Cold food storage: benefits, challenges and considerations

Cold food storage is a fundamental aspect of food safety. If you’re operating a restaurant or managing a commercial kitchen, it’s critical to learn the basics of cold storage and understand how it can help you deliver a safe, efficient food service experience for your customers.

What is cold food storage?

Cold storage is the process of storing perishable food items at a low temperature to maintain food safety and improve food preservation. Foods that require cold storage include meat, cheese, fruits, vegetables, eggs, fish and dairy products such as ice cream.

You’ll find cold storage facilities and equipment throughout the food and restaurant industries. As foods make their way from a farm, processing plant or manufacturing facility to the end buyer, they’re often transported in refrigerated vehicles. Along the route, they may be kept temporarily in cold storage warehouses. This network is typically called the cold chain.

Individual restaurants and grocery stores also use cold food storage on a smaller scale. This might include commercial freezers and refrigerators; larger restaurants may opt for walk-in freezers or refrigerators, which are also known as cold rooms.

Why is it important to store food in cold storage?

Cold storage helps prevent food poisoning in your restaurant — an important consideration, given that 1 in 6 Americans get sick from food-borne diseases every year. Low temperatures inhibit the growth of bacteria and pathogenic microorganisms, keeping food safe until you’re ready to prepare it. The cold, controlled environment also keeps parasites out and slows down processes that cause food to spoil, including enzyme reactions, oxidation and light exposure.

Maintaining correct food temperature levels also affects your bottom line. Cold storage helps prevent perishable foods from going bad, so you can save money on food spoilage.

Benefits of cold food storage

As a restaurant owner, investing in a high-quality cold storage system comes with a few important benefits:

  • Keeps customers safe. By reducing the risk of food poisoning bacteria, you can create a better customer experience and maintain a positive reputation.
  • Complies with industry regulations. Health inspectors look closely at how your restaurant stores foods. Sticking to proper temperature levels helps you stay compliant with the food code.
  • Reduces food waste. Cold storage slows down the spoilage rate for foods, which reduces food waste.
  • Lowers your prices. When you’re not wasting money on cold foods, you can pass the savings on to your customers.
  • Improves food quality. Low temperatures slow the deterioration rate of food, ensuring high-quality taste, texture and appearance for longer.

7 cold storage best practices

Many restaurants develop unique cold food storage systems to suit their order volume, menu, workflow, and available space. Whether you’re using an enormous walk-in or a collection of smaller refrigerators and freezers, standard best practices can increase food safety.

1. Avoid the temperature danger zone

According to the USDA, the “danger zone” ranges from 40ºF to 140ºF. When food reaches these temperatures, bacteria grow quickly — in fact, it can double in just 20 minutes. Make sure your refrigeration units are always below 40ºF, keep freezers at a minimum of 0°F, and avoid leaving food out for too long. As a rule of thumb, perishable items should never be out for more than 1 to 2 hours, depending on the room temperature.

2. Constantly maintain and monitor your storage temperature

As with any other electronic device, cold-storage equipment needs regular maintenance. Monitor your refrigerators and freezers consistently using a separate internal thermometer. If you notice that the temperature is starting to rise in a refrigeration unit, bring in a repair person immediately. A proactive approach can head off major problems, saving money and preventing food loss.

3. Organize foods according to their required degree of cooking

Proper cold-storage organization can help prevent cross contamination between foods. Items that can be eaten right out of the fridge, including packaged desserts and cut vegetables, should be stored on the top shelf. The foods that require the highest cooking temperatures should always be on the bottom — that way, they’re less likely to drip on other foods and transport bacteria.

From top to bottom, here’s where you should place each type of prepared and raw food in the refrigerator based on the required cooking temperature:

  • Washed produce and other foods that are ready to eat
  • Items that will be put in hot food holding
  • Eggs, seafood and raw meats including beef, lamb, veal and pork
  • Marinated, tenderized or ground meats and eggs that will go into hot holding
  • Poultry and meals that include temperature-controlled ingredients or cooked meat, such as casseroles or stuffing

4. Refrigerator or freeze perishables right away

When you’re receiving a shipment, aim to get perishable items into a cold storage space as soon as possible to minimize warming, reduce bacteria growth and help food stay good for longer. The same goes for food prep; ask your kitchen staff to return unused portions to the fridge or freezer quickly.

If you need to store cooked food in the refrigerator or freezer, aim to do it within 2 hours. If your kitchen is 90ºF or warmer, transfer food to cold storage within 1 hour. You don’t need to wait for it to cool first — just put it in a shallow container to help it cool down faster in the fridge.

5. If you lose electricity, keep doors closed as much as possible

Reduce food loss during a power outage by keeping refrigerator and freezer doors closed. Every time you open the door, it lets in warmer air and increases the internal temperature. When the power comes back on, check the internal thermometer — if the temperature is below the danger zone, your food is still safe to use. If the interior is too warm, you’ll need to dispose of all the food to prevent foodborne illnesses.

6. Allow circulation

As you place food in the refrigerator or freezer, don’t pack the space too full. Leave room for air to circulate and keep the food cool. If your inventory size doesn’t allow for extra space, you may need to invest in additional refrigeration units.

7. Labels and date everything

It’s easy to lose track of use-by dates in a busy restaurant kitchen. To make sure you’re not keeping foods too long in the refrigerator, label everything with large, easy-to-read dates. Then, train your kitchen crew to use the oldest items first. This practice, which is called first in, first out (FIFO), can reduce food waste and improve food safety.

While you’re labeling food for freezing, make sure it’s packaged correctly. To prevent freezer burn on frozen food items, use freezer bags; standard plastic bags and plastic wrap may allow too much air in.

Improving food safety at your restaurant

Proper cold food storage is one of the best things you can do to improve food safety and protect your inventory. Your delivery strategy matters, too; keeping prepared food hot, both while awaiting pickup and in transit, can stave off harmful bacteria and maintain excellent quality.

Grubhub can help — every aspect of our platform and delivery process is optimized to help your restaurant provide a safe and healthy dining experience. The Grubhub system finds a delivery driver while your cooks are preparing the food, ensuring fast pickup. To reduce heat loss during the journey, Grubhub drives store meals in insulated delivery bags. If your restaurant can benefit from fast, efficient delivery, partner with Grubhub today.

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