The great dishwasher debate: Is it necessary to rinse or soak dishes before loading them?

Is the dishwasher a magic box that gets the entire job done in one step? Or is there a reason for rinsing and soaking dishes before loading them in?

Should dishes be rinsed before they're loaded into the dishwasher? Experts weigh in. (Photo: Getty)
Should dishes be rinsed before they're loaded into the dishwasher? Experts weigh in. (Photo: Getty)

As a child, I always wondered why my grandfather was adamant about rinsing the dishes before putting them in the dishwasher. It didn't make sense to me. Weren't they going to be cleaned anyway? Still, he always told me, "If you don't rinse [the dish], [the food on it] will get hard."

While we lived together, I did it to make him happy, but when I moved out on my own, I didn't see the need for that extra step. Over the years, however, I've been told numerous times from friends and family: You need to soak or rinse the dishes before putting them in the dishwasher.

The memory of rinsing dishes, then loading them into the dishwasher alongside my grandfather led me to ponder whether or not there are other people like me, who think the dishwasher is a magic box that gets the entire job done in one step. Was I being naive? Is there actually a reason for rinsing and soaking the dinner dishes before the dishwasher comes into play? After chatting with a few cleaning experts (and some home cooks in charge of dish duty) I can say the answers are not in my favor.

Should you pre-rinse your dishes?

The short answer? Yes, you should pre-rinse your dishes, especially if there's food caked on that might need some extra effort to remove.

"If you have caked-on food residue or big pieces of leftover bites on dishes, you'll definitely want to scrape and rinse very well," says Kathy Cohoon, a cleaning expert at Two Maids and a Mop.

Examples of caked-on food or messes you wouldn't want to leave sitting include old sauces, gravies or sugary cake crumbs. On the flip side, if you plan on running the dishwasher shortly after eating or cooking, Cohoon says rinsing and soaking may not be necessary.

Jill Coughlin, a mom of three, only rinses her dishes if she sees food caked onto the dish. "If it's new food and the dishwasher will run immediately, it's OK to put [the dish] in with food [on it]," she says. "However, if it's going to sit on the dish, it has to be rinsed."

For example, if Coughlin makes a pot of oatmeal and doesn't plan to put the pot in the dishwasher right away, she'll soak the pot to make sure the leftover oatmeal residue doesn't stick. However, after a pasta dinner, she'll clear the remaining food from the plates and leave the dishes in the sink.

Mom of two Vanessa Miceli says it's easiest for her to rinse dishes as she loads the dishwasher, regardless of what's on them. "If I rinse while I load, I don't have to worry about anything sticking onto the dishes at all," she says. "However, sometimes I get lazy and put the dishes in without pre-rising and hope for the best."

There's another argument in favor of rinsing or soaking dishes before putting them in the dishwasher: to maintain the integrity of the appliance. "Although it may make you spend a bit of extra time, rinsing dishes before loading them in the dishwasher can help preserve the lifespan of your dishwasher by helping keep the hose clean and the filter basket clear," Cohoon explains.

How do I stop my dishes from smelling?

If you notice your dishes smell or there's a foul-smelling odor coming from your dishwasher, it may be a result of not rinsing your dishes. After spending hundreds of dollars on a brand new dishwasher, the last thing you'll want is to wear it down early because you didn't spend a few extra minutes doing the preliminary work to ensure a thorough clean.

"Food particles can accumulate in the drain filter, drain hose, spray arm or elsewhere in the dishwasher which can cause odors," Vera Peterson, president of Molly Maid, says. "The odor could be especially rancid if the particles are comprised of fish, eggs or other strong-smelling foods."

As for those who don't think pre-rinsing or soaking dishes before placing them in the dishwasher is necessary, it appears I'm in the minority. In fact, not one person I spoke to agreed with me, leading me to believe my grandfather was right all along.

It's safe to say you need to rinse or soak those dishes before putting them in the dishwasher. There are a few exceptions, like if you're placing them in the dishwasher and running it immediately, but for the most part, taking a few extra minutes to rinse the dishes will pay off in the long run.

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