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Keeping foods fresh with expert-approved rapid cooling methods

Cooling food is a critical phase in maintaining the safety of food products between cooking and refrigeration.

Properly cooling food is a key operation in maintaining food safety in any food business. When done properly, the expected shelf life of the food product can be achieved and potentially optimized. 

According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study that summarized information from 1998 to 2008, at least 504 foodborne illness outbreaks originated from restaurant food businesses due to improperly cooled foods. This ten years' worth of data shows how important it is for a food safety team to learn how to cool foods properly. 

In this article, we go deeper into how cooling food affects food safety in a food business setup.

Key points covered:

  1. Cooked foods must be properly cooled to maintain food safety before low-temperature storage.
  2. Foods must be cooled from 135°F to 70°F in the first two hours and must reach 41°F or less in the next 4 hours.
  3. The three approved methods for quickly cooling foods include using a blast freezer, using ice paddles with water and ice cubes, and using an ice-water bath.
  4. Freshly cooked foods must never be left on a kitchen countertop at room temperature to cool.
  5. Never put freshly cooked food inside the refrigerator, as this will bring the internal temperature of the cooling unit down.
  6. The cooling process is affected by the amount of food, the cooling method used, the external effort applied, and the proficiency of the food handler.
  7. The cooling process must be constantly monitored to ensure food safety.
  8. Monitoring cooling food methods has become easier with digital solutions like FoodDocs digital Food Safety Management System.

Learn about how you can keep foods safe and the most efficient method to monitor cooling processes from this article.


Scan through the topics that will be discussed in this article:

What are the temperatures for safely cooling foods?

To remain safe after cooking, the food must reach the cooling temperature of 70°F within the first 2 hours and continue cooling until it reaches 41°F within 4 hours. Food handlers must familiarize themselves with these two points to maintain food safety. The food supply chain often identifies this process as the two-stage cooling method

The main objective of cooling foods to a particular temperature range within a given time frame is to prevent the food from staying too long in the temperature danger zone, which is 40°F to 140°F. Within this temperature range, foods are more likely to spoil faster as the growth of harmful bacteria and other microorganisms is favored. 

Using rapid cooling methods, the potentially contaminating microorganisms will not have enough time to reproduce to exceedingly dangerous levels. Rapid microorganism growth is slowed down at lower temperatures, hindering their ability to digest the food and creating unwanted and unsafe changes in the food.

Cooling food after processing requires close monitoring to become successful. If unregulated, the cooling process can become an introduction point for the contamination of food and spoilage. This potential hazard makes cooling foods a critical control operation for food handlers.

What are the 3 acceptable methods for cooling food?

The methods used for cooling food must be able to do the job as fast as possible or within the prescribed time without sacrificing the food's quality. In addition, the preferred method must not become the source of contamination during cooling

The best cooling methods include operations that are fast, clean, and efficient, such as the following:
  • Using blast chillers. Blast chillers or tumbler chillers are commercial pieces of equipment solely used to reduce the temperature of foods quickly.
For proper cooling of foods, the food item can be removed before ice crystals are formed. These machines use cold air that is forced against the food to cool them rapidly. 
  • Ice-water bath. This method is efficient for solid dishes or foods with cuts of solid ingredients that cannot be watered down.

The food being cooled is either placed in a ziplock bag or deep basin and is placed over an ice-water mixture to help the temperatures equilibrate. The ice and cold water mixture will help cool the food through conduction.

  • Ice paddles or ice cubes. These methods use ice that will come in contact with the food. Ice paddles, otherwise known as ice wands, are commercial kitchen utensils filled with ice cubes and water and are stirred around the food to distribute the cold temperature.

On the other hand, foods, such as soups and gravies, can be filled with ice cubes directly as the added water will evaporate after reheating. 

These methods are approved by food safety and health departments, such as the Food and Drug Administration, and are considered safe, provided that food handlers follow proper food safety measures. Such measures include isolating the food from other potentially contaminating objects and using only purified and clean water for cooling. 

All approved methods for cooling food products require close monitoring to ensure food safety. The entire process must be done within a maximum time of 6 hours. After this allotted time, the cooled food must be kept inside the refrigerator or freezer with consistent monitoring.

To always stay on top of monitoring the temperature of both cooling and food storage, use our digital solution at FoodDocs. Using FoodDocs digital Food Safety Management System, you can get automatically generated food safety monitoring logs and an intuitive notification system to ensure that monitoring tasks are always done on time. 

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Which method for cooling foods should not be used?

When it comes to cooling foods, certain methods should be avoided to ensure food safety and prevent the risk of bacterial growth.

Below are two methods that should be avoided when cooling foods.

Leaving food on your countertop

At some point, you may have thought of leaving your food on the countertop for cooling and returning to it after a while. Room-temperature cooling is very prone to food contamination and spoilage. This method exposes the high-risk food longer to the temperature danger zone.

When perishable foods are left to cool at ambient temperature, whether protected from external contamination or not, they are still exposed to the temp danger zone. Any leftover harmful microorganisms may have the opportunity to recover and multiply as the food cools down at ambient temperature.

Placing hot foods inside the refrigerator

Another method for cooling foods that should not be a common practice in your food business is cooling hot foods inside the refrigerator or freezer. Not only is this method dangerous for the food being cooled but for the other foods inside the refrigerator as well.

When hot foods are placed inside the refrigerator, cooling may be faster than leaving it at ambient temperature. Despite this, the temperature inside the cooling unit will decrease from the heat from foods.

Foodborne pathogens can contaminate and spoil the food as the refrigerator temperature deviates from its preset specifications. Other cold food products can also get spoiled during this time, especially high-risk hazardous food. Frozen foods can also thaw and be prone to contamination.

hot food


What are the steps for cooling food?

Cooling different types of food consists of simple steps that have to be precisely done to avoid food contamination. Each step process must be followed correctly to ensure that the resulting cooled food will not encounter any food safety issues once it is refrigerated.

Here are 5 essential steps for cooling food effectively:
  1. Prepare the freshly cooked food for cooling. Start by portioning batches of food into smaller amounts and placing them in shallow containers. Do not close the container yet.
  2. Start the initial 2-hour cooling process. Place the hot food in a well-ventilated area that is away from direct sunlight, dust, or other sources of contamination. Unventilated food areas can make the cooling process harder.
  3. Monitor the temperature of the food. Regularly measure the internal temperature of the food being cooled using a calibrated probe thermometer. The goal of the initial cooling step is to reach 70°F within two hours.
  4. Transfer the food to the refrigerator. Once the food reaches the target temperature, transfer it into the refrigerator at the temperature of 40°F or below. Properly cover the food with plastic wrap or sanitized lid to prevent cross-contamination. Leave enough space in between the foods for air circulation.
  5. Monitor the shelf-life of the cooled food. As foods have a limited shelf-life, the newly cooled product must be entered into the traceability system for further monitoring by food workers. Remember to label the product to guide your team on the estimated shelf-life of the product.

Use our Downloadable Proper Food Storage Chart as a guide to the estimated shelf-life of different products used in a food business.

If initial cooling fails, take immediate action to prevent bacterial growth. Additional cooling steps, such as further dividing the food into smaller portions or increasing the airflow, can be done.

Constant monitoring is a critical control measure when it comes to cooling food. Perform this task intuitively using our smart Food Safety Management System. Using our smart software, you can get intuitive business solutions, such as a notification system that will alert food handlers about the food being cooled. With such a solution, you are assured that all critical steps are done on time. 

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What is the first step in the cooling process?

The first step in the cooling process is dividing the freshly cooked food into smaller portions. This step is critical to facilitate the initial cooling process.

The freshly cooked food will take longer to cool if it is left in bulk. To aid the cooling process, it must be portioned into shallow containers, which will increase the surface area of the food from which heat will escape. 

By prioritizing rapid initial cooling, you establish a strong foundation for subsequent stages and minimize the risk of foodborne illnesses caused by inadequate cooling.

What is the best alternative to safely cooling foods if you do not have a blast chiller?

If you do not have a commercial blast freezer, an ice bath is a good alternative cooling method. Cooling food is placed in a shallow, secure stainless steel bowl and on top of an ice bath. The food is then stirred in intervals, and the temperature is monitored consistently.

Some ovens are equipped with a cooling feature. With this equipment, you can keep the hot food inside as it cools down.


What affects the safety of the food cooling process?

Although the food cooling process is performed in the interest of food safety, the process is not immune to contamination. If done incorrectly, food spoilage can still occur.

Below are factors that every food handler must consider to ensure that the cooling process is correct and will achieve its objective:

1. Time of cooling. As previously mentioned, the entire cooling process must be completed within a maximum time of 6 hours. Beyond this time frame, the risk of food poisoning increases. Some cooling methods are more appropriate for certain food types.

  • For example, if you are cooling a big batch of thick soup with cooked meat and vegetables, using the blast chiller may take more time than using ice paddles or ice cubes. As such, food handlers must assess which method would be most efficient for cooling.

2. Temperature. This factor is what needs to be closely monitored during cooling. The temperature of the food will dictate whether it is ready for cold food storage or is still within the critical time period.

Inaccurate temperature readings may lead the food handler to believe that the food can already be refrigerated when the core is still hot, and it can still significantly affect the cooling unit's temperature.

3. Thickness or density of the food. The efficiency and safety of the cooling rates for food are significantly affected by the thickness, arrangement, or density of the food being cooled.

  • Thick cuts or a large mass of oily food would generally take a longer time to cool down. While the core of the food is still hot, the exterior portion may already be exposed to the temperature danger zone. The thicker or denser the food, the slower the core heat will expel. As such, a mass of food must be divided into smaller portions to speed up the process.

4. Food container. Different packaging materials for food containers conduct heat differently. For food mixtures being cooled using the ice bath method, a stainless steel bowl will cool the mixture faster than a thick plastic container. Stainless steel transfers heat more efficiently than other containers.

5. Applied external force. This factor applies to common cooling methods that use stirring, such as in ice-wand cooling. Cooked foods naturally have different temperatures throughout their composition. Heat can sometimes be trapped in the middle point of the food, especially for thick products.

  • To avoid this from happening, external force through stirring or mixing is applied to redistribute the heat throughout the liquid food and facilitate the proper cooling process.

6. Food handler training. This factor is a significant point that must be highlighted. The proficiency  of food handlersin preparing the cooked food correctly, cooling, sanitation, and monitoring can determine the success of the entire process. Food handlers with insufficient training can increase the likelihood of contamination.

Other factors, such as the cleanliness of the tools and water you are using, will also affect the safety of the process. Food handlers must consistently practice food hygiene to avoid the likelihood of contamination. They must also always be alert and on time to monitor the safe temperature of foods to ensure that the process is still on track.

Why should you monitor temperatures when cooling food?

Monitoring the cooling process ensures that the operation is free of contamination and will not be subjected to unfavorable conditions until it is completed. Monitoring includes temperature reading and recording the measurements.

Since the cooling method's completion and safety significantly depend on the temperature and efficiency of the process, inaccurate monitoring is a critical threat to the process.

Achieving the target temperatures within the prescribed time will determine whether the food was exposed to the temperature danger zone.

Consistent monitoring will significantly reduce the opportunity for pathogens to reproduce. It is also an essential task to allow food handlers to address any concerns immediately. For example, if the internal temperature of the food is still higher than 70°F, the food handler can exert extra effort to speed up the process and achieve the final target temperature earlier.

Use a temperature log and a properly calibrated accurate food thermometer to monitor the cooling process and the temperature of food.

When cooling food, what is the maximum time for the whole process?

The entire process of cooling perishable food must be achieved within the maximum time of 6 hours. This maximum time applies to all high-risk or time/temperature control for safety (TCS) food.

The allotted time for safe cooling food is divided into two parts, as suggested in the two-stage cooling process.

  1. For the first two hours, the hot food must be cooled from 135°F to 70°F.
  2. Within the next four hours, the food temperature must reach 41°F or less to ensure food safety.

Tips for cooling food

On top of the three approved cooling methods for cooked foods, food handlers must also be aware of other considerations to ensure food safety. The success of the cooling method also relies on how safe the food safety operation will be performed.

To help your team successfully cool foods without the threat of contamination, follow these food safety guidelines:

  • Ensure that all utensils used to cool foods are clean and sanitized properly.
  • Only use clean and purified water for making an ice-water bath.
  • Divide the food into smaller portions or lay them in a flat arrangement to facilitate the cooling process. Do not try to chill large quantities of food at once.
  • Use a properly calibrated food thermometer to monitor the temperature of your foods.
  • Never place hot foods inside the refrigerator. This will change the overall temperature inside the refrigerator.
  • Use shallow containers for faster cooling.
  • Label cooled foods before refrigerating.
  • Follow proper organization of foods inside the refrigerator to avoid contamination after cooling.
  • When using the ice-water bath method, stir the food with a sanitized ladle to redistribute heat.

An intuitive solution to monitor cooling food methods

As highlighted in this article, active food temperature monitoring for the process of cooling food is a critical task. Failure to cool foods correctly can increase your customers' risk of food poisoning. Consistent monitoring must be done in intervals until the cooling process is accomplished. 

Throughout the process, monitoring and recording the temperature of your foods will be done multiple times, and if you have large batches of prepared foods, you will need to perform food preparation tasks more. 

Fulfill this objective and consistently maintain food safety using our digital solution at FoodDocs. 

With a few easy steps, you can get a smart, digital Food Safety Management System equipped with the following features and benefits:

  • Monitor your cooling operations using automatically generated and customizable monitoring logs and checklist templates. Use these logs equipped with intuitive solutions to record temperature readings during the entire cooling process.

Cooling log with instructions from

With the help of this feature, you can ensure that all freshly cooked foods are cooled properly and safe from contamination. You can keep records of the most critical information about the process and have extensive documentation of cooling foods stored in one place.

Educative instructions to guide food handlers

All food safety operations rely on the accuracy of execution to become effective and efficient. As such, we developed a smart solution to help food handlers perform food safety practices accurately.

All automatically generated monitoring logs come with step-by-step instructions on how to perform and monitor a particular task. For our Cooling Log, a pre-uploaded instruction on performing the two-stage cooling process is available. 

Restaurant managers can use this to train food handlers during onboarding and as a reference for daily operations. You can also upload your versions of the instructions as images or video clips. 

Smart notifications to help keep track of tasks

To help food handlers simultaneously keep track of all food safety tasks, you can use our smart notification system. This smart solution was developed to help remind food handlers of important tasks.

Using our smart notification system, food handlers will receive intuitive alerts whenever a task is due. Use this feature to remind food handlers about the two main stages of the cooling method. 

Real-time dashboard to give you an overview of operations

Monitor your food safety operations remotely with the help of our real-time dashboard. 

Using our real-time dashboard, save at least 20% of your time from supervising your team.

This feature shows an overview of your daily operations where you can immediately identify areas that need to be addressed.

Know when food service operators successfully cool freshly cooked batches of your products. The dashboard will also show you instances when problems are encountered during cooling. Through this, you can easily address incidents right away. 


Real-time dashboard for overview in the FoodDocs software

Allow our digital Food Safety Monitoring System to take care of the repetitive, everyday tasks so you can focus on the other aspects of your food business. Using artificial intelligence and a machine-learning program, you will get a monitoring system tailored to the nature of your operations.

You can further improve the monitoring system according to your needs, as it can be customized. Maintain compliance with food safety regulations most efficiently by using our digital solutions for food businesses. Start your food safety compliance journey today with our free 14-day trial.



Frequently Asked Questions

Do you have more questions regarding cooling foods safely? Here are a few frequently asked questions on cooling food methods.

Why should you cool hot food quickly?

During the cooling of hot foods, there is a window period for opportunistic pathogens to contaminate and spoil the food. This is especially true once the hot food reaches the temperature danger zone of 40°F and 140°F. 

Cooling food from 135°F to 70°F in the first two hours and down to 41°F or less in the next 4 hours ensures that the food stays safe. 

Which of these methods is not safe for cooling food?

Hot foods must not be cooled using these two methods:
  • Leaving the food on the countertop at room temperature.
  • Cooling the hot food inside the refrigerator or freezer.

What are the risks when cooling food?

When cooling foods, the system can be contaminated or spoiled. The following factors play a significant role in keeping the safety of the food being cooled:
  • Temperature danger zone
  • Inaccurate temperature measurement
  • Inefficient cooling
  • Cross-contamination

What is the maximum amount of time that the entire cooling process may take?

The entire cooling process must be completed within 6 hours.
  • Using our real-time dashboard, save at least 20% of your time from supervising your team. This feature reflects an overview of your daily operations where you can immediately identify areas that need to be addressed.


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