Strange Smells in the Kitchen

Offensive odors in your home? Find and identify 4 of the most common offenders (plus learn how to get rid of them) with help from the Domestic CEO.

Amanda Thomas
6-minute read
Episode #59
The Quick And Dirty

The most-likely locations causing a bad smell in your kitchen are:

  • Garbage can
  • Garbage disposal
  • Misplaced rotton food
  • Behind appliances 

Have you ever walked into your home only to have the immediate thought of, “Oh my goodness, what is that smell?” When your house smells, it can be hard to focus on anything other than the nagging thought of, “Where is that smell coming from?” until the problem is resolved. 

Well, it’s likely coming from somewhere in your kitchen. Today's tips are going to discuss the most common kitchen smells and how to get rid of them. Keep this episode bookmarked, so next time you are greeted by an offending smell in the house, you can go straight to the list of most common offenders instead of walking around the house like a bloodhound dog trying to sniff out where the smell is coming from.

During your search for the source, mask the smell in the meantime with these 6 Easy Air Fresheners You Can Make at Home Right Now

Kitchen smell culprit #1: Garbage can

The first, most obvious place to check when your home smells is the garbage can. In my personal experience, I would say that about 75% of all kitchen smells come from nasty garbage cans. If your garbage smells, this is usually a relatively easy fix. First, take the garbage out (as in all the way out of the house, not just outside the door). Taking the extra 50 steps to put the smelly garbage in the outdoor receptacle will prevent the garbage smell from infecting any other area of your house. Once the trash itself is removed, you may still have a smelly garbage can. This usually happens when the trash bag leaks and food or liquid collect in the bottom of the trash can. Treat garbage can smells by rinsing out the can using the sprayer on your kitchen sink, or by taking the can into your shower, then spraying the inside of the garbage can with vinegar or surface cleaner. Let the cleaner sit for a few seconds, then wipe the garbage can dry. Let it air dry for about 20 minutes to let all the moisture dry before putting a new trash bag in the can, and you should be good to go.

Related: Domestic CEO's Go Green: 5 Tips to Cut Down on Trash in the Kitchen

Kitchen smell culprit #2: Garbage disposal

If you put food down your garbage disposal, at some point you are going to have garbage disposal smells. The good news is that this is very easy to find and fix. You can identify garbage disposal smells by sticking your nose near the sink. If it smells like rotting food, you have found your problem. Simple, right?

When learning how to clean a garbage disposal, the first thing to know is that a garbage disposal is like a blender in your sink.

In other words, do NOT stick your hand down into the disposal while it is on! Even when the garbage disposal is off, the blades are still sharp and can cut you, so treat your sink drain like you would treat a blender.

Use extreme caution if you need to reach down into it, which you really don’t need to do unless something metal falls inside.

To clean a garbage disposal, turn the sink on and let the water run into the disposal, then turn on the disposal. While the disposal is running, toss a handful of ice cubes into the garbage disposal. The process of the ice getting crushed will not only knock out any stuck food pieces, but it will also sharpen the blades. After the ice is done grinding, keep the water and disposal running and toss a small wedge of lemon, a cup of vinegar, or a quarter cup of lemon juice down the drain. Any of these options will kill bacteria and keep garbage disposal smells at bay for a while.

Kitchen smell culprit #3: Rotting food

I lived with 3 foreign exchange students the summer after my freshman year of college. I grew up in small-town South Dakota, so living with these 3 girls, all from different countries, was an amazing learning experience. While most of the lessons I learned from them were cultural and food related, there was one lesson I learned when all 3 of them went back to their home countries for a month. I was enjoying having our apartment to myself for the first week or so. Then, one day I came home to the most horrific stench and an apartment full of fruit flies. After an intensive search, I finally found a bag of potatoes hidden in the back of our coat closet. I have no idea how long they had been there, but they had liquefied in the summer heat.

The lesson I learned that day is, if you have a rotting food smell coming from somewhere in your kitchen, search high, low, and in every single nook and cranny until you find it. Why potatoes were being stored in our coat closet is still a mystery to me, but it made me realize that not everyone has the same ideas on food storage. If you have roommates or children living in your home, you may have to search in strange places (not just your pantry and fridge) for rotting food smells, especially if you have children. They can hide things in their toy boxes, under the bed, inside closets or drawers, and basically anywhere that you can squeeze a tiny hand. Don’t give up until you find the offending items because this is one smell that won’t go away with time. It will only get worse!

See also: Who Knew's How to Make Bad Food Good Again

Kitchen smell culprit #4: Mustiness  

If you have a musty smell in your kitchen, there’s a good chance that you have a leak somewhere. The good news is that there are only a couple of places a musty smell can be coming from. The bad news is that you may not be able to fix this problem on your own.

First, check the cabinet under your sink. Is there standing murky water? Or, is the bottom or sides of the cabinet damp or bubbled? Either way, immediately shut off the water supply to your sink to prevent more water from entering the space. This can be done by finding the little handle or knob that is attached to the pipes under the sink and tightening it until it stops moving.

If you are having trouble figuring out if you are shutting off the water or turning it on more, remember the old saying, “righty-tighty, lefty-loosey.”

Remove everything that you have stored under the sink and use towels to soak up the water. If you have a handy person living in your house, you may be able to slowly start the water to identify where the leak is coming from and fix it on your own. If there is even a slight question as to how to fix the leak, the problem is clearly beyond your housemate’s skill sets and you should call a plumber ASAP. Keep the water supply shut off until the fix can happen, which means not using your kitchen sink or your dishwasher since they both operate off the same water supply.

If you didn’t find any water or dampness in this cabinet, check the cabinets surrounding your dishwasher. Do you see any warped wood? Or, does the grout around the dishwasher look wet? If your dishwasher is in your kitchen island, does the wall behind the dishwasher feel spongy or look like it has bubbles? If you see any of these indicators, the musty smell is likely coming from a leak behind your dishwasher. Keep the water supply shut off and immediately call a plumber.

If your fridge has an ice maker or water dispenser, the musty smell could be coming from a leak behind the fridge. Pull out the fridge and look for the same indicators as around the dishwasher. Bubbly or spongy walls, and discolored grout lines are all indicators of a leak from the water lines behind your fridge. Shut off the water supply under the sink to again prevent further leaks.

Here’s the really bad news about musty smells: they are usually caused by slow leaks that are damaging wood, drywall, and cabinets. Not only does the leak need to be fixed, but oftentimes it requires hiring a professional restoration company to dry out the walls, and sometimes even having to replace the walls, cabinets, and flooring. Never, ever, ever think that a musty smell is no big deal. Letting a leak go can cause mold and many other dangerous issues in your home.

If you can’t find the source of the smell yourself, immediately call a plumber. You may need to shell out several hundred dollars to have the plumbing fixed, but hopefully it will help prevent you from having to spend thousands to replace your entire kitchen.

Just for Fun: How to Create a Kitchen You'll Love

Until next time, I’m the Domestic CEO, helping you love your home.