“How’d you like your fridge looking like this?©iStockphoto.com/Filipe B. Varela
Your refrigerator sees a lot of action every day, and not all of it’s pretty — leftover chili splatters; forgotten veggies turn slimy. Eventually, the icebox looks like an abstract painting in a modern art museum.
This art is interactive, too, but not in a fun way. Bacteria and odors from drips and stains can spread through compartments and into other foods. The results can be stomach turning, in more ways than one.
If this description sounds familiar, then read on. In these pages, you’ll find strategies to help deal with such unwanted outbursts quickly and easily. Pick a day just before stocking up at the supermarket, when your fridge is at its emptiest. Pull the plug, and turn the temperature control setting to "off" as a safety precaution. Then, follow these steps to keep your fridge clean, your food safe and your appetite intact.
First up: arming yourself for the job.
- Have Cleaning Supplies Ready
- Organize the Edibles
- Place Removable Parts in the Sink
- Work From Top to Bottom
- Wipe Down Food Containers
5: Have Cleaning Supplies Ready
Too often, a messy refrigerator falls victim to the "out of sight, out of mind" syndrome. The food’s behind closed doors most of the time, after all. By stashing a cleaning kit nearby, you may be more tempted to clean up accidents as they occur.
Why the hurry? For one thing, cleaning up fresh spills saves the time and effort of scrubbing after they’ve dried. It may also save you trips to the bathroom and even the emergency room. A glob of deviled ham can harbor a thriving colony of listeria, the bacteria that cause listeriosis, a foodborne illness marked by nausea and diarrhea, fever and chills. The E. coli strain that’s responsible for a potentially fatal illness can also survive refrigeration. A quick swipe now may prevent prolonged misery later.
Chances are your fridge is located near a sink, which conveniently provides storage space as well as hot water. Assemble supplies with efficiency in mind. Fill a small bucket or handled tub with basic tools for a variety of common tasks: reusable terrycloth towels, sponges, brushes, and all-purpose cleaners with a mild disinfectant like bleach.
The next bit of advice illustrates the wisdom of the adage, "A place for everything and everything in its place."
Tips for Green Cleaning
Killing bacteria and eliminating odors may sound like warfare. It can be environmentally friendly, however, if you make your own cleaning products from common, nontoxic household goods. Try some of these ideas:
- For general cleaning, sprinkle the area with baking soda and wipe with a damp cloth or sponge. Or mix a solution of equal parts water and either lemon juice or vinegar.
- Use toothpaste and a toothbrush to clean chrome fittings.
- Pop in a cotton ball doused with vanilla to freshen up a stale compartment.
- If things have progressed to the mold stage, attack the fungus with a paste of salt and vinegar.
4: Organize the Edibles
“Organizing your food into groups will make transferring them back and forth much easier.©iStockphoto.com/Maurice van der Velden
Cleaning the fridge is a good time to organize the contents to make them more visible and accessible. Food that’s easily seen and reached is less likely to be overlooked and turn into a future source of odors. Also, spacing foods to allow a free flow of chilled air helps to keep them at their peak.
You might also review the owner’s manual or favorite source of food knowledge to learn how and where to store different items. Storing foods in the proper location prolongs their quality and shelf life. Plus, some foods need to be separated for their own good. Apples give off ethylene gas as they ripen, for example, which can send green beans into early decline. On the other hand, apples are overwhelmed by the odor and taste of onions.
When you clean, collect foods from each area of the fridge into separate containers. Use coolers for fish and other foods that spoil easily; a simply bowl will suffice for hardier foods like pickles. You can even group those on the table or counter. Check all expiration dates and give questionable items the smell test. Pitch funky potato salad or slimy ham before it becomes a menace.
For our next step, we take a dip in the pool.
3: Place Removable Parts in the Sink
“Get those compartments out of there!©iStockphoto.com/A. Korzekwa
Reaching into the recesses of the fridge to wash down racks, shelves and drawers makes a good stretching routine. If you’d rather avoid the calisthenics, just submerge these parts in a sink or tub of warm water and baking soda. (You can add a splash of dishwashing liquid, but some people say traces of the soap linger in the compartment and leave food with its distinctive taste and smell.) Dried food will soak off, and odors will dissipate. Be careful about putting cold glass shelves into hot water, however. The sudden temperature drop can cause them to crack.
While these pieces take a bath, take a toothbrush with cleansing powder to brackets and gaskets. Bacteria can hide in these and other hard-to-reach areas, while the moist, airtight environment formed by door seals makes them prime targets for mold. Dry all pieces well to discourage these unwelcome microbial guests.
Before returning the removable pieces, you need to attend to the compartment. Our next step explains how.
2: Work From Top to Bottom
Apply the trickle down theory. Start at the top of the compartment to prevent dirty water or bits of food from dripping or dropping onto surfaces you’ve already cleaned. Use the all-purpose cleaner of your choice.
The same idea applies to cleaning the exterior. Start with the top of the fridge. This is often the most overlooked, undercleaned space in the kitchen. If this is the case in your home, use hot water and double the strength of your cleanser. Use that toothbrush to clean around the handle (think of how many people put their mitts on it every day). Then, wipe the door and sides with all-purpose cleaner and dry as a finishing touch.
Remember that this theory can also work against you. As the final resting place for spills and other mishaps from above, the lowest regions — like the space behind crispers and the bottom rack of the door — are apt to be the dirtiest parts of the refrigerator. It may take some scrubbing to get clean.
On the next page, we close our discussion with the proverbial ounce of prevention.
Vacuuming Coils is Cool
About three times a year (that’s all), unplug the fridge and vacuum the coils. Whisk away dirt and dust using a bristle brush. Use a nozzle attachment (many manufacturers sell them) to clean between the coils and suck up the debris, and you’re good to go.
1: Wipe Down Food Containers
“Keep everything locked up.©iStockphoto.com/Filipe B. Varela
Clean, tightly closed containers are the best defense against spills and wayward odors. Sealing out air also keeps food fresher longer. And if any spoilage does occur, it’ll be limited to the unfortunate food in question.
If you do need to repackage, opt for clear containers if possible. If you reuse containers from store-bought food, label them.
Finally, don’t let your efforts be in vain: Remember to plug in the fridge and turn the temperature control to "on." Choose the lowest setting until the compartment is good and cold — 38 degrees Fahrenheit (3.3 degrees Celsius) or a hair under — before returning the occupants to their gleaming abode.
Lots More Information
- How Refrigerators Work
- Can I go without a refrigerator?
- What is the ideal temperature for a refrigerator?
- Uses for Baking Soda: Cleaning Your House
- How to Organize a Pantry
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- Athavaley, Anjali. "Why Won’t Anyone Clean the Refrigerator?" Wall Street Journal. Feb. 24, 2010. (Nov. 2, 2010) http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703503804575083453336699386.html
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- U.S. Food and Drug Administration. "Special Handling for Ready-to-Eat, Refrigerated Foods." June 14, 2010. (Nov. 8, 2010) http://www.fda.gov/Food/ResourcesForYou/Consumers/ucm079667.htm
- U.S. Food Safety and Inspection Service. "Ground Beef and Food Safety." Oct. 19, 2009. (Nov. 8, 2010) http://www.fsis.usda.gov/factsheets/ground_beef_and_food_safety/index.asp