It is America's dirty, sticky, smelly, well-chilled secret: Our refrigerators are not as clean as they should be.
"The refrigerator is a spot in the house where it's easy to accumulate stuff," said Carolyn Forte, director of home appliances and cleaning products at the Good Housekeeping Research Institute. "People put things in. You go to a restaurant, and you get takeout; you shove that in. Things have a way of working their way to the back and never coming out again." Here's Forte's approach to cleaning:
Needed: 30 minutes, hot water, liquid dish detergent, sponge, soft cloths or paper towels for drying. "You really don't need any strong chemical cleaners; you don't need any tough abrasive tools or sponges."
Step 1: Clean out the refrigerator. "Get rid of old food you're not going to use, things way past their prime," said Forte. Wipe drips and condensation off jars and bottles.
Step 2: Do one shelf at a time; temporarily move items to another shelf -- if there's room. Tackling the whole thing? Move items to a counter. If cleaning takes longer than 30 minutes (it shouldn't), consider using a cooler.
Step 3: Mix hot water and dishwashing liquid in the sink. Start with the main shelves; they're generally removable, so take them out and put them in the dishwater. Wash, rinse, dry and put back. Can't remove them? Wash with a soft cloth or sponge and soapy water, rinse and wipe dry.
Step 4: Bins generally come out; wash, rinse, dry and put back. Check and clean places that collect drips: behind and under the bins. Pull out drawers; check the runners of the drawers. Wipe bins on the door.
Step 5: "It's a good thing to give the gasket around the door a cleaning with the soap and water," said Forte. "You want to make sure nothing grows in the crevices. You don't want any mold in there."
Step 6: Cover food well and return to refrigerator. Since "air circulates between the refrigerator and the freezer, sometimes if your ice smells, it's because food is not covered well."
Step 7: Wipe down the exterior using all-purpose cleaner (or a stainless steel cleaner for a stainless steel refrigerator). Pay attention to the handles. Clean the top of the refrigerator (if it's not built in), a magnet for greasy soil.
Step 8: Vacuum out dust or use a brush to clean the coils according to your manual (many refrigerator manuals are now online). If you have an ice and water dispenser, make sure you change the filter.
Gunk: If anything's stuck on, rinse a cloth in really hot water, lay it on that stuck-on residue for a while; that generally softens it, and you can remove it.
Bins: Consider lining bins with a paper towel. "If the lettuce gets wilted or something gets moldy, just toss it away," says Forte. Replace with a fresh one to help things stay clean.
Clean: For more cleaning tips, check out Good Housekeeping's iPhone app, Good Housekeeping Home App.
Toss: For guidelines, go to www.stilltasty.com.