The refrigerator in my kitchen is a 1977 Coronado, basic model. The brand was the store label of Gambles/Skogmo, Inc., a now defunct conglomerate of retail stores under various names across the US and Canada. Older midwesterners may remember the Gambles stores of their youth. Their Coronado brand appliances were built under license by major manufacturers, so they were sturdy, and reliable. Because they were store branded, the appliances were very low priced.
There are some benefits to owning an old fashioned, basic refrigerator. Because there is no automatic “frost-free” mechanism, foods stored in the freezer compartment don’t develop frost inside the containers or wrappers as quickly. Best of all, the energy efficiency and electric costs of running basic refrigerators is much lower than sophisticated models.
The obvious drawback is that basic refrigerators must be defrosted from time to time. The main issue is the formation of thick layers of frost on the interior surfaces of the freezer compartment. The frost must be removed in order for the appliance to maintain efficiency and to allow more room for frozen food items. To defrost properly, all the food must be removed and temporarily stored in insulated “coolers”.
These days, most people have “frost-free” type refrigerators in their kitchens. These are such convenient appliances that people don’t ever need to defrost them. The disadvantage of “frost-free” refrigerators is that they are easy to neglect. There is no need to remove the food from the refrigerator and freezer compartments periodically. Often times, some food items can remain in the fridge for years at a time. Because unloading the fridge can seem to be a major chore, cleaning the “frost-free” refrigerator is often postponed indefinitely.
It is because of the advent of the “care-free” refrigerator that National Clean Out the Refrigerator Day was started. The fridge has become the default place to store food we want to eat at a later date. As we place more leftovers into the fridge, the older vittles get shoved back deeper inside. Eventually, we forget some of the food we saved “for later”.
This neglected food, plus unopened items that have been stored beyond their expiration dates have become health and safety problems. Yes, when the potato salad has gone bad, it’s really bad for your health. Food items that don’t rot can still lose their nutritional value and flavor when refrigerated past their expiration dates.
It must be remembered that milk, juices, sauces, and so forth can drip onto refrigerator surfaces. If not wiped up immediately, the drips become sticky and nasty. Small drips and crumbs often go unnoticed, so periodic refrigerator cleaning is a must.
Those of us who have old-fashioned, basic refrigerators already know the drill. We must completely unload our fridges so the contents won’t get wet during the lengthy time needed to defrost our appliances. Our method works for any type of refrigerator that needs cleaning.
I start out by bringing my two “Igloo” picnic coolers into the kitchen. I remove every thing from the freezer compartment into one cooler, then placing one or two plastic “blue ice” that I normally keep in the freezer, on the top of the contents in the first “Igloo” cooler. Into the bigger cooler, go the remainder of the contents, including the stuff from the door shelves, then I place a “blue ice” on top of everything in that cooler. Depending on how big your appliance is and how much is stored, you may need more than one or two coolers. Some items, like flour, sugar, or unopened cans don’t need to go into the coolers.
Turn off or unplug the refrigerator and keep the door(s) open. If you have an old fashioned fridge, now is the time to aim a portable fan at the freezer compartment and let the dripping begin.
With either type of refrigerator, remove the shelves and trays from the appliance then wash in soapy or white vinegary water and dry each one. Next, wipe down the interior walls and door of the empty fridge with soapy water and dry them. This step can wait, if you have a fridge that is defrosting, you can do this a few hours later, once the frost has melted and you have emptied the drip tray. The wipe down can be done while drying the interior.
Examine the packages and cans of unopened food and look for expiration dates. Toss out any that are past the due dates. This is also the time to look over your condiments like ketchup, mustard, hot sauce, and so on. If something is questionable, ditch it.
Reassemble the shelves and trays back into the fridge and admire the clean appliance. Plug in and/or turn on the refrigerator. The ideal temperature should be around 34 degrees Fahrenheit or about 1 degree Celsius. (I hope you have a refrigerator-type thermometer.)
When you open the “Igloo” coolers and begin placing the food back into the fridge, examine each item for freshness and expiration date. If a container is sticky, wipe it off with a soapy dish cloth and dry it before placing it in the fridge. Any questionable items or any that are expired need to go into the garbage can.
If you are in the habit of storing a lot of leftovers, a good idea is to use Tupperware or similar containers with airtight lids. You can label them with tape if you wish. The containers are nice, because they’re stackable and keep out odors. Each week, clean out old leftovers and you’ll be good.
As a finishing touch, an opened box of baking soda can be placed on a door shelf. Mom taught me that a cotton ball soaked in vanilla extract placed on a shelf keeps the fridge smelling fresh.
The Blue Jay of happiness quotes the late, great columnist Erma Bombeck. “My theory on housework is, if the item doesn’t multiply, smell, catch fire, or block the refrigerator door, let it be. No one else cares. Why should you?”