Is the most polarizing task in your household deciding who gets the pleasure of washing the dishes tonight? Well, join the club. There’s something incredibly tedious about having to scrub and claw at pots and pans after a long day of working and cooking during quarantine—especially when all you want to do is start streaming Netflix. And with people cooking a whole lot more these days, those pots and pans seem to just keep on piling up.
While we don’t particularly have any tips on how to avoid washing the dishes (sorry, it’s inevitable!), we do have a cheeky little book you’ll want to take a look at: “How to Wash the Dishes.” This compact book by Peter Miller flips the drag of washing dishes on its head: Peter promises that with just a little more knowledge, washing the dishes hardly has to be a dreaded chore.
How to Wash the Dishes, $13.49 on Amazon
The small book is divided into a few chapters, with sections titled “A Primer for Washing the Dishes” and “Quiet Villains and Unexpected Friends.” You’ll learn what not to do (aka, leaving dishes out for hours before tackling them), what scrubbing tools you’ll want to stock up on, and a handful of recipes that are geared toward making clean-up a breeze.
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Keep reading for an excerpt from the book where Peter details a handful of tricks for washing the dishes based on equipment (think how to wash the food processor versus sharp knives). It’s quite possible you’ll even feel incited to make a mess yourself and instantly get to the task of cleaning up—what a novel journey that’d be!
From How to Wash the Dishes by Peter Miller © 2020 Peter Miller. Reprinted in arrangement with Roost Books, an imprint of Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO.
Tools, Tricks and Troublemakers
Some things, like whisks, large spatulas, long wooden spoons, or hand colanders will likely be used more than once while cooking a meal. Think of them as a bartender thinks of his cocktail shakers—use them, wash them, dry them, and have them ready for the next task. Nothing is sillier than having a large bowl of dishwater with a whisk and three long spoons in it. It takes but a moment to clean and get them out of there; they should never go in the dishwasher.
Food Processors/Food Mills
You cannot leave food processors to join in the dishes from dinner. They are bulky, demanding, and too awkward to be in that group. If you use them, clean them, right then. You need that corner of the counter free. If I am using it to make pesto, then I am careful to finish the task, completely, before starting to cook. There are few things (the electric mixing bowl being one) that can so intractably take up space as the brilliant blender. Get it put away, so not even the cord is showing. As a rule, when I begin to cook, I expect all of the equipment and dishware that came before will have been cleaned, dried, and put away.
The food processor is an interesting character. It might as well be an operational satellite for all its likeness to the rest of your cooking equipment. It is, in its own way, a carburetor of food, a complicated mixer that must sacrifice simplicity and ease for power and efficiency.
It has necessary corners and crevices that would never be approved on less complex devices, but while it does not clean easily, it does have brilliant talents, and you must give it a special dispensation.
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It is discouraging to see a food processor in the dishwasher. It is not a machine that mingles well with others. Its work is very specific and typically done by the time a meal is started. So as you rinse and clean each piece by hand, lay it on a surface to drain. When all of the parts are done, grab a medium dish towel and finish the drying. To be fair, it is hard to dry this group well. Reassemble the machine, sliding parts into place, and stack it back onto the motor. Then you can begin dinner prep.
By contrast, an Italian food mill is practically medieval. Mine has literally three parts—the disc, the handle, and the body. It is a wondrous piece of equipment, particularly with cooked beans or tomatoes or soft fruit. Unlike the food processor, the food mill is often needed right in the very belly of cooking, when there is a lot going on.
Still, it can clog up a disproportionate amount of space. I have found it stuck at the bottom of a dish pile, waiting for special attention. Try to clean it right after using it. It has sharp edges, but it is quite easy to dispatch when nothing has dried on its surface. And then, of course, get it put away—rarely does it do double duty during a meal.
Some things can do a second duty and help with the dishwashing. A good pasta pot, with its strainer, can be a bully for attention. But if you rinse it and refill it with soap, then you can get the strainer cleaned and use the pot for your new base of dishwashing. It can catch up with the strainer and the lid later.
Never put knives in soapy water; lurking below the bubbles, they will inevitably cut someone, and usually an innocent. Lay them on the counter and wash each one individually. Once you have cleaned them, do not add them to the rack of drying dishes; put them away. Everyone is reaching for something as the dishes pile up, so be sure they do not grab the sharp knife instead of that serving spoon. Funny thing about a knife: it loves to cut. That is all it knows.
Sauté Pans/Sheet Pans
Sauté pans and sheet pans are the main tools of cooking, and they each have particular quirks. Some of the surfaces are coated and cannot be scrubbed. Some are steel and need a good scrubbing. I know cooks that use only a special soap on their cast-iron skillets— and some that use no soap at all. You need to keep the differences sorted.
You may only have a single sink, and it may be small, so your task is to keep it clean and draining well. A frying pan plopped into it is no help unless you are ready to clean that pan. When people clear the table, it is common to see all the silverware floating in greasy water in the dinner’s sauté pan. That is when doing the dishes seems like a nightmare.
There is a pan that was used to poach a pear, and there is a pan that was used to brown and caramelize a pork chop. The first will take but a few seconds to clean: rinse, soap, rinse again, and then dry and put away. The second pan will take longer. It may need to soak and then be scrubbed. You must, in a moment’s time, always know the difference between the two.
I always flinch when someone suggests using the good champagne glasses. For one thing, they usually need a buffing up, having gathered dust. But they also can clog up all the dishwashing runways. If it is time to use them and celebrate, then make a note of how many there are and their condition. If they are fragile or crystal, they will need to be washed by hand.
You must decide: clean them before you start the dishes or set them well aside and do them when there is nothing left in the sink. If you clean them before, make certain there is no cast-iron skillet or pan nearby and make sure the sink is not greasy or they might slip. They need their own flat surface to dry. Use a soft dish towel and stay with them until they are back on their shelves. Or, if someone is helping you with the dishes, put them on the “dry the glasses” detail. You will have more freedom to work if the glasses are in good hands and out of your way.
There is an elegance but also a danger to good glassware. Some of the worst cuts in a kitchen are from the sharp edge of a broken glass. Be very careful if you lay them in soapy warm water. And be even more careful when you are cleaning the inside of a glass—use either a soft brush or your two fingers and a dishcloth within the glass. The danger comes from the circular motion, which might break the edge. If you should break a glass, gather all of the pieces and put them into a box or some other container, so they will not be a danger to someone pushing down on the trash later.
The truth is, you will develop a dishwashing value system for every piece in your kitchen, and eventually in most kitchens. You will know, by sight, the tasks of each piece, its liabilities and its advantages. When a sharp knife comes to the sink, you will mark it for special care. When the coffee pot comes, you will know that coffee shares space poorly—the grounds need their own care and the residue needs extra soap. When the porcelain coffee pot comes, I am always reminded of a coffee pot with a broken beak—porcelain has no defense against cast-iron pans.
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