Refrigerator 101: The Chill World of the Fridge and Freezer

Read this handy primer, from door types—french door refrigerator or bottom freezer—to cool tech and features. Fruit-infused water dispenser, anyone?

refrigerator Kristen’s French door refrigerator bottom-mount freezer in her renovated Chelsea kitchen

It’s probably the most frequently visited place in your home. It’s the hub of the kitchen. It’s the refrigerator. No other appliance sees so much action. To keep up with all of the demands made on this hard-working member of the household, manufacturers are devising new features and improvements to provide more flexibility and responsiveness. From precise climate control to wireless connectivity, the refrigerator has even greater capacity to keep food fresh and to alert you when items need replacing.

While some of these innovations may not be mandatory to a functioning kitchen, they are nevertheless time-saving. They also happen to be fun.

Door configurations

The arrangement of doors and drawers on your refrigerator, or refrigerator/freezer, are not just a style choice. The configuration directs how you use the fridge, and what foods you reach for most often. Classic arrangements still exist—side-by-side, bottom-mount, column—as well as newer styles, like French door and drawers. When choosing a style, first make a checklist of all the things you and your family take from the fridge in a given day. Each configuration has its benefits:

*Side-by-side

Giving access to the freezer on one side and the fridge on the other, this type is the most popular category now. The tall slender doors are also good for kitchens with little clearance space. The narrower sides do mean you lose the capacity to stow wide items like pizza boxes and party trays.

*Bottom-mount freezer

With the freezer on the bottom, the main compartments remain at eye level, a no-brainer when the fridge is accessed more frequently than the freezer. For those times when you need the freezer just as often—during a big party, over the summer, or for frozen snacks—some fridges with two upper doors can be reprogrammed so that one side becomes the freezer, temporarily.

Several manufacturers, like LG, GE, and Miele, offer double lower freezer drawers; one of the drawers can be converted to a fridge or freezer as needed.

*French door

A variation of the bottom-mount freezer category, this model features two half-doors that open from the center (like a side-by-side), also good if you have less clearance when a door opens. You’ll still be able to get the full-width shelves in the inner compartment.

*Column

This refrigerator comes in a variety of widths so it can be installed wherever you want for a customized kitchen layout. Add a column freezer next to it or a couple of under-counter freezer drawers.

*Door-in-door

Frequent opening of the fridge door is inevitable. This leads to strain on the cooling system and a risk to food placed at the front. If yours is the family that goes in and out all day for drinks, check out the fridge from LG with the upper door that opens with the push of a button to access a slender outer beverage compartment. A tinted glass panel lets you see inside with two knocks on the glass, for those who like to graze with a gaze while deciding what they want.

*Drawers

Undercounter refrigerator drawers are handy for a variety of situations, including small kitchens without much wall space, as well as a large kitchen requiring more fridge capacity for dedicated items, like drinks and snacks.

*Top-mounted freezer

This type falls into the most economical category (remember your starter apartment?). However, it offers the least capacity, and you have to bend over to retrieve most items in the fridge. Not so cool.

Cooling for all

The constant opening and closing of the fridge places a burden on the cooling system of the refrigerator and on the food inside. The variety of items also presents a challenge, as not all perishables keep well at the same temperature—or even together in the same drawer. Some foods, placed together, can even speed each other’s spoilage.

Manufacturers have responded with independent humidity and temperature control for compartments. Miele makes a refrigerator with drawers that offer individual microclimates. With the touch of an icon, the drawer will keep lettuce crisp one week and safely store cheese another. Jenn-Air has a quick-chill feature that lowers the temperature to below liquid freezing for one hour, great for that spur-of-the-moment bottle of wine.

Some new fridges come with separate cooling circuits for refrigeration and freezing sections. The benefit: Independent control of each section contributes to peak function. Since there’s no air exchange between compartments, it also keeps food from drying out. Sub-Zero has introduced an antimicrobial filtration system that clears airborne bacteria and prevents the transferring of odors or ethylene gas (emitted by some vegetables) that can speed food spoilage.

Connect with your appliance

Linking home appliances to smartphones and other wireless devices allows convenient remote operation of some tasks. From creating grocery lists to actually ordering food to finding a recipe with what’s on hand, you can be out of the room and still in charge.

*Stocking the fridge

Some top-of-the-line models from companies such as LG and Samsung include cameras, scanners, or imagerecognition software that connects to your smartphone to create shopping lists and set expiration notifications. Leaving the office and wondering if there’s enough milk for tomorrow? You can check your phone to find out.

*Closing the door

New models will notify you when the fridge door is left open or if the temperature rises above 56°F for more than 20 minutes.

*Managing the details

Among the most exciting innovations are touch screens that serve as a bulletin board (and eliminate those messy magnets and papers) to leave notes for family members or yourself. You might also be able to access recipes from a popular cooking site and have the recipe read to you as you work at the prep counter.

Ice and water perks

Water and ice in the door aren’t new, but new functions have been added, including:

* Ice cubes small enough to fit into refillable water bottles

* Ice and water dispensed at the same time

* Shaved ice, perfect for smoothies or seafood platters

* Remote manufacturing of ice ordered from your mobile phone

* An integrated compartment that holds fruit for infused water

* High-capacity ice maker

* Sparkling water dispenser

Probably no other appliance in the kitchen can combine so many innovations as the refrigerator. The future points toward the development of more special features, some that we can’t even imagine yet. In the meantime, you can, at a minimum, enjoy state-of-the-art cooling systems that save you money on electricity and grocery bills. And that’s always cool.

The fridge is easily the most-used appliance in the kitchen, but it doesn’t have to be the centerpiece. With custom paneling, your fridge can blend into its surroundings and let another feature, like a standout island, take center stage.

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