Sometimes it’s easy to forget what’s in your refrigerator and how long it’s been there until you open the door one day and encounter a very unpleasant smell. When food overstays its welcome, it can eventually fill your fridge with a terrible odor. Foods that haven't gone bad may also transfer smells to your fridge. Even if you remove the offending items, the smell may linger for weeks afterward. You'll get rid of the smell only by giving your fridge a thorough cleaning.
Remove the Source of the Odor
Even if you give your refrigerator a good scrubbing, the smell inside will keep coming back until you get rid of its source. Dig through your fridge and look for any expired items or leftovers that are over a week old. Sniff each item; if it has a bad smell, throw it out. Some items don't go bad until weeks after the expiration date, but as soon as you notice a foul odor or mold, it's time to toss them out.
Check your produce drawer for forgotten fruits and vegetables that have rotted or turned into mush. Some fruits and veggies leak a pungent liquid when rotten, so be careful not to spill it when removing the produce from the drawer. If your fridge features spill-proof shelves, most of the liquid should be contained in one drawer, making cleanup relatively easy.
If you've had a power outage that's lasted longer than four hours, you may need to discard most items in the fridge. Toss out meat, fish, most dairy products and eggs that were held above 40 degrees Fahrenheit for more than two hours. Hard cheeses and butter are fine to keep unless they develop a bad odor.
Clean and Sanitize
Once you've found the source, it's time to remove the odor along with it. The smell of rotting food can permeate every inch of your fridge, especially if an item leaked out of its package. Fridges with lots of drawers and shelves give odors and trapped food debris many places to hide.
Remove everything from the refrigerator and place items in a cooler filled with ice. Take out all the shelves and scrub them with hot water and soap. Follow this by sanitizing with a mixture of 1 tablespoon chlorine bleach and 1 gallon of water. Do the same for the walls, ceiling and floor of the fridge. Wash the door interior and gasket in the same way. Dry the fridge with a towel and then replace your items. If your fridge has a counter-height center drawer, don't forget to clean it, too.
Some refrigerators have a built-in deodorizer cartridge that absorbs smells. If your fridge has a deodorizer, but you still notice a bad smell, you might need to clean the cartridge. Remove the cartridge and soak it in a bowl of warm water for four hours or more. Let the cartridge dry outdoors for at least eight hours, and then reinsert it into the fridge. Don't clean or dry the cartridge indoors or in a confined area as it may emit odors that cause the room to smell.
If the odor persists, you may need to let the refrigerator air out for several days. Take out all of the food and put it in a cold location, and then unplug the fridge. Leave the door open until the smell dissipates.
Baking soda, coffee grounds, silica gel, activated charcoal and even cat litter helps absorb odors. Put some on a plate and stick it on a shelf in the refrigerator.
Dab a few cotton balls in vanilla essential oil or extract, then place them in the refrigerator. Close the door for 24 hours.
Newspaper can help absorb odors. Stuff wads of newspaper in the fridge's drawers and shelves, and then close the door for a few days. After that, remove the paper and wash the fridge with a mixture of 1 cup white vinegar per 1 gallon of water.
Commercial deodorizing products may help. Look for them at hardware and appliance stores.
If your refrigerator is fairly new and covered by warranty, you may be able to get help from the manufacturer. Write to or call the manufacturer, give your fridge's model number and describe your problem with the odor. If the odor developed because of a product defect, you might receive a free repair or replacement. For example, your fridge may have a dual-evaporator system that's designed to keep odors from transferring between compartments. If it stops working, you could notice bad smells in multiple compartments. In this case, you may need to contact the manufacturer.
When an odor won't go away after thorough cleaning and it is out of warranty or you cannot get the service you need, you might have to toss the fridge and start anew. Most new refrigerators have produce and meat drawers designed to keep food at the right temperature and humidity level. Food stays fresher, so items are less likely to go bad and start to smell.
Photo Credits: Kyle Goldie/Demand Media
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