How to Clean the Dishwasher

I had “one of those” days last week. My dishwasher smelled like dead fish – a decaying dead fish, to be exact – after the it supposedly washed the dishes. I guess our fish dinner won that battle.

We love grilling fish in the summer because the wonderful smell stays outside and my house is spared from the stench. And what kind of fish we LOVE to eat? The smelliest fish in the ocean.


Yes. mackerel – the greasy fish that is rich in Omega-3 oil that happens to be on the “Best Choice” list by Seafood Watch.Org. I simply salt the fish and grill on high heat. Then, I squeeze lemon on the crispy and browned skin before serving, and my family gobbles them up. Since mackerel is a oily fish, the oil gets burned off when it gets seared on high heat.  And the smell…….well, let’s just say, I don’t cook this in the winter when I can’t grill it on the outdoor BBQ grill.

Then, “last week” happened. I was hurrying to load the dishwasher and I didn’t rinse out the glass container that I used to store the leftover fish. I also didn’t rinse out the plate that the fish was served on. Normally, I don’t pre-rinse the dishes but fishy plates, I always do but this time, I was in too much of a hurry to pre-rinse. I also didn’t preset the dishwasher to ‘skip’ the drying so when it stopped, it dried in high heat, baking in the fish smell on everything inside. Yeah. Good going, Karen.

Long story short, fishy plate + fishy glass container + HOT dishwasher water = one bad fishy dishwasher

I thought I can run the dishwasher again to eliminate the odor so I ran it again with my trusty dishwasher detergent. But that didn’t work. My dishes and glasses smelled even more fishy. Not the nice ocean salt waster smell but the putrid dead fish smell.

I thought I needed the stronger store brand so I borrowed my mom’s Seventh Generation Dishwasher Detergent. That didn’t work either.

By this third wash, I was certain that I needed to just replace the damn machine because the dishes and glasses were smelling fishier and fishier and the machine reeked when I opened the door.

So I unloaded the dishwasher, rewashed the drinking glasses and put all the dishes on the dish rack for the smell to dissipate and crosses my fingers.

Then, I got to work.

How to clean your dishwasher

I took out the bottom wire rack and removed the blade in the bottom of the machine. I unscrewed the plastic cap in the middle and it was easy to remove. When I removed the blade, a little surprise greeted me at the bottom of the machine. Lettuce pieces. Where did they come from??? I guess my kids took “you don’t have to pre-rinse” to extreme! And you see the crud that’s stuck underneath the blade? You can click the photo and see the larger size. I swear I don’t know what the heck that is. I thought dishwashers are suppose to clean stuff and not accumulate junk!?!?? Gross.

I cleaned out the lettuce and other small debris out of the screen at the bottom of the machine. Then, cleaned out the crud that were stuck on the bottom of the blade.

Then, I squeezed some lemons to make 100% lemon juice to clean the dishwasher. I used about 5 lemons to do the job.

Saturate a dishcloth with lemon juice and wipe down ALL THE WALLS, including inside the door. Remove the utensil racks if they are on the door and clean the inside panel of the door. Even if you don’t see stains, wipe them down WELL with liberal amount of lemon juice.

You would think that since dishwasher washes dishes, it would wash itself too, like the washing machines. Not. Like your washing machine, you also have to wash your dishwasher if you want to remove any odors or clean stains. No, there is no setting for “self-cleaning”, like the oven, for dishwashers or washing machines.

Anyway, back to cleaning. I filled two small bowls with juice from 2 lemons each. Then, I placed one on the top rack and one on the bottom rack. I made sure I placed them securely so the juice didn’t spill out all at once.

I ran the dishwasher on “Quick Wash” and “Air Dry”. That means, it ran on short cycle and I made sure it dried naturally. When the wash was finished, I left the door opened until it was completely dried.

And that did it!

I thought it still smelled like fish but my kids said, they didn’t smell it. I guess my olfactory nerves were on high alert but the actual odor went away completely after doing the above steps. But in case, your machine still smells, repeat the procedure one more time and this is important – do not let the machine dry in high heat. Open the dishwasher and let it air dry completely. You can wipe the walls down with clean kitchen towel to speed up the process if you want. Some people use vinegar or baking soda to run the machine but my instinct reached for fresh smelling lemons and actually wiping down the walls. Passively running the machine and spraying the water wasn’t solving the odor problem. Nothing like good ole’ elbow grease to the rescue!

Here are some great tips on preventing potential future dishwasher problems.

  1. Run the garbage disposal before starting the dishwasher. The dishwasher drains into the garbage disposer well. So if there is garbage in the disposer and the dishwasher  water empties out into it, there is potential for that garbage or the water to backup into the dishwasher.
  2. Run a bit of hot water in your sink before running the dishwasher. Run the water until what comes out of the tap feels hot. Hotter the water in the dishwasher, cleaner your dishes will be. You can collect the water you run and use it for watering plants or other purposes.
  3. Run full loads to conserve water and energy. But don’t pack dishes so tightly that water can’t reach the insides of the bowls and plates to clean them. Water needs to be able to get to them.
  4. DO NOT pre-rinse your “normal” dishes before you put them in the dishwasher. Dishwasher detergent – even my homemade  detergent – NEEDS a certain amount of grease and dirt in order to do its job. Otherwise, it will pit your dishes and will damage them. Also, without ‘something’ for the detergent to ‘grab’ on to, it will just get sudsy and it may even overflow.
  5. Speaking of overflowing dishwasher, (I know, I’m not the only one who did this in the past – admit it.) if your dishwasher ever over flows, stop the dishwasher, drain the water, and toss either some white vinegar or oil into the suds. Then, start your dishwasher again, without the soap, if you are using my recipe. If you are using the store bought brand, skip it altogether and run it again. Seriously. When I was experimenting with my detergent recipe, I made my machine overflow too many times to admit but found out this little trick really works!

I will still grill fish but I’ll remember to rinse off the fishy oil from the plate before loading it next time. All in all, it was a good excuse to really clean my dishwasher. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have discovered those little lettuce pieces that could have potentially caused more problems later on.

How do YOU eliminate odor from your dishwasher? Do you know what’s lurking on the bottom of your dishwasher?


  1. Mona says

    Thank you for the great article. I shared on our facebook page. My client love tips like this.

  2. says

    I am SOOOO frustrated we got a new dishwasher after our ‘consumer report best but’ died after only 4 years!! It is more expensive and all stainless inside. I have NEVER had this problem before but I am getting black mold in my dishwasher and on my dishes and glasses, even after the washser has run! YUCK.. any suggestions on whats going on.. and what to do..

    • says


      Oy. Black mold is never good to have, especially in a dishwasher! Sorry you are going through this. This is what I felt with my front loader when it was getting moldy and mildewy! :(

      From what I can tell, you maybe getting mold because of two possible reasons. 1. your dishwasher is NOT draining properly or completely. 2. your heating element might not be working and the door is kept closed after the machine stops with wet dishes inside.

      So if your machine is not draining, check the drain to see why. Like my pictures above, is there debris preventing the water from draining completely? If it’s draining properly, then, check the heating element to see if it’s connected properly. How do you know if it’s working? Open the door when it’s in “DRY” mode. If you see the heating element red and hot, then, you know it’s working. If not, then, you need to find out how you can connect it properly. You may need to contact the installer to reconnect it properly if it’s not obvious and you can’t figure it out.

      Meanwhile, run your dishwasher WITHOUT the dishes or detergent with 2 cups of full strength vinegar and salt. Let it run for a few minutes and then stop the machine and wait 15 minutes. Let it finish the cycle and when it’s done, wipe down the walls with full strength vinegar. Make sure to do the same on the floor too. Leave the door open to air out. I’d do this twice just to be sure.

      If this does not take care of the mold and the smell, use a cup of chlorine bleach instead of vinegar but use this as a last resort. I read mixed facts about whether chlorine is better than vinegar for molds.

      I hope that takes care of the mold you have now but I hope you can find out why the mold is growing in the first place. Check the two reasons I mentioned and please come back and let me know what happens.

      Good Luck!

  3. Jayson says

    I alternate baking soda and vinegar. Using vinegar definitely stinks up the house a bit but it’s better than the alternative. A lot of people don’t realize that they have a trap at the bottom of their machine that has to be emptied on occasion. Other don’t have to do this maintenance because they have a small grinder built into it that grinds up the solids that end up in the trap, so they can just be flushed out through the line.

  4. says

    Ahahahaha! We also are fish grillers ( mackinaw and steelhead, primarily) and the fish smell can be horrid if I don’t get it all cleaned up. So I could totally smell the fish odor as I was reading your post. Lemon juice works great to get the fish smell off of your hands, as well, but I have used baking soda in the dishwasher to eliminate the fishystench.

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