long term freshness and optimal flavor. These are high in vinegar (an acid), helping to keep them shelf stable.
  • Canola/Olive Oil: Instructions indicate storage in a cool, dark place. While oil is shelf stable, it can get rancid after months at room temperature, especially in a hot kitchen. Choose a small bottle that you can use within several months if you want to shore at room temperature, or store in the refrigerator. The oil will get cloudy, but this does not impact flavor or safety of the oil; it clears up when returned to room temperature. This goes for nut oils, too.
  • Hot Sauce: Shelf stable. The high acid content keeps it stable.
  • Soy Sauce: Stable at room temp for up to a month. For optimal flavor, store in refrigerator if longer than a few weeks.
  • Teriyaki Sauce: While soy sauce is a major ingredient in teriyaki sauce, it must be refrigerated, once opened.
  • Whole Dill Pickles: Even with the brine, pickles must be refrigerated after opening.
  • Salsa (jar): While whole tomatoes stay on the shelf at room temperature, once opened, the salsa goes in the fridge.
  • Butter: As a dairy product, this goes in the refrigerator for long-term storage. It’s safe to keep it out for a few hours for cooking and meals, but for long-term storage, the refrigerator is the best choice.
  • Grated Parmesan Cheese: As a dairy product, this belongs in the fridge once it’s opened. And no cheese lasts forever. Even in the refrigerator, cheese will eventually become moldy. Once it has some mold, throw out the whole container — hidden mold can be in the mix, and cause food-borne illness.
  • Packaged Frosting: While mostly sugar, there often is milk or other dairy ingredients, so refrigerate leftovers. And keep the frosted cake in the refrigerator as well, returning it to room temperature before serving.
  • Jelly/Jams: These belong in the refrigerator. Even though they are high in sugar, and are slower to mold, opening the jar exposes airborn mold and spores that can enter and spoil the product.
  • Cured Meats (whole salami, pepperoni): A whole salami, wrapped in its own casing is shelf stable— until you open it. Once opened, bacteria on the knife and your hands might contaminate, so return it well wrapped to the refrigerator.
  • Minced Garlic: While whole garlic remains at room temperature, the jarred chopped or minced garlic is stored in the refrigerator, whether it is packed in oil or water.
  • Unprocessed Peanut Butter: The peanut butter with the layer of oil on top contains no additives, or preservatives. Once opened, it belongs in the refrigerator, to prevent the oil from spoiling. But popular pre-mixed peanut butters can be stored at room temperature.
  • Maple Syrup: While 100 percent maple syrup does belong in the refrigerator, the mixed-maple syrup products containing a preservative do not need refrigeration. The bottles are labeled clearly with storage instructions.
  • Honey: A very shelf-stable product because of its composition as produced by bees. When stored properly— tightly sealed, so no air can enter, it remains stable for several years. Avoid the refrigerator for honey, as it will thicken and be unpourable, until it reaches room temperature again.
  • Vinegar (Rice Wine, Red Wine, Balsamic, White): These are all food versions of acetic acid, and such an acidy food does not need refrigeration.
  • Hard-Boiled Eggs: As with any cooked food, refrigerate within 2 hours after cooking. The form of the egg doesn’t protect it from spoilage.
  • Bread: A preservative-free bread if kept at room temperature must be consumed within a day or two, or risks getting moldy — or refrigerate. Packaged breads with preservatives can be stored at room temperature for a much longer time, with a “guaranteed fresh date” provided.

And the one thing you really should never put in the fridge?

Coffee! Coffee beans are best stored at room temperature, as refrigeration can cause moisture to accumulate, impacting taste and flavor. And you don't want to do that to your delicious cup of morning joe.

The bottom line? For most foods, if you’re not sure — you’re always safe to refrigerate. Returning to room temperature restores any change in texture to the original form.


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