How To Properly Hand Wash Dishes In The Sink

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There are a lot of things you shouldn’t be putting in the dishwasher, if you’re lucky enough to have one. That means putting on the gloves and getting to scrubbing, yes, but there’s also a right and wrong way to hand wash most things.

As someone who grew up without a dishwasher, I’m often shocked by how many roommates seem to have no idea how to wash dishes in a sink, so if this info seems basic, keep in mind that for many people, it isn’t. The Washington Post recently interviewed Sandy Patterson, a “former instructor at the late L’Academie de Cuisine culinary school” who currently works as the chef de cuisine at LEO | MKT at Georgetown University. Patterson has seen her fair share of dirty dishes, the natural outcome of most delicious food. Here’s what she thinks you need to know.

What gets hand washed

Lots of things shouldn’t go in the dishwasher, either because they present a danger to you, the machine, or themselves in there; a dishwasher will mess up chef’s knives, fine glassware, wood, and anything that’s delicately decorated — you don’t want that special china pattern burned off.

Pots and pans should also go in the sink, partly because they take up too much room, partly because they’re usually dirtier than everything else and won’t get clean in there. Anything cast iron must be done by hand.

Where to start

The dirtiest stuff could generally use a good scrape of food debris with a spatula or steel wool scrubber before you even get water involved. After that, pots and pans and other crusted stuff generally needs a soak with hot water and soap. Patterson recommends a little baking soda for the toughest cases.

This brings up the issue of timing — I like to do a few dishes as a I go, so there isn’t a huge pile at the end of the meal, but everyone has different ideas about efficiency. Just keep in mind what will probably need to be soaked and make sure to get that going early in the process so it’s not eternally coated in lasagna bits.

Picking a soap and sponge

Patterson poo-poos the organic or natural dish soaps out there:

Go for something with no scent, or at least a neutral, food-friendly (citrus, for example) scent. Patterson likes Palmolive Ultra Pure + Clear. “I’m just looking for a basic soap,” she says. “You don’t need fancy, you just want soap.” Carey finds that “natural” soaps are not as effective. She also avoids scents and goes for strength. A little Dawn can go a long way.

I truly hate Dawn soap and think it makes sponges smell mildewy in a way that attaches to my skin; is it just me? Maybe. The specific brand and scent you settle on are a personal choice, but the basic principles are the same.

As for sponges, the green scouring pad is best, unless you’re washing truly delicate items. Non-scratch sponges need to be sanitised or switched out regularly—as you can probably tell in your own sink, they get gross quickly.

Picking a direction

I’ve never thought about this before, but the direction in which you wash a big pot, for instance, can make a difference in how clean the object gets, according to Sarah Carey, the editorial director of food and entertaining for Martha Stewart Living:

Patterson is an “outside of the pot last kind of girl,” she says, recalling how her mother would scrub the bottom of her pots to cleanliness. [Sarah] Carey, on the other, hand likes to work from the outside in, since the non-eating or -cooking surfaces are typically cleaner to begin with. That way, food debris is not being spread to those sides.

Don’t spread filth is a good rule of thumb for these jobs.

Being water conscious

You can make up for all this chemically soap and sponge tossing by being environmentally conscious about your water use. If there’s room in your sink, filling a tub with water to use as you soak and scrub is much more efficient than letting the water run as you scrub each individual dish under it. If you don’t have room, try not to put the faucet on full blast.

Generally, it’s best to change out the water in your tub after the first rinse, scrub everything with soap, then rinse again. And how hot should that water be?

Patterson notes that while commercial kitchen stations are set up to facilitate sanitizing, water as hot as you can stand it — use gloves to protect your hands if you prefer — is typically sufficient for home use. It’s also good at dissolving food.

Another added bonus is that hot water evaporates faster, which means your dishes will dry off in the rack with all due speed.

Hand drying

But if you can’t wait, keep a few clean, dry towels around. You may not have the counter space to wait for everything to air dry in a rack. The dishes need air to circulate around them, so they can’t be stacked too high. If you dry a few bigger pieces as you go, you’ll have more room to leave the rest to dry. Glassware is also better to towel-dry, because it can spot with water residue.

Also, stacking too high is dangerous! Nothing worse than cleaning every dish in the house only to watch them all clatter to the floor into a million pieces. If I’m going to smash all my cookware, I’m definitely not going to clean them first.


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