It’s important that cooked meals be cooled as soon as possible before they get packaged for the fridge or freezer. Why? Primarily, you want to be sure they don’t spend too much time in the temperature danger zone – that is, the temperature range that can promote the growth of bacteria and lead to foodborne illness. Generally speaking, the danger zone is between 41°F and 140°F. Estimates vary about how long is too long, 2 hours max is a good rule of thumb (1 hour on a hot day or in a very hot, steamy kitchen.)
The very wise & experienced personal chefs at the USPCA turned me on to a great tip several years ago: using a small fan to cool foods quickly (just like the ones you see at nail salons to help set your manicure.) It works amazingly well – even better with two! (Thanks to Queen of the Pantry for sharing that why-didn’t-I-think-of-that tip.) Spread out your fully-cooked entree or side on a large half-sheet pan (or cookie sheet) and set up your little fan(s) so they blow across the surface, like this:
Flat, broad pans are essential; it takes longer for anything to cool inside any kind of pan or container with sides higher than an inch, trust me. Position it so that you can line up sheet pans one after the other in front of the fans as they come off of the stove or out of the oven, shuffling the order to move cooler foods further down the line and hot ones directly in front of the air flow. Flip over solid items like chicken breasts, beef slices etc after 15 or 20 minutes so the other side gets cooled as well. You won’t believe how quickly you can cool down even dense stews or risottos this way – in less than an hour, your freshly cooked meals are ready for packaging.
Chefchick Says: Don’t stuff the fridge or freezer full of your hot, freshly cooked meals in an attempt to cool them quickly – all you’ll do is raise the fridge or freezer temp, putting all the items inside potentially at risk. If you don’t have fans (and seriously, get some), use ice water baths, cooling paddles, or hire someone to blow on the food for an hour. (Don’t do that.)