Four tips to make sure your dishwasher does its job

There’s more to it than simply adding detergent and hitting “start.”
a person loading or unloading a dishwasher
We thought we'd show you things from the dishes' point of view. Wendelin Jacober/Pexels

Loading the dishwasher is a remarkably controversial activity. After five years of marriage, my wife and I still debate the proper method for getting dishes clean with minimal hassle. So I spoke to an expert to settle our battle once and for all.

“It’s a contentious issue in most households,” says Richard Tarrant, category director for Bosch dishwashers. “We do a lot of consumer studies to gain insights, and 61 percent of Americans actually argue over whether the dishes should be pre-rinsed. It’s incredible.” And while every dishwasher has its own idiosyncrasies—especially if you’re using an older one—he has a few tips to help make sure things get clean.

Don’t rinse dishes before putting them in the dishwasher

Let’s talk about that hotly-debated issue: pre-rinsing. Bosch’s research suggests not rinsing your dishes before they enter the dishwasher, Tarrant says, explaining that modern detergent is designed to cling to leftover food in order to clean effectively. Now, that doesn’t mean you should toss your plate in the dishwasher with a half-eaten sandwich on it—unless you want a mushy catastrophe. Instead, he says, scrape big items off your plate—into either the trash or garbage disposal (a debate all its own)—and put the dish in without rinsing it. This will not only get your dishes clean, but keep them in good condition. If there’s no food to cling to, the detergent may end up damaging your dishware over time, etching little scratches and pits into the surface, he says.

There are exceptions to this, of course. Tarrant notes that while Bosch tests with stubborn foods like eggs and oatmeal in order to account for them in their product design, sometimes dishwashers just can’t do the job perfectly on the first go-round. “If you have a casserole dish which has very burned-on food residue, it probably makes sense to soak that a little bit before you put it in your dishwasher,” he says. Your mileage on this may vary, too—if you find your dishwasher isn’t up to snuff with certain foods (avocado was the enemy of our old dishwasher), take note and clean those items by hand. But if you rinse everything before putting it in the machine, you’ll just end up wasting water—up to 27 gallons per load, according to Tarrant, versus the three to six gallons a typical Energy Star-rated dishwasher uses.

Mix up the direction of the silverware

In my household, our biggest disagreement debate concerns silverware, specifically whether it should face up or down in the basket. My wife thinks everything needs to face up so the water has a better chance at cleaning off the food; I think facing down is just as effective while being less inconvenient when loading. I load the silverware her way in hopes it will gain me husband points, but I still grit my teeth every time I try to drop a dirty spoon in handle-down without getting peanut butter on my hands.

In a way, we’re both right (and both wrong), Tarrant says: “You don’t want your spoons to nest together, or your forks to nest into spoons. So mix it up to make sure the water can get in and make sure all that food comes off correctly.” In other words, if your spoons are spooning, food will get trapped between them, and they won’t get clean—so spread them out in the basket, and flip some of them upside down if you need to. (He does note that knives should probably point down for safety reasons, and if you have delicate knives that can’t handle this, just hand-wash them.) The same goes for bowls and other similarly shaped items—if you’ve overloaded the dishwasher so much that they’re nesting, they won’t get clean.

Use the right cycle for the job

I almost never pay attention to which dishwasher cycle I’m using. I assumed soap and water was soap and water, so why use anything other than a “quick” cycle if things looked clean? The quick cycle may be fine if you’re pre-rinsing your dishes, but—as we’ve already noted—that wastes more water and time than if you’d just let the dishwasher do the work for you.

“The shorter cycle is designed for either a light soil or maybe freshly soiled dishes,” explains Tarrant. “Maybe you have tableware that you purchased recently, and you just want to get it washed that first time. Or maybe you and your partner sit down to have dinner and just want those dishes clean.” For normal loads, you should probably use—you guessed it—the normal cycle.

That is, of course, unless your newfangled dishwasher has an automatic cycle. “We would say the auto cycle is designed for an everyday mixed load. That’s where the intelligence of the machine comes in: it measures the soil level, it detects anything that’s still in there, and it adjusts the cycle based on that.” Provided your dishwasher has the smarts to run an auto cycle effectively, you can probably use it for the majority of loads, barring special scenarios like pots and pans or baby bottles that need the sanitary cycle.

Clean your dishwasher’s food trap, for heaven’s sake

I’m embarrassed to say I went years without realizing that my dishwasher might require its own cleaning and maintenance. There’s one thing, in particular, that Tarrant says a lot of people gloss over: the food trap.

It’s in the base of the dishwasher, and it’s kind of icky, so people don’t like to take it out and mess with it, he says. But, you should clean it out every three to six months depending on how frequently you run the dishwasher.

If you aren’t sure where it is, check your dishwasher’s manual—it may not be as exciting as the next episode The Legend of Korra, but there’s a lot of useful info in there on keeping your dishes clean. Once you locate the food trap, check YouTube and your favorite search engine for tips on removing it. Dishwashers are relatively simple machines, but the mechanisms may be held together by plastic clips that break easily, so I don’t recommend you dive in and start pulling things apart if you’re unfamiliar with how everything fits together.

A word of caution: If anything has ever broken in your dishwasher, there may be pieces of glass around the drain, so be careful. When you’ve got the food trap out, run it under some water with a soft brush and a bit of soap, and your dishes will stay sparkly clean.