Not so coincidentally, Nov. 15 is National Clean Out Your Refrigerator Day. Unlike other “national days,” which can often lean toward the gimmicky (National Sneak Some Zucchini Into Your Neighbor’s Porch Day, anyone?), this one is rooted in practicality: It falls within a couple of weeks of Thanksgiving in America by design.
The holidays tend to make special demands of our refrigerators: Extra groceries, meals that require multiday preparation, leftovers that take up room — all alongside the everyday jugs of milk and cartons of eggs. All of that can make a time- and sanity-saver of deep cleaning your refrigerator before the shopping and cooking begin in earnest.
Of course, this deep-clean needn’t take place on Nov. 15, especially if you’re not on the hook for hosting a holiday gathering. No matter when, exactly, you undertake a this chore, here is the right way to get it done.
Preparing for the Purge
Cleaning out the refrigerator, while a sloggy, smelly, often grotty task, doesn’t require a whole lot by way of specialty products. You should, however, gather a few items that will help to streamline the process and, hopefully, cut down on the ick-factor of disposing of so many long since forgotten foodstuffs.
Here are some of the things you might need for your clean-out:
• Trash bags
• Rubber or disposable gloves
• A cooler
• Cleaning solution
• A Dobie Pad, sponges, rags or paper towels
• Microfiber cloths
Start by Taking Everything Out
You will be tempted to leave some things behind in the name of timesaving (“I can just clean around that box of baking soda”). Resist this temptation! Removing everything from the icebox all at once will be far less time-consuming than trying to clean around anything.
Plus, with everything out of the fridge, it will be easier to take stock of what will stay and what will get thrown out because you can turn a more critical eye to, say, your robust collection of jams and jellies when they’re out of their native environment.
This directive also includes taking out any removable shelves, drawers or door inserts. (Cleaning tips for these below.)
Do a First Pass at Inventorying Your Foodstuffs
Transfer highly perishable items like milk, raw chicken or pork to a cooler or the freezer for the duration of your fridge-cleaning efforts (check those items for spoiling and toss anything that’s gone off). Then set aside bottles, jars, produce and the like, reviewing the food to weed out rotting, moldy or unused things that should go into the trash.
Last, review leftovers. This will be, perhaps, unpleasant! Gloves can help to make scooping out old lasagna or soggy salad less disgusting. And, as facile as it sounds, holding a deep breath while decanting moldy foods into the trash will help minimize any stomach-turning.
Time to Scrub
Start with those shelves, drawers and door inserts you removed. You’ll want to wash them just like you wash dishes, using a sponge and dish soap. Because they’re oddly shaped and oversized items, you might find it easier to wash them in a bathtub or large utility sink, or even outdoors with a hose. Wearing utility clothing for this operation is a good idea, as you’re likely to wind up a bit waterlogged, with bits of old food on you, or possibly just a little sweaty.
Once the removable parts are washed, dry them and set them aside. Now fill the sink about halfway up with water and a small amount of dish soap and place any now-empty storage containers in there for a soak while you turn your attention to the interior of the refrigerator. The soaking will expedite the process of washing the containers down the line.
There are many good choices when it comes to a cleaning solution for the fridge, and you should take into account what makes you feel comfortable: Some people want the reassurance of a strong disinfectant like bleach, while others shudder at the idea of using bleach in the place where they store their food. Some options to consider are: diluted bleach or white vinegar (but never mix the two); a commercial all-purpose cleaner like Puracy Natural Multi-Surface Cleaner (the top pick from Wirecutter, the New York Times Company’s product review site); glass cleaner; a solution of dish soap and water.
While the choice of cleaning solution is flexible, I strongly recommend using a Dobie Pad as a scrubbing tool. These sponges are excellent at scouring stuck-on food and spills from surfaces without scratching the plastic or glass.
You can also use regular sponges, dish cloths or rags; an old toothbrush might also be useful if the design of your refrigerator has many nooks and crannies. Thin rags are great for cleaning the rubber seal around the door, where crumbs and all manner of other horrors lurk.
For the exterior of your fridge, I recommend using a microfiber cloth, as it’s great at eliminating the streaks and fingerprints that so often mar the surface of stainless appliances. The exterior of plastic refrigerators can be cleaned in the same way as the interior; don’t forget to clean the top, where an unholy amount of grime has likely collected.
Particularly Stubborn Spills and Stains
Here’s an easy trick that will make short work of removing a badly stuck-on spill: Wet a sponge or rag with very hot water — being careful not to burn your hands — then wring it out and hold it on the sticky substance as you would a compress. The heat and moisture will reconstitute whatever it is that’s congealed, making it more pliable and easier to wipe up. For unrelenting spills, reapply the compress as needed.
If the interior of your refrigerator has become stained, try a Magic Eraser to remove unsightly yellowing scuffs or stains left behind by brightly hued condiments (Sriracha, we’re looking at you). Wet the eraser, squeeze it out then rub it on the stain, just like a pencil eraser (note: it will disintegrate similarly).
Now, Put Everything Back
Start by returning the shelves and drawers and inserts to their places. Do you need to adjust shelf placement to make room for the large plucked bird that will call your refrigerator home shortly? This is a good time to do that.
Next, review the condiments you didn’t throw out on your first pass. Open lids to check for mold and empties. Use a sponge or rag dampened with hot water to wipe the exterior of bottles free of sticky drips — don’t forget the bottoms — and tighten caps that haven’t been properly screwed on, so you can prevent future drips.
(And here’s a quick trick if you have a mustard jar that’s nearly out: You can make a delicious salad dressing using mustard dregs by pouring oil and vinegar directly into an almost-empty jar, replacing the lid tightly and shake-shake-shaking.).
Then, return produce, dairy, meat, drinks and the rest to the refrigerator.
Advice for food storage
According to the maker of Sub-Zero refrigerators, these are some of the best practices when it comes to food storage. A list of ethylene gas-producing foods can be found here.
Wrapped raw meat and fish: Place on a plate or in a container to prevent drips. Store on the lowest shelf to keep drips from contaminating things below.
Milk and other dairy: Place milk and other dairy-based foods deep on the shelves to avoid the temperature fluctuations that come with door shelves. Wrapped cheeses can also be stored in drawers.
Jarred items like jellies, olives, dressings: These highly stable items can be stored in door shelves, where temperature changes won’t have as much of an effect.
Lettuce and fresh herbs: Store in refrigerator drawers.
Tomatoes: Store on countertop, away from ethylene gas-producing fruits and vegetables, unless very ripe.
Berries: Store unwashed in refrigerator drawers. Wash just before eating.
Ethylene gas-producing fruits and vegetables: Store these away from fruits and vegetables that are sensitive to ethylene, like avocados, mangos and tomatoes.
Eggs: A still egg is a happy egg! Place eggs in a place where they won’t be disturbed.
One Last Tip!
Is your refrigerator too quick to turn into a horror show of liquefied lettuce and old taco meat? Add this step to your trash-day routine: Before you tie up the garbage bag, open the fridge and review what’s in there. Throw out anything that’s gone bad or you know you’re not going to eat. Make a mental note of lingering foods that you could incorporate into an upcoming meal. Lots of leftovers? Serve a leftovers buffet for dinner or transfer them into portable containers to bring to work for lunch.