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Many older cookbooks call for filling a “refrigerator tray”. For example, in the 1960 Better Homes and Gardens Dessert Cook Book the recipe for “Banana Ice Cream” says to “Pour into refrigerator trays. Freeze till firm.” and in Anne London’s 1972 American-International Encyclopedic Cookbook, the recipe for “Refrigerator Tray Pie” says to “Pack half the crumb mixture into a refrigerator tray. Chill… Return to refrigerator to freeze.”

Doing a search for “refrigerator tray” on archive.org, I found the pamphlet for Use and Care of Your New Norge Refrigerator which mentions many uses for refrigerator trays, all involving freezing in some way. From the various recipes for ice cream and other frozen desserts on pages 31-32,

Pour into refrigerator trays and freeze.

Freeze in refrigerator tray.

…freeze in refrigerator tray until firm.

From this, I can deduce that a refrigerator tray is something that you can pour liquids into and then put into the freezer, but that’s about it.

Those pages also mention trays without the qualifier “refrigerator”:

Pour into tray of chilling unit and freeze to mush.

Pour into tray and chill to soft jelly… Return to tray and freeze to desired firmness.

Turn into freezer tray and freeze 45 minutes to 1 hour.

The list of definitions on page 9 does not include a definition for refrigerator trays, although it does include one for ice trays, and specifically mentions using them for making ice cream:

Ice Trays: Fill the trays with water to within 1/4 in. of the top. Place trays in their section on top of main freezer compartment. When making Ice Cream, use the aluminium tray by removing plastic cups or dividers.

I would guess that the ice trays mentioned are the metal trays for making ice cubes, which used to come with a removable (always metal, in my limited experience) divider that doubled as a loosening device for the ice cubes. They seem awfully small for use as a dessert pan, but then the Better Homes and Garden recipe did use the plural for its mention of refrigerator trays.

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  • Old recipes were pretty simple - there's no tricks, and they definitely expect that you have a basic understanding of what you're doing in the kitchen. A refrigerator tray is nothing more complicated than what it sounds like - a tray that fits in your refrigerator. The author of the recipe is assuming that you know what the dish should look like and that you are capable of selecting an appropriately sized and shaped tray to fit the recipe. – J... Apr 1 at 16:12
  • A thing to keep in mind is that, in modern times, many people don't really spend a lot of time in the kitchen and recipes are generally written for an audience that may not have a lot of experience cooking. A hundred years ago, however, nearly all adult women were effectively professional homemakers - they spent their full working days cooking, cleaning, and, looking after the home. Cookbooks from that time are written with that audience in mind, so they assume a certain routine familiarity and they omit a lot of details that such a professional would simply be expected to know. – J... Apr 1 at 17:05
  • @J… That looks wholly true and how did it help poor Jerry Stratton? The problem here seems to be not what a refrigerator tray is, but how it might be involved in freezing which, of course, refrigerators can't do. Jerry, don't you think the tray is one thing and what it's used for, quite another. Some early fridges might not have but all half-way modern models did and do include freezing compartments… Is that enough to make sense of the recipes you quoted? – Robbie Goodwin Apr 5 at 19:49
  • Thanks, Robbie. Yes, older recipes often assume a lot that isn’t general knowledge today. Note, the Norge fridge whose manual I referenced and linked does have a freezer section. For now, when a recipe calls for freezing in a refrigerator tray I mostly use dessert glasses, cover in plastic wrap, and freeze, so that I have single servings in the freezer. It works. But I would like to know what they mean by “refrigerator tray”; all modern references I could find were refrigerator bins. It seems unlikely they meant take the meat or crisper bin, fill with ice cream mix, and freeze. – Jerry Stratton Apr 5 at 20:27
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I ran a quick search on ebay Images. Looks like a refrigerator tray is a shallow glass or enameled dish. I saw a few plastic ones, also from the 60s-70s.

Examples of refrigerator trays

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    I mean eBay, not Google Images! LOL – Sharon Huston Mar 31 at 23:37
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    Hi, Sharon. In your searches, did you find any evidence that refrigerator makers include the cold storage trays for the purpose of freezing foods? That they expect the consumer to occasionally remove the meat or crisper bin from the refrigerator section, fill it with, say, an ice cream recipe, and then place it in the freezer to freeze? – Jerry Stratton Apr 1 at 13:20
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Fridges circa that era didn't have a dedicated freezer compartment, instead they had a section in the main compartment, where you could utilize those trays, in or under. This Google search should give a better idea. These trays were used for ice, for which we have a modern resemblances.

With the recipe I think they mean that you don't have to empty your freezer section, simply putting a tray under it should be enough.

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