Refrigerator Odors – Why, What, How?

Have you ever had a bad smell in a refrigerator? It’s not nice. It may not be easy to find the real source either. It can take days to locate whether it was fruit, vegetables, meat or fish. Everyone can be guilty.

Also, the air in a refrigerator can apparently improve a smell. A single smell one day can move throughout the interior, until the whole fridge stinks. In a frost-free refrigerator, air is constantly circulating, passing over all other food. Therefore, an odor in one part of the refrigerator can be detected very quickly and spread to everything else.

Most odors inside a refrigerator can be located with the eyes and nose. Usually it’s an old piece of forgotten food or an outdated cardboard box. But, if the source evades, try the following:

1. Check the food. It is the main reason for refrigerator odors. Use your nose as a scent detector. Use your hands to feel for spills.

2. Check crispers and shelves for small pieces of spoiled food. Although obvious, this is often overlooked. Remove crispers and shelves and wash thoroughly in warm, soapy water. Use a semi-soft scrub brush to get into cracks and crevices. Many metal racks are small enough to be washed in the dishwasher. When you replace the shelves, don’t forget to clean the plastic brackets that they fit into.

3. Check the glass shelves. Small liquid spills here can be transparent. Also, glass shelves can be complex and require intricate frames. Check underside of frames for hidden debris.

4. Clean inside edge of door seals. Start at the bottom. It is an important place where food and mold accumulate. Run a soft damp rag around a butter knife to get behind the gasket. Avoid pulling on the gasket as it may break.

5. Clean the floor of the freezer section. It can also be an odor producer. If you see loose frozen vegetables on the floor of the freezer, look for the source here. Carefully run your hand around the inside of the freezer. There may be hidden holes that are not normally visible. Loose food can get caught here.

6. If the smell persists, try using baking soda. Spread two tablespoons of baking soda on a saucer and place it in the refrigerator section. If the freezer is under suspicion, place one here as well. It must be spread in a thin layer to be effective; leaving it in the box will do a limited job of combating odors. Check every few days. Once a crust forms, replace with fresh baking soda. This works fine, but requires patience. Wait two to three weeks for even simple scents to subsidize.

7. When all else fails: Turn off the refrigerator, let it come to room temperature, remove all shelves and drawers, and thoroughly wash interior walls. Use warm soapy water. Avoid using cleaning products that have a strong chemical odor or are highly scented. Dry completely with a clean, dry cloth. Be especially careful of cracks near the bottom of the refrigerator interior. If the cracks look dirty, clean them with a semi-soft brush.

Avoid any product that is sprayed in the refrigerator. This only results in the odor being masked rather than eliminated.

Since the best defense is an offense, try to avoid any reason for odors to take hold in the refrigerator. The following are some simple tactics to prevent odors from starting:

1. Keep all food covered. It’s a simple idea that really works. Any food placed in the cool, moist environment of the refrigerator will begin to oxidize immediately. Put a steel bar in the refrigerator and it will rust; well, your food will go through the same process. But as food ages, it also gives off odors. Keeping food covered slows oxidation, which in turn slows the buildup of odours.

2. Avoid spills. This may seem like a silly suggestion, except if you have children. One trick is to keep a separate kid’s bowl on a lower shelf. In it, provide them with the foods they constantly crave. Here you can store apples, oranges, pre-cut vegetables and juice boxes. This keeps spills from children to a minimum – adults are on their own.

3. Separate fruits and vegetables. The acidity of one can affect the other. Once home from the supermarket, separate them and store them in their own bags. Zip top bags work well for this purpose. If they are bagged, they can be placed in the same crisper. If they are simply dumped together in the crisper, they can interact, causing some pretty unusual smells.

4. Watch out for fruit. In particular, they are different from most other foods. Many of them will actually deteriorate faster when inside a cool environment. Apples are a good example. When they are removed from the sealed bag and placed in the refrigerator, they leave their dormant state and begin to literally “breathe.” Taking in more air leads to accelerated decomposition.

5. Be careful with preserves. Odors can occur when an old container (Aunt Martha’s Christmas jam?) is pushed to the back of the refrigerator and forgotten. Being semi-sealed, they can produce slow, almost imperceptible spills and gases. If you have a really unpleasant odor that comes and goes, look for pickles or canned fruit. Preserved jams, on the other hand, will tend to bubble, producing sticky spills.

6. Throw away leaking containers. Milk bags in particular are notorious for leaking. Simply pouring the contents into a sealed container before placing it in the refrigerator will eliminate this problem. If a leak occurs, clean the entire shelf immediately. Even a few drops of milk or cream can cause horrible odors if left long enough to turn sour.

7. Watch out for stinky cheese. Store it inside its own sealed container instead of opening it on the dairy shelf. It is a living food. It continues to age due to the bacterial content. As you age, your features may change. While processed cheeses harden over time, natural cheeses can start to weep. Crying will produce increasing amounts of gas. Some cheeses can really start to stink. Anyone who has had spoiled cheese will never forget the smell.

8. Be aware of packaging. Prepackaged foods can become odor absorbers. Cardboard containers can easily collect and then retain any odors that circulate inside the refrigerator. Also, the boxes can break over time, slowly spilling their contents. Ever found an old cardboard box of molasses in the back of the refrigerator. I bet she’s been there since you made baked beans. Ten years ago?

Keeping the inside of your refrigerator clean and smelling fresh requires constant vigilance. The main advice we offer our customers on odor prevention is: don’t let them start. Although it is a simplistic answer, it is truthful. A bad odor is much easier to prevent than to treat.

Copyright © Donald Grummett 2005. All rights reserved.

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