Proper Cooling of Foods Explained

Most people understand that there are food safety concerns surrounding dishes that haven’t been properly cooked, but little thought is given to food that hasn't been cooled correctly. Between 1998 and 2008, the FDA found that over 500 bacteria-related outbreaks in U.S. restaurants and delis were caused by improper cooling techniques. So, what is the best alternative to safely cooling foods? We’ll walk you through the best ways to cool food so you can keep your customers healthy and avoid health code violations.

The Danger Zone While Cooling Food

Not all food in a restaurant is made to order. Often, chefs will prepare recipes ahead of time and place them into cold storage for holding. It can then be reheated just before serving to save time and effort in the kitchen. The trouble is that if food is not cooled properly before being put into storage, it can grow bacteria that can make guests sick when it’s heated and served.

Bacteria and microorganisms multiply rapidly between the temperatures of 135 and 41 degrees Fahrenheit, thriving between 125 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit. This is known as the danger zone and is the cause of most foodborne illnesses. It is for this reason that food should be chilled correctly and monitored through the two-stage cooling process. Moist, protein-rich foods, such as meats, cooked rice, cooked beans, cooked pasta, gravy, soups, stews, and sauces, are prone to accelerated bacteria growth.

2 Stage Cooling for Food

diagram of two stage cooling for food

According to the FDA’s regulations and CDC’s food cooling guidelines, food should be cooled in two stages to keep it safe for consumption. Here is the 2 stage cooling process you should follow in your kitchen:

  1. Food must be cooled from 135 degrees Fahrenheit to 70 degrees Fahrenheit (57 degrees Celsius to 21 degrees Celsius) within 2 hours.
  2. Food must then be cooled from 70 degrees Fahrenheit to 41 degrees Fahrenheit (21 degrees Celsius to 5 degrees Celsius) within 4 hours.

Cooling foods must reach 70 degrees Fahrenheit within the first two hours or else they must be immediately reheated to 165 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 seconds. The cooling process can then start again until it is brought down to 40 degrees Fahrenheit. If the food is not monitored and the cooling process is not followed, it should be disposed of.

Which Method for Cooling Foods Should Not Be Used?

Although it may seem counterintuitive, hot food cannot just be placed into a refrigerator or freezer to cool because it won't go through the cooling stages quick enough to avoid the danger zone. By putting hot food into your refrigerator, you run the risk of having bacteria that cause illnesses and food poisoning flourish in the food. The hot food will also raise the ambient temperature in the refrigerator or freezer, risking the integrity of the other foods you have in storage.

Proper Cooling Methods for Food

Practice the 2 step cooling process in your restaurant’s kitchen with FDA approved food cooling methods. You can cool down hot food by using the following techniques:

1. Ice Cubes

If possible, add ice cubes into the food you are trying to cool. This works best for soups and gravies that have water as an ingredient in the recipe. They can then be rethickened in the reheating process. Separate the food into shallow pans to speed up the cooling process. Be sure to stir regularly and monitor the temperature.

2. Ice Baths

For recipes that would be watered down by added ice cubes, use an ice water bath instead to chill food from the outside in. To cool food with an ice bath, follow these steps:

  • Fill a sink basin or food storage box with ice and a small amount of water.
  • Place the pan with the hot food into the ice so that the ice level is above the level of the food in the pan without fully submerging.
  • Move the pan around every few minutes, adding more ice if needed.
  • Monitor the temperature of the food to ensure it is dropping within the 2 step cooling process requirements.

3. Ice Paddles

cooling of food with ice holder

Use an ice paddle to cool food internally without watering down the final product. Cooling paddles are inserted into foods like soups, sauces, vegetables, rice, and beans to bring the temperature down quickly and safely. Follow these instructions to cool food with an ice paddle:

  • Fill the cooling paddle with water and freeze overnight. If you need to use it the same day, fill the paddle with ice and cold water.
  • Place the cooling paddle into your hot food and stir every 3-5 minutes to get the food to 70 degrees Fahrenheit within 2 hours. Use a probe thermometer to monitor the temperature of the food.
  • Place the food into the refrigerator with the paddle still submerged and check the temperature every 20 minutes as it descends to 41 degrees in the next 4 hours.
  • Remove the paddle when the food reaches a safe cooling temperature.

4. Blast Chillers

If you have room for one, a commercial blast chiller can be a quick, effective tool for cooling food and getting it out of the danger zone. A blast chiller or flash freezer blows forced cold air over the food to bring the temperature down rapidly while minimizing the ice crystals that can form during the cooling process. This cools the food safely, extends its shelf life, and ensures a great-tasting product when the food is reheated. To use a blast chiller to cool food:

  • Divide the food into shallow pans (approximately 4 inches deep) to allow it to cool evenly and quickly. Check the manual of your blast chiller to see which pans are compatible with your unit.
  • Follow the setting to start your unit. The chamber temperature will begin dropping gradually while blowing air through the chamber to cool the food safely.
  • Once the food is at a safe temperature, place it in cold storage.

Train Staff to Monitor Cooling Process

staff member monitoring cooling process of food

To ensure that the proper food cooling procedures are taking place in your kitchen, it's imperative to train your staff to monitor the process. They should know the following:

  • How to calibrate the thermometer
  • When to check the temperature of food
  • How to check the temperature of the food
  • How to log the temperature
  • Be familiar with the 2-stage cooling method
  • How to adjust the cooling process to get food out of the danger zone

If your employees understand the importance of proper food cooling practices, they can help keep your customers safe.

Food Temperature Cooling Log

To allow your staff to keep track of a food's temperature during the cooling process, create a food temperature cooling log that features columns for the details below:

  • The name of the staff member
  • The date
  • The food item
  • The starting time and temperature
  • The time the food reaches 135 degrees Fahrenheit (The start of the danger zone)
  • The cooling method used
  • The temperature of the food each hour for the next 6 hours

Once the cooling is complete you can have a manager sign off on it. A cooling log is a great tool to help you avoid health code violations and illness outbreaks.

Food Cooling Questions

Now that you are familiar with the correct food cooling practices, let’s put your knowledge to the test. Answer the questions below to see if you're ready to cool food safely:

Posted in: Food Safety | Management & Operation | By Janine Jones
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