Welcome to the unromantic side of all your culinary endeavors. Underneath that beautiful exterior – those sleek countertops, glossy backsplash, handsome cupboards, and state-of-the-art appliances – is the smell of real life. A busy family. Inadequate time to regularly clean and tidy (properly). The separating of refuse into organic matter, recycling, and trash. Food that got pushed to the back of the fridge… a few months ago. Gunk collecting in your kitchen sink. Grease accumulating on your stovetop, in your oven, and stuck inside any little groove of imperfection on your countertops.
That disgusting dishwashing sponge.
That list wasn’t intended to shame you, only to point out how much we get it. We’re busy folks too, and keeping our kitchen spic n’ span isn’t always at the top of our priority list. But that doesn’t mean we don’t notice when it needs our attention. Our noses are usually the first to alert us!
Alas, if your kitchen has a stink that either persists or returns again and again, it’s bothersome enough for you to be reading this guide. Or you may be looking for ways to avoid creating unpleasant odors in your kitchen. As you’ve probably experienced, bad smells in the kitchen typically don’t stay in the kitchen. They float through to other rooms in your home and cling to surfaces with the tenacity of a staph infection.
But we’re going to help you make that all go away. In this guide, we explore the primary sources of kitchen stink and what you can do to treat and prevent them.
Ready? Snap on the rubber gloves and pinch your nose. Let’s dive in!
What’s Making Your Kitchen Stink?
If your teenage son is leaving his sweaty gym socks on the countertop or your partner forgot to take the trash out (again) then the source is obvious. Now it’s just a matter of giving them the ‘ole nudge nudge without the nag (because that never motivates anyone): a gentle reminder that smelly socks belong in the hamper and a full trash bin needs emptying. The harder job is figuring out what’s creating the nasty smell you can’t see and getting rid of the ones that are obvious but linger longer than a West Coast winter.
But wait, why do you care about how your kitchen smells? The answer may seem obvious –– no one tolerates nasty odors very well. Along with kitchen countertop clutter, a drippy faucet, and a wobbly chair, there are few things that irritate the average person as much as a bad smell that won’t go away.
In fact, an offensive odor is a reason many house hunters choose not to buy a beautiful home. It could be perfectly located and have all the ideal features, but a house isn’t a home if it stinks. Even worse if that odor emanates from the kitchen where most families spend the majority of their time, especially in open-concept style homes where the kitchen & living room share space.
It’s not always easy to tell if the smell is attached to the house or the owner. If it’s the owner, the smell is temporary. If the smell is in the house, it may be as permanent a fixture as the foundation. So, on a side note, if you’re planning on listing your home in the future, then you must be able to detect and locate those odors in order to properly eliminate them.
But even if you’re not selling your home, you still want it to smell good, right? Right! And not just for aesthetic value. Some odors can be harmful or indicate the presence of a health hazard you may not otherwise know exists.
A bad smell would probably alert you enough to seek out its source. But enter the problem of olfactory adaptation: a phenomenon that occurs when your ability to smell a particular odor is diminished with repeated, low-level exposure to it. That means harmful chemicals or mold may be right under your nose – literally – completely unbeknownst to you.
Use the following list as a guide for assessing the smell state in your kitchen. We’ll start with food smells since they’re typically the worst and most common of those odors but pose the least amount of danger and effort to fix.
Bad Food Smells
Along with broccoli, some of the most common of the cruciferous culprits causing the stink in your kitchen are bok choy, cabbage, cauliflower, collard greens, kale, zesty turnips, radishes, arugula, and mustard greens.
When these nutritious veggies are cooked, sulfur-containing phytochemicals called glucosinolates break down into biologically active compounds called isothiocyanates, and release a noxious odor. You might notice that raw, unaltered forms don’t hold that smell. That’s because the breakdown doesn’t occur until they are chopped, cooked, or chewed.
As a side note, if you experience bloating or gas after consuming these veggies, that may be why!
Love the smell of fried fish? It’s one people either love or hate. Even if you’re a lover, you’re probably not for long. The stench of old fried fish would never be described as pleasant by anyone. That lingering odor can cling to pretty much any surface; indeed, it seems to permeate the air and takes ages to go away.
How could cooking bacon possibly smell bad? Even most people on a vegan diet love the aroma of cooking bacon. What most people don’t love, however, is the smell of cooked bacon hours later. If you’re one of those play-first-work-later people who is comfortable letting their dishes collect in the sink throughout the day then you may have already discovered that bacon smells downright nasty hours later. It loses all its inviting qualities and leaves the smell of old stale fat behind. Once that odor is in your kitchen, you need an army of air fresheners to fix it!
Similar to bacon is the smell of grease, which lingers long after it has accumulated. No matter if it's due to deep fried potatoes, melted butter in a skillet, or stir fried sesame oil, grease is the byproduct and it never smells good later.
Chances are you’re not leaving cheese out on the counter long enough to stink up your kitchen. However, some cheeses are so strong that it takes mere seconds for their stench to quickly slip out and hop on over to the next room. Blue cheeses, for example. If you’re a gorgonzola lover then you’ve likely got some sort of built-in odor neutralizer in your olfactory cavity that allows you to ingest it without repulsion. But that doesn’t mean everyone can tolerate the smell (ie. your guests).
Overcooking a hard-boiled egg (what?! never!) causes a reaction between the iron in the yolk and the sulfur in the white, causing a nasty stench that sits heavily in the air and takes ages to dissipate. The solution? Don’t overcook the eggs! Or continue reading into the next section for some easy solutions for battling bad food smells in your kitchen.
How To Get Rid Of Bad Food Smell
So, what can you do about the smelly food situation in your kitchen?
You have a couple different options.
To start, clean the source immediately. Don’t leave those cooked veggies out on the counter. If you have leftovers, allow just enough time for them to cool then cover and refrigerate them. Then wash those greasy frying pans right away. But to avoid clogging your drain, pour the grease into a glass jar, throw a lid on it, and immediately put it in your fridge. Once it has solidified, scoop it into the trash just before you take it out.
Speaking of refrigerators… stash an open box of baking soda in the back of your fridge to help absorb smells.
Try the vinegar fix. Fill a soup bowl with undiluted white vinegar and put it on your countertop post cooking. Leave it there overnight. White vinegar contains about 5-8 percent acetic acid, which bonds to volatile molecules (like fried fish stink) and helps to neutralize alkaline odors. You might be contesting that based on the fact that vinegar itself is pretty stinky business! What makes it such a super power as far as natural air fresheners go is that its stink dissolves within a matter of minutes, taking other offensive odors with it.
Simmer it out with homemade hot potpourri. There are tons of recipes available online (and 5 great stovetop potpourri recipes here too). One of the best combinations to help neutralize bad food odors is cinnamon, lemon rind, and ground ginger. Add all three ingredients to a pot of water and simmer on your stovetop for at least 15 minutes to make those awful smells magically disappear.
Mold, Must & Mildew
Mold is a problem. Sometimes it’s a BIG problem. Your kitchen is one of its primary hosts because of all that goes on in your kitchen that involves water, moisture, food, and dark spaces (under-the-sink-cupboard).
Mold isn’t something you want to mess around with or wait out to see if it goes away. If there’s mold growing on any surface in your kitchen (or other room in your home), it needs immediate professional attention. (Food with mold growth can just be composted). Mold has spores which enable it to spread rapidly and be inhaled. That’s why mold removal must be treated with expert hands.
There are hundreds (maybe thousands) mold species, but the main ones that show up in many homes include: Stachybotrys, Chaetomium, and Aspergillus. We’ll look at each one briefly.
Stachybotrys is the most harmful variety. This is the black mold that frightens every homeowner and can cause serious health issues, including fatality. It grows in clusters on damp, fiber-rich materials such as wood, fabric, drywall, paper products, floor boards, insulation material, wallpapers, carpet, furniture, and upholstery. It colonizes in as few as 24 hours and smells earthy and musty.
Chaetomium. It begins as fuzzy white spots that mature into a bluish-green color. Like black mold, this species thrives in wet, moist environments and must be handled by a professional removal service. Exposure can cause certain autoimmune diseases and neurological damage.
Aspergillus. These spores are present in our everyday air, mostly in decaying leaves and compost, but also on live plants, trees, and grains. While our immune system is usually strong enough to attack them, their spores, once inhaled, pose a serious threat to anyone with compromised immunity or respiratory condition.
All species of mold have a dank, musty, and sometimes sweet odor. If the smell of wet earth or a closed-in basement arises in your kitchen, note if other signs of mold are present:
Signs Your Kitchen May Have Mold
Are there any signs of moisture build-up near windows, under the sink, or around certain appliances like your dishwasher or fridge? Do you notice any bulging or bubbling in the walls, ceiling, or floor?
Do you notice any discoloration that resembles a water stain?
Does anyone in your family have health symptoms that indicate possible mold exposure, such as ongoing flu-like symptoms, persistent headaches, fatigue, or dizziness?
If you meet any of those criteria, call in an expert to at least eliminate any suspicions of mold presence.
Not sure if it’s mold or dirt? Follow these steps to know for sure:
Mix a 1:16 solution of bleach to water.
Dip a cotton swab into the solution & dab it on the affected surface.
If the color lightens or persists, it’s probably mold.
If you’re unsure, get a mold test kit to detect & identify the type of mold.
The Sink Stink
Your kitchen sink takes a lot. Even after you scrape the dishes, drain the grease into a jar, or scoop food remnants out of the drain catcher, there’s all kinds of stuff going down the pipe that your plumbing may not be effectively draining. A build up of what we unscientifically refer to as “drain gunk” can cause a backup, preventing proper water drainage. It can also create one heck of a stink whose source is impossible to see. That odor is the smell of rotting food.
The first thing you have to do is determine where the blockage is actually occurring: in the superficial drain, close to the sink’s bottom, in the garbage disposal, in the U-shaped trap under the sink, or due to a problem with the vent (probably located on the roof of your house).
Follow these steps to diagnose the issue. If the problem isn’t in the vent, these steps will likely take care of the problem without needing to call a plumber. If the vent is the problem, call a professional.
How To Get Rid Of Kitchen Sink Smell
To clear the superficial drain, put a cup of baking soda into the drain. Follow with a cup of vinegar and allow it to sit for 10 minutes. Then, pour a pot of boiling water down the drain. This formula should foam up and remove any grease or organic matter from the drain, and the boiling water will help move it along.
To clear the garbage disposal, first turn on the tap and garbage disposal and run cold water for about 20 seconds. Then put two cups of ice and a cup of salt in the disposal. Allow it to run until it grinds all the ice. This will help remove any gunk build-up on the blades. You can also add some lemon or other citrus fruit into the mix and a splash of vinegar.
To clean the trap, simply remove that U-shaped portion of tubing under the sink, empty it out, and scrub it down with the help of a bottle brush or old toothbrush and a cleaning agent. Then replace the tubing and run the water to check for any leakage.
If none of the above options work, call in a professional.
The Garbage Can
Even if you change the liner bag regularly, the can has absorbed some of that trash smell over time. This applies to your organic waste and recycling bins too. To prevent smells from sticking, adopt a weekly cleaning schedule. Scrub each bin with warm, soapy water, and allow them to dry outside. In between trash removal, give the inside a quick spritz with a homemade air freshener to add a fresh, counteractive zing. Take an additional step and shave some citrus rind into the bottom of the new bag.
Formaldehyde and ammonia are two common but toxic chemicals used in a variety of products spread throughout our homes. Certain types of flooring, cupboards, pressed wood, rubber, and paper products contain varying degrees of these chemicals, which continue to off-gas long after they’ve left the factory and made it into your home. That means chemicals like formaldehyde are released into the air less and less until its odor is no longer detectable. Car air fresheners are a good example of this principle.
While low levels are usually (but not always!) harmless, any concentration of these chemicals can have adverse health effects. Knowing what we do about odor adaptation, we may not even be aware that we’re breathing in toxic fumes on a regular basis. The greater the air exchange in your home or the more robust your air purification process, the lower your risk is, but bear in mind that any concentration of formaldehyde or similar chemicals can cause adverse health effects.
So, what can you do about those chemical smells?
Ensure your home has an optimal air exchange rate. Crack the windows a few times a day, even in the cold season, to allow for a healthy exchange of outdoor and indoor air. You can use this handy air exchange rate calculator to check.
Sniff It Out…
If something smells bad, it probably is. If you’re in doubt about a particular chemical smell or mold in your kitchen, or elsewhere in your house, play it safe and call in a pro to properly assess the situation.
Otherwise, consider a bad smell absorber like bamboo charcoal rather than a chemical air freshener. But always start at the source of the smell to eliminate it and help prevent it from occurring in the future.
We hope this free guide has brought in a breath of fresh air to your kitchen so you can get back to all that cooking and culinary art you love. If you have questions, comments, or other feedback, please feel free to contact us, or sign up for our monthly newsletter.
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