[Dishwasher 101] How to clean it and what you should never put in it

We ran a post about where the bad smells in your kitchen are coming from. But there’s one we left out because it doesn’t come up as often.

If you’ve got a dishwasher, you revel in its convenience. Until it starts emitting a funky odor. How can something that cleans other things get so dirty?

Well, that gross food has to go somewhere. And it collects in your dishwasher drain. Not to mention that it’s the perfect environment for mold to grow.

So let’s talk about how to really clean your dishwasher. And what you shouldn’t be putting in there.

How to get your dishwasher sparkling clean

You’ll need white vinegar and baking soda. Possibly a toothbrush and gloves. Oh, and you’ll need to roll up your sleeves because you’ll be taking out both racks, utensil holder, and filter. Hey, that’s the only way to get to the drain where all the slimy old food residue is.

Clean the removed parts and wipe down the inside

Leave the filter soaking in a 1:1 mix of warm water and vinegar while you do the rest of this. You can spray down the utensil holder and racks.

Now, take a look inside the dishwasher for any crud stuck in the corners, drain, door hinges, and spray holes. Clean gunk out of those with a toothbrush if you have to.

Some commercial cleaning products might damage surfaces on the inside of your dishwasher. But you could use a homemade cleaner made with the same ingredients you’re already using.

Break down food, grease, and soap scum

Put a cup of white vinegar into a dishwasher-safe bowl and place it at the bottom of the dishwasher. Run a cycle with hot water.

Acetic acid from the vinegar breaks down the remaining buildup. It dissolves calcium deposits, too. If you have hard water and see chalky white crust around the holes where water sprays out, consider repeating this step once a month. Water will start spraying at full strength again, which will get your dishes cleaner.

Lemon juice works on mineral deposits, too, if you find yourself short on vinegar.

Blast away stains

After the vinegar cycle is finished, take the bowl out and sprinkle a cup of baking soda on the bottom of the dishwasher. Run a short cycle so the baking soda can neutralize any remaining odors (including the vinegar), scrub off any remaining residue, and brighten things up.

Baking soda is abrasive enough to clean, but not enough to scratch the surfaces of your dishwasher.

Now that you know how to clean it let’s talk about how you use it. As in, probably putting things in it that shouldn’t go in a dishwasher.

Things you shouldn’t put in the dishwasher

Wood. Water from the dishwasher should be at least 120 degrees Fahrenheit to clean your dishes. That kind of heat can split wood. And the detergent is too harsh for wooden items.

Anything delicate. Because things knock around in there sometimes and can break fragile dishes easily.

Cast iron. Iron rusts and should be exposed to water as little as possible. One cycle through the dishwasher will strip off the protective seasoning. With course salt and a newspaper, you can clean it without using water at all.

Aluminum, copper, and other soft metals. They’ll tarnish and become dull.

Nonstick cookware, like pans with a Teflon coating. Teflon eventually breaks down and flakes off into your food. You don’t want to eat that. Putting it through the dishwasher with 120-degree water and caustic detergent will only hasten the process.

Many plastics, like acrylic. They’ll eventually become warped by the heat. Especially the lids.

Kitchen knives or anything with sharp edges. Like cheese graters and vegetable peelers. The blades rattle against other items during the cycle and become dull.

Anything hand painted. The force of the water coming out of the jets, along with heat and detergent, will chip the paint right off.

Anything with adhesive. If you have knives or other implements with hollow handles, the water can get hot enough to melt the adhesive holding the two halves together.

Printed measuring cups. The numbers will wear off eventually, and you’ll have to Sharpie them back on.

Anything with a paper label. The paper and adhesive will come off and get trapped in the drain.

How to make homemade dish detergent

You’ll never believe how easy this is. I was stunned and can’t wait to make some.


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