Need to know
- Putting certain foods in the fridge can do more harm than good, encouraging decay and spoiling flavours
- Bread and coffee should never be stored in the fridge, but they can go in the freezer
- Eggs don't need to go in the fridge, but they'll last longer if they do, especially if kept in their carton
Do you know which foods don't need to be refrigerated? For many of us, the answer is a matter of what we grew up with or personal preference.
But there are some hard and fast rules. (With certain caveats, of course, such as if you live in the tropics where things turn mouldy at the drop of a hat.)
Here are some foods you definitely shouldn't put in your fridge.
Tomatoes are best left on the bench. Research shows that chilling tomatoes below 12°C limits their ability to generate substances that contribute to aroma and taste. In other words, they won't be as nice to eat.
"Tomatoes lose flavour when placed in the fridge," says CHOICE's home economist Fiona Mair. "I always keep my tomatoes in my fruit bowl or on the window sill.
"I like to buy a mixture of firm and slightly soft tomatoes so I have beautifully ripened tomatoes I can use across the week."
And because they're sensitive to ethylene – a gas that accelerates ripening – keeping them separate from ethylene-producing foods, such as bananas, apples, pears and oranges, will ensure your tomatoes stay fresh for longer.
Ground or whole-bean coffee should never be kept in the fridge, even if it's in an airtight container. Why? Because coffee works as a deodoriser and absorbs moisture, odours and flavours from the air around it, making your morning cuppa taste less like the nectar of the gods and more like a nasty flavouring of 'fridge'. Ew.
Instead, keep your beans in an airtight container in a dark space such as your pantry, away from sunlight, heat, steam and moisture. For the best flavour and freshness, buy your beans as fresh as possible and use them 1-4 weeks after roasting.
Many experts don't recommend freezing coffee however, according to the US National Coffee Association. If you do freeze your coffee, make sure you use a truly airtight container and do so in small portions because, once you've taken your beans out of the freezer, it's best not to put them back in again.
3. Uncut root vegetables
Root vegetables, such as potatoes, onions, sweet potato and garlic, thrive outside the fridge. The humidity in fridge crispers can cause root vegetables to rot faster. It's also important that you don't store root vegetables together, as this can affect their flavour.
"Keeping these types of food out of the refrigerator is generally to avoid moisture absorption that happens in the refrigerator, as this can cause foods to ferment and reduce the taste and quality," says Fiona. "Best to find a cool dry dark spot in your kitchen."
Root vegetables thrive outside the fridge
According to Aloysa Hourigan, accredited practising dietitian and nutritionist and media manager at Nutrition Australia, there are some exceptions to the rule, especially after the vegetables have been cut.
"Onions are best stored out of the fridge until they're cut, then need to be covered or placed in a sealed container and kept in the fridge," she says.
"Whole pumpkins can be stored out of the fridge for many weeks, but once cut, they need to be stored in the fridge."
4. Oils and sauces
"Coconut oil is climate-dependant and will solidify at temperatures lower than 24°C, so it's best to keep it in a cool, dark place like the pantry," says Fiona.
But she says as a general guide, nut and seed oils are best kept in the refrigerator, otherwise they're "more likely to oxidise and go rancid quickly".
Whether or not you need to put a condiment in the fridge depends entirely on the type of sauce, oil or spread you have, how much preserving salt or sugar they contain, and whether it's been opened.
"With bottled sauces, such as soy sauce, sweet chilli sauce, oyster sauce and curry pastes, it's always best to check the label to see if it says 'refrigerate after opening'," says Aloysa.
Bread doesn't belong in the fridge – it'll go stale much faster than if you just keep it in the pantry.
Instead, keep your bread in an airtight tin, bread box or, for hard-crusted bread, a brown paper bag. Avoid plastic too, as this encourages bread to go mouldy faster.
Fresh bread will only last a few days before it naturally goes stale, but you can extend its life span by putting it in the freezer. Doing so slows down the natural process of retrogradation and recrystallisation, and stops it going stale.
However, if you live in a humid climate, you may find that your bread turns mouldy quickly. "We found that if you freeze bread immediately after slicing, it remains fresh for quite some time," says a CHOICE Community member who lives in the tropics.
"We just pop slices into the toaster straight from the freezer. Whole loaves or buns can be either oven heated or microwaved."
6. Honey and peanut butter
Honey and nut spreads are all unique, so all need different types of storage. This is why it's important to always check the label for advice.
Honey is one of the few foods in the world that never spoils thanks to its one-of-a-kind chemical make-up. The reason honey doesn't go bad is because bacteria can't grow in it, so it's happy to sit at room temperature in your pantry, where it stays soft and easy to spread. When refrigerated, honey crystallises, but is still perfectly edible.
Honey's durability is legendary. When archeologists opened ancient Egyptian tombs, they found jars of honey from the days of the Pharaohs that were still good to eat.
Although bacteria-free, botulism may be present in honey. It's not usually harmful to adults but that's the reason why honey is not recommended for babies under 12 months old.
As for peanut butter, it's fine in the pantry for three months or so after opening (in temperate climates). But to extend its shelf life and avoid oil separation, you can also keep it in the fridge, though this will harden it and could make it a bit more difficult to spread.
7. Basil and parsley
Some herbs such as coriander and mint are best kept in the refrigerator crisper, wrapped loosely in absorbent paper and put in a sealed container.
But basil and parsley will turn a nasty shade of yuk if you keep them in the crisper.
"These herbs seem to do better out of the fridge," says Aloysa. "The dry air in the refrigerator causes the leaves to wilt easily."
To store your basil and parsley, Fiona says, cut the bottom of the stems, place them in a jar with a small amount of water, then leave the jar in a cool place. "You'll just need to change the water and cut the bottom of the stems every couple of days," she says.
8. Warm leftovers
Putting hot food in the fridge can wreak havoc on its internal temperature, which may affect other food in the fridge as well.
But leave your leftovers out for too long and you run the risk of letting food poisoning bacteria multiply. Food shouldn't be left out of the fridge in the 'danger zone' of between 5°C and 60°C for more than two hours.
So, for the sake of freshness as well as food safety, portion any leftover hot food into shallow containers and allow to cool to around 60°C (roughly when it stops steaming) before placing in the fridge.
For more information, see FSANZ's tips for cooling and heating food safely.
Should you put eggs in the fridge?
Eggs don't need to go in the fridge, but they'll last longer if they do.
If they've been washed or refrigerated before (for instance, at the supermarket) then they should also go in your fridge at home.
Leave the eggs in their cardboard cartons (not in the egg holders in your fridge door) to stop condensation building up. The carton also helps stop eggs absorbing odours from the rest of the fridge, and is a good reminder of the use-by date.
Leave the eggs in their cardboard cartons to stop condensation building up
Aloysa also recommends discarding any cracked eggs and not washing eggs with water because shells are porous and doing so may encourage the growth of bacteria.
"If an egg appears dirty, the advice recommended by the egg industry is that it is OK to wipe it with a dry paper towel – but if the dirt does not come off, then it is best to discard the egg," she says.
What foods should go in which parts of the fridge?
For all the other foods that do need to go in the fridge, the way you store them can have a big impact on how long they last, and may even lower your energy bills.
Fruit and vegetables should always be kept in the crisper drawer, and meat and fish in a chiller at about zero degrees. If your fridge doesn't have a chiller, pop them in the coldest part of the fridge – usually at the back, where it's less susceptible to warm drafts from the door regularly opening.
Butter and cheese should go in the dairy compartment, if your fridge has one. This is because it's designed to be slightly warmer and your butter will be easier to spread and your cheese closer to serving temperature.
The downside is that your soft cheeses may not last as long. So if you're not going to eat it straight away, put cheese in the main fridge compartment, which is colder.