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How to Defrost a Freezer and Prevent It from Frosting Up

Don't have a meltdown! Learn how to defrost a freezer before the holiday entertaining season kicks off.

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Close-up of opened deep freezer with ice and snow. Freezer before defrost. Empty shelves of fridge.
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The big chill

It houses your kids’ seemingly endless supply of chicken nuggets, ice cubes for your Friday night cocktails and more leftover pizza than you know what to do with. Your freezer is a veritable workhorse, so to keep it functioning in top condition, it pays to make sure you are taking care of it properly. That’s why it’s so important to learn how to defrost a freezer.

“Defrosting your freezer helps it to cool more efficiently and keep ice buildup at bay,” says Shirley Hood, an appliance expert at Abt Electronics in Glenview, Illinois. Making sure your freezer is at the right temperature will help you avoid freezer burn, and it’s a smart first step when organizing your freezer. “It’s the perfect opportunity to clean the interior and take stock of what’s inside.”

If you don’t know how to defrost a freezer or whether you should defrost your freezer (some models do it automatically), you’ve come to the right place. Whether you’re tackling the task before you organize your fridge and chest freezer or simply want your appliance to run at its best, we’ve got you covered. Here’s how to keep your freezer humming happily all year long.

Why does a freezer frost up in the first place?

Blame the frost overload on every time someone in your household opens and closes the freezer door. “Frost inside your freezer is caused by excessive moisture coming into contact with coils or walls of the freezer that are 32 degrees or below,” says Catherine Quinn, a major appliance buyer at P.C. Richard & Son in Farmingdale, New York. And that translates into ice buildup in your freezer over time.

But not all freezers experience this. Many of the best freezer-and-fridge combos feature an auto-defrost function that helps prevent frost buildup. Unlike freezers with manual defrosting, these auto-defrosting appliances use more energy and tend to be more expensive.

Freezer is defrosted to clean
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When should you defrost a freezer?

If you’ll be hosting family or having a holiday get-together this year, it’s the perfect excuse to defrost your freezer. (After all, you need to make room for all those glass storage containers full of leftovers!) Notice a thin layer of frost forming? That’s a good indicator that now is the time to learn how to defrost a freezer. When in doubt, plan on defrosting your freezer (if it doesn’t have an auto-defrost feature) at least once a year to keep it in tip-top shape.

Freezer with shelves covered with ice. Freezer defrosting and care
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How long does it take to defrost a freezer?

Be sure to set aside ample time when you defrost a freezer (and defrost freezer coils). Though the time frame depends on your appliance’s size and how much ice has accumulated, experts say you’ll need to set aside a full 24 hours in your cleaning schedule for a complete meltdown. And because you’ll be turning off your freezer, you’ll need to account for food cooling during that time.

Not all freezers require you to turn them off or have a lengthy defrosting process, though. Check your user manual to find out the manufacturer’s recommended defrosting method.

Close-Up Of Open Refrigerator
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How to defrost a freezer

Follow the simple steps below to learn how to defrost a freezer like a pro.

Step 1

Turn off and unplug the freezer. Unless your appliance features auto-defrost (likely, if your freezer is part of your refrigerator), that’s your first objective. Not sure whether this applies to you? Whether yours is a freezer attached to a refrigerator or a mini freezer, check the owner’s manual to determine how to defrost your freezer.

Step 2

Remove the contents. You can use a portable cooler to keep things frozen while your freezer defrosts. And you can give yourself a head start on your kitchen organization project by tossing foods that have expired.

You’ll want to remove the shelving at this point as well. Psst, now is a good time to wash the shelves and drawers. Just let them reach room temperature before you do, and make sure they’re thoroughly dry before putting them back in the freezer.

Step 3

Prepare for the ice melt. All that built-up ice in your freezer is going to turn to water, which is both the point of the process and a potential mess. It has to go somewhere, after all. Before the ice has a chance to melt, account for the future water accumulation. You can lay plastic, towels or even shallow baking pans at the front of the freezer to catch the water. Next, find out which is better: a bottom or top freezer.

Step 4

Leave the door open and let the accumulated ice melt on its own. The experts have a few tricks to speed up the process (more on that below), but at this point, all you really need to do is wait. In the meantime, consider cleaning your refrigerator.

Step 5

Once the ice has melted, wipe down the interior, then give it a good cleaning. You can use baking soda and water to scrub it clean. Once it’s good as new, wipe the interior dry, an essential step.

Step 6

Turn the appliance back on, but don’t put food in the freezer just yet! Let it cool to zero degrees before reloading. Ready to stock up on more freezer-ready food? Consider the types of healthful foods nutritionists eat.

Freezing refrigerator
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Tips for speeding up the defrosting process

You’d be forgiven for looking for a shortcut to a defrosted freezer, considering the process can take a full day. Though the easiest method involves no additional steps, you can learn how to defrost a freezer faster by following the tips below.

● Point a fan at the freezer and set the speed to high. This will push the cold air out of the freezer.

● Remove any large pieces of frost to help move things along.

● Place—don’t pour!—a pot of hot water on the freezer’s metal shelf to hasten the melting.

● Use a spatula or an ice scraper to remove excess frost. But don’t use anything too sharp, cautions Hood, so as not to damage the freezer’s interior.

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Ice in the fridge
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How to prevent freezer buildup

Knowing how to defrost a freezer is a start, but you’ll also want to take steps to prevent the appliance from frosting in the first place. One good way to avoid frost buildup? Don’t keep the freezer door open for longer than necessary. Beyond that, make sure the door closes completely, and avoid putting hot or warm food in the freezer. And make sure the freezer is set to the proper temperature.


Pamela Brill
Pamela Brill is a seasoned journalist specializing in books, home and lifestyle content for more than 15 years. In addition to Reader's Digest, her work has appeared in Publishers Weekly, Southern Living, Club + Resort Business and many other print and digital outlets. She is also a college-essay consultant.