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?
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.