How restaurants can snuff out odor transfer in walk-ins

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I have been getting complaints that our desserts taste funny. I tasted a coconut cake that got sent back, and I think the icing might be absorbing odors from the walk-in. Is that possible?

– Manager, bar and grill, Pennsylvania


It’s not only possible but probable that if you are storing your desserts alongside savory ingredients, odors are transferring from strong aromatics such as herbs, onions and, in some cases, even cleaning supplies, to foods. Particularly susceptible to odor absorption are fatty and mild foods such as milk, eggs, cream, butter, mild cheeses, and, yes, baked goods and icings. Sometimes that odor (or, more appetizingly, aroma) absorption is desirable, as when French restaurants store truffles among the eggs to permeate the eggs with flavor. But it can also be horrible and off-putting, like when milk picks up the odor of diced onions or chopped garlic.

Because iced cakes are often stored uncovered to protect their decoration, odor transfer can be even more problematic than it would be for packaged foods such as milk.

The answer is a simple one: Think of a diner with a display case of oversized cakes. Yes, a separate refrigerator for desserts can be an effective merchandising tool, but it is also a best practice for food quality and safety. While some swear by baking soda, charcoal or storage containers to prevent the odor transfer, my advice is to treat the problem, rather than the symptom, by designating a separate pastry fridge, kept scrupulously clean, and making sure you have high turnover of desserts (or streamline your menu accordingly) so things aren’t sitting around for more than a day or two. You don’t need a fancy display case or substantial dessert program: Even if you designate a lowboy or reach-in in the back of house for dessert storage, you are better off than having things co-mingled in the walk-in.

James Feustel, commercial kitchen designer for Singer Equipment Co. in Bellmawr, N.J., agrees. “For operations with significant pastry/dessert programs, we try to plan for dedicated reach-ins (or walk-ins if we have the space) for cakes and pastries and other items that are often stored uncovered. If separate refrigeration isn’t an option, I’ve seen some refrigeration companies offer deodorizers. … I can’t vouch for how well any of those work, though.”

More on combating refrigeration odors here.

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