The refrigerator is a miracle of modern food preservation. At the right refrigerator temperature, the appliance can keep foods cold and safe to eat for days, even weeks, by slowing the growth of bacteria. After all, in the world of the cold storage, bacteria are your archnemeses, and a clean refrigerator is a happy and healthy one.
When food temps begin to climb above a certain point (about 40°F), bacteria start to multiple exponentially. Not every one of those bacteria is bad—but not every one is good, either. For both the quality of your food and to reduce the risk of food poisoning, you’d be wise to keep your fridge cooled to the recommended refrigerator temperature and follow good refrigerator maintenance guidelines.
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What temperature should a refrigerator be?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says the recommended refrigerator temperature is below 40°F; the ideal freezer temp is below 0°F.
However, the ideal refrigerator temperature is actually lower: Aim to stay between 35° and 38°F (or 1.7 to 3.3°C). This temperature range is as close as you can get to freezing without being so cold your food will freeze. It’s also as close as the refrigerator temperature should get to the 40°F threshold, at which point bacteria begin multiplying rapidly.
Temperatures above the 35° to 38°F zone may be too high. Your food may spoil quickly, and you could set yourself up for some tummy troubles with bacteria such as Salmonella and E. coli.
How do you measure a fridge’s temperature?
You can purchase an inexpensive freestanding appliance thermometer online or at any home store. Place the thermometer in your fridge and leave it for 20 minutes. Then, check the reading. Are you close to the ideal refrigerator temperature, or even the recommended one? If not, turn to your fridge’s temperature control panel.
Unfortunately, not all fridge temp gauges are accurate. You may have your fridge set to 37°F, but it’s actually keeping temps around 33°F or even 41°F. It’s not uncommon for refrigerators to be a few degrees off the mark you set.
What’s more, some refrigerators don’t display temps at all. They let you adjust the fridge and freezer temps on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the warmest option. Without a thermometer, you can’t know what those milestones translate to in real degrees.
Once you have your thermometer and a reading, you can adjust the fridge temperature accordingly to keep the temps in the safe zone between 35° and 38°F. You can do the same in your freezer, aiming to get the temp as close to 0°F as possible.
Tips to keep your fridge cool
If you find your refrigerator temperature is flirting with the 40°F mark despite your adjusted temperature settings, you can take a few steps to help your fridge maintain the ideal temperature.
Let food cool before putting it in the fridge. Hot bowls of leftover soup or roast chicken can heat up the small space in your fridge quickly, putting the foods at jeopardy of rapid bacterial growth. To protect everything in your fridge, let foods cool for a bit (but not to room temperature—that will take too long) before covering and storing in the fridge.
Check the door seals. Gaskets around the edge of a refrigerator door keep the cold temps in and the warmer temps out. If there’s a leak in one of those gaskets, your cold air may be escaping. That can make cooling the fridge properly more difficult (and use up more electricity, boosting your monthly electric bill).
Stop opening the door so much. Every time you open the refrigerator door, you let the cold air out and the warm air in. Resist the temptation to stand at your fridge when you’re hungry, searching for a food that will cure your cravings. Instead, get what you came for, and shut the door quickly.
Keep the fridge full. A full fridge is a happy fridge. The same is true for your freezer. The refrigerator temperature can stay cooler longer and keep foods cooled best if the shelves and drawers are mostly full. Just be sure you don’t overcrowd the space and cut down on air flow. That can make moving cooled air difficult and increase the risk of warm pockets of air. (A little refrigerator organization can help with that, too.)
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