What's the Ideal Temperature for a Refrigerator?

Everything you ever wanted to know about refrigeration.

Though it's used more than anything else in your kitchen, the humble refrigerator/freezer generally doesn't merit much consideration. You put food in, and it stays refrigerated or frozen, and you pull that food back out when you need it. It's the kind of appliance you only really pay attention to when something goes wrong, or there's a power outage.

However, the truth is that there's a lot more to the refrigerator than you might expect. A temperature fluctuation of just a few degrees could be the difference between perfectly preserved food and a breeding ground for bacteria. Luckily, it's not that hard to get things right.

So, What's the Optimal Temperature for a Refrigerator?

According to the FDA, the food in your refrigerator should be stored at or below 40ºF. That temperature prevents the growth of bacteria like Salmonella, E. coli, and C. botulinum (which causes botulism). Given that the same FDA regularly posts recall notices about these sorts of bacterial outbreaks hospitalizing people, you probably don't want to invite them into your fridge.

While 40ºF is the important number to remember, you shouldn't cut it too close. Especially if you have a refrigerator whose temperature settings operate on a one to five scale, you should aim for something closer to 35 and 37 degrees. Too much higher and you're running the risk of crossing that dangerous 40ºF threshold, any lower and you're running the risk of freezing anything liquid in there.

Does My Freezer's Temperature Matter?

You'd be forgiven for assuming that a freezer is humming along just fine if it's set below 32ºF, the freezing point of water. That's not the case, however. Similar to their 40ºF threshold for the fridge, the FDA advises that freezers should be set at 0ºF or lower.

Emphasizing 0ºF instead of 0ºC for the freezer does a few things. Firstly, not everything you'll throw in there freezes right at 32ºF. Furthermore, opting for 0ºF makes sure everything in there can be safely eaten for an indefinite period of time.

How Can I Tell the Temperature Inside My Fridge?

As with any type of appliance, the features and functionality can vary widely from one fridge to the next. While one high-end fridge might provide you a temperature readout, what you're working with at home might not. To make matters even more complicated, Consumer Reports testing suggests the data you get isn't always accurate.

"Some refrigerators are spot-on, but others are wide off the mark," Consumer Reports test engineer for refrigerators Joe Pacella said. "I've seen a few refrigerators be off by as much as 5º, which can be the difference between fresh and spoiled food."

Your fridge might already provide you with an exact temperature reading, but it's no sweat to put a thermometer in there for some confirmation. Consider purchasing an analog or digital thermometer to keep track of the temperature in your fridge or freezer. Some of the analog options even use color-coded gauges to let you know when things are getting too warm or too cold. If you want that extra reassurance that your food is being kept properly cool, these thermometers are definitely a worthwhile investment.

What Else Can I Do To Fix a Fridge's Temperature?

There are a few reasons why a refrigerator's temperature might feel off, some of which are relatively easy DIY fixes.

One important element is the seal on your doors. Cool air can leak out over time if the door gaskets, which create a tight, magnetic seal, aren't working properly. To test their efficacy, put a dollar bill between the door and the fridge, partly sticking out. If it takes a bit of a tug to yank it out, your door seal isn't the issue. But if it slides out without any force, the seal could use some work.

The condenser coils, which create the cool air that makes your fridge work, can sometimes get clogged with dust or other stuff that keeps them from doing their job well. Cleaning them yourself is pretty easy, especially with a coil condenser brush and a vacuum. They're usually accessible at the lower back of your fridge, and even just a quick annual cleaning of them could keep your fridge in good working order.

Then there's the matter of fridge organization. Make sure that the fridge isn't overstuffed, which can disrupt airflow. Furthermore, make sure the air vents, usually along the back wall or a side wall, aren't obstructed by a food item placed directly in front of them.

Make the Fridge Your Friend

So while you might want to put a little more thought into the temperature of your refrigerator and freezer, it's not too difficult to keep things under control. Simply knowing what temperature to aim for is already half the battle. Once you've got that (literally) dialed in, the rest isn't too hard to handle.

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