Dear Umbra,

Two of our favorite Brit-coms are Keeping Up Appearances and As Time Goes By. It is hard for an American not to remark that in both households, which seem quite affluent, the refrigerator is short, and fits beneath the kitchen counter: nothing so grand as what passes for normal in American kitchens.

Do most Brits and Europeans in fact have in their kitchens only counter-height refrigerators? And if so, are they therefore quite satisfied with that arrangement? And if so, are they therefore using much less electricity than we are? And if so, is there any chance that we might learn to imitate them in this regard? Just because standard cabinetry design in American kitchens regularly includes a huge hollow space where the huge refrigerator is supposed to go, does that mean it must be that way?

Marcus Stephanus
New York, N.Y.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Reader support helps sustain our work. Donate today to keep our climate news free. All donations TRIPLED!

Dearest Marcus,

Obviously you need to have tea in various Brit kitchens during a U.K. research junket. On my last U.K. junket I was in at least one home with a counter-height fridge, and someone spoke about this very topic — the largeness of the U.S. fridge and the frugality of the U.K. fridge — and I felt humbled. Later I found there was a second small fridge in the basement, and felt humbugged.

Perish the thought.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Photo: iStockphoto

The average size of the U.K. fridge has grown over the past several years (I hope Brits will write in to confirm), but for us non-U.K.ers, the only germane question is: Should we downsize when changing our own icebox? Since most of us have full-sized fridges full of food, it’s a little inconceivable to downsize, but if you’re ready to consider so doing, read on.

During a kitchen remodel, if you have the cash to replace your refrigerator and you are shopping for a new one, by all means consider using a smaller fridge. Refrigerators can be cabinet-height, and/or cabinet-depth, and/or cabinet-width. Short caveat: a smaller fridge is not inherently a more efficient one. A large fridge with the same kilowatt-hour per year rating as a small fridge is actually more energy-efficient, because it cools a larger space using the same amount of energy. Energy Star offers some shopping tips, and the ACEEE lists the highest efficiency fridges by size, for your shopping pleasure.

One reason to have a smaller fridge is of course the added kitchen space you’ll gain — for cooking what’s in the fridge, for opening doors, for standing room at a party. Another is the extra cash you’ll have for buying tasty food or saving for low-e windows. A third, shocking reason is that much of what’s in your fridge could probably be stored in a cabinet or pantry. Zounds. When buying a fridge, then, we should behave as when we buy a furnace: reduce the need for a fridge as much as we can by cabineting appropriate goods, and then calculate the size fridge we truly need.

There are two types of bacteria related to cold storage. One is pathogenic, meaning it will hurt you if the food gets warm enough for it to grow; those generally have no smell or sign. The other is spoilage bacteria, which will have a smell or discolor food but, according to the USDA, probably won’t make you ill. Apparently lots of products are labeled “refrigerate after opening” simply because of the spoilage bacteria — ketchup, for example.

All uncanned animals and their products need to be refrigerated. (Hard cheese, if consumed soon after buying, is an exception.) Any food assembled into a dish — takeout food, leftovers, future picnic — needs to be refrigerated. Fresh produce needs to be refrigerated if it has been cut or processed in any way, or if it will rapidly degrade at room temperature (lettuce), but not if it tastes better and ripens further at room temperature (avocadoes, tomatoes). Unopened soft drinks go in the cabinets. Bread stales in the refrigerator and cookies and crackers don’t need to live there. Dried fruit and beans are fine in cabinets. Plain old mustard is fine in the cabinet, and apparently so are jams and jellies. Get this: mayonnaise, in the jar, is too acidic to spoil. Only when it is mixed with foods does mayonnaise transform into the Slime of Death. How I handle the daily shock I encounter researching your questions, I’ll never know.