Cooking Basics
How to Optimize Fridge, Freezer, and Pantry Space in Your Kitchen
The ways in which we organize and maintain our kitchen are always important, but recently they’ve become absolutely essential.
03-28-2020
Avery Lowe
Avery Lowe

Our eating spaces at home have never been more sacred—or busier, since most of us are preparing almost all of our meals at home. The ways in which we organize and maintain these spaces is always important, but recently they’ve become absolutely essential. As America’s Test Kitchen’s full-time shopper and a member of its Kitchen Operations team, I’d love to share some tips I use at work that you can also use at home.

You can break down your kitchen into three distinct categories: dry (pantry goods), cold (refrigerated goods), and frozen (freezer goods). If you store everything properly, you’ll be able to waste less, save more, and ultimately be a more efficient and successful cook. With these simple guidelines, your kitchen and cooking will run as smoothly as our Test Kitchen does.

Steps for an Organized Pantry

  • Marry like-items. If you are currently stocking multiple boxes of open penne pasta, for example, it’s a good idea to free up space by combining them in a less bulky container. Having a pantry full of open or almost-empty boxes isn’t a good use of space, so by transferring grains to a tight-fitting plastic or glass container you are preserving the life of the ingredient and potentially giving more space for less uniform shaped foods (like potatoes). Check out our favorite containers here.
  • Practice FIFO (First In First Out). This means that when you are marrying like-ingredients, check those expiration dates and make sure the items to expire first get a spot at the top of the container. A general rule of thumb is that if an ingredient got to your kitchen first it should be the first to leave!
  • Store produce smartly. Make sure produce such as potatoes, onions, shallots, and garlic live in a cool, dark, dry spot with enough ventilation between them. This will slow down the sprouting process.

Food Safety in the Fridge

  • Know your fridge’s temp. Your refrigerator might already have a built-in thermometer, but to maintain cold, consistent temperatures it’s a good idea to keep a thermometer on one of the shelves as a second form of security. Our favorite refrigerator/freezer thermometer is from ThermoWorks.
Best Fridge/Freezer Thermometer

ThermoWorks Fridge/Freezer Alarm

Accurate and customizable. It alerts you when your appliances stray from the designated temperatures and when they stay outside the safe zone for more than 30 minutes.

  • Cool hot foods before you transfer them to the fridge. Because you may be making dishes in bulk right now, it’s important to know the right way to cool and store meals in food storage containers. For soups and stews, these should always be cooled in an ice bath before going into food-storage containers. When I started working at America's Test Kitchen, I had to take a food safety class and I learned all about the risks of foodborne illness in our everyday preparation of food. Perishable foods should be refrigerated within two hours (or one hour if it’s hotter than 90° outside), and the food should be cooled to 70° before storing. (The food should then get to at least 41° in the fridge, within four hours, to be considered in the “safe zone.”) To create an ice bath, fill a large bowl or container with ice water and salt (check out this page for exact measurements) and sit the pot in the water, stirring as the food cools. It also helps to break food into smaller portions in a few small containers when using the ice bath.
Cooling quickly
  • Store food in the proper order. Food in your in fridge should also be stored properly to prevent foodborne illness, in this order: 
    → Ready-to-eat foods (such as dairy items, already cooked meats and sauces) should go on top.
    Raw proteins should go next (if you have the room it should be in this order top to bottom: cured/smoked meats, seafood, whole cuts of meat, ground meats and poultry).
    Produce should be stored in crisper drawers.
  • Know your refrigerator’s zones. Having more time right now to really get to know your fridge could be a game changer and forever improve the quality of your food-storage practices. The following is a thorough guide from our modern guide to home cooking, The New Essentials Cookbook:

    The Cold Zone (back, top to bottom): The area of the shelves at the back of the fridge (and at the bottom of the door) are normally the coldest areas. 
    What to store there: prepared foods, leftovers, meat, dairy, and produce that is not prone to chilling injury (apples, cherries, grapes) 

    The Moderate Zone (front, top to bottom): The areas at the front of the refrigerator, front top to the bottom shelves, are generally moderate, with temperatures above 37 degrees. This also includes the top shelves on the door, which can be warmer and should therefore be reserved for items like beverages and condiments
    What to store there: eggs, butter, and fruits and vegetables that are sensitive to chilling injury (berries, citrus, melons)

    The Humid Zone (crisper drawer): The crisper drawer provides a humid environment that helps keep produce with a high water content from shriveling and rotting. However, if the humidity is too high, water can accumulate and hasten spoilage. You can regulate the humidity by adjusting the vents; the more cold that is let in, the less humid the environment will be. (If your crisper doesn’t have a slide control, it is always at the highest humidity level of which it is capable.
    What to store there: artichokes, asparagus, beets, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, celery, chiles, cucumbers, eggplant, fresh herbs, green beans, leafy greens, leeks, lettuce, mushrooms, peppers, radishes, scallions, summer squash, turnips, zucchini
  • What not to store in your fridge: 
    → Bread and most other baked goods (the cold speeds up the staling process; store bread on the counter or in a bread box; otherwise, freeze it)
    Some fruits: apricots, mangos, nectarines, peaches, pineapples, plums
    Some fruits until they’re ripe, then can be refrigerated to avoid overripening: bananas, kiwis, pears

Some Key Freezer Tips

  • Know the basics. Our Cook’s Illustrated team put together a quick and helpful guide to understanding airflow and temperature in the standard home freezer. With these guidelines you’ll get a better understanding of how to keep your food fresh and make it last longer.
  • The freezer can keep breads fresh. If you’ve recently purchased bread at the grocery store and don’t plan to eat it right away, use the freezer to keep it fresh. If the bread is pre-sliced, make sure it’s tightly sealed (with as little air as possible) in a resealable plastic bag. If you’re looking to freeze bagels or boules, make sure they’re sliced first to accommodate immediate toasting needs. 
  • Freeze items flat, then transfer to freezer bag: When it comes to preserving fresh fruit for smoothies, baked goods, and toppings for yogurt and cereals, it’s best to slice the fruit when ripe. After slicing, transfer the cut fruit to a parchment-lined baking sheet, making sure the fruit is at least a few inches apart, and freeze. When the fruit is completely frozen it is ready to be stored in reusable containers or bags. Freezing it flat first prevents it from sticking together when transferred to another container.
  • You can freeze more than you think. I’m a big believer in freezing everything I can, so when Cook’s Country came out with this list of ingredients you didn’t know you could freeze I was tempted to print them out and have them framed. Some of my favorites are cheese, buttermilk and wine—who knew?!

Being intentional in how you treat the food in your kitchen makes it easier to feed yourself and your loved one. Recently, my family and I made Cook’s Illustrated’s recipe for ground beef chili and rounded out the meal with a pear galette. While I was delighted that there was enough chili to save and freeze for another time, I was ultimately most gratified by the process we took in getting there. I’ve been guilty of over-stocking my pantry unnecessarily at times, but now, with more of a need to do so than ever before, I’m thoughtfully practicing the art of planning, organizing, and cherishing everything I make.