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After cooking, if the food is hot I heard it is better to leave it out until it cools. Why? Because if you place it hot in the refrigerator, the bacteria will grow there.
On the other hand, I think that leaving it out too much on the shelf would also attract bacteria.
So what is the truth? What should I do, leaving it out to cool off or placing it hot in the refrigerator?

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If you're routinely cooling large pots of liquid, you may want to get an ice paddle/ice wand/cold paddle –  derobert Feb 14 '12 at 7:27
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I leave my hot food (usually stews or soups) out (things like steaks and such go right in, covered), for a while, for a number of reasons:

  1. A 'skin' forms over the top of the liquid, preventing evaporation via steaming, which creates a cooling effect.

  2. I stir the pot frequently, bringing the hottest food out of the center, allowing it to cool faster.

  3. I don't want to put hot food in the refrigerator, it will tend to warm up the other foods already in there.

  4. I like to cover the food once it's in the refrigerator. If I put a pot in uncovered, the chances are fairly good that I'll forget about it and have dried glop the next day.

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can you be more explicit about "for a while"?How long? –  Theta30 Aug 29 '11 at 7:19
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For a while is pretty much determined by circumstances, if it is very warm out, and in the kitchen, will only cool until the pot surface can be touched without pain, then put it in the cooler. On really cold days I will sometimes put outside and wait until the the container feels cool. The important thing is to get the stuff cooled from the hot, safe temperature through the dangerous warm temperature to the cool safe temperature. If I am leaving to go somewhere, I will put the pot in the refrigerator, uncovered almost immediately. Don't like to do that though. –  Frankie Aug 29 '11 at 14:33
    
One other thing I forgot to mention is that in the winter, when I'm home, I will take a pot of soup or stew and put on the picnic table, which is many times covered with snow. This cools food quickly; it's quite nice to look out the window and see the pot steaming. Have done this a couple of times and had coons or a bear get into the food though, have to keep a close eye on food left outside to cool. –  Frankie Sep 10 '11 at 1:14
    
The snow's an interesting idea. With respect to the original answer, it's not really a safe practice. The recommended approach (by all or almost all food safety boards) is to split it up into smaller portions and refrigerate those, and/or use an ice bath (or snow, I guess). I'll admit, I do the pot-on-the-counter or pot-in-the-fridge routines myself sometimes, but it's one thing to do it and another thing to post it as advice. –  Aaronut Sep 10 '11 at 19:05
    
I accept that it isn't a safe practice if one considers that anything done incorrectly is an unsafe practice. Other than under that definition, I have been using this method for around 45 years. Never have had any bad effects on any guests or family...there have been a few times when I've forgotten my cooling food and tossed it. Every thing we do can be defined as an unsafe practice; from getting out of a chair to skiing or skydiving or using sharp knives, by someones definition. Even typing this message can cause carpal tunnel, as I'm not using the correct wrist rest, an unsafe practice. –  Frankie Sep 11 '11 at 0:06
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Another reason not to put hot food in the fridge can be that, if there is no lid on the pan that closes it off well, huge amounts of water will likely condensate all over the interior of your fridge. Other foods will get wet, and stains may develop.

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1) Transfer your food to containers instead of sticking the pot in the fridge; 2) either way, use a cover; 3) the other food in the fridge should generally be covered, too. –  Caleb Feb 14 '12 at 3:17
    
@Caleb: Right, all those things together can solve the problem. So perhaps the advice some people give not to put a hot pan in the fridge is meant for people who do not or cannot always cover their pans. I'm mainly thinking of oven pans. Oh, and, if you cover a pie, the water will drip back onto the dough and make it soggy. So never cover things cooling down that are supposed to be crunchy. –  Cerberus Feb 14 '12 at 3:49
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Some facts seem to be getting mixed up here.

Hot food is going to remain "warm" (i.e. in the danger zone) much longer if you leave it on the counter rather than in the fridge. That's basic physics. If the ambient temperature is colder, then the food will stay warm for less time, leaving less time for bacteria to grow.

There are reasons not to pop a huge boiling pot directly into the refrigerator, or more importantly the freezer, but they mostly revolve around the side effects - notably, that it will warm up other food, accelerating spoilage of everything else in there, and in some cases be very hard on your appliance (which needs to run at full tilt in order to handle all the heat).

Assuming you've got your food divided into small portions, you'll want to refrigerate them as soon as possible, or use an ice bath to cool them even faster as Jason mentions.

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I haven't seen anyone diving the food into small portions to cool. –  Theta30 Aug 21 '11 at 18:09
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@Theta30: But restaurants put large batching into long-n-wide-but-shallow containers whenever possible to improve the cooling. –  dmckee Apr 6 '12 at 20:02
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@Theta30, where exactly have you been looking? You mean you haven't seen anyone doing it in our own personal household, or...? This (divide + optional ice bath) is how it's done by every responsible cook and caterer and it is what the regulations insist on. You would never see a big pot of soup just left out sitting - unless it was being held at high temperature. –  Aaronut Apr 9 '12 at 15:14
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Based on the guidance my friendly local health department has given me, you need to get things to the right temperature as fast as possible to minimize bacterial growth, generally within four hours after it has been out, for "potentially hazardous food."

This means that you need to figure out a strategy to chill food within that timeframe. Items that are too big and too hot to cool below the "danger zone" within this time require a more complex approach than "leave it out until it cools" or "stick it in the refrigerator right away." The most practical option in such a case is to place the food in shallow containers or sealed plastic bags, then place that in an "ice bath". An ice bath is just ice and water. You may need to replace the ice bath a few times if the ice melts too quickly without reaching the target temperature.

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+1 for ice bath. –  BobMcGee Aug 21 '11 at 13:55
    
I haven't seen anyone using ice to cool. –  Theta30 Aug 21 '11 at 18:07
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In professional settings, it's a fairly standard practice, but probably not that widespread in home cooking. I've done it at home with soups and similar items. –  JasonTrue Aug 21 '11 at 21:46
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It's pretty much required in professional settings... no other way to get 20 gallons of veal stock down to a safe temperature in a reasonable timeframe. –  BobMcGee Aug 26 '11 at 15:01
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Putting hot food into plastic bags means that it will start steaming. Ice baths can be made in the sink (most easily for something like a stock pot) -- also, for liquid foods, you can make a home "ice wand" by filling another smaller pot or a plastic bottle with ice and putting that into the hot liquid. –  Josh Caswell Aug 30 '11 at 5:33
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