Think about it: fridges are where we store our food and they're subject to all kinds of daily spills, so it's no wonder they occasionally smell bad. But few of us give our fridges more than just a quick wipe over, when what they need is a regular, thorough clean – every couple of months should do, unless you're a really messy cook. So, if your fridge smells, if there's always water pooling at the bottom of it or if the freezer's totally bunged up with ice, set aside half an hour to clean your fridge.
1. Don't just empty the fridge, edit its contents
We'd love to say that it's okay to simply empty the contents of the fridge on to the kitchen countertops before cleaning, but it's way wiser to a) check use-by dates and bin anything that's expired, b) wipe the underside of sticky bottles and jars before you transfer them and c) put meat and dairy products in a cool bag with freezer blocks, especially if it's a hot day (bacteria will multiply speedily at room temperature).
Timing your fridge cleaning for before your shopping delivery will make your life easier; similarly, you'll want a freezer you're about to defrost to be as empty as possible before considering the clean up.
2. Take out the shelves and fittings... then wait
How many times have you cracked a plastic shelf trying to remove it from the fridge? Put simply, if you unplug or switch off the fridge and let the plastic come to room temperature before you remove it, it's less likely to split.
And if you do safely remove glass or plastic shelves or drawers from the cold fridge and immediately put them into hot water, it's possible they'll crack in the bowl. So, letting them come to room temperature (you can work on the fridge's interior while you wait), then putting them into hot soapy water to let them soak is worth the wait.
3. How to clean a fridge fast
With the shelves and drawers out, spray the fridge's interior with a solution of distilled vinegar and water, concentrating on any areas with dried on gunk. Leave it to soak while you wash the shelves you removed earlier. Then return to the fridge and wipe it out thoroughly with a soft, damp cloth (rinse and squeeze it out regularly). The vinegar and water should work like magic at removing not just sticky mess and germs, but fridge smells, too (more on that later).
Always dry the fridge thoroughly before you put the food back in and shut the door.
Why not use a chemical cleaner inside the fridge? It's never a good idea to use a product that could release harmful substances or odours on to your food. Enough said.
4. Clean a fridge with bicarbonate of soda
As we said above, chemical products can leave behind smells that will be absorbed by your food, which makes natural cleaning products, such as bicarbonate of soda, a much better choice – especially as it will see off nasty fridge smells at the same time.
For a fridge that's not too dirty, simply wipe a paste made of hot water and bicarbonate of soda to the fridge's interior with a soft, damp cloth, then rinse off with a clean cloth and dry with kitchen roll.
For caked on food, leave the wet paste to soak in for 10 minutes or so, then wipe off once it's softened.
5. How to clean a fridge that smells
The first thing to do if your fridge smells is to check for food that's gone off, and ensure the fridge's temperature is correct (you can buy fridge thermometers if yours doesn't have one; your fridge should be at or below 4°C, and the freezer at -18° C). Neither applies? Clean the fridge thoroughly, including the drainage channel (more on this, below).
You can use vinegar or bicarbonate of soda to clean the fridge, but if you don't have those handy, try the following:
Ground coffee, spread on a tray and left in the fridge will soak up any bad fridge smells after a couple of days.
Activated charcoal will work like the coffee does.
Porridge oats: same technique, leave it for a couple of days then bin.
Vanilla-soaked cotton wool: got some vanilla extract in your baking drawer? It'll keep your fridge sweet-smelling.
Lemon halves, placed face down on a shelf will work at making your fridge smell citrusy.
Orange peel: same story.
Airtight food containers: these will keep food and its smells properly contained.
6. Why does a fridge have water at the bottom?
Condensation naturally builds up in a fridge, and it should be collected into the drain hole at the back of the fridge (it's usually about the height of the lowest shelf). There, it will go into an evaporation pan where it will... evaporate.
However, if your drain hole has become blocked by food, it's likely that all that condensation will end up at collecting as pools of water at the bottom of the fridge, and often inside your vegetable drawer. First thing to do is to check for obvious blockages. If that doesn't work, you'll need to clean your fridge's drain hole (see below).
7. How to clean a fridge's drainage hole
Start by removing the vegetable drawers from the fridge, then simply use a drain hole cleaning device (it's like a mini plumbing snake) to work out the blockage.
If whatever was clogging up the hole has been there for a while, it's likely that there's mould and mildew at the back of the fridge, which you can get rid of by using a basting syringe to pour a small amount of vinegar and water into the drain hole.
Assuming you've removed as much of the gunk as possible with the drain hole cleaning device, use a cotton wool bud to work the vinegar/water solution around the hole to remove any remaining deposits.
Use the vinegar and water to wipe the bottom of the fridge out before returning the vegetable drawers. Keep the drain cleaning device somewhere handy (top shelf of the fridge); that way, you can tackle the drain hole every couple of months to keep the fridge running healthily.
8. How to clean fridge shelves
So, you've removed the shelves and let them come to room temperature before putting them in hot, soapy water. You've given them a good clean... but there are still bits of hard-to-reach gunk between the surface of the shelf and the shelf surround. Our best cleaning tool? The toothpick. Simply run it along the joins in the shelf then wipe away whatever it collects.
That cotton bud you were using earlier for the drain hole? It's handy for getting food out of grooves in the fridge's interior, too.
And if you want to avoid cleaning your shelves, drawers and fridge bins in soapy water, swap it out for a couple of tablespoons of bicarbonate of soda in warm water.
What not to do? Put the fridge's fittings into the dishwasher: the water is too hot, especially for the plastic.
9. Best ways to clean fridge seals
Fridge door seals can quickly collect crumbs and spills, so it's worth vacuuming into them with a crevice tool or working at them with a stiff washing up brush every time you're cleaning the kitchen floor.
Then take a soft cloth, wrap it around a blunt knife, dip it in that vinegar/water solution, and run it gently along the crevices in the seals to collect the gunk. Use a fresh, dry cloth or kitchen towel to repeat the process – this should ensure the crevices are hygienically dry before you shut the fridge door again.
10. How to clean a freezer
First things first: place a towel at the bottom of the freezer to absorb any water that spills when you defrost it.
Switch the freezer off at the mains, then empty it, stashing any food into a freezer bag to keep it frozen. Shelves and trays should be allowed to come to room temperature before you stick them in warm water to avoid cracking (more on that, above).
Leave the door open for a few minutes to allow the ice to start melting – you could be tackling the fridge now if you're going for time-efficiency. Then use a freezer defroster ice shovel (yup, that's a thing, and you'll wish you had one if you've started without) to remove the biggest chunks of ice, being careful of the freezer's lining.
Next fill a spray container with equal parts of warm water and distilled vinegar and spray the freezer walls. Use a soft cloth to work the water/vinegar mix into the surfaces, then dry thoroughly.
You can help your freezer function at its best by not overloading it; by storing food evenly within it so that air circulates properly; and by ensuring food is properly covered or in an airtight container when it goes in. Wiping up fresh ice tray spills will help keep it ice free.
11. Allow the fridge and freezer to cool before restocking
With the fridge washed and thoroughly dried, shut the door and wait for the temperature to reach 4°C or below before replacing the food. Use your fridge's fast-cool function if it has one to speed up the cooling process. Similarly, check the freezer is back to -18ºC before you put the food back in.
12. Best ways to clean the outside of a fridge
Just as you used soapy water or bicarbonate of soda inside the fridge, you can use both on the outside of a white appliance, too. Simply wet a soft cloth, pour on the soda and you're good to go. Remember to clean the top of the appliance's doors, since those can become sticky, and pay attention to the areas around handles, which become grimy with constant contact.
For stainless steel, clean in the direction of the grain with a stainless steel cleaner for a fingerprint-free shine.
Find more ways to keep stainless steel kitchen appliances gleaming in our guide.
13. What to do with your fridge when you go away
Going on a prolonged holiday? The best thing to do – if you don't want to return to a fridge of mouldy food – is to remove anything that's at risk of going off, and freeze it if possible. Better still, if your home is prone to power cuts, eat it before you go.
If you're going to be away for a really long time, it's best to empty the fridge completely, switch it off, clean it and leave its door open.
Then, just get your online grocery shop lined up for your return and you'll thank past self for being so organised.
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