According to the Food and Drug Administration, your refrigerator should be 40 degrees Fahrenheit or colder, preferably between 35 and 38 degrees. At this temperature, any bacteria present on or in food can only develop very slowly, so keeping food this cold is a good way to prevent cooked or prepared food from spoiling for as long as possible. (Freezing food virtually stops bacterial growth, but it also significantly changes the texture of many foods).
Still, keeping some foods that cold isn’t a good idea or even necessary. Cold can stop the ripening process of fruits (including the fruits we think of as veggies), and in a few cases, the temperatures in your refrigerator can break down the cell walls in fruits or vegetables, turning them mealy. Many fruits and veggies keep best when kept cool—50 to 60 degrees is ideal—and prefer warmer rather than colder conditions, if you can’t provide that ideal.
Important note: The guidelines for vegetables and fruits listed below apply to whole, intact items. Once they get overripe, develop even one soft spot, or the skin is broken, they need to be eaten, cooked, or refrigerated/frozen ASAP.
Avocados ripen best at room temperature and sulk in the refrigerator. Once ripe, they need to be used promptly, as even the slightest bruise acquired during shipping will cause a fruit to spoil rapidly, even if refrigerated.
Bananas and Plantains
Bananas and their less-sweet cousins, plantains, hate the cold. They will not ripen in the fridge, and the cold will turn their skins brown prematurely (though the flesh will still be fine to eat). Store them at room temperature.
This tender leafy herb will cringe and develop black spots when exposed to cold temperatures, so keep it out of the fridge and store it on the counter, with its cut ends standing in a glass or jar of fresh water.
Bread tends to get stale in the refrigerator. Keep bread that you will eat within a few days in a cool, dry place, and slice it only when you’re ready to eat it. For longer storage, either dry it for breadcrumbs or slice it, place it in an airtight container, and freeze it. Remove only as much as you need at a time, and thaw it slowly and completely before eating or toasting to enjoy optimal flavor and texture.
The high moisture levels in most refrigerators can play havoc with your morning brew fixings. Store small quantities of whole beans (best) or ground coffee in airtight containers in a cool, dry, dark spot to retain maximum flavor and freshness. If you have a good, local source for coffee, buy only as much as you can use in a week or two. If not, freeze what won’t be used within a few days in airtight containers, removing only a week’s worth at a time as needed.
These heat-loving fruits store well at room temperature.
Keep whole melons, including watermelon, cantaloupe, and honeydew, on your counter for best flavor and to help preserve their antioxidants.
Onions, Shallots, and Garlic
Onions, shallots, and garlic hate refrigerators—the high humidity tends to make them soft or rubbery and encourages them to sprout and/or mold. Find a cool, dark, dry place for them.
Peppers (Bell or Hot)
Peppers, especially ripe or ripening (red, orange, yellow) ones, will stop ripening when refrigerated, cheating you of the extra goodness. Just leave them on the counter or in a cool, dry, well-ventilated place.
Pineapples, Papayas, Mangos, Kiwis, and Other Tropical Fruits
Chances are good that if it grows in the tropics, it will store best at room temperature.
Temperatures below about 45 degrees Fahrenheit will make potatoes turn unpleasantly sweet and gritty; if they are roasted or fried they will contain significantly more acrylamide than potatoes stored at warmer temps, so keep them out of the refrigerator. Store them in a dark place so they won’t turn green; they need high humidity to stay firm and plump, so a plastic bag inside a paper bag is a good option.
Sweet Potatoes and Yams
These heat-loving veggies may develop discolored patches when stored in the fridge. Keep them in a cool place and, as they need reasonably high humidity to stay firm and plump, inside a plastic bag or some sort of a container.
Tomatoes get sad and mealy in the refrigerator. Please don’t torture the lovely things by putting them there. Keep them on the counter or in a cool, dry, well-ventilated place.
Winter Squash, Pumpkins
Squash and pumpkins last the longest in a dry, cool, well-ventilated place and do not need to be refrigerated.