Refrigerator tips

Antique Ice Box

Antique Ice Box

by Catherine Haug, Aug 5, 2014 (photo, right, from Ruby Lane Antiques (1))

When I was growing up in Bigfork, all of us town kids had a very special playhouse: an old 2-room cabin on the Dockstader property, overlooking Bigfork Bay. It had a parlor room for entertaining guests, equipped with an old floor-model radio from the early 1900s (it still worked), a treadle sewing machine that also worked, a cushioned bench and a wooden rocking chair arranged around the wood heating stove and a braided rug.  The other room served as kitchen, dining area and bedroom. It was equipped with an old cast iron cook stove, a dry sink with pantry shelves above, and an old ice box that could be kept cold inside with a block of ice (the ice house was only a block away). There was also a wooden table that seated four, a dresser, and a creaky old bed.

We girls loved to play pioneers, and even had live chickens and a couple rabbits to take care of (and an out-house for just-in-case). The boys played Indians and gave surprise attacks on the homestead, just to keep us alert. Ah, the good old days.

Most of us don’t have an ice-box – we have a fancy refrigerator-freezer that may even deliver ice through a dispenser. We’ve come a long way, but how many of us know how to use our refrigerators to maximum advantage – to keep foods fresh for the longest time, and minimize the amount of food we throw away?

Take Part has a great article by Sarah McColl (2) that offers tips on how to do this; I’ve condensed it and added a few of my own.

Organizing your Fridge

The basic idea is to:

  • Keep your fridge temperature under 40°F; 37°F is ideal.
  • Place foods that don’t require cooking in the warmer parts of the fridge. This includes condiments, fermented foods (yogurt, kraut, etc.), soft cheeses, and soft drinks.
  • Place highly perishable foods in the coldest parts of the fridge. This includes raw meats, milk.
  • Allow room for air to circulate amongst the items on the shelves. Newer models also have settings on the drawers that allow you to minimize/maximize air flow and moisture through the drawer.

But do you know where these warm/cold areas are in your fridge? Purchasing a special thermometer designed for refrigerators will help you to determine this, but one can make generalizations:

  • The higher the shelf, the warmer the area
  • The door is the warmest, as it gets warmed every time you open the door.

Another thing to keep in mind is that some foods that we normally keep in the fridge will keep just fine without refrigeration. A perfect example of this is fresh eggs – as long as they have never been refrigerated. Keep them  on a bed of straw in a box (without the carton), or keep them in the carton as long as the carton is clean. The key idea here is that the eggs must be fresh from the farm, and never refrigerated. If you buy your eggs at the grocer, you have no idea how long they have been warehoused in a refrigerated room, so always refrigerate these – and don’t keep them in the fridge door.

Specifics, by area


The door is the warmest part of the fridge : 1 – 2 degrees warmer than the main compartment. Keep condiments here (catsup, prepared mustard, jams, BBQ sauce, etc.). Butter can go in the door compartment intended for butter, along with soft cheeses like brie, cottage cheese, and cream cheese.

Top Shelf

This area at the top of the main compartment is the second-warmest area, and is great for soft drinks, yogurt, kefir, leftovers (already cooked), and ready-to-eat foods like deli meats and cheese.

Cheese Drawer

Not all fridges have one of these, but is a great place to keep aged cheese. I also keep my nuts in this drawer.

If you make your own aged cheese (like cheddar), see my earlier post on how to wax them for storage: Preserving eggs and cheese for long-term storage (7).

Middle Shelf

This is ideal for eggs, because the temperature is most consistent. You should always refrigerate commercial eggs – see Take Part: Should you refrigerate your eggs (3) for more.

However, if you get fresh eggs from your own chickens or a local farmer, they do not need to be refrigerated provided the shell still has its original protective barrier provided by the hen. Store fresh eggs in a papier-mâché egg carton (not a plastic, styrene or styrofoam carton) in a cool part of your kitchen or pantry. See my earlier post: Preserving eggs and cheese for long-term storage (7).

Milk is another item for this shelf. Some people believe that ultra-pasteurized milk doesn’t need to be kept so cold because of the pasteurization. But did you know that more dangerous infections have been documented from pasteurized milk than from certified raw milk (excluding raw milk from filthy dairy farms)? Keep both cold. However, if you use raw milk and like it slightly sour (my Dad did), keep it on the top shelf – sour milk is rich in good bugs for your gut.

Bottom Shelf

This is where you store raw meats and seafood, toward the back of the shelf where it’s coldest. The Take Part article recommends keeping it in its original packaging, and this is great if the meat is wrapped in butcher paper.

But most supermarket meats are packaged on a styrofoam tray and wrapped in plastic; whole chickens and other poultry are in a sealed plastic bag. This is asking for toxic troubles because these plastics contain many cancer-causing toxins. To avoid this plastic, learn how to re-wrap meats in butcher paper; the key is to have the paper tight against the meat to minimize air pockets. Or ask the butcher to re-wrap it for you. If you intend to freeze the meat, place the wrapped meat in a plastic freezer bag and compress out the air before sealing.

One more tip: if you are concerned about meat juices leaking out of the wrapping and into your veggie drawers, purchase a plastic bin that will fit on the shelf, and keep the drippy packages in that bin.

Crisper Drawers

This is where you store your fresh produce, as the humidity levels are highest here. And remember that some produce – such as tomatoes – should not be refrigerated at all, for optimum flavor and nutrition.

Newer refrigerators allow you to adjust the moisture level inside the drawers.

  • Keep fruit (except apples) in the lowest-humidity drawer, often marked “Crisper,” with the vent open, which allows more air to come in
  • Keep vegetables in the higher-humidity drawer: close the vent to keep air  from circulating, and hold the moisture in. Keep apples in this drawer, too, as they do not emit ethylene.

Also be aware that some fruits emit ethylene, a gas that accelerates rotting of veggies, so it is best to keep them separate. From Real Simple: Avoid premature spoiling of vegetables (6):

Ethylene-producing fruits (6)

  • Apricots
  • Avocados
  • Bananas
  • Cantaloupes
  • Honeydew melons
  • Kiwis
  • Mangoes
  • Nectarines
  • Papayas
  • Peaches
  • Pears
  • Plums
  • Tomatoes

Ethylene-sensitive produce (6)

  • Apples
  • Asparagus
  • Broccoli
  • Carrots
  • Cucumbers
  • Eggplants
  • Green beans
  • Lettuce and other greens
  • Potatoes
  • Summer squash
  • Watermelons

See also: Take Part: Make the Most of Your Summer CSA With These Veggie-Life-Extending Tips (5), which can also apply to fresh produce from your own garden or a farmers market.


  1. Ruby Lane Antiques icebox (
  2. Take Part: article by Sarah McColl (
  3. Take Part: article on refrigerating eggs (
  4. Take Part: article on extending the life of fresh veggies (
  5. Take Part: Make the Most of your CSA(
  6. Real Simple: Avoid premature spoiling of vegetables (
  7. The EssentiaList on preserving eggs and cheese (

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