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Converting a Fridge to a Cave

Those of us whom do not have a cellar (much less a cave) in which to age cheese, have two choices: (1) use a kitchen fridge and age at much-lower-than-optimum temperature, or (2) convert an old fridge (or wine cooler) to maintain target temperature and humidity conditions. Assuming you have space for a second fridge-turned-cave, this option will give the best results by far.  

If this is the route you choose it's wise to invest a little time and money to assure the best outcome.

If you have the luxury of choosing, pick the "newest and cleanest". Cheese has a tendency to pick up off-odors easily so cleaner is better. In any case, if you're converting an old fridge, we highly recommend taking the time to completely clean and sanitize the interior per the instructions below, and if needed, removing the freezer panels to clean out any mold that may have accumulated over the years.

Cleaning and sanitizing steps

1. Isolate energy

Before doing anything, turn cold control OFF and unplug fridge. Allow the coils time to come to room temperature so that any accumulated ice will melt. Sanitization will be more effective once the interior of the fridge comes to room temp and condensed moisture has dried.

2. Remove all freezer shelves, trays and grills

This gives you good access to the sidewalls to clean and sanitize, and it's easier to sanitize he removable components separately

Note: Steps 3 through 5 below deal with cleaning accessible freezer air channels. If the fridge is relatively new and "clean" this may not be necessary. However, if it is an older fridge or one that has that "refrigerator smell" like my fridge did (see "My Cave Story" in the sidebar), then these steps are necessary.

3. Remove front freezer frame

Typical refrigerators have the cooling coils and fan in the upper freezer compartment. To get to the "air channels" you need to remove the inside plastic frame. In this fridge, there was a plastic frame around the inside that I removed by prying it open with a screwdriver. You can see the air intake louvers on the bottom frame piece in picture at right.

4. Remove bottom freezer panel

Once you have removed the front frame you can remove the screws that secure the bottom panel. The panel should just lift out freely.

5. Remove rear freezer panel

There should be four or more phillips head screws holding secure the back panel. Once all screws are removed, the back panel should come loose.

With the freezer panels removed you can access the coils and air plenum. Remove any food particles or visible mold and wipe all flat surfaces with cleaner and bleach solution described in step 7. 

6. Clean and sanitize fridge compartment and components

When cleaning out my fridge I took all the components and set them on a picnic table outside, hosed them off, cleaned and sanitized and let them dry and de-oderize in the sun. Any visible rust can be wire-brushed or sanded off followed by a coat of white Rust-oleum.

7. Clean and sanitize interior surfaces

I first sprayed all the interior surfaces with a bleach solution (1 tablespoon bleach in a sprayer bottle of water with a few drops of detergent). Followed up with a good sponge wipe-down using a pine oil cleaner. Once all interior surfaces have been cleaned and sanitized, you can reinstall the freezer panels and frame, and refridgerator shelves and drawers.

Cheese Tips

The next step after converting your fridge is Conditioning your Cave

Additional tips from:

My cave story!

My first "cave" was a basic 3 cu. ft. (dorm-sized) fridge. In all I probably aged more than 50 lbs. of cheese in the little fridge and the cheese was very good.

Late last year, we bought a new kitchen fridge with a bottom freezer drawer (love it!). Needless to say I was excited about getting a larger "frost free" cave with a separate top freezer. In a few months I had stocked maybe 20+ lbs, but when we started sampling the cheese, we noted a slight but distinct "refrigerator" taste in the rind. This discovery led to several steps we took to eliminate the smell: cleaning the interior surfaces thoroughly (twice), adding a tray of baking soda, and adding a activated charcoal filter in front of the intake. These steps helped, but did not eliminate the problem completely. I was so frustrated that I considered going back to the old fridge. Instead I took the steps below to see if I could salvage the cave. Turns out it worked, so I thought it would be good to share with others that either have this problem or want to avoid having it when converting an old fridge.