I would like to thank Josephine Cochrane of Illinois. I’d like to, but I can’t. She’s been dead for more than a century. But if I could I’d thank her for inventing the dishwasher. Personally, I’d give up just about anything but my dishwasher.
I’ll admit to being a stickler when it comes to properly washed dishes, glassware, and utensils. If they come out spotted, gritty, or cloudy I’m not happy. And if that happens, I know how to clean a dishwasher to get it back up to its tip-top operation.
If your dishwasher is not turning out beautifully clean, cloudless, spot-free, sparkling dishes, pots, glassware, and flatware—without handwashing them first—don’t assume the dishwasher is broken. If it runs, you can make sure it runs well by knowing how to clean a dishwasher. And you can stop that pre-washing.
Years ago before we remodeled and sold our home in California, I’d lived with a low-end, plain-wrap, well-used, 18-year old dishwasher. All was well until I began noticing that dishes came out feeling gritty, glasses were streaked and cloudy, food remained stuck to flatware. Ugh. It was really bad. I assumed my Tappan had lived out its useful life and deserved to be put down.
Not feeling up to a kitchen remodel right then (you know how that goes—new dishwasher cries for new cabinets and that means new countertops which leads to new flooring), I set out to find a solution. I learned the problem wasn’t the dishwasher so much as the owner-operator.
At a total cost of about nine bucks and a crash course in how to clean a dishwasher and keep it clean, I had good ol’ Tappan working like new in no time. And I didn’t resort to pre-rinsing. I still refuse to pre-rinse.
Just like a car, a dishwasher needs routine maintenance. You need to get rid of limescale, soap scum, iron, and grease that builds up inside every dishwasher. You may be able to see stains and other crud, but much of this is hidden in the hoses and other out-of-sight places.
One of the best ways to clean a dishwasher is with a monthly “acid bath.” You can do this with unsweetened lemonade Kool-Aid, Tang powdered drink mix, citric acid or commercial products— Glisten Dishwasher Magic and Affresh, both of which contain citric acid.
Glisten and Affresh safely and effectively remove limescale, iron, soap scum, grease, and food stains that build up inside the dishwasher. Unlike the drink powders, Dishwasher Magic also kills 99.9% of germs and extends the life of your dishwasher while improving its cleaning performance.
If you use the drink powders, fill both detergent cups with Tang, or pour one package of the lemonade powder into each cup. Or 2 tablespoons citric acid into the detergent cup. Run the empty dishwasher through a complete cycle. If you opt for Dishwasher Magic or Affresh, follow the package directions.
I credit Glisten Dishwasher Magic with getting another six years of service out of that venerable Tappan dishwasher.
To effectively clean dirty dishes, a dishwasher needs 140 F. water. And it must enter the dishwasher that hot. If you raise your water heater temperature, beware of the hotter water’s potential for scalding at sinks, showers, bathtubs and in your washing machine. (You can get scald protection devices for children’s sinks and tubs.) The single most important factor in getting good results is hot water. Water should enter the dishwasher at 140 F*. If your newer dishwasher may have its own in-line water heater. Check your manual.
It’s challenging to beat the Cascade lineup of powdered products, but Costco and Walmart store brands come pretty darn close. Gel detergents of any brand, however, are troublesome. They create more problems than they resolve.
Gel contains chlorine bleach, never fully rinses off the interior tub, clogs the detergent dispenser, doesn’t work well in hard water, and leaves spots—in my opinion.
I recommend that you stick with fresh powdered automatic dishwasher detergent, like Cascade Complete. Just keep in mind that it loses its ability to clean properly when exposed to humidity and air. Unless you are a heavy user, don’t opt for the largest box of detergent; never store it under the sink, which is likely the most humid spot in the house.
If you don’t have your owner manual, go online to get a copy. Do an online search for your particular machine or go to a site like Kitchen Manuals Online. Look at the diagrams. There is a proper way to load a dishwasher. Failure to load correctly will return disappointing results. Once loaded, make sure all the moving parts can move. The spray arm should spin freely without hitting anything.
Do not rinse
Scrape food to remove all the chunks, but don’t pre-rinse items for the dishwasher. Automatic dishwasher detergent is highly alkaline and needs the acidity of the food to reach optimum cleaning action. Besides, rinsing wastes time, energy and water.
A rinse additive like Finish Jet-Dry improves the sheeting action of water and leaves dishes sparkling clean, but it can be pricey. Hint: White vinegar is a reasonable substitute. Fill your rinse additive dispenser with straight white vinegar. Occasionally toss in a cup of white vinegar to the last rinse.
It takes between 6-10 gallons of water to run your dishwasher compared to 9-24 gallons you would consume doing them by hand. So give yourself a break and let your dishwasher do the job Josephine intended for it to do.
First published: 4-24-17; Revised & Updated 1-19-23
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