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Vinegar is generally the best way to clean your coffee maker, so why would you need to know how to clean a coffee maker without vinegar?
Sometimes, you just don’t have vinegar handy. Other times, you may not want that smell of vinegar to permeate your home or office. Lemon would be a better smell, right? Yes, I thought so.
Let’s take a look at why you should use vinegar to clean your drip coffee maker, the difference between cleaning and descaling, and how to clean your coffee maker with vinegar and with a range of vinegar alternatives.
Why You Should Clean Your Coffee Maker
First, let me clarify that we aren’t talking about everyday cleaning here. You should be washing out your coffee carafe, cleaning spills, and disposing of old grounds as soon as you are done using your coffee maker each day. But that’s not enough.
That water running through your coffee maker every day is leaving behind mineral deposits. If you use filtered or distilled water, there is less, but it’s never entirely gone. Any part of your coffee maker that comes into contact with the coffee or coffee grounds can also get a buildup of oily residue or potentially trapped grounds.
These deposits and residues can bring the taste of stale coffee into your otherwise fresh brew. The only way to recover the full fresh flavor of your coffee is to clean it thoroughly
Where there are oil and water, you also invite bacteria, mold, mildew, and all kinds of other disgusting, unhealthy, and potentially dangerous growths. According to the 2011 National Science Foundation International Housestudy Germ Study, half of all coffee makers may have mold or yeast growing in their water reservoirs.
So if improving the taste of your coffee wasn’t enough reason, you are also improving your own health by regularly doing a deep clean of your coffee maker.
How Often Should You Clean Your Coffee Maker?
The frequency with which you use your coffee maker, the timeliness and thoroughness of your daily cleaning routine, and the quality of your water will all impact how frequently your coffee maker needs cleaning. At a minimum, you should be cleaning it once a month. If you notice any additional bitterness or other changes in the flavor of your coffee, you may need to clean it sooner.
What is Descaling a Coffee Maker?
Descaling is a part of the cleaning process, but it is focused only on removing the mineral deposits from your machine. These deposits are the magnesium, calcium, and other minerals found in all water, which wind up accumulating inside the tank and pipes of your coffee maker. The harder your water, the more of these minerals you’ll have to contend with.
How to clean a coffee maker with vinegar
Vinegar is the most common cleaner for coffee makers because it’s cheap and most people already have it in their homes. It’s also safe to drink, so there’s no concern about health risks if any is left behind in the machine or pot.
Because vinegar is acidic, it’s able to act as a descaling agent — removing the hard water deposits from your coffee maker. It can also kill bacteria and mold, so both descaling and general cleaning are handled all with one solution. Handy, right?
The process is pretty easy, too. I’ll include it here because we are going to use a similar process for most of the vinegar alternatives below.
- Make a vinegar solution — Mix 1/2 white vinegar and 1/2 warm water together. You should make enough of this mixture to fill the reservoir of your coffee maker.
- Fill the water reservoir — Pour the vinegar mixture into the water reservoir and let it sit for 30 minutes.
- Brew halfway — Run the coffee maker until half of the vinegar has passed through the machine.
- Wait — Let it sit for at least 30 more minutes, preferably an hour.
- Finish the cycle — Run the coffee maker again, letting the rest of the vinegar run through.
- Empty the carafe — Pour out the carafe. You can safely dump the used solution down the sink.
- Rinse the coffee maker — Fill the water reservoir with water (no vinegar this time) and run it through the coffee maker. Do this with at least 3 reservoirs full of water, more if there is any leftover vinegar smell. I like to run it at least 5 times to be sure.
How to Clean a Coffee Maker Without Vinegar
If you don’t have any vinegar handy or if you want to avoid the smell of vinegar permeating your home, there are alternatives to vinegar for descaling or cleaning your coffee maker.
With the exception of the descaling solution, these other methods are generally not recommended for more complicated coffee makers — including smart coffee makers, Keurigs, Nespresso machines, and both expensive and budget espresso machines — unless their instructions specify otherwise. If you have a simple drip coffee maker though, these should work fine.
The first several are relatively mild, mostly using natural solutions or mild alternatives. The last few are heavy-duty options, so try to avoid them if you can.
Commercial descaling solutions are made from a mixture of acids, specifically designed for cleaning coffee and espresso machines — making them actually more effective than vinegar. If vinegar is not doing an effective job of descaling your machine, a descaling solution can be an effective alternative.
Nespresso machines and some espresso machines strongly suggest only using a descaling solution. In some cases, they even claim that using a different cleaner is enough to void the machine’s warranty.
The slight acidity of lemon juice allows it to be used in place of vinegar when cleaning and descaling your coffee maker. Just follow the same instructions as for vinegar, except that you don’t need to dilute the lemon juice with water like you would for the vinegar. The best part: during the process, your home will smell like lemon instead of vinegar.
I only recommend this one for simple coffee makers that you are comfortable taking apart. Disassemble your machine, clean the individual parts by hand with soap and warm water, and rinse them all thoroughly. After putting the machine back together, be sure to run a few cycles of water through the machine before you use it again — you don’t want any bit of leftover soap making its way into your coffee.
Even for simple machines, this process is far from ideal. You need to be sure to clean any parts that come into contact with the water, coffee, or coffee grounds. Otherwise, you risk deposits or bacterial growth continuing to build up in the machine.
Salt and ice water
A mixture of crushed ice and table salt can be used as a descaling solution in a pinch (sorry, had to). Just use a cloth to apply the solution to the components of the machine, rub it in, and then rinse them thoroughly.
Since dish soap doesn’t do a great job of descaling and both of these processes require taking apart the machine, this process can be used alongside that one to fully descale and clean your coffee maker.
Alkaline agents — such as baking soda — are also effective for cleaning but not for descaling. You can make a simple cleaning solution by mixing one part baking soda and four parts water to fill the reservoir. The rest of the process is exactly like cleaning with vinegar.
The active ingredients in denture tablets are really just baking soda and citric acid. If you happen to have denture tablets, but no lemon juice or baking soda, you can just drop a couple of tablets into the full reservoir of water and run that solution through just like you would vinegar.
Two of Alka Seltzer’s active ingredients are citric acid and baking soda, so this is going to work a lot like denture tablets. Just drop a couple of tablets into the water reservoir and run the solution through following just like you would vinegar.
Alcohol is an antimicrobial, so it can be used to eliminate some of the bacterial and other microbe growth in a coffee maker. Just take some hard alcohol and mix 1 part alcohol with 3 parts water, running it through the coffee maker in the same way as you would vinegar. Vodka is particularly helpful for this because of its low price and lack of any significant aroma.
Cream of Tartar
Cream of tartar contains acids that act similarly to vinegar or lemon juice. Just make a mixture of about 1 tablespoon cream of tartar to 4 cups of water and fill the water reservoir. You can run this through the same way you would vinegar.
Also just like vinegar. Just mix one part hydrogen peroxide with two parts water and follow the instructions for vinegar.Every solution after this point is much harsher than what we’ve talked about so far. Try to find a solution above before venturing further.
If you have borax — a fairly common multipurpose cleaner — lying around, you can use it in place of vinegar in the cleaning process. Just mix a few tablespoons of borax into a few cups of water. Be sure to run several cycles of water through to thoroughly wash the machine as borax is not safe to consume.
Treat this as a method of last resort, as bleach is highly corrosive as well as being toxic. If all else fails, though, you can use it to clean your coffee maker. Do not pour straight bleach into your coffee maker, as that is a great way to wreck it.
You want to mix about two tablespoons of bleach with four cups of water and pour that into the reservoir. Follow the rest of the process the same as you did for vinegar, but run several cycles of water to remove every last hint of bleach.
This falls into the same category as bleach: It’s a last resort, but it’s an amazing cleaning and descaling agent when you need one. Follow all of the same precautions I mentioned for bleach. Mix one part CLR with 8 parts warm water and follow the remainder of the vinegar instructions. Be sure to run several cycles of water afterward to remove the toxic chemicals.
Did I say that bleach and CLR were last resorts? Because this is the absolute last resort — and a very limited one at that.
You cannot run muriatic acid through your coffee maker. You will corrode it if you try. However, if there are any detachable parts that need a heavy clean, you can try this if everything else has failed. Be sure to use a properly diluted solution (add acid to water, not the other way around) and be very careful to use the proper safety equipment.
What about cleaning the outside of your coffee maker?
So far, I’ve focused on the inside of the coffee maker because that’s the hardest part to clean and the part that gets the most oil and hard water buildup.
The outside of your coffee maker is generally the same as any appliance. You should still be cleaning it, but the process you use will depend on what material the coffee maker is made of (plastic is different than stainless) and you can do it as a regular part of your kitchen cleaning.
Enjoy Your Fresh Coffee!
If you haven’t thoroughly cleaned your coffee maker in a while, the difference will be night and day. Or, in this case, stale and fresh. Your first pot of coffee after a good cleaning will taste fresher, less bitter, and more nuanced than what you were getting from the mineral-laden machine. If you don’t notice a difference, your problem might be deeper than your coffee maker — there’s a good chance your coffee has gone bad.
I still recommend using vinegar or a descaling solution for your coffee maker most of the time, but it’s always good to know how to clean a coffee maker without vinegar, in case you ever find yourself in a situation where vinegar is not readily available.
Do you have a better way to clean your coffee maker? Let me know in the comments!