How to clean your refrigerator and keep it that way

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The refrigerator is one of the most high-trafficked spots in the kitchen. We open and close it all day, putting food in and taking it out. Still, it can be easy to overlook when it comes to cleaning.

“A lot of people want their refrigerator to fade into the background,” says Katie Sadler, kitchen brand manager at Whirlpool. Compared to your oven or cooktop, the refrigerator feels much more passive, almost like a piece of furniture. But it’s still working just as hard.

If you’re anything like me, your refrigerator is stuffed to the gills, and the thought of emptying out every last jar and container is intimidating. I can attest, though, to the satisfaction of actually committing to the chore – let’s not beat around the bush, because it is. You’ll enjoy looking at a clean fridge, but you’ll also be secure in the knowledge that you’ve taken a big step toward ensuring food safety in your home.

Here’s how to tackle the job, divided by the different zones of your refrigerator.

–The interior. The biggest thing you can do to make cleaning your refrigerator easier is don’t let it get out of hand. “Wipe drips and puddles when you see them,” says Carolyn Forte, director of the home appliances and cleaning products lab at the Good Housekeeping Institute. “Wash a drawer or door bin or shelf when it’s sticky or stained and you’ll stay ahead of a big mess.” Store food in airtight, leakproof containers. Do a regular inventory, and remove spoiled food as soon as possible. Sadler says you can try to incorporate cleaning into your routine by wiping down shelves and bins before you put away each week’s groceries.

Upkeep is not just a matter of appearance. Spills and spoiled food can leave behind mold spores or encourage the growth of bacteria, making other food go bad as well. Sadler says that odors from the refrigerator compartment can also invade the freezer, as they often share airflow.

Sadler recommends a deep clean of the refrigerator every six months. Ideally, this involves emptying out the refrigerator and unplugging it or turning it off at the circuit breaker. Have a cooler ready to store perishable items, though your freezer should be OK for a while as long as you don’t open it, similar to if you experience a power outage. Remove as many shelves and drawers as you can and let them come to room temperature, as washing cool materials with warm water can cause them to crack. Plus, turning off the fridge means you can have the door open as much as you want without the door ajar alarm going off. If you can’t turn off the fridge or remove the bins and shelves, use cool water to wash them, Forte says. Wash the parts with a mild detergent and water, rinse thoroughly and wipe dry. For stuck-on messes, Forte says to cover them with a warm, damp dish towel to soften them enough to be able to wipe or scrape off.

The USDA recommends against cleaning with solvent cleaning agents or abrasives, which can “allow chemical fumes/tastes into your food and ice cubes and make them unsafe to eat.” Moreover, Sadler says, such cleaners can damage surfaces. She says even baking soda may prove too abrasive. In the event of a big mess, such as leaking meat juices, or a food recall, you may wish to sanitize with a diluted bleach solution after soap and water. The USDA says to combine 1 tablespoon bleach with 1 gallon water, then wipe down the surfaces. After this treatment, leave the door open for 15 minutes to allow air circulation – another good reason to turn off the appliance.

–The exterior. As with the interior, simple soap and water is a fine solution for the outside of your refrigerator. If your refrigerator is stainless steel, you can use a product specially formulated for appliances. Forte says that stainless steel cleaners intended for sinks and cookware can damage appliances. If you have the newer fingerprint-resistant stainless, Sadler says you should avoid using stainless appliance cleaner, as it can harm the coating. For this type of surface, she recommends sudsy water or even just a damp microfiber cloth. Forte says that non-stainless surfaces can be treated with sudsy water, too, or an all-purpose spray cleaner.

Forte says it can be easy to overlook handles and the rubber gaskets on the doors, the latter of which are notorious for trapping crumbs you don’t even know the source of (guilty!). Simply wipe the gaskets out to remove any debris, or use a vacuum attachment or hand vac, and then go for that trusty detergent and water. Soap and water solution is also good for touch screens, Sadler says, if you have a smart refrigerator. No Windex, please.

–Underneath/behind. The space under the fridge is a black hole for dried beans, grains of rice, dog food and anything small that can slide under, not to mention dust. Paying attention to these spots at least once a year will lead to better appliance efficiency, good for your electric bill and the environment. Sadler suggests dusting under there at least once a month, which is sufficient enough so that you don’t have to worry about getting behind the fridge. (Sadler says Whirlpool does not recommend that consumers move the appliances to clean.) Use a vacuum hose with an attachment or a duster to get the job done. If you want a specific recommendation, America’s Test Kitchen likes the Oxo Good Grips Microfiber Under Appliance Duster.

–Air (i.e. odors). The standard interior washing tips should go a long way toward addressing odors, but sometimes you need a little extra help. First, if you’re not sure where the smell is coming from, check for spoiled food. If you find any, get rid of it. Otherwise, the USDA has a few other suggestions.

Wiping the interior with an equal mix of water and vinegar can destroy mildew. You can place some fresh coffee grounds or baking soda in a shallow container at the bottom of the refrigerator (and freezer, if desired). Vanilla is another handy air freshener. The USDA suggests soaking a cotton swab in it to place in the refrigerator and freezer, though I’ve also had success with some poured onto a small, shallow plate. If you have a really pervasive problem, as well as time and the ability to be without a fridge for a few days, the USDA recommends stuffing the refrigerator and freezer with rolled newspapers, letting them sit for a few days and then doing the water-vinegar wash.

–Filters. Don’t forget about those not-so-obvious filters. Sadler says most refrigerators have at least a water filter, and some have separate filters for ice and water. Generally those need to be replaced every six months, she says, but consult your manual if you have it. Some newer refrigerators have even more innovative filters that need to be switched out periodically. One example is a produce air filter, which captures the ethylene gas that can hasten rotting. Your refrigerator may have an indicator when it’s time to change a filter. It’s not a bad idea to buy two at a time so you always have one at the ready and don’t need to acquire them as often.

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