The simple refrigerator may well be the most critical piece of equipment in your kitchen. Keeping food cold is essential to food quality and most importantly to food safety. Good refrigeration equipment is important because improper cooling and cold holding of foods are the most common causes of foodborne illness, a hazard that affects more than 6.5 million Americans each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Getting a good refrigerator that will last several years and withstand the tough demands of today’s kitchen is not too difficult. Look for the NSF seal which most major brands have. The NSF seal means the equipment has gone through rigorous testing to determine that the units are constructed to help maintain sanitary guidelines and can hold the required temperature. The NSF listed units will have an accurate outside thermometer to verify they are able to hold the proper temperature of below 40°F in the typically hot kitchen environment. You should not have to worry with proper use that one of these units will be unable to keep food safely below the “danger zone” temperatures. But this is where the “with proper use” mentioned above comes in. Here are three tips for getting the best and safest service out of your refrigerator.
Don’t overload the refrigerator cabinet. Proper air flow is essential to holding the cabinet temperature below 40°. Most refrigerators have an air flow pattern designed to distribute cold air through the unit so all areas from top to bottom stay at a consistent temperature.
Usually air is forced through baffles and louvers at the side or back of the cabinet to create an even air flow. If the refrigerator is packed too full of products, the air can’t circulate properly and “hot spots” are formed, not allowing all products the proper cooling they need.
Don’t use a regular refrigerator like a blast chiller. A reach-in refrigerator is made to properly store product at a safe temperature. It is not designed to chill large quantities of food products and and is unable do it quickly as may be recommended in your HACCP plan or by local regulations. Not only will large amounts of hot food not chill quickly, the added heat in the box will raise the overall temperature inside and adversely affect any other foods being stored by warming them. Cooling down small amounts of food in a standard refrigerator is usually acceptable, but if you regularly need to cool larger amounts, invest in a blast chiller.
Don’t otherwise overwork your refrigerator. Only open the door as needed and don’t prop it open when loading product. Most refrigerators have self closing doors to help kitchen workers keep the cool air inside. A good option to purchase for most operators is half height doors on full size upright units. Less of the interior of the cabinet is exposed to warm kitchen air each time a door is opened, again helping to keep the cold air in the reach-in.
Also, avoid placing your refrigerator in the hottest part of the kitchen. But if you need to locate the reach-in next to a range or other piece of cooking equipment, some manufacturers offer an added “heat shield” as an option for this application.
Beyond being safe for keeping foods cold when used properly, all reach-in refrigerators are not the same. There are many units on the market, each fitting particular operational needs. Of the 10 or 12 major brands of refrigerators available, there are likely to be several that can meet your requirements. The trick is to match a refrigerator to your particular needs. First, size is a consideration.
The height and depth (front to back) dimensions of refrigerators are fairly standard. Heights are about seven feet to fit into almost every kitchen and leave a little space for air circulation, above which most units need. Depth ranges from about 32" to 36", a reasonable reach to the back of the unit. They also tend to line up with worktables and cooking equipment, which are about the same depth.
Where refrigerators differ is in widths. What is right for a particular operation depends on how the unit is to be used and how much product needs to be held. Single door models can measure 24", 26", 27", 28", and 30". The proper choice of these sizes depends on how you store products.
For example the narrowest model is precisely designed to hold a 12" x 20" steamtable pan. The 24"-wide unit is designed to hold an 18" x 26" baking pan and no more. The 30"-wide unit can hold either but may waste space. For larger applications, there are two and three door units in many additional sizes measuring up to almost seven feet in length. Plan your storage requirements carefully.
Another important consideration is finish material for the interior and exterior of the unit. Often cost is a motivating factor. An all stainless steel box is long lasting, easily cleanable, and resists damage, but is the most costly finish. Using a reach-in with a stainless steel exterior but aluminum interior can save about 15% or more on the cost of the unit. Aluminum is fine for sanitation but is somewhat softer than steel and more prone to damage, which is why most manufacturers also make a unit with an aluminum exterior but keep the doors stainless for durability. The models with aluminum in and out, but with stainless doors, are generally the manufacturers’ budget line and may have other economy features besides the finish. They can be priced 35-40% less than the all stainless models.
Interior configuration is the next consideration. Most manufacturers provide three wire shelves per section in reach-in coolers. More can be purchased if needed, and the shelves can be replaced with pan slides of various types, depending on the cabinet use. A special universal type angle pan slide is available for most units, which can be used for either steamtable or baking pans. Some manufacturers can provide drawers instead of doors on units, making products within easily accessible for an area such as a sauté station. Other configurations, like glass doors for viewing or pass through doors for front and back loading and unloading, are also good given the right application.
Finally, purchase the extended warranty most companies offer. You can generally extend the compressor warranty to five years for minimal cost. Then all you need to do is take care of the equipment. Proper preventative maintenance is the best way to insure years of trouble free service. Most reach-in refrigerators are air cooled and have the refrigeration condensing unit mounted easily accessible on top of the cabinet. Performance of the condensing unit depends almost exclusively upon the amount of air passing through the condenser fins. Your refrigerator will run more efficiently and consume less electricity if the condenser is kept clean and air flow to it is not obstructed.
At least once a month, inspect the condenser fins, vacuum dust away if necessary and make sure nothing is blocking the air flow. Then if you have a refrigeration specialist check the refrigerant in the unit once a year, you should be set for many years of trouble-free use.