Why Does My Food Taste Like ‘Fridge,’ and How Can I Fix It?

Here’s what you can do to open your fridge with confidence—without plugging your nose.

a photo of a woman looking confused while looking at her fridge

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Nothing is worse than opening the fridge and being smacked in the face with a pungent whiff of old food. Or pulling out ingredients from your fridge to make chocolate chip cookies or Saturday morning pancakes only to realize your butter has soaked up the dreaded “fridge smell.” No one wants to eat pancakes that taste like garlic and leftovers!

Fridge smell is noticeable the second you open the door and, in some cases, can be strong enough to crush your appetite. Even worse, the smell can also translate into an unpleasant taste that seeps into your food. Higher-fat foods like butter or cheese are especially susceptible to absorbing weird fridge flavors and smells. 

Related: Your Kitchen Spring-Cleaning Checklist

Fridge smell can come from a combination of sources, but thankfully, there are a few ways to combat those unpleasant odors. Here’s how to identify the malodor—and what you can do about it, with tips from cleaning pros.  

Give Your Fridge a Deep Clean

If you open your fridge and notice a stench that doesn’t smell like any one particular ingredient, the likely culprit is bacteria. When food starts to spoil, bacteria begin to break down the food, releasing some seriously unpleasant smells. Old leftovers, slimy plastic containers of spinach, rubbery carrots and past-its-prime meat can all stink up a fridge in a flash. Try to do a deep clean every month. Here’s how:

  • Throw away expired condiments, old food and any leftovers you don’t plan to eat in the next couple of days. 
  • Pull out the drawers to get at all the corners that are not usually cleaned. 
  • Wipe down the shelves and drawers with warm water and dish soap. Make sure they are dry before returning food. 
  • Give rubber gaskets some TLC by wiping these with the dish soap mixture, recommends Katie Barton, home improvement expert for Homedit.com. 
  • After the soap and water treatment, follow up with a diluted vinegar spray, which has natural disinfecting properties, says Barton. The plastic inside your fridge is technically a porous material and can absorb smells into the very infrastructure of your fridge. However, vinegar is one of the best ways to clean these types of plastic surfaces and rid your fridge of any smells that might be locked in the fridge itself, even if there’s no spoiling food or pungent ingredients around. “Fill a spray bottle with half white distilled vinegar and half water, spritz the interior of the fridge and shelves, and wipe clean with a microfiber cloth,” Barton advises. 

Related: 12 Things in Your Fridge You Should Throw Away

How to Maintain Freshness

Prevent Future Foul Odors

Once your fridge is clean and free of smells, keep it that way by cleaning up any spills right away, throwing away old food each week and containing extra smelly foods. Do that and your monthly deep cleaning will be a snap. And don’t forget to keep a container of baking soda in the back of your fridge to absorb smells, recommends Danny Dillon, founder of CleanItSupply.com. Replace baking soda every three months. 

Practice FIFO

Throw away any old or spoiled food before going grocery shopping. That way, there’s room for your new groceries, and that half a tomato from two weeks ago doesn’t get pushed to the back and forgotten while this week’s tomato is in the front. In restaurants, this is referred to as FIFO, an acronym for “first in, first out.” This means putting older items upfront to use first (if still good!) and routing fresher things to the back.

Store Pungent Foods Correctly

Another likely source of fridge smell is pungent foods like onions, garlic, blue cheese and fermented foods. These smells aren’t indicative of spoilage but can be strong or unpleasant all the same. For foods in the onion family that get stored in the fridge, opt for airtight containers in order to contain their aromas. And wrap up pungent cheeses in parchment paper and place them in an airtight plastic storage container. 

Items like pickled or fermented foods should ideally be stored in glass containers with lids. Always make sure the lids are tight: I once knocked over a jar of homemade sauerkraut in my fridge, and the liquid spilled everywhere, causing my whole fridge to stink for days. 

Related: How to Store Cheese

Make Sure You’re Up on Proper Fridge Maintenance

Fridge care can often be overlooked, but it helps for a stink-free fridge. "Remember to check drip pans and change water filters regularly,” says Dillon.

Bottom Line

Fridge smell happens for a variety of reasons, from old food to particularly pungent ingredients. Start with a good old-fashioned deep clean, then make sure you’re cleaning out food from your fridge regularly and giving it a wipe-down monthly. And store particularly aromatic foods in airtight containers to keep their aromas from spreading throughout your fridge. Your chocolate chip cookies will thank you!

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