Learn how to defrost a freezer and why you would want to, plus why frost-free freezers are not your friend if you preserve food by freezing - or want to save energy.
Throughout the life of An Oregon Cottage, my goal has always been to educate and inspire, finding the easiest ways to do a simple homemade life.
Within this goal, I've shared various "back to basic" techniques that many (like me) never grew up learning - simple, easy, and cost-saving homemade life skills like making bread, jams, and pantry items, as well as starting a garden, and simple DIY's like painting trim or making pillows.
Knowing how - and why - to defrost a freezer is another basic home task, although it's not a subject I probably would've thought of.
This how-to is actually the result of a reader asking how I defrost my freezer when I mentioned that I like to use menu planning in April and May to use up the previous year's produce so I can defrost the freezer before starting to add new produce.
Why Do You Need To Defrost A Freezer?
Before showing how to defrost a freezer, I need to start with why to defrost.
To be honest, I hate to defrost. Really.
So much so that when our old freezer died a number of years ago I was determined to get a frost-free one so I wouldn't have to deal with defrosting.
Frost-Free vs. Regular Freezer
After some research, and talking with an appliance repairman, I learned that for long-term storage (six months to a year or more), frost-free freezers are not recommended because:
- The fan that runs to keep the frost away causes serious freezer burn.
- There are added electrical costs from a fan running most of the time.
Added electrical costs, more damage to the food, plus the increase cost up front of frost-free freezers?
Great. I (reluctantly) bit the bullet and we bought another freezer that grows frost.
So, yes, defrosting is a part of my life and should be of yours, too, if you preserve seasonal foods by freezing.
NOTE: Freezers that are part of a fridge-freezer combo are almost always frost-free, so you won't need to worry about those (and if you keep anything in there for longer than a few months, you will see the major freezer burn that happens). This how-to is for larger upright and chest freezers.
Okay, so WHY do we need to defrost?
The frost that accumulates takes away room to store your food as it grows. It also makes the freezer less efficient and use more energy, so a regular freezer does need to be defrosted regularly.
How often do we need to defrost freezers?
The recommendation from manufacturers is yearly, or when the ice build up is between 1/4-inch and 1/2-inch.
To be honest (remember I hate this job...) I only do it every couple of years because the ice is not too thick after a year.
At least that's what I tell myself.
So aim for every year, but anything within a two years is okay.
TIP: I do like to do this in mid to late spring (May-June where we live) as it's when we've used up a lot of our frozen produce from the previous season but before the main harvest comes in. Basically, pick a time when there is the least amount of food in your freezer, if you can.
How to Defrost a Freezer
Try to pick a warm day to defrost because there's no getting around the fact that you will get cold standing in front of a freezer and scraping ice.
Of course it can be done on a cool day, but it will be more pleasant on a warm day.
Step 1: The preparation
The first thing to do is to unplug the freezer. Don't laugh - it's sometimes harder than you'd think!
If the plug is hard to reach and your freezer is too heavy to move you can turn the breaker off that runs the freezer, but be aware of other things that may go off as well.
We went a day without a microwave, which wasn't a big deal - but if it was the refrigerator, it might've been.
Step 2: Remove the food
Find places for the frozen food still in the freezer, like coolers, a fridge-freezer, or even neighbors freezers.
My 18-cubic foot freezer took about 6 hours to defrost, so holding food in coolers was sufficient for the things I wanted to keep frozen (I just let items like bread defrost and refreeze and didn't notice a problem with this).
After emptying the freezer, it was easy to see that the top shelves had pretty thick layers- about 2 inches at the thickest, even though the bottom shelves had less.
Um, slightly more than the recommended 1/2-inch. Yikes, definitely in need of defrosting.
Step 3: Find the hose & plug (if your freezer has one)
Determine if your freezer has a hose underneath and a plug in the bottom shelf. They don't all, so it's not a big deal if yours doesn't - it's just more convenient if there is one.
Once the ice has started melting and the water accumulates in the bottom, you can then unplug the hole and the water will run out of the hose.
Hopefully into a container you've put there.
Wondering about the frame on the door of the freezer you can just see above? We painted the front to be a chalkboard and framed it with molding! It was a great way to keep track of what was inside. See more about this project here.
Step 4: Let it melt
Place old towels on the floor and large roasting pans on the shelves to catch ice chunks and water as the ice melts. If you don't have a hose, put towels on the bottom of the freezer, too.
(And yes, I did eventually put a shallow pan down with the hose in it to catch the water when it defrosted more - this picture above was at the beginning of the process).
Add pots of boiling water, if you'd like, to shorten the defrosting time.
Then leave and just let the ice melt.
Check on it occasionally, dumping water out of the containers and replacing towels as needed. But mostly it's okay to let it work on its own.
What about using a hair dryer to speed the process?
I've tried using a hair dryer in the past to try to speed up the process, but it just takes more of my time and I'm not sure it went any faster.
Step 5: Help it along
As you check and see the ice on the shelves defrosting, you can help the process along by using a putty knife to scrape the loosened ice off in chunks.
Scrape the ice into the pans you're using and then throw it into the yard (or nearby sink) to melt so you have less water to deal with later.
There's no getting around the amount of water you'll be dealing with towards the end so be sure to have a lot of towels ready.
Every time you check in, remove a wet towel and replace with a new one, wringing out the wet one in the yard or sink and setting it out to dry.
Step 6: The cleanup
After your freezer is completely defrosted (like I mentioned, mine took about 6 hours with minimal hands-on time), use a towel to wipe down all the surfaces before turning the freezer back on.
You don't want a surface of ice to form right away...not after all this work!
Wait 1 Hour to Reload
Turn the freezer back on, then try to wait at least an hour before reloading the freezer with the food from the coolers.
The food should still be mostly frozen, so an hour is usually sufficient to cool it enough to keep them frozen.
The freezer might not be cool enough for things like ice cream, though, so give these things a few more hours. Hopefully there's room in your over-the-fridge freezer.
If not, it's always a good excuse for ice cream sundaes. But really, who needs excuses for ice cream sundaes? Not I.
Do you have any other tips for defrosting that you use and like?
Get more easy cleaning and organizing tips here
TIP from reader Jackie:
"I also hate defrosting freezers. To add to your helpful method I also put large pots of really hot water in and close lid while I do laundry etc. It helps loosen the ice and comes off in nice big chunks!!"
This article has been updated - it was originally published in July of 2010.
I defrost my large upright freezer in about an hour. Put the contents in a few boxes, heat a couple of pots of water and set on the shelves. In about 15 minutes you're ready to use a shop-vac to scrap and suck up all the ice and water. Don't have a shop vac? Every household needs a good shop-vac. Wipe down the interior with a few towels and presto - you're done.
Brilliant! Thank you. 🙂
Why don't you just defrost in winter? Then you can simply place your food outside in the snow while defrosting. (Well, depending on where you live, that is! I'm in PA and the winters are perfect time for this).
Two reasons - I usually have quite a full freezer in winter after preserving garden produce and I find it so cold I just can't do it, lol. Also, I think the warmer weather helps it defrost better.
But in the end it doesn't matter - do what you'd like!
Sandy Sebold says
I too, just defrosted my smaller stand up freezer, last week! It’s that time of year, before I start freezing my garden vegetables again. My hubby, put it on a dolly and rolled in out of his workshop and left it outside to thaw, didn’t take long with all this hot weather! Easy Peasy! Have been wanting to buy a larger one and frost free, thanks for letting us know that we too, will just have to accept defrosting as a part of life, lol, thanks for sharing!
What a nice thing to be able to just roll it out to thaw!! I'm glad this was helpful for you.
...and the water will run out of the hose.
Hopefully into a container you’ve put there.
I thought that was just hysterical. Thanks for the tips from both you & your readers. SO glad that my chest deep freeze is not frost-free. I live in FL so I defrost mine before hurricane season each year, then leave it unplugged until the danger is past. Now that I know I can just tip it over and let it drain onto the lawn, life will be easier!
I have one thought to add to your very helpful post; under Step 4, if convenient, I think your compost pile would benefit from all that melted ice. I save all the water I can from kitchen work to put on the compost, rather than dampening it with a hose. Recycle water whenever possible! 🙂
Yes - live and learn. 😂
Thanks for the water tip - great idea!
I have always defrosted my freezer in the winter. I chose a nice, cold morning, put the food in some baskets or totes then put them all in the RV or a vehicle. I leave the freezer door open and turn on a small fan to move air around. It takes about 3 hours to be fully defrosted and dry. I wipe down the walls and wire shelves then plug the freezer back in. Thanks for your post!
Great tips - thank you!
Roseanne Tate says
You are so helpful! Thank you.
Love your videos.
Oh, you're welcome - so glad this was helpful!
peggy guy says
I just load the frozen food into laundry baskets or cardboard boxes, and separate out the things to be used at once, such as bones saved for making broth. cake pans with hot water placed on the top 2 shelves hurry-up the defrost so that the food is still frozen hard by the time the ice is cleaned-out, and can go right back into the freezer. bags of frozen fruit (and prob herbs) defrost the fastest, so you may want to put them in a cooler chest, or pile blue ice on top of them in a box.
i do not have a freezer alarm to alert me if the door is left open, so, i added a heavy velcro closure to help keep the door closed; I use the heavy-duty velcro for that.
Thanks for those tips, Peggy!
So...I have a way easier solution, which is to avoid freezer burn altogether by not using plastic bags to store the food, and using a frost-free fridge.
There are 2 ways to do this that I've started using in more recent months. One is to store bulk foods in nylofume bags, the kind used to protect foodstuffs when your house is being tented for termites. These are not regular plastic bags, but impermeable to air and odors. I saved the half dozen bags that were given to us by the pest control company and reuse them over and over. The bags are very large, but you may be able to buy smaller ones.
The second is to use silicone Stasher bags, which you can buy here among other places (I have no affiliation with them). https://earthhero.com/product-category/sustainable-essentials/zero-waste-favorites/zero-waste-in-the-kitchen/
A third method which I haven't used is to store stuff in mason or glass jars with air-tight lids, but I imagine that would work also, but this is not as flexible in accommodating different volumes or shapes of food.
I've only owned Stasher bags for a few weeks, and I've noticed that it makes a huge difference in storing cilantro keeping it fresh *weeks* longer. The bags are expensive but should last forever with reasonable care and I find them much more pleasant to use than plastic. The silicone is also impermeable to air and water, and the bags seal tightly. In fact it takes a little practice to open them easily. I find the "stand-up" bag to be a particularly good form factor.
I'm enjoying your site, having first found a bread recipe on it in recent weeks and then separately finding it when looking up whether or not one can freeze beets. Really glad to find that I could! Appreciative of your ingenuity and great info. This site and feastingathome.com are among my favorite sites this year.
Thank you so much, Margaret - I'm honored to be counted among your favorite sites!
Your tips and thoughts are good - thank you for sharing! I'll definitely check out that site because the few silicone bags I've tried so far have been so hard to get clean that we don't use them much.
As for the freezer question - frost free freezers are also continual running to keep the air moving, so it's not great for electrical usage, either. I find with my frost freezer I can keep meats in original packaging or butcher paper and only get freezer burn after more than a year, whereas if left in the frost free portion of our fridge/freezer, it only lasts 6-7 months without burn.
I do want to lessen our use of plastic, though, so I'm always looking for options!
Jami@ An Oregon Cottage says
Jenny- Oh, I wish we could roll it out and hose it down- only 45 minutes?! That's the way to go. 🙂
mary w- thanks for the idea of a "basics" post!
I did this a couple of weeks ago in preparation for my monstrous freezer cooking session. When I saw your pictures, I thought you had flown to GA just to take a picture of my freezer! It was just as bad. Ours is in the garage, so we just roll it out in the driveway and use a hose to defrost it. Takes about 45 minutes. Glad you are doing some more back to basics -- great ideas.
The Tidy Brown Wren says
Sometimes, if I'm in a hurry to defrost my small chest freezer, I'll sponge down the walls with warm water from a bucket. I then am able to scrape the sides with an old plastic scraper and sop up the water and ice in the bottom of the freezer with a sponge. It takes me a total of 1/2 hour hands on time and then I'm done with it.
I've been needing to defrost badly, so you spurred me on. I did it today, and it's beautiful. I also know what's in there. Thank you for posting, I've been reading around your blog.
Mary W says
Another idea for a basic is yogert. Easy and thrifty to make at home and when drained it can be a substitute for sour cream or cream cheese (depending on how much whey you drain). A tablespoon mixed with 3/4 cup of milk is a substitute for buttermilk.
Always Nesting says
I wish I'd know the difference when we purchased our last freezer 🙁 We have a frost free and yes, do get freezer burn all the time. I wondered why the shelf life wasn't very long for my food. Now I know.
What a coincidence! I just defrosted my freezer last week. And it was the perfect opportunity to incorporate your previous (great) tip of posting (on the outside of the freezer) what is inside.
We have a chest freezer that we keep in the garage. Sometimes it's a pain going out there to get things but the defrosting part is easy. Just tip the thing over and get the hose out to spray it down and melt the ice. 🙂
I love the back to the basics series too. These are great.
Heather's Blog-o-rama says
Those are some great tips. I'm not sure about your freezer. I think it's a frost-free one...but it came with the apartment, so we didn't have a choice in the appliance. You're so awesome...I love this "Back to Basics" series...Keep 'em coming!!!
Love and hugs from Oregon, Heather 🙂