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Baking Soda as Odor Absorber

By Cook's Illustrated Published May 2009

Can baking soda really remove unpleasant odors from the refrigerator or freezer?

Baking soda is sodium bicarbonate, an alkali used as a leavening agent in baking. To test whether it can also absorb or neutralize odors from the refrigerator or freezer, we placed equal amounts of sour milk, stinky cheese, and spoiled fish into two airtight containers, then added an open box of baking soda to one container and left the second alone. We sealed the samples and let them sit overnight at room temperature. Finally, we asked a panel of “sniffers” to smell each container after 24 hours and again after 48 hours, removing the boxes of baking soda each time. The results were inconclusive, with some sniffers claiming they couldn’t detect much difference and others swearing they could.

As it turns out, food scientists, including Washington Post columnist Robert Wolke, dismiss the notion that baking soda has deodorizing power in the fridge. In his book What Einstein Told His Cook 2, Wolke writes that while baking soda does neutralize acids, the likelihood of gaseous molecules from acidic sour milk migrating through the refrigerator and interacting with the baking soda is slight. He also concludes that no single chemical has the ability to deactivate all of the complex, gaseous chemicals that smell bad.

But don’t rule out baking soda altogether. When this alkaline powder comes into direct contact with smells, it can make a difference. We recently tested different approaches to removing garlic and onion smells from a cutting board (July/August 2007) and found scrubbing with a paste of 1 tablespoon baking soda and 1 teaspoon water to be the most effective.

ODOR EATER?Baking soda is ineffective at removing odors in the fridge.