Best Refrigerator Temperature to Keep Food Fresh

Consumer Reports' tests find that automated temperature settings aren’t always accurate

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person holding door of fridge open and reaching for something inside the fridge Photo: Getty Images

Is there a “correct” temperature for refrigerators and freezers? Yep: A fridge temperature of 37° F will keep fresh food good for as long as possible—with no ice crystals on lettuce or bacteria breeding in raw meats. As for the freezer, a temperature of 0° F will keep foods thoroughly frozen.

But the temperature controls on many fridges only allow you to choose from a series of numbers—usually 1 through 5, with 1 being the coldest and 5 being the warmest.

And to further complicate matters, even when refrigerators have digital controls for setting precise temperatures, our tests have found that the settings aren’t always accurate.

The temperature-measuring equipment Consumer Reports uses in its lab tests is extremely precise, down to a fraction of a degree. As a result, we can tell you exactly where to set your refrigerator temperature to achieve optimal freshness.

How CR Tests Refrigerator Temperatures

When a new batch of refrigerators comes into our labs, we start by setting the ambient temperature in our climate-controlled chambers to 70° F, to simulate conditions in most home kitchens.

Then we determine which thermostat setting on each refrigerator will get the internal temperature in the center of the unit to between 36° F and 38° F. We do the same thing in the freezer, experimenting until we get the freezer temperature to between -1° F and 1° F.

More on Refrigerators

“Some refrigerators are spot-on, but others are wide off the mark,” says Larry Ciufo, CR’s test engineer for refrigerators. “I’ve seen a few refrigerators be off by as much as 5°, which can be the difference between fresh food and spoiled food.”

It’s important to note that we don’t penalize refrigerators for inaccurate settings. Most refrigerators are capable of maintaining consistent temperatures once they reach the optimal level. The point is that you need to know how to get them to the 37° F and 0° F marks. And that’s why we include this information in the Features & Specs tab of our refrigerator ratings chart. You’ll find the ideal temperature setting for refrigerators with digital controls, and the ideal numeric value for models with that type of thermostat.

What if your fridge isn’t one of our tested models? Your best bet is to buy a refrigerator thermometer, available online and at home centers for a few bucks, and conduct your own experiment. The thermometer won’t be as exact as the sensitive thermocouples we use in our lab, but it should get you within a degree or so of the perfect refrigerator temperature to keep your food fresh, tasty, and safe for as long as possible.

If you’re in the market for a new refrigerator, see our comprehensive refrigerator ratings and buying guide. Here are five impressive options, all of which excel in our test for thermostat control.

5 Fridges With Superb Thermostat Control

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Home Content Creator Daniel Wroclawski

Daniel Wroclawski

I'm obsessed with smart home tech and channel my obsession into new stories for Consumer Reports. When I'm not writing about products, I spend time either outside hiking and skiing or up in the air in small airplanes. For my latest obsessions, follow me on Facebook and Twitter (@danwroc).