Use of a wine fridge: 40F and food safety

Discussion in 'General Discussion' started by dyslexic nam, May 11, 2015.

  1. Hello all

    I can’t find a specific discussion of this issue, so I would appreciate any advice/wisdom you can pass on.

    I wanted to buy myself a small fridge so that I don't have to fill the main fridge with fish during the curing/drying process, so on Saturday I picked up a nice wine fridge/cooler for a great price.  But once I got home I realized the temp range (it gets down to 39-40 degrees F) may not be suitable for use as a smoking accessory.  I have read about the 40-140 rule to prevent bacteria growth, and since my fridge only gets down to around 40F I am wondering if it is useless.  

    The plan was to use it for 2 or 3 steps in the curing/smoking process:

    – curing/brining anywhere between 4 and 12 hrs

    – drying after curing to form a pellicle, again probably between 4 and 12 hrs

    – (optional) storing after smoking to let the flavours even out

    I am not as worried about the 3rd step, but steps 1 and 2 are the main reason I bought the fridge.  

    So, my questions:
    1. How much ‘wiggle room’ is there in the temp range?  For the curing and brining steps, is 40F a safe temperature to temporarily (4-12 hrs) store fish?
    2. Does the curing/brining process impact the temp range?  (ie. Would salting/curing make 40F a safe temp?)
    3. I generally cure with salt and brown sugar, but if there are safety concerns storing fish at 40F, would the use of nitrates or nitrites (haven’t used them before, so need to learn more) change the acceptable temp range?  (would it make 40F safe?)
    4. I only smoke fish, so are the bacteria-related dangers involved with salmon any different than those with pork or beef?
    5. Since the fridge is right around 40F, would any bacteria growth be greatly slowed down?  (ie. Would there be much less bacteria in the finished product?  Does that matter?)
    Basically, what kind of risks would I be taking if I used my wine cooler at 40F to temporarily (4-12 hrs) store my fish?  And if there are risks, are there ways to make it a useful accessory (ice cubes, nitrite/nitrate, shorten the steps, etc)?

    Apologies for the number of questions, but I am trying to figure out if I have wasted my money on the wine cooler, or if I can use it to solve some or all of my fridge problems.   If there is an issue with potential bacteria growth at 40F, I assume I could add ice cubes to the curing process to get the temp down to an acceptable level (and could shorten the drying stage to be less than 4 hrs), but I would like to be able to use the fridge by itself throughout the process without needing to actively lower the temp further.

    Thanks for any help you can provide.
  2. mr t 59874

    mr t 59874 Master of the Pit SMF Premier Member

    Obviously you have a procedure you like for curing salmon so no need to go there.  I like to use Tender Quick, as we like the finished texture and flavor.  That would resolve your concerns.

    Have you checked to see if a rheostat could be added to your cooler for temperature control?

  3. daveomak

    daveomak Smoking Guru OTBS Member SMF Premier Member

    Check the temp with an accurate thermometer... It may work for you...
  4. chef willie

    chef willie Master of the Pit OTBS Member

    I wouldn't think 'useless' by any stretch of the mind. You might also now consider using that fridge as a curing chamber for salumi making of all sorts of delicious meats that cost a fortune a purchase. Many, I understand, use a wine fridge for such an undertaking with great results. There are many links found on this using the search bar. Also consider an Uber plug & play temp controller to precisely control temp & the future humidifier. 40 is about the normal range most folks keep their home fridges so you should be fine there. Glass door?...the one I contemplated buying had a glass to see the meat curing process without opening the door a lot. I like to smoke my salmon around 200 till an IT of 140'ish is reached. I allow mine to dry a few hours with a fan blowing on it to form the pellicle before smoking. I've read of guys smoking at a lower temp and they see parasites starting to creep outta the salmon. That, to me, is a total turnoff. I'm thinking your plan is sound. Here's a link to one I did coupla years back (time flies) I found out later Rays Fish Shack is a landmark restaurant.
  5. Mr T:
    "Obviously you have a procedure you like for curing salmon so no need to go there.  I like to use Tender Quick, as we like the finished texture and flavor.  That would resolve your concerns."
    - Given the statement in bold, I assume that using TQ would allow me to safely work leave the fillets at 40F for longer than 4 hrs - correct?
    "Have you checked to see if a rheostat could be added to your cooler for temperature control?"
    - The cooler is digital, so I am not sure how that would work.  Attempting to modify would be a last resort - my preference would be to safely use it as-is.
    "Check the temp with an accurate thermometer..."
    I guess I am assuming that the (digital) fridge temp reading is accurate.  I will have to confirm that independently.
    Chef Willie
    Alas, I don't eat salami, or any meats other than seafood - I know, blasphemy around here :)    That is why my questions are fish-specific.
    "consider an Uber plug & play temp controller" - I will give it some thought, but I am trying to spend as little as possible, so I am hoping that the fridge will work as-is.
    "40 is about the normal range most folks keep their home fridges" - I never thought of that.  I will have to take internal temps of the main fridge and the new fridge.  If they are close I may be safe.
    And thanks for the link.  If I keep curing/drying time under 4 hrs, I may be safe anyway - especially if I hot smoke after that.
    The one hitch in all of this is that I am really hoping to make cold-smoked lox in the near future.  Hot smoking probably eliminates some of the worries involved in the process, but it is the cold-smoking process that I am concerned about.  Theoretically, in the set up I am planning,a  fillet could spend a few hours at 40F while being cured, an hour at 40F while drying, 2-4s hour between 40F and 140F while being cold smoked, and possibly even a few more hours back at 40F to let the flavour even out.  That is the kind of scenario I am eventually looking at, so that is why the safety of holding the fish at 40F is pretty important.   
    Last edited: May 11, 2015
  6. bmaddox

    bmaddox Master of the Pit

    This is from the USDA website:

    "For safety, it is important to verify the temperature of the refrigerator. Refrigerators should be set to maintain a temperature of 40 °F or below."

    If the fridge can maintain 39-40 than it should be fine. I would confirm it was a tested thermometer to as a few degrees higher than what the control panel says could cause issues. 
  7. genek

    genek Smoke Blower

    All the comments so far seem to be right on to me. I want to pass on my observations from my own use of a wine cooler.

    First I did not use it for curing, I stored eggs and butter and other things in my office/den or computer room.

    Mine was a Peltier type thermo-electric. One characteristic of mine was that it could only cool to about 20 or 30 degrees below the ambient of the room.

    It had a fan on the back that when its filter got clogged the temperaturee differential became very small.

    I'm a retired engineer so I measure everything to death., I used my data loggers to track precisely what was going on in the box when in use most of the time. I do recommend using accurate thermometers and monitor so you know what is going on in the box. Just because everything looked good in the morning it may be quite off in the heat of the afternoon.

    I have 2 Colman electric coolers and have used them for defrosting large turkeys using a PID controller set to 38 degrees.

  8. Thanks guys. I bought it used, and it seems to hold at 39 or 40 for a couple if days after it is plugged in and then the temp creeps up. Since the plan would be to only use it for specific periods of time for each step in the process, it seems like it would work as long as the temp is accurate. I will have to get some sort of thermometer to make sure, but if it will hold at 39 I should be good to go. Thanks.

    Edit: and I keep it in the basement, so the surrounding temp should be quite consistent.
    Last edited: May 16, 2015
  9. bmaddox

    bmaddox Master of the Pit

    When you were testing it was it empty? It will hold temp better when it is full. You could try chilling a couple gallon jugs of water in it to see what it does. 

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