As a lotus flower is born in water, grows in water and rises out of water to stand above it unsoiled, so I, born in the world, raised in the world having overcome the world, live unsoiled by the world."— Hindu Prince Gautama Siddharta, the founder of Buddhism, 563-483 B.C.
Washing up is one of the most dreaded of kitchen chores. Many young home-leavers struggle with the washing up, and if not careful, it is too easy to do in a haphazard way, out of the correct sequence, or incompletely. With practice, washing up can become second nature, and when prepared and organised in advance, the difficulty involved can be radically minimised.
Why wash dishes?
There are two main goals in washing dishes: to clean and to sanitise. Cleaning is a primarily aesthetic goal — after washing up, you want your dishes to be free of marks, soiling, or streaks, and as presentable as possible for the next use. Sanitation is important for health, as food scraps and residue on used dishes can foster bacterial growth, and in some cases, fungal growth. Furthermore, the sharing of utensils, particularly those whose use involves the mouth and lips, can result in the transmission of disease, and washing up is essential in preventing this transmission vector. The removal of trace food residue and elimination of potentially harmful biological flora is therefore the principal intended outcome of washing up.
Secondary motivations for washing up include practical issues such as the tidiness of food preparation and service areas, maintaining a stock of dishes ready for use, and domestic issues brought about by co-habitation.
The scope of washing up should include all portable items or equipment which comes into contact with food or beverages at any point in the food preparation and service process, including articles involved in the storage, preparation, and combination of ingredients; heat-tolerant receptacles used in the various modes cooking; implements and tools used to move, mix, or change the state of food at any stage of handling; and the full variety of utensils and paraphernalia used in the service of food outside the kitchen.
There are a wide variety of terms used to describe the categories of artifacts used in food preparation and service, and confusion can arise in their use and application. The simplest, most inclusive term, of course, is dishes.
However, dishes fall into two main supercategories, tableware and kitchenware, which include most items that would typically be washed up. Broadly speaking, tableware includes anything used in the service or consumption of foods or beverages outside of the kitchen, while kitchenware includes anything used in the preparation and storage of food inside the kitchen.
Tableware, then, includes dishware, comprising flatware and hollowware. Flatware includes dinner plates, bread plates, saucers, and other such plate-like, approximately flat items, and cutlery (which, when constructed primarily of silver, carries the alternative nomenclature of silverware). Hollowware describes service receptacles such as bowls and decanters. Also included in tableware is drinkware, vesels intended for use in beverage service and consumption, such as cups, mugs, and most glassware, an overlapping category that applies to all kitchen and table items made primarily from glass, such as pyrex baking dishes or French presses.
Kitchenware is a heterogeneous category which includes cookware, the afore-mentioned heat-tolerant receptacles used in oven and stove-top situations, as well as other utensils, receptacles, dishes, and appliances related to food preparation and storage in kitchen contexts. The brand name tupperware is often used in a generic sense to refer to typically plastic-constructed, air-tight food storage containers appropriate for keeping food in a fridge, freezer, or cupboard. Most kitchen appliances, large or small, have removable portions designed for easy washing and cleaning, and where these removable parts are suitably sized and proportioned, they should be candidates for washing up, and can be correctly described as kitchenware. Notable exceptions include appliances such as toasters and electric kettles — most models of these appliances need to be cleaned separately, with caution and attention to electrical wiring.
What not to wash up
As just stated above, nothing with electrical components should be washed up, unless that item clearly states that it is designed to be washed, is not plugged in, and is allowed to thoroughly dry before reconnecting to the electricity supply.
Oiled wooden items, such as some wooden salad or serving bowls, wooden-handled utensils, and some wooden chopping blocks, should be exposed to as little detergent as possible. Unless absolutely necessary, wooden items should be washed in hot or warm water only, and if detergents are necessary, the washed items should be oiled as part of normal maintenance to maintain their quality.
Many tea enthusiasts will tell you that a teapot and related paraphernalia, such as tea strainers, presses, etc., should never be washed with soap or detergents, simply rinsed, since residual traces of detergent can interfere with the infusion process. This, however, can allow an accumulation of dark stains that will eventually form a patina inside your teapot, which some consider unsightly. To avoid using soap, alternative cleaning agents such as denture cleansers or sodium bicarbonate are recommended for tea-infusion apparatus.
Before you start
Like any household duty, washing up requires some preparation in order to ensure a successful outcome.
- A basin, sink, or tub (hereafter referred to as the basin). Unless you are using a natural source of running water, a washing receptacle is a must-have.
- Dihydrogen monoxide, a widely available solvent (water). Though water covers 71% of the Earth's surface, 97% of terrestrial water is saturated with Sodium Chloride, rendering it of little use to us. Water is a weak but abundant solvent, capable of at least loosening if not dissolving most detritus present on cutlery or flatware. However, water is a famously poor solvent of oils and fats — as a general rule, the longer the carbon chains present in the target substance, the more resistant the substance will be to dissolving in water. The category of solvents required to address this shortcoming is soaps (see below).
- A detergent. This class of compounds compliments the action of water by loosening and dissolving those substances that are resistant to water solvation, particularly long-chain organics. Commercially available dish-washing detergents typically contain a list of active ingredients tailored to act on a variety of hydrophobic compounds found in raw and cooked food, including soaps and other surfactants, abrasives, caustics, oxidants, and enzymes. Strictly speaking, a detergent is not completely essential, in that one could adequately clean and sanitise most soiled dishes without it. However, it so vastly improves the speed and ease with which one can clean dirty dishes that it justifies being treated as essential.
- A scrubbing instrument of some kind. For simple or casual washes, the human hand is probably sufficient. However, for particularly stubborn detritus like that often found around the periphery of pots and pans, such as burnt or caramelised substances, at least one such instrument from the Recommended equipment list below will be required to ensure efficient dish-washing.
- A brush for the quick dislodgement of loose detritus and semi-solid wastes. A brush is rarely sufficient for satisfactory results, and is recommended as part of a complete set of cleaning instruments.
- A heavy duty scrubber (for simplicity, hereafter referred to simply as a scrubber). In most domestic settings, this takes the form of a rubber or plastic sponge, occasionally semi-rubberised. This can lead to issues of sterility, especially if the sponge is stored damp at room temperature or higher. Issues related specifically to the hygene and sanitation of sponges are beyond the scope of this writeup — suffice to say, an non-sponge alternative is the simplest approach.
- A light duty scrubber, or chamoise (in America, often shammy). Other terminologies include chuck, wipe, or washcloth. This is often a disposable or washable light fabric or plastic cloth. It is most useful for lightly soiled articles, such as flatware and drinkware. It can be combined with a brush to more thoroughly clean hard-to-reach places.
- While water is, of course, essential, it is strongly recommended to use hot water. Hot water will loosen and dissolve soiling much faster, and can melt or soften solid fats. Hot water also contributes to sanitation, however water's evaporation point is too low to be completely effective without a detergent. The hotter the water the better — most occupational dish-washers will advise you to use water heated to as close to scalding as possible.
- Rubber gloves are optional items. Though some find them uncomfortable, others find them useful in reducing the discomfort of immersion in hot water, or in overcoming their aversion to direct contact with dish-water. They are strongly recommended for people with sensitive or very dry skin, including exzema and psoriasis. Rubber gloves are available in a variety of sizes, lengths, widths, styles, and materials, including latex-free versions.
Left-overs and scraps
Division of duties varies from setting to setting. Usually, it is considered part of table-clearing duties to deal with left-overs and scraps. However, it is in the washer's interest to ensure that these tasks are taken care of somehow. No dish can be washed until left-overs and scraps have been removed from it.
Arranging your dishes
This is an optional and, some would say, unnecessary step in preparing to wash up. Indeed, in commercial dish-washing or domestic dinner parties, where a stream of dirty dishes is often rendered during the course of washing up, it is certainly moot. However, making sure that the dishes are all collected at the basin, within reach, is generally considered a good idea where possible. Furthermore, many washers find that arranging the dishes in the rough order in which they will be washed — drinkware, tableware, then kitchenware — is both useful and efficient.
Regardless of whether pre-arrangement of dishes is possible or desired, the washing up area should be arranged such that to one side of the basin is an area devoted to dirty dishes, and the other side of the basin is an area devoted to clean dishes. It is important to keep clean and dirty dishes in their respective areas as meticulously as possible, as permitting damp, freshly washed dishes to have contact with the soilage and detritus present on unwashed dishes obviates the purpose of the wash. Therefore, before the wash begins, the washer should ensure that the 'clean' dish area is clear, clean, and adequate to the volume expected. This has implications for the drying and clearing of clean dishes, which will be discussed more fully below.
Commence the wash!
Filling the basin
In domestic settings, the basin to be used is typically a kitchen sink with running hot and cold water. Some washers prefer to stack the basin with as many dirty dishes as possible before filling it with water. This facilitates soaking, and can be an efficient way to handle a small quantity of dirty dishes. This is an optional approach that suits some washers, but can effect the clarity and cleanliness of glassware in some cases. I leave it up to the reader to experiment with different approaches. We will here assume you are starting with an empty basin.
Regardless, before anything goes into the basin, it is important to ensure that the basin is clean and free of debris from food preparation or previous uses. This can be particularly important where the basin is being drained and refilled part-way through a wash. If necessary, a rinse with cold or warm water and perhaps a wipe with an appropriate scrubbing implement will clear any debris likely to effect your washing up. This is also an opportunity to ensure that your own hands are rinsed and free of soilage.
With a clean sink, the best approach to filling the basin is to commence with straight hot water, adding small increments of cold water as necessary until the water reaches a workable temperature. Bear in mind, though, that the hotter the water the better your results, and the faster your progress will be. The ability to work with hotter water is a capacity that comes with practice and exposure, and can be assisted by using rubber gloves if very hot water is simply too uncomfortable for the washer.
Adding detergent while water is running into the basin ensures the detergent dissolves and spreads throughout the solution. The quantity of detergent to add to a basin is a hotly contested topic among students of the field of domestic efficiency, with the widely varying strengths, concentrations, and active ingredients between commercial dish-washing detergents muddying the dish-water further. It is essentially down to the preferences of the washer — if cleanliness and hygiene are preoccupations of the washer, more detergent will be used; however, if environmental impact or economy of use are more significant concerns, less will be used. It is wise, however, to adjust detergent use with water temperature. Hotter water is important for a successful result where little or no detergent is used, whereas if cooler water is the preference, slightly more detergent is prudent. However, with the current popularity of 'concentrated' varieties of dish-washing detergent on the market, over-use of detergent is commonplace, and the assumptions of dish washers as to how much detergent to use have not adjusted to the potency by volume of modern brands. If you feel you have excessive suds and soap bubbles forming in your basin, you can radically reduce the detergent you use, and slowly increase the amount of detergent until you are satisfied with the results of your efforts.
The height of water to fill your basin is important as well, as regards both the efficacy of detergent and the responsible use of water. In most cases filling the basin to roughly half-capacity, or certainly between one- and two-thirds of capacity, is sufficient. Under-filling will lead to difficulties ensuring your dishes are fully immersed, and over-filling will cause spillage and overflow when dishes (especially hollowware, pots, and pans) are introduced to the basin.
The Order of the Day
With our basin prepared, we are finally ready to commence the central task of cleaning the dirty dishes!
If you have arranged your dishes in the rough order described in the preparation section, you should have your drinkware closest to hand, followed by tableware, and then kitchenware last. In most domestic settings, this is the most sensible order of washing, for two reasons. Firstly, this order represents the level of soilage that can typically be expected, from least to most dirty, and therefore represents the amount of effort that will be required to clean each item. But just as importantly, starting from glassware (especially fine glassware such as crystal), then drinkware, flatware, service tableware, kitchenware used for ingredient preparation and storage, and finally, pots and pans exposed to heat in the cooking process, the clarity and purity of dish-water required to achieve a satisfactory result decreases. Washing glassware after an oily baking dish has been scrubbed in the basin, for example, is likely to lead to aesthetically unpleasant marks and streaks visible on the glass after washing, and while these may not effect the usability or hygiene of the glass, it violates one of our principal goals of producing pleasantly clean, presentable dishes for future use.
Therefore, where the dishes to be washed can be collected and arranged in advance, as is true in most domestic situations, it is important to be mindful of the freshness of water required to achieve a satisfactory result for the full variety of items that one expects to wash. However, with larger washing tasks, it is likely that you will want to empty and refill the basin at least once during the wash, to ensure the hotness and clarity of the water, and refresh the detergent. This is a great opportunity to address items you may have missed or not been supplied with at early stages of the wash, and for maximum efficiency, the last item to be washed in a dirty basin can be chosen from the most soiled and mark-tolerant of your kitchenware, regardless of the stage of the overall washing up.
Tergo Ergo Sum
So now, after all of our thought and preparation, the simple act of washing your dirty dishes is, upon close examination, surprisingly simple.
To ensure satisfactory results for even lightly soiled dishes, ensure that you pass a clean, wet cloth at least once over every surface, internal and external, with moderate pressure. It is easy, especially with flatware, to assume that all soilage will be on the upper surface of the dish — this may not be so! The stacking of dishes during collection and arrangement of dirty dishes after use, as well as incidental handling during the meal, can lead to soilage and detritus to be found on any surface. A thorough wipe of all surfaces should ensure that any unnoticed or unexpected soilage is removed.
If you have fully prepared with a suite of scrubbing and cleaning implements as described in the Recommended Equipment section, then you will have at your disposal all appropriate tools to handle any soilage you are likely to encounter in a typical wash with ease and efficiency. If you do not have a complete set of scrubbers, don't despair — a simple scrubber or cloth can be adapted for use to excise all but the heaviest and most baked-on of dirt and grease, but will require more effort and time from you, the washer, to reach a satisfactory level of cleanliness. As you gain experience and expertise in washing up, you will naturally feel the need to expand your range of cleaning and scrubbing implements. Feel free to do so at your leisure, as you gain the confidence and proficiency that an advanced set of tools will benefit from.
This dish is too dirty! What do I do?
Simple! You soak! Soaking is a simple, if inelegant, way to loosen the worst of baked-on or excessively greasy soilage. For internal surfaces of receptacles and hollowware, fill them with hot water such that the areas of heavy dirt are subsumed, adding dish-washing detergent as required, and leave to stand for enough time that the solvents can break down and loosen the problem area. In some situations, it may be necessary to add more heavy duty cleaning agents, such as bleach, but do so sparingly and cautiously, since cleaning agents not designed for dish washing may contain toxins or active ingredients not suitable for internal consumption. Special care needs to be taken if such cleaning agents are used to thoroughly wash and rinse all traces from the dish.
Drying your dishes
There are two main approaches to the drying of clean dishes — the drip dry approach, and the towel dry approach. While most washers demonstrate a clear preference for one or the other, they can be interchanged depending on circumstances, volume of dishes, and availability of resources.
Regardless of approach, there are two main considerations when drying, which primarily relate to the well-being of future users of the clean dishes. Firstly, it is important to ensure that any residue of detergent is reasonably minimised, since detergent residues, if ingested in sufficient quantities over time, can lead to negative health impacts. Secondly, if warm, damp dishes are returned to storage spaces, they can create an environment conducive to the growth of moulds, bacteria, and fungus, a clearly undesirable outcome after all our efforts.
So, if towel drying your clean dishes, ensure that you make one pass with the tea towel over every surface with light-to-moderate pressure, and it is also wise to ensure that you have an adequate supply of tea towels. If your towel becomes saturated with dirty, soapy water, the results of your drying will be unsatisfactory. This can be prevented by an intermediate stage of lightly rinsing the dish-water and soap residues from the dishes as they are moved from the basin to the clean area, and adding a light rinse stage to your habitual wash is something all dish washers should consider. However, if towel drying, with an adequate supply of tea towels, it is not necessary, and many consider it a wasteful use of water resources.
If leaving your dishes, or a portion of your dishes, to drip dry, however, the rinsing stage is much more important. Rinsing is the most reasonable way to ensure that your clean dishes don't carry a remnant of dirty dish-water and detergent, which, as the water evaporates, can form an invisible or, in cases of very dirty dish-water, visible layer of residuum. The reasons for avoiding this are by now, I hope, apparent to the reader.
Yes! If you have followed the procedures outlined in this document, and are satisfied with the results, then you have successfully completed a full wash up, and deserve the congratulations of your peers!
However, do not relax for too long. Unless dish use in your environment is very light, you or someone else will likely have to repeat this process within a day, if not immediately following the proceeding meal. Even if dish use is very light indeed, and for understandable reasons of efficiency you decide to allow dirty dishes to accumulate in a dedicated, unobtrusive location (in most domestic settings, the basin or basin surrounds are used for this), it is inadvisable to allow dirty dishes to remain unwashed for too long. After a few days, you will notice the accumulation and proliferation of biota on your accumulated food residues, and since this accumulation is likely to be proximate to food preparation areas, it is to be avoided.
With practice and familiarity, the seemingly overwhelming and complex task of washing up will become a simple, habitual, daily practice, and just a normal part of domestic routine.