Washing Sterling Silverware in the Dishwasher: Good or Bad Idea?
As practical and good-looking as stainless flatware can be, its patina (or lack thereof) just doesn’t hold a candle to sterling silver’s soft, lustrous glow. Gorgeous luster or not, sterling silverware’s notorious beauty isn’t enough to persuade most people to dig their silverware sets out of the bottom buffet drawer, dust it off, and use it. In today’s harried and hurried world, what most of us are after isn’t beauty, it is convenience. Stainless flatware can easily withstand cycle after cycle in an automatic dishwasher, making it much more convenient than silverware, because everyone knows you can’t put silver in the dishwasher, right? Or can you? Is it safe to wash silverware in the dishwasher?
So Can You Wash Sterling in the Dishwasher?
The answer to this question is not simple, because unfortunately, experts disagree, and it depends on your personal preferences regarding patina and other concerns. Some say it’s fine as long as you follow certain precautions (see below), while others advise you to never put it in the dishwasher. Everyone agrees that hand-washed sterling silverware will always be the most beautiful, but if you don't have the time, washing in the dishwasher can be done if you follow some simple guidelines.
Here, we'll explore the reasons why you would use the dishwasher or might decide to always wash your silverware by hand.
How to Wash Sterling in the Dishwasher
Martha Stewart says to go ahead and wash your silver in the dishwasher, as do the experts at Beverly Bremer Silver Shop in Atlanta, Georgia, which has been in the silver business for more than 30 years. Bremer silver experts say that washing sterling silverware in the dishwasher is perfectly okay, but they do not advise tossing it haphazardly into the flatware basket, as most of us are accustomed to doing with our stainless flatware.
- Rinse off all food particles. They recommend that you first thoroughly rinse all food particles off each piece.
- Place them individually. The next step is to carefully place the pieces in the flatware caddy so that they do not scratch each other, and so that no silver is touching stainless steel. The reason for this is that the two metals may react with one another when wet, causing irreversible spots on both the silverware and the stainless steel flatware.
- Use the right kind of detergent. (See guidelines below.)
- If you don't want any patina, then remove before the heat cycle. Remove your silverware after the final rinse but before the heated drying cycle begins if you don't want any patina to build on the sterling.
- Dry with a soft cloth. Dry each piece individually and carefully with a soft cloth, making sure each piece is completely dry before putting it away.
Which Detergent Is Best for Sterling Silverware?
Getting the right detergent is an important factor. The folks at Beverly Bremer Silver Shop have the following recommendations.
- Use as little detergent as possible (they recommend only about one tablespoon).
- Don't use detergent that contains citric acid, because the acid can create pits in the silver. Most mass market dishwasher detergents contain this ingredient, so you may have to read a few labels before finding an acceptable one.
- Avoid bleach. Most automatic dishwasher detergents contain bleach, which can yellow silver. Fortunately, this discoloration is reversible. If your silver begins to yellow, polish it with a quality polish until it has returned to its lovely original color, and use less detergent in the dishwasher.
Ecos makes a safe, gentle automatic dishwasher soap with no phosphates, chlorine bleach, or citrus.
The Dishwasher Drying Cycle: Safe or Not?
Opinions also differ on whether to allow your silver to dry in the dishwasher’s drying cycle. Bremer experts say it’s fine, while Martha Stewart recommends removing your silverware after the final rinse, before the heated drying cycle begins. If you choose to go Martha’s route and remove it, dry each piece individually and carefully with a soft cloth, making sure each piece is completely dry before putting it away.
The Case for Hand-Washing Only
On the other side of the silver coin, Jeffrey Herman of the Society of American Silversmiths believes that hand-washing is the only way to go. In fact, he uses the term “chamber of death” to describe dishwashers, and cites several reasons for his stance. He says that dishwashers expose your silver to excessive heat and believes that the dishwasher’s combination of high heat and harsh detergent will whiten your silver. While the Beverly Bremer experts say that yellowing from bleach can be polished away, Herman states that whitened silver must be professionally refinished in order to return it to its original color. Herman recommends using Twinkle cream instead of a dishwasher.
What Will Silver Look Like If I Wash It in a Dishwasher?
Three Things About Washing Sterling That the Experts Agree On
1. Using your silver often is the best way to reduce patina.
Experts agree it’s a shame to keep silverware stored away, never to be used. They say that using silverware is actually the easiest way to keep it tarnish-free and looking its best.
2. Hand-washed sterling silverware will always be more beautiful than if it were washed in the dishwasher.
Everyone agrees that hand washing is the best way to retain sterling's beauty. Even experts who recommend dishwashers agree that a dishwasher’s heat and detergent will eventually remove the black patina that builds up in the crevices of your silver’s designs. This patina is what makes the intricate and elaborate carvings more visible and beautiful, so it’s a shame to lose it, even if it does take years many years and many washings to get to that point.
3. Rubbing with a soft cloth adds beauty.
Silver experts also agree that the rubbing your silverware receives from the hand-washing and hand-drying process is beneficial to its finish and patina, improving its luster and keeping it tarnish-free.
How to Safely Wash Silverware by Hand
If you decide to go the hand-washing route, Herman recommends you follow a few simple precautions to clean your silverware safely and thoroughly, guaranteeing generation after generation of beauty on your dinner table.
- If your sink is metal, line it with a towel or a plastic tub. It sounds unlikely, but metal sinks can scratch your silver.
- Fill your sink with warm water and a bit of gentle, bleach-free, phosphate-free, and citrus-free liquid soap.
- Lay your silverware pieces carefully in the bucket so they do not scratch each other.
- Do not mix stainless steel utensils with silver utensils.
- Clean knives first, as they are made from two pieces and allowing them to soak for prolonged periods can weaken their soldered or glued joints.
- Wipe each piece clean with the softest washcloth or sponge you can find, as rough cloths and abrasive sponges will scratch.
- Rinse each piece thoroughly with clean, warm water, and dry immediately.
Drying Your Silverware
Herman advises removing each individual piece from the water as soon as you have cleaned it. Lay each piece on a soft, absorbent towel, being carefully not to jumble them together or scratch them. Dry one piece at a time with a soft dish towel, as handling silverware pieces individually keeps scratches to a minimum. If you have one, a helper makes the entire washing/drying process go much more quickly.
According to Herman, the gentle wiping and rubbing that occurs with hand-washing actually removes the beginning stages of tarnish. He states that nipping tarnish in the bud in this manner is preferable to letting tarnish accumulate until the silverware is very dark and requires polishing with a commercial silver polish.
Silver Plate, New Silver, and Pre-WWI Silverware
Silver-plated flatware, or simply “silverplate,” as it is often called, is flatware made of some other type of metal, with an extremely thin layer of sterling silver covering it. Treat your silver-plated flatware very gently and avoid excessive polishing or rubbing, as you can, over time, rub the silver coating off of the utensils. Experts recommend the gentlest of hand-washing and drying. It’s also good to know that no matter how carefully you treat silverplate, the plating will not last forever and your utensils will eventually need professional replating.
Brand-new sterling silverware has tiny bit of copper on its surface. Wash your brand-new silverware by hand the first few times to remove this bit of copper, as it could react badly in the dishwasher, causing brown spots. After a few hand-washings, you may choose to give the automatic dishwasher a go.
If your silverware dates from before World War II, do not wash the knives in the dishwasher. Back in those days, silversmiths joined the blade and the handle together with resin, which cannot withstand the heat of automatic dishwashers.
A Brief Word on Storing Your Silverware
Silver tarnishes when it comes in contact with sulfur-based compounds. Sometimes these compounds are found in foods (such as eggs) but most often, silver tarnishes from exposure to sulfur compounds in the air.
For this reason, many people store their silverware in silver chests that are lined with a special silversmith’s cloth which absorbs sulfites and prevents tarnishing. If you do not own such a chest, you can simply place a drawer liner made of this cloth in a kitchen drawer or buffet drawer, or store your silver in roll-up bags made of silversmith’s cloth. Herman recommends, and many consumers swear by 3M Anti Tarnish Strips. These are strips of paper that have been treated with the sulfite-absorbing compound. Simply place them in the drawer or box with your silver. These strips last for several months, or even up to a year if placed in a zippered cloth bag or lidded chest.
I often see non-experts recommending storing silver in zip-lock plastic storage bags; this does seem like a good idea on the surface because zippered plastic bags seal out air. However, the experts caution against this, saying that silver should never be stored in plastic containers of any type, as plastics contain sulfur, as does newspaper.
A Brief Word on Polishing Your Silverware
If your silverware becomes tarnished to the point of needing polishing, Herman recommends using a very soft cloth and the gentlest, non-abrasive polish you can find. Herman recommends steering clear of silver dips and multi-metal polishes.
Which are the best silver polishes?
He specifically recommends Weiman Silver Polish, 3M Tarni-Shield Silver Polish, Blitz Silver Care Polish, and Twinkle Silver Polish.
For heavy tarnish, Herman recommends Wright’s Silver Cream, Wright’s Anti-Tarnish Silver Polish, Goddard’s Silver Foam, and Goddard’s Long Shine Silver Polish.
Most, but not all, of Herman’s recommended polishes include an ingredient that helps prevent tarnish from forming on your newly polished pieces. These products are 3M Tarni-Shield Silver Polish, Twinkle Silver Polish, Goddard’s Long Shine Silver Polish, Blitz Silver Care Polish, Weiman Silver Polish and Wright’s Anti-Tarnish Silver Polish.
Can I use toothpaste to polish silver?
Herman warns against using toothpaste as a silver polish. Apparently this is a home remedy that continually makes the rounds, but is not recommended by experts. Not only is toothpaste not very effective, it might scratch your silver.
The "tl:dr" version of the above:
Experts agree that using silverware on a daily basis is the best way to keep it lustrous and looking its best. While it’s tempting to toss it in the dishwasher, many people find that the special precautions they must take to successfully wash silverware in the dishwasher cancel out the dishwasher’s convenience. It’s a decision you must make for yourself; many people find it easier to just go ahead and wash the utensils used each day by hand. Once you get a system down, hand-washing and drying goes very quickly and easily.
Sean OCallaghan from Liverpool on December 10, 2016:
Interesting read, thanks :)
ologsinquito from USA on January 02, 2014:
I remember washing and drying my grandmothers's silver by hand after every big family gathering. Now I have a few of her pieces, and I do the same. Voted up and pinned to my Things You Really Need to Know board.
Mindy on January 27, 2013:
What does it take to restore whitened dishwashed sterling flatware? What is the cost, who does it?