The United States has its share of memorable nicknames (think land of the free, home of the brave), but we should add one more: land of the ginormous refrigerator. Somewhere along the line, we went from reasonably-sized fridges to cavernous, commercial-style units suitable for chilling enough food for an army. Whatever the reasons — which are likely a mix of fashion and our propensity for giant grocery hauls — we use a lot of power to keep a lot of food cold.
But if you’re looking to downsize your refrigerator or simply decrease the load you put on your current icebox, there are a number of foods that really don’t mind being left out of the cold. And while food safety is of concern to all, not all foods require refrigeration. In fact, many foods fare better when left at room temperature. So with that in mind, here are foods that commonly end up in the fridge, when sometimes they don’t really need to be there.
1. Bread: If you like hard bread, keep it in the fridge. If you like soft, flavorful bread, keep it at room temperature. The refrigerator will help keep your bread from getting moldy, but it will also dry out your bread, which is a bummer when it comes to tender, toothsome bread. If you don’t go through a loaf within a few days, put it in the freezer, which will preserve the texture. (If you have unsliced bread or bagels, slice them first so that you can take out individual slices, which will thaw more quickly.)
2. Eggs: If you live in Europe, you don’t need to refrigerate your eggs; for American egg eaters, however, the fridge is recommended. Why the discrepancy? Eggs in Europe are processed differently than their counterparts across the pond; eggs in the U.S. are at higher risk of developing salmonella if they are not kept refrigerated.
3. Butter: Spreading hard butter on a piece of fragile toast requires skill and wizardry rarely accessible during the groggy morning rush; which is why a lot of people like to keep their butter out. But given that it’s a dairy product, some fear that it will sour and quickly become rancid. The USDA’s food safety hotline says that, in fact, leaving your butter out is fine. (Although it might spoil a little more quickly — and since food waste is a big no-no, depending on how quickly you go through butter, you can leave some in the fridge and leave some out.)
4. Honey: Honey’s many magical qualities make it an incredible preservative — ancient cultures didn’t use it to embalm dead bodies for nothing! Honey can last forever, it doesn’t need to be refrigerated. And in fact, refrigeration causes it to form crystals ... so if you like crunchy honey, go for it, but otherwise keep it in your pantry.
5. Cake: Some cakes need to be refrigerated, but doing so can cause them to become dried out. Cakes with no frosting, or that have been frosted with a simple buttercream or ganache, are good left out (in an airtight container) for three days. Most cakes freeze well too, so if you want to save yourself from eating the whole thing too quickly, employ the freezer as your ally.
6. Coffee: At some point everyone started storing their coffee in the cold, but if you keep your coffee grounds or beans in the refrigerator or freezer, you're doing your joe a disservice. Condensation can affect the beans and cause them to lose their beautiful roasty flavor — the key is an air-tight glass or ceramic container, kept in a dark, cool location.
7. Avocados: This depends on where your avocado is in its ripening cycle and when you want to eat it, but you can use this to your advantage. An unripe avocado will cease ripening in the cold, so if it’s ready to eat, refrigerate it. But if you have rock-hard avocados, they need a room-temperature environment to arrive at their heavenly buttery texture.
8. Bananas: Like avocados, only refrigerate bananas when you want to inhibit ripening. In the fridge they will remain unripe and their skin will become a sickly deep brown (which should be noted is only an aesthetic consideration), so keep them out until they start to turn.
9. Melons: Melons should be left on the counter to sweeten. Only once they’re cut (or if they are getting over-ripe) should they be put in the fridge.
10. Tomatoes: Do you like juicy, bright-tasting tomatoes or bland, mealy ones? We’re guessing the former, which is why you should never put your tomatoes in the fridge. Chilling tomatoes breaks down the sugars, acids and aroma-producing compounds that give them their beautiful flavor; the cold also damages the fruit’s cell structure, resulting in that unpleasant texture. Keep them at room temperature (and out of direct sunlight).
11. Potatoes: Some people think the refrigerator qualifies as an appropriate “cool, dark place” for storing potatoes, but it doesn’t. Refrigeration temperature is too cool and causes a spud’s starches to convert to sugar, resulting in altered flavor and color. Keep them in a cool, dark place that isn’t quite as cool as the fridge. (Their preferred temperature is around 50 degrees.)
12. Onions: The “cool, dark place” scenario applies to onions too, they don’t require the refrigerator. What they do like is air circulation, so keep them in a mesh bag – and don’t keep them near your potatoes, whose moisture and gasses will hasten their decay.
13. Garlic: Like onions, garlic likes air circulation – and keeping it in the fridge can affect the flavors of nearby foods. The Department of Food Science and Technology at UC Davis recommends storing garlic in a cool, dry, dark place in a mesh bag, where it should keep for three to five months.
14. Hot sauce: Vinegar-based hot sauces can live happily in the cupboard for up to three years; and in fact the refrigerator can affect the heat and viscosity of the sauce.
15. Condiments: Ketchup and mustard packages advise that they should be refrigerated after opening, but there’s enough acid in both of them that they will keep fine in the pantry ... that is if you go through them quickly. Leaving them out won’t put you at risk for foodborne illness, but they will only keep for about a month until their flavor and texture start to deteriorate, so it depends on how frequently you use them.