Washing the dishes. It’s something most of us do on a regular basis. We must know how to do it well, right? And yet I’ve noticed, more often than I’d like, that sometimes dishes are not totally clean, whether I’m visiting other people’s houses or they’re doing dishes at mine. Fortunately this is not a hard problem to solve.
To be clear, I don’t hold this against anyone, and I’m sure I don’t always live up to other people’s standards in some of the other things I do. But since this is an area I care about… yes indeed, I’m here as a self-described “competent dish washer” to tell you how to do a better, more thorough job, and not necessarily take more time doing it. You may commence your laughter now. ???
So why should you listen to me? Honestly I don’t have a good answer for that beyond that I notice these things and I care about good outcomes. And hey, maybe you’re already a great dish washer! But you might just learn something still, so skim through, check out the headers at the least, and see if anything is new to you.
Also to note, I am not a germophobe, I wash my hands an average amount, eat fermented foods, and am often one of the last to throw out something past its “best by” date. But for some reason I notice dirty dishes seemingly more than the average person. So I guess that makes me an expert, hopefully without also making me a weirdo. ???
Washing Dishes Well
It’s really quite simple to wash dishes thoroughly and reliably. The two key components are using as many of your senses as possible to assess cleanliness ( especially touch, more on that later), and doing this at multiple stages of the process. And these guidelines apply whether you have and use a dishwashing machine or not. Whether you pre-rinse or not. Inevitably there are some dishes you hand-wash, if nothing else.
TL;DR (i.e. the takeaway) [link to texture section below?]
Right up front here I want to acknowledge that I am not a perfect practitioner of everything I am laying out in the following paragraphs, and you don’t have to be either. The goal here is to describe what I see as the ideal approach to dish washing to get the best results. The practice is to aspire to follow good guidelines as much as possible, but life is not perfect. Sometimes I don’t wash dishes for a couple of days, sometimes I don’t bother soaking things, and sometimes I just throw stuff in the trash rather than cleaning it… OK, not really that last one, but you get the idea. Set a good intention, do your best, be gentle with yourself, learn, iterate, and find what is best for you.
Step 1: Pre-Washing
Before you actually wash your dishes, you can actually save yourself a lot of time and effort by soaking them, especially those with greasy or sticky elements. Cheese is a particularly big challenge if you let it dry on dishes.
This generally needs to be done in the sink, and can quickly become a cluttered mess, so it’s best done short-term. It’s also aided by keeping like-kind dishes with each other (stack plates on plates; if there is water in-between it won’t make the bottoms too gross). Ideally you wash your dishes once a day or so, and you can avoid any problems from this approach.
Step 2: Washing
If you use a dishwasher, you may skip this step, as long as you do a thorough job in step 3, and you don’t mind the possibility of having to go back and re-wash something that didn’t get fully cleaned. However I personally I recommend always doing a light soap-and-scrub even with a good dish washing machine. Use soap, but minimal-to-no running water, or just use a tub. Simply wipe down your dishes with a sponge, front and back, taking care (as detailed above) to notice any stuck-on elements. These will be particularly hard for most dish washing machines to deal with, so are best noticed and handled in a pre-washing phase.
For everyone else, the process of washing dishes by hand is much the same, just do more of it. Use a sponge – and a brush when necessary (if you don’t have one, I recommend getting one; see below under “Tools”) – wipe across every surface of the dish, getting into and nooks and crannies where possible.
The Biggest Thing You Might Be Missing: Texture
So this right here is probably the reason I started writing this article in the first place: texture is key. I think there are numerous other little potentially helpful ideas in this article, but if you take away one thing from this reading, it should be the idea of paying attention to the texture of your dishes. The better you know what the texture should feel like, the better you can differentiate remaining food waste.
So get to know your dishes. Is that plate smooth when clean? Or is it bumpy? Patterned? Rough? Does it have a shiny glaze, or a matte finish? Any imperfections? Does this glass feel waxy when clean, or is it shiny and smooth? What does it feel like with soap on it when it’s clean vs. when there is something clinging to it? What does it feel like when it’s clean vs. oily?
Run your hand over your dish as you wash. This doesn’t need to be a separate step, it’s merely part of the fluid motion of washing your dish. As you turn it around in your hand, move your fingers in constant contact with its surface as much as possible, running them around the lip of glasses, the edges of plates, across the smooth surface of the inside and outside of a bowl. Do the same with silverware (see below).
If you feel something that maybe shouldn’t be there, try to remove it with your sponge. If that fails, don’t be afraid to try to scratch a bit with your fingernail. Some of you are recoiling in horror right now (and others just wear gloves when washing dishes, so this doesn’t apply), but the reality is there are few more effective yet non-abrasive ways to remove certain stubbornly stuck-on food bits than this. I’ll leave it to you as to whether you can stomach it.
Oil is one of the biggest things you can detect best by feel, vs. simply by eye. The feel of something oily is very easy to discern if you’re familiar with how that same item should feel when it’s truly clean. And this is sense memory, it is built up over time and becomes second nature. This is not something you need to think constantly about.
Silverware deserves a bit of special consideration. Don’t neglect wiping the handle, your hands are oily and this part needs to be cleaned too!
Yep, you gotta wash ’em. I mentioned this under Silverware, which is where you’ll find most of them. But the handles on your skillets and pots get dirty too, not to mention measuring spoons, ladles, spatulas, etc. Wash ’em all!
Step 3: Rinsing
The rinse step is arguably one of the most critical. It is the first moment you have the ability to properly evaluate the potential cleanliness of your dish, i.e. how well you did Step 2. Engage as many senses as possible in this process! Obviously if you have a dish washer you can skip this step, but be sure to pay extra attention in Step 4, and use the same guideline: engage multiple senses.
Rinse the soap off and, as you do so, once again run your fingers around the dish, paying extra attention to areas that are harder to reach with the sponge (but perhaps easier to do so with your fingers), or areas where you have regularly found caked-on food previously. Use your incredibly sensitive ability to detect changes in texture to find things stuck to your dishes.
While you rinse, look at any areas of the dish not covered by your hands. Watch for any subtle disturbances in how water flows over a smooth dish, they might alert you to a nearly invisible piece of stuck food. And once the dish is rinsed clean, do a quick turnaround of it in your hands looking for anything you missed. This process can happen very quickly and automatically once you get just a little practice in looking for indicators of remaining food.
Finally, smell your dish. Yes, smell it. Especially if it’s a cup, glass, thermos, bottle, food container, or other enclosed or deeply concave item; but I recommend even smelling bowls and other shallower things. If it doesn’t smell clean and fresh, what does it smell like? If it smells like food or something else unwanted, try to fix that with more soap, scrubbing, etc. Stubborn smells may require more intensive processes like soaking in baking soda or white vinegar, which you may not care enough to do, but just know that there are options in those cases too (see below).
Step 4: Putting Away (and/or Drying)
When you put away dishes it’s obviously your last chance to identify dishes that haven’t been fully cleaned, before the possibility of them being discovered later by an unsuspecting diner – maybe you, or maybe (more worryingly), a guest! If you hand dry your dishes, you can do this inspection during that process instead or in addition.
The process here is similar to that in the rinse step previously, except without the water. First, of course, make sure your hands are clean before you put dishes away. This means actually wash your hands before you do so, even if they feel clean, you probably have some oils from your skin that may transfer to the dishes, at the least. Then, as you pick up each dish, just do a quick visual inspection and touch any areas that may look ever so slightly “off”, whether a discoloration, or a difference in how they reflect light.
This, in particular, is a handy trick: use your light sources and the shiny qualities of many dishes to identify issues quickly. Few things are more easily noticed than a difference in how reflective something is.
I also like to smell certain dishes briefly as I put them away, particularly cups, glasses, and containers. In most cases this probably isn’t necessary, especially if you have a dish washing machine, but if you simply do it with a very small percentage of “problem items”, you’ll get maximum impact without slowing yourself down or being too much of a weirdo. ???
Don’t Sweat It (i.e. Repetition Builds Speed and Efficiency)
Laying it all out like this may seem a bit overboard, perhaps a bit tedious, or even overwhelming. But writing out clear and specific instructions can often end up like that, even for simple tasks. What’s important to remember is that, just like any fundamentally simple task (even driving), the details and complexities go away with time and practice, but the results can largely stay the same, as long as you practice the process and techniques, and maintain a baseline mindfulness.
So don’t despair and throw in the towel (har) if the above seems like “a lot”. Read through it, try it a few times, read over it again to see if you’re missing anything, then practice for a week or two. You’ll quickly see which of the above suggestions are actually valuable to you and your particular process. Incorporate those, and feel free to disregard the rest, provided you actually try it yourself and test the results and value of it.
This may seem obvious, but try to do your dishes right after you dirty them, if possible. The way to look at this is not as a self-shaming “because if you don’t you’re gross”, which is the common message, but because it makes it easier on you. Doing dishes as soon as possible will minimize the amount of time that sticky things can get more stuck or hardened, and will of course keep things from piling up, which quickly becomes daunting and becomes a self-reinforcing aversion to doing dishes (because it always feels overwhelming).
Still, if that’s too much to handle, do them once a day. Try to set a specific time, either in the evening after all the meals have been cooked, or even the next morning to handle the previous day’s load. As long as you’re doing it once every 24hrs you’ll avoid too much pile-up.
Likewise, try to put away your dry dishes either just after washing (by drying them with a towel), once a day, or in the case of a dishwasher
This is commonsense stuff, of course, but too many people get hung up on doing them sooner and faster, and end up throwing up their hands because they can’t fit it in. Make it part of your routine, something you plan for and set aside a little time for, and it will get easier and faster and less intrusive over time. Read on for thoughts on how to make dish washing (and putting away) a more enjoyable part of your day.
Mindset and Mindfulness
Like most things that we must do to maintain our life, it’s best to approach dish washing as an important part of a life well-lived, rather than framing it as a “necessary evil”. It may seem like a subtle distinctionOne excellent way to spend your dish washing time is
If taking a in-the-moment, mindful approach to dish washing doesn’t resonate with you, it’s also a great time to get in some podcast or audio book listening (or music, of course). Look through your podcast subscriptions for a show that tends to be a good length for dish washing and put it on when you start. I use a home smart speaker for this because I can control it with my voice to start and stop as-needed without having to dry my hands.
Dishwashers, used properly, are an incredible convenience. They allow you to do far less work in the washing process, while getting your dishes cleaner, and letting you actually deal with dishes less frequently. They can be a place to store dishes up until it’s worth running a load (an exception to the “wash dishes at least daily” rule), while still keeping them out of sight and reasonably out of smelling.
Like many things this is highly personal and situational. You may have 4 kids and your grandma living at home and produce enough dishes every day to run it twice. Or you might be a single bachelor living alone like me and only need to run it once or twice a week. Regardless of your situation, the main goal should be to fill up the dishwasher as much as is reasonably possible before running it. Don’t cram things in, that actually reduces efficiency and cleaning ability, but try to avoid running it when you could easily fit more dishes in.
Detergent [note: below section)
According to “people on the Internet”, it turns out that powdered dishwasher detergent is actually more effective than liquid. Anyone who, like me, has seen those little granules of leftover detergent and quickly decided to go liquid can be forgiven for thinking otherwise. But it apparently the dry stuff can include certain powerful enzymes that liquid doesn’t allow. If you’re getting leftover granules, you’re probably using too much detergent (a common problem), or you dishwasher needs to be cleaned or repaired.
Modern dishwashers use this. Be aware of it, refill it, it helps.
Cleaning your Dishwasher
It’s a thing, you should do it. Commercial products are fine and not expensive, but also it’s mostly just citric acid.
Arranging Items in a Dishwasher
This is a contentious and highly personal subject, so I’ll just briefly outline my philosophy and a few key approaches I find helpful. Obviously if you have a method you like, you can stick with it, but consider trying out other approaches from time to time just to see if there are better ways.
Not all dishwashers are the same, but in most I have used, I think putting in silverware with the “pointy” side down is best. That is to say, “handle up”. There are two reasons for this.
First is that in most dishwashers a primary source of hot water and pressure is at the bottom. Some also have a secondary sprayer above that sprays down, but in some cases the upper nozzles are only oriented to clean the top rack of dishes (check yours to be sure). So having your silverware pointed down puts them into the most direct contact with the water spray, with the highest pressure, to likely clean them most thoroughly.
Second, when you pull the silverware out to put it away, doesn’t it seem ideal not to put your hands on the part that people will be putting in their mouths? Obviously washing your hands will clean them well enough for germs not to be a concern, but there may still be hand oils and other things. It just seems unnecessary to put your hands on the eaty-bit.
There is of course the potential problem of “nesting” with similar silverware items when facing downward. I don’t think this is as big a concern as some think since the pressure of the cleaning nozzle likely moves the relatively light silverware around enough to get in-between. But you can also minimize this issue by simply mixing up the silverware when you put it in. Glance briefly in each slot as you are loading and put in unlike pieces together where you can, i.e. knives with spoons, forks with knives, etc.
If you’re mostly after tool recommendations, I’ll get into that more soon. But for now The Wirecutter’s recommendations are probably reasonable (they usually are):
At a minimum, you should have:
- A good sponge (not cheap foam, not a rag)
- It should be flexible, to get into various angles of things you’re washing
- It should have a gentle scrubber on it, or you can have one separately
- There are natural options that meet both criteria
- Bottle brush (s), both big and small
Nice to have:
- Other brushes
- Metal brush (for cast iron)
Dishwasher soap (i.e. powdered may be better, counterintuitively) [latest is pods, very effective]
Bon Ami [occasional use]
Problems and Special Techniques
Soaking in baking soda, white vinegar
Goo gone, etc.
Stubborn stuck stuff or stains