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Proper Food Cooling | Ecolab Food Safety Solutions

Cooling Pans too Deep to Properly Chill Food Items

By: Cindy Rice, RS
Eastern Food Safety

One area that is often overlooked by food establishments is the very important process of cooling. Probably the most common mistake by restaurants is the cooling method itself, including cooling foods in pans that are too deep to effectively cool foods down in a timely manner. It’s so easy to overlook this critical step in food preparation, as many treat cooling as a passive activity, seemingly like watching paint dry. This couldn’t be further from the truth, and improper cooling has been the most common item found to be Out-of-Compliance during FDA inspections of full service and fast food restaurants in the Retail Risk Factor Study 2009.

Improper cooling of foods and compliance


The Problem

Local health inspectors cited improper cooling methods in 3% of facility inspections, including cooling cooked foods in containers that are too deep, which slows down the cooling process. The problem with this is bacteria such as Clostridium perfringens and Bacillus cereus naturally occur in a variety of foods - they survive cooking and grow much faster than other types of microorganisms. In just a few hours they will produce toxins in the still warm food, if they’re cooling down too slowly. These toxins are not destroyed by cooking, and have been the source of outbreaks in recent years. One C. perfringens outbreak was linked to partially cooked meats that were not cooled properly before refrigerating. Bacillus cereus has been linked with numerous foodborne illnesses, as it also produces toxins in food as it cools down too slowly. According to the FDA Food Code, hot foods should be cooled from 135˚ F to 70˚ F within 2 hours, and from 70˚ F to 41˚ F in the next 4 hours, which translates into a cooling rate of approximately 1/2 degree per minute.


time contstraints preparing cold salads

Reasons Why This Happens

  • Time constraints...It is easy to leave foods in original large containers after cooking and let them “naturally cool” on the counter while staff are busy doing other activities. When preparing cold salads (e.g. tuna, chicken, quinoa salad,) staff are often tempted to immediately put them out in the serving line long before the service period begins to save time, instead of first cooling them in the refrigerator to 41˚F or below.
  • Lack of knowledge... Ice baths are certainly helpful, but not understanding how the ice works is common, with employees balancing a deep container of hot foods on top of a mountain of ice, or letting the ice bath melt completely over a long period of time while the hot food sits and breeds bacteria in the warm-ish water bath.
  • Limited refrigerator space is also a problem, with tightly stacked containers completely filled with cooked foods, that are not able to maintain cold temperatures.


The Solution

  • Spread hot foods into shallow layers in containers or sheet pans. Research has shown that cooling foods down in layers no greater than 3 inches deep helps them cool faster, and can more effectively achieve the cooling rate that FDA recommends
  • Cooling paddles are the best invention in the world for cooling! They’re very effective in reducing heat from the inside out, when inserted into a large volume of hot soups, stews, and sauces, especially when stirring occasionally to help the cooling along. Combine this paddle method with an ice bath and you’re on your way to extra speedy cooling. Wash, rinse and sanitize the paddle when done, before freezing the paddle for next use
  • Make an effective ice bath, by stacking the ice high enough to reach the top level of food in the container. Stir the food occasionally, and replenish ice when necessary
  • Reduce the portion size - empty hot foods into smaller containers, or cut roasts into smaller pieces, to increase the surface area of the food and facilitate cooling
  • Blast chillers are great for speeding up the cooling process, if your operation has one
  • Monitor the food temperature as it cools, with a probe thermometer every 30 minutes, to make sure you’ll hit your target
  • Once the internal food temperature is 70˚F, then it is usually safe to refrigerate the foods, as long as the container is not too deep, not stacked too tightly or the piece of food is not too large

Are you a victim of cooling foods in pans that are too big and deep? When it comes to cooling, bigger is not always better.