In this month’s issue of The Local Palate our Test Kitchen gives us the expert low-down on how to win the prize for the most efficiently packed cooler of all time. For all of your outdoor summer adventures—from the neighborhood barbecue, to a weekend camping exploration, to tailgating bonanzas—we’ve got you covered. Because here at TLP, we understand there’s nothing worse than finally sitting down to relax in your beach chair, toes in the sand, hair fluttering in the breeze, and reaching over to grab one of your favorite ice-cold brews only to find—GASP!—it’s anything but ice-cold. Instead, your cooler is lukewarm, and the food and beverages to accompany your day of leisure are now swimming in a sad puddle, improperly chilled, making your day just a little less perfect. How can you prevent the seemingly inevitable entropy? Look no further: we’ve got the best tips and tricks in the game.
First thing’s first. A performance cooler (i.e. Yeti, Orion, Engel, Grizzly) is well worth your investment. These are the biggest and baddest out there on the market. They are more durable and will keep their contents much colder for much longer. If you’re not quite as eager to stretch your wallet, opt for a brand like Coleman or Igloo for a quality product that will still serve its purpose. It’s always a good idea to keep separate coolers for food and drink, as the drink cooler is often the one most opened (wonder why?). A third cooler can even be utilized for frozen items for easy transfer into a refrigerated cooler later to be thawed.
After you’ve purchased your preferred cooling device, the most critical step in the professional cooler-packing process is what we like to call the pre-freeze. Make way in your freezer or fridge for the entirety of your cooler contents—and if you have room, for the actual cooler itself to ensure proper chilling. We recommend allowing at least one hour for chilling in the fridge, or about 20-30 minutes for the freezer. If you can’t squeeze your cooler into either your fridge or your freezer, try keeping it in a room-temperature area and filling it with lots of ice or cold water the day before your summer expedition. Hint: It’s always a good idea to have more than enough bags of ice handy!
Next, always remember the golden cooler rule: first in, last out. This means that when you’re ready to actually pack your cooler, pack contents in chronological order. Pack what you’ll be using last on the bottom and what you’ll be using first on top. Bag items together that will be used in conjunction such as veggies and dip—this will decrease the time that the cooler is open! Always use sealed food containers—we recommend Lock & Lock’s, as well as a floating tray to keep water out (see below).
When packing your cooler, think layering, and of course, first in, last out. For drink coolers, we suggest a thin layer of crushed ice on the bottom, then alternating beverages and ice all the way up. Oftentimes for extra chill we use a large block of ice in the middle to radiate cold. For food coolers, place raw meat, poultry, and fish on the bottom to avoid cross-contamination. Pack like with like so that each meal or snack can be easily accessed with minimal rooting around. When the temperature outside exceeds 90ºF., put perishable food back in the cooler within one hour after eating. For best cooler-packing results, alternate layers of block ice, loose ice, and high-quality ice packs. And keep in mind—a densely packed cooler will always be colder, so stuff paper towels, wadded newspaper, or brown paper bags on top to take up extra space and push out any hot air. Dry ice will also keep things colder if placed on top of the contents, but it is generally more conveniently kept at the bottom: just be cautious when handling it!
Salt, salt, salt! That’s right. This step is optional, but it’s scientifically proven to work. Salt allows water to maintain a colder temperature without freezing and will lower the temperature of your cooler. It is best used to cool warm things because water conducts heat better than air (walking on 65°F day is nice vs jumping in a 65°F pool is cold). Sprinkle handfuls of salt (preferably rock salt) when alternating layers of food/drink with ice, and then top it off with just a bit more.
Your cooler is now packed and ready. All you need to remember is shade for the cooler while you’re enjoying the sun. Throw a towel over it at the beach and dig it into the sand a bit—any insulation helps! Always be conscious of how long the cooler stays open with each use, and be sure to close and latch the cooler properly afterward.
After all the fun is over, treat your cooler with the respect it deserves. Rinse out your cooler with water and mild detergent, and then dry it thoroughly. Moisture leads to mold and odors, so please do not forget this final step! If you’ve already got a stinky cooler, try wiping out the interior with some lemon or vanilla extract.
Once you’ve made it through these steps, you’ve officially mastered the art of professional cooler packing. So enough with rules–kick back and reward yourself with an ice-cold beverage (just don’t keep the cooler open for too long)!