The only thing you should notice when opening your freezer is a blast of cold air. If that air comes along with a funky freezer smell, something has clearly gone wrong. Hopefully, you'll find the source of the smell fairly quickly and remove it. If the smell remains after removing the source or if you can't find it, it's time for a cleanout.
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The Source of Freezer Smells
Whenever your freezer starts to smell funky, bacteria are to blame. Perfectly natural and found everywhere, bacteria are tiny living organisms that settle into food and grow there, causing the food to spoil and decay.
If you've recently had a power outage or if fresh meat spilled its juices in the freezer as it was freezing, it's fairly obvious where the odor in the freezer is coming from. We tend to forget, however, that freezing food is really just a way to slow its decay. Although food breaks down much more slowly in the freezer than it does in the fridge or on the kitchen counter, it still decays over time.
Sometimes, freezer smells actually start in the refrigerator. Because refrigerators and freezers are often housed in one appliance, it's easy for odors from one to migrate into the other.
Banishing Bad Smells
If the bad odor in your freezer is unpleasant but tolerable, a light cleaning may do the trick. Remove the freezer's contents, transferring them into a portable ice chest to keep them cold while you work. If you notice food that's freezer burnt, improperly sealed or old, throw it away. Dispose of any ice in the ice maker as well.
After emptying the freezer, General Electric recommends wiping it down with a solution of 1 tablespoon of baking soda to 1 quart of warm water. Resist the temptation to clean with bleach or ammonia, as these can crack and damage the plastic panels inside your freezer. You should also avoid lemon-scented cleaners, as the lemon scent can permanently seep into the plastic and may cause your food to pick up an odd flavor.
After cleaning, restock your freezer and repeat the cleaning process in your refrigerator.
More Intense Cleaning
If warm water and baking soda don't resolve your freezer odor, or if it's strong enough to knock your socks off, you'll have to take a more extreme approach. Doing so requires you to empty the freezer and leave it off for a few days, so find a safe place to store your food or share the bounty with friends and neighbors so it doesn't go to waste. Once the freezer is completely empty, turn it off and unplug it. Prop the door open and leave it to air out for a day or two.
When a bit of fresh air isn't enough, place a tray of activated charcoal or kitty litter in your freezer, shut the door and wait one or two days for the charcoal to absorb the odor. You can also try using a tray of freshly ground coffee. The University of Nebraska suggests filling the freezer with crumpled newspaper to absorb foul odors, but this approach takes a bit longer at five to six days. Change out the newspaper every 24 to 48 hours.
Unfortunately, none of these odor removal methods work if the smell has seeped into your freezer's insulation. If nothing works to eliminate the odor in your freezer, it's time to call in a professional repairman for help. A technician can sometimes use compressed air to force bad smells out of insulation or replace the offending area.
Preventing Future Smells
Once you're rid of the unpleasant odor in your freezer, take steps to make sure it doesn't come back. Choose glass containers rather than plastic when freezing food and keep an open box of fresh baking soda in your freezer and refrigerator to help absorb odors before they become a problem.
It's also helpful to date any food that goes into your freezer or refrigerator. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends keeping most items in the freezer for no more than one to six months. Many types of meats, however, will keep for up to a year. Most of the food in your refrigerator should stay there for no more than a week.