Five trusted ways to get rid of cooking odors

Cooking odors can hang around longer than you want them to. One tip that can help: Clean up as soon as you can. MUST CREDIT: Stacy Zarin Goldberg for The Washington Post

Bacon. Cauliflower. Seafood. Anything fried. These are some of my favorite things to cook and eat, but while their aromas can be enticing in the moment, no one wants to smell these foods hours or even days after they’ve been cooked and consumed.

Why? “When we put things in our mouth and we get the odor, the brain can interpret it as food,” said Dani Reed, chief science officer of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. But things change once you’ve stopped chewing. “The brain puts a different interpretation on the same smell,” sometimes in a negative way.

“Getting rid of cooking odors is both super simple and impossible,” Reed said. “It’s super simple because all odors are just molecules floating in the air. They’re light enough to float, to get sucked into the nose and get into our olfactory epithelium. And that’s how odor happens.”

So, you just need to remove those molecules from the air, right? Yes, but that can be easier said than done. “The odors of cooking, especially the sort of the fried fishy type of odors, they permeate different surfaces and then they’re released over time. And so it’s really impossible because when you’re cooking they go everywhere.”

Here how’s to best keep that from happening – and how to deal with it when it inevitably does.

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Control air flow

This is probably common sense, but it nonetheless bears repeating: When you’re cooking, especially if you’re frying, open a window or exterior door and turn on an exhaust fan (if you have one that vents outside).

Open floor plans are all the rage in modern home design, but the downside is that those unwanted odors have access to all of the rugs, curtains, couches, pillows and other absorbent surfaces in your living area. If you have a kitchen with a door, close it to keep cooking odors from spreading throughout your home. “Also, always shut the bedroom door,” said chef and cookbook author Abra Berens, which can make a big difference for those of us in apartments and other smaller residences.

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Clean ASAP

The longer food lingers out in the open, the more its aroma has time to infiltrate the air. So, try to clean up as soon as possible instead of letting dirty dishes linger. And for frying oil that you’re waiting to cool before it can be put away or disposed of, cover the pan with a lid to keep the odors trapped inside until you’re ready to deal with the oil.

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Trap the odor molecules

Back to the science: There are a few different available products that can easily trap smelly molecules. The first is common air-freshener spray products. “Sprays like Febreze do more than just covering up smelly molecules with even more pungent ones,” science writer Rachel Feltman wrote in The Post. “They use chemical compounds called cyclodextrins to literally trap odor molecules.”

Another option is activated carbon, which can be found in air purifiers and specific odor-absorbing splatter screens. Also referred to as activated charcoal, active charcoal and active carbon, it works “by using a physical stickiness that is essentially chemistry-blind,” former chemistry professor and former Post Food columnist Robert L. Wolke wrote. “Gases find their way into its enormous interior network of microscopic pores, where they stick by a phenomenon called adsorption.”

What about the box of baking soda many people have in their refrigerator? Can you just set one out on the counter? Long story short, it’s not very effective and doesn’t work for all types of smells (unlike activated carbon). “The landing pad for a smellicule on a box of baking soda is a mere seven square inches (the box-top area), secreted somewhere within a 20 cubic foot (35,000 cubic inch) refrigerator air space,” Wolke wrote. “That’s not a very efficient system for capturing smellicules. The open box does not attract odors, as many people believe. It has no come-hither power, in spite of its toplessness.”

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Grab a bottle of vinegar

Vinegar is another tool in your arsenal, and its odor absorption has been promoted by social media cooking and cleaning influencer Barbara Costello, or, Babs, among others. She suggests setting a bowl of it next to the stove while cooking to neutralize odors. However, it can take some time and may need to be left out for a few hours and up to overnight for particularly potent smells.

For a faster fix, throw vinegar on the stove. “In a small saucepan, mix half a cup of vinegar with a cup of water, and let it simmer on low to medium heat for 10 to 15 minutes,” America’s Test Kitchen assistant editor Sarah Sandler wrote. (Using distilled white vinegar is the most economical, but any vinegar will do.) “The acetic acid in the vinegar will quickly work to neutralize the odors in your kitchen.” I gave this a try after my colleagues spent an afternoon cooking a bunch of bacon in our test kitchen and found that it worked like a charm. Yes, it makes the kitchen smell like vinegar while it simmers, but the aroma dissipates quickly.

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Mask it with better smells

Berens recommends making something with a stronger, more pleasant aroma, by brewing coffee or melting chocolate, though she says the latter is not great for fish smells. (Some claim that the nitrogen from spent coffee grinds can neutralize bad smelling scent molecules, similar to baking soda. “But the science behind it isn’t compelling,” said Pamela Dalton, also of the Monell Chemical Senses Center.) Food blogger Marta Rivera Diaz’s go-to is to simmer a pot of water with lemon slices, bay leaves and cloves, as a stovetop potpourri of sorts. (Your choice of aromatics can also be added to the pot of simmering vinegar water mentioned previously.) Other options include scented candles and oils.



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