By Rob Newton
Yesterday we talked about how to organize your pantry like a chef, an important step if you’re looking to take your cooking to the next level. Today we’re going to tackle the refrigerator.
Restaurant chefs are lucky to have special refrigerators called walk-ins. These are large, cold, enclosed boxes that you can literally walk in to, procure what you need, and walk back out. In most cases, all the goods are organized in sections. Dairy, meat, fish, and produce are generally stored together. The raw and more perishable items are stored on the bottom shelves — think eggs, pork, chicken, etc. — because it’s colder down there and if something breaks or drips, it won’t spill onto everything else. But the most important practice is that every single item has a specific place.
The second most important concept when it comes to a walk-in is a rotation system called FIFO. This stands for First In, First Out and you definitely should be practicing this at home. It’s crucial for many reasons — taste, food safety, and the general cleanliness of your soon-to-be very organized refrigerator. Basically, when you put something new in the walk-in, you put it behind anything similar or identical. This way, you use the older items first. How many times do you rummage through your fridge, discover something, and think, “I didn’t know this was in here.” Or how often do you buy something you already have? FIFO and a solid organization system eliminate that and any resulting food waste.
So you might not have a refrigerator the size of a large SUV, but you can certainly start treating your fridge as if it were your own walk-in. Here are some practices I follow for organizing my own refrigerator, as well as some things I always have on hand:
I like to keep milk, yogurt, sour cream, etc., grouped together. I keep the butter in one of the enclosed door compartments, as butter can pick up different aromas from the fridge. I take an extra level of precaution and keep it in a sealed container. Butter, as you can imagine, is a key ingredient for most chefs, so you don’t want the flavor compromised. I only buy unsalted butter, as I like to control the salt level in food when I cook.
Photo: Marija Savic/Stocksy
I always have eggs in my refrigerator. Spend the money to buy good quality eggs, either at the supermarket or your local farmers market. The difference in quality is striking and you’ll get a better product you can trust. I like to put eggs in the lower part of the refrigerator as a precaution. I feel you’re less likely to drop something if you’re bending down to get it. Also, it’s an easier clean up if you do drop any eggs.
Meat and fish
Raw meats and fish should go in the coldest part of the fridge. First thing after purchasing and unpacking, I immediately put the meat or fish into some type of container that will not allow for any dripping or seepage.
Photo: Greg Schmigel/Stocksy
Fruits and vegetables
With special care and fridge placement, you can make your fruits and vegetables last longer. First off, everything should live in a designated drawer. For vegetables, I like to clean away any tops, stems, or roots to have more order and space in the vegetable drawer. Be sure to then repack the vegetables in a container or a resealable plastic. Delicate greens definitely need to be in a plastic bag. Really delicate items, such as soft herbs and certain lettuces, are best in a plastic bag with a very lightly moistened paper towel wrapping them.
Cured meats, cheeses, and smoked fish
I always have cheddar, a hunk of Parmesan, and some sausage on hand. These products should all live together and in a smaller drawer if possible. I usually package them in plastic wrap and/or a plastic bag. Cheese experts won’t necessarily agree with this practice, but it works for me. Extremely strong smelling items, such as blue cheese or smoked fish, may need to be packaged inside a sealed container before going in the drawer. Smells can linger and affect the flavor of other ingredients and shorten the shelf life of their neighbors. For this reason, these drawers and/or containers should be cleaned often.
My leftovers go in the middle of the refrigerator. These too need to be organized in a way to conserve space and protect the integrity of what is being stored. Don’t let your leftovers linger. Eat them before they go bad. Be creative and mix them with rice, scramble them with eggs, toss with spaghetti. There are a lot of things you can do to make leftovers more interesting and stretch your food budget. My favorite leftover is roast chicken. Almost every Sunday when I’m home, I roast a chicken and use the extra meat throughout the week for homemade chicken salad, chicken tacos, etc. I also save all the bones in a large plastic container in the refrigerator and use it to make stock. If you don’t have an immediate use for the stock, put it into pint containers and freeze it.
Photo: Anna Williams/Offset
You can put hot food in your refrigerator. Just don’t cover it immediately and be sure to put a potholder or dishtowel underneath it. This allows the item to get out of the food temperature danger zone faster and makes for safer leftovers. Don’t forget to cover it after it has cooled!
I like to stay very organized with all my condiments and keep them in the door of the refrigerator. I always have versatile condiments around: mustard, mayonnaise, pickles, and a few hot sauces The most used ones go higher up in the door. This doesn’t mean the novelty and artisanal condiments are ignored on a lower shelf. Be diligent and only purchase condiments that you will use often and rotate through them. This is key, or the next thing you know, you’ll have a condiment collection. If you are stuck with some condiments you’ve only used a few times, get creative. Make a spread for flat bread, a compound butter, vinaigrette, or sauce.
That baking soda trick really does work. Keep a container in your fridge to absorb odors and change it every few months. Write a date on the packaging so you can keep track.
Overall, stay diligent about keeping your refrigerator in order. Pretty soon it will become a habit, you’ll be more aware of what you use and what you don’t, and will might even approach your grocery shopping differently because of it. Your days of opening the refrigerator and asking, “Is there anything in here to eat?” will definitely be over. You’ll know the answer.
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