A refrigerator is not a very demanding appliance, but it does have a few requirements that shouldn't be ignored. On top of quietly keeping hundreds of dollars’ worth of food from spoiling and making us sick, it’s also the most costly kitchen appliance to run, according to the Department of Energy. It’s the second most expensive appliance to run in the entire home (it comes in behind the air conditioner).
In the interest of keeping your refrigerator happy, here are a few common mistakes you’re probably making with your refrigerator and how to avoid them.
— Hilary Meyer, Associate Food Editor
Having an abundance of food may not be the best thing when it comes to your refrigerator (or your freezer). To keep it running efficiently (and to keep the food cool), you need to leave some space in the fridge for air to circulate. Without it, your fridge will struggle to keep food cool enough, so food may spoil faster. Fill your shelves, but avoid overstacking. You should be able to comfortably reach the back of your refrigerator. If not, it’s time to purge some items.
The refrigerator door isn’t like regular cabinet doors. It has a piece of rubber that seals to the body when it’s shut to keep the cold air in. Often it’s magnetized so you feel resistance when you go to open it again. The trouble lies in when you overpack your fridge or overstock the shelves on the door. It may appear shut, but it doesn’t seal, letting cold air escape. Give your door a little tug once you shut it to make sure it’s closed completely.
It can be a little unnerving letting all the cold air escape while you put away your groceries. Having the door of your fridge hanging wide open lets all the cold air out, so to compensate you turn the temperature down "temporarily." That’s fine, but it’s an easy detail to forget—and your fridge eats up even more electricity and you get ice crystals floating in your milk and frozen fruits and vegetables suitable for the compost bin. As long as it’s not overstuffed and is sealed properly, even if you have left the door open for a minute or two your fridge can catch up to the temperature loss on its own before the food inside has a chance to spoil. Make sure you have a thermometer somewhere in your fridge. (If not, it’s time to invest in one.) You want to make sure the temperature is somewhere between 35 and 38 degrees F: not cold enough to freeze things and not warm enough for them to spoil quickly either. Make small adjustments and give it an hour to two (or more, depending on the manufacturer’s instructions) until it reaches the right zone.
The fridge is a prime place for spills and leaks. Sure, we clean up the obvious messes, but it’s probably not that often that we give our fridge a real scrubdown. The FDA recommends cleaning your fridge as part of your regular "kitchen cleaning" routine, since dangerous bacteria from a small leak in a package of meat can contaminate other food products you may not cook before eating. Water mixed with a little bleach should do the trick. And while you’re at it, don’t forget to clean underneath the refrigerator too. It’s a great place for dust and grime to collect, making it harder for your fridge to run efficiently. However scary it may be, it will save you money in the long run.
Most refrigerators can take a little heat from a few servings of warm leftovers, but putting a piping-hot pot of soup, for example, in your fridge could spell disaster for the other food inside. If it raises the temperature above 40 degrees F, bacteria can start to multiply rapidly, making your food unsafe to eat. To safely store food that’s hot and needs to be refrigerated, divide it up into smaller containers. It allows for more air circulation, which in turn cools the food more quickly, allowing the temperature of the fridge to remain ideal.