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Myth Buster: Should you let hot food cool before refrigerating?

Myth: Hot food will spoil if refrigerated before cooling to room temperature.

Facts: Just the opposite. Give your fridge some credit. It’s designed to chill food and keep it cold. It can even protect you from getting sick, so there’s no need to be shy about letting it do its job.

“Time plus warmer temperatures equals growth of bacteria,” says Shelley Feist, executive director of the nonprofit Partnership for Food Safety Education. In other words, leaving food out at room temperature encourages bacteria to thrive. “We have what’s called the two-hour rule: Food should only be out for two hours before it’s put in the refrigerator,” says Feist. Any longer than that in the “danger zone” of temperatures between 40 degrees (the maximum recommended setting for home refrigerators) and 140 degrees Fahrenheit, and bacteria can multiply to dangerous numbers.

If putting a whole pot of hot soup in the fridge still troubles you, consider repackaging it into smaller, shallower containers, advises Feist. “That helps cool it more quickly,” she says. And the extra effort beats the alternative of forgetting the soup overnight, only to toss it in the morning for fear of getting sick.

To help your refrigerator run as efficiently as possible, take these additional steps recommended by the U.S. Department of Energy:

• Defrost regularly if you have a manual-defrost model.

• Replace the seals around refrigerator doors if they are no longer airtight.

• Cover liquids you refrigerate. If left uncovered, they can release moisture that makes the compressor work harder.

Beth Goulart is a freelance journalist based in Austin, Texas.

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