There’s a right and a wrong way to store your groceries in the fridge. How cool is that?
Your refrigerator extends the shelf life of your food by keeping it at the proper temperature, at or below 40°F (4°C). This in turn slows down the growth of the bacteria responsible for spoilage and food-borne illnesses.
But there’s a caveat: Just like there are warmer and colder rooms in your home, certain areas of your fridge are cooler than others. You have thermal physics to thank for this one. Even if science isn’t your favorite subject, we are about to break it down and make it simple.
As a rule of thumb, the temperature inside your fridge varies from front (warmer) to back (cooler), as well as from top (warmer) to bottom (cooler). Since each food and beverage has an optimal storage temperature, this means that certain items should have a specific place in the fridge.
Why Storage Temperature Matters
All food expires eventually, but storing it correctly gives you the best chance to keep your food fresh longer. Improperly placing your food in the fridge will lead to a much earlier expiry than expected. In the worst-case scenario, you run the risk of spoiled meat and moldy food.
Now back to thermal physics class. The most important thing to know is that warm air rises to the top and cold air sinks to the bottom. So, the bottom of your fridge will always be the coldest temperature zone regardless of the make and model. The specific shelf, or shelves, is what can vary.
Refrigerators with an ice maker located in the top section are known to accumulate frost. The temperature in these fridges will be slightly different from other styles. Though the bottom will still be the coldest, the topmost shelf will be slightly colder due to the frost.
The coldest spot is your crisper drawers for French-door refrigerators with a large refrigeration area and a pull-out freezer located at the bottom, though the selves just above the crisper will also maintain a much lower temperature than the middle or top shelves.
In a side-by-side fridge where the freezer is located on the left, the coldest shelf will be the bottom shelf just above the crisper drawers.
Which Shelf in the Fridge Is the Warmest?
If there is a coldest shelf in the fridge, there must also be a warmest shelf. No prizes for guessing, the warmest part of your fridge is the door. The door will have the most temperature fluctuation since you—and everyone else in your household—open and close it so frequently.
This is the main reason why you should not be keeping highly perishable items on the door shelves. Despite what the built-in egg storage implies, the door is not necessarily the place for eggs or milk. Your condiments, salsas, sodas, and wines belong here.
Which Food Items Belongs Where
Each refrigerator has separate temperature zones and recommendations for the kind of food items that should be stored in each of them.
Again, these will vary from style to style (i.e., French-door fridge vs. side-by-side fridge), as well as with the make and model. So take the below more as a general guideline.
The upper shelves of your refrigerator tend to be more regulated in temperature. Still, air rises, so this is something you want to consider. These shelves are where beverages and leftovers should be stored.
The middle shelves are more temperature-controlled and can be more constant than other areas of the refrigerator. This is the safest place to store your eggs. You can also move overflow from the upper shelves here comfortably. Your lower middle shelf is the best place for dairy products like cheeses, sour creams, milk, and butter.
The bottom shelf is your coldest shelf, as we’ve already learned. This is where you should store your meat and fish. Eggs can also be stored here if there is room. You want to make sure that your meats are separated from your other foods in case of leakage.
Now, this may come as a surprise to some of you all, but the back of the fridge is colder than the front of the refrigerator. When you come to think of it, it does make sense: every time you open the door, warm air rushes in from the outside.
So, you want to avoid storing breakables in the back in case they freeze. You also want to avoid storing taller items at the back of the fridge, as they can block the vents and compromise the temperature of the entire fridge.
Where Should You Store Milk in the Fridge?
No one wants to deal with spoiled milk. If you store your milk in the wrong part of the fridge, you run the risk of it spoiling faster.
So many people want to store their milk in the door. It’s more convenient and easy to grab from here. But, this is not a good idea. The door is the warmest part of your fridge, and the temperature fluctuates with each opening. Your milk is likely to spoil much more quickly if placed here.
Instead, you want to keep your milk on the lower middle shelf where it is colder and more constant in temperature. While the bottom shelf is the coldest, you want to store these items above your meats in case of leakage. Nobody wants meat juice on their other refrigerated items.
What Is the Best Temperature Setting for the Fridge?
If you have an adjustable digitally displayed temperature setting, the recommended temperature for refrigeration is 38°F (3.33°C). While most newer fridges have an adjustable digitally-displayed temperature setting, this is not always the case.
You may have a refrigerator with a dial labeled 1 to 5—on some makes and models, this dial can go up to 9. Unfortunately, it isn’t always obvious how to work this temperature dial. The numbers here indicate the refrigerating power. So, the higher the number, the colder the fridge will be.
Each refrigerator brand and style will have a different setting that is best suited for it. So, you will want to refer to the manual to determine which dial setting is best for you. Sometimes, if the dial is set too high, you run the risk of freezing things in the far back of your fridge. Having foods like fresh produce freeze is equally as frustrating as if it got too warm and started to mold.
The Bottom Line
There are different temperature zones in every refrigerator. Though some fridges have better temperature distribution, there are still some areas that are colder—and warmer—than others.
The temperature zones may vary from brand to brand and style to style, three things are constant: the temperature at the door fluctuates the most, warm air rises to the top, and cold air sinks. So the bottom shelves of your refrigerator will always be the coldest. The back section of your fridge will also be colder than in other areas.
Remember that everything in the fridge has its place, and you want to make sure you’re storing things properly to avoid spoiling — or molding. Keep your fridge at the right temperature and store items correctly, and you won’t have to worry.