A Touch of Class


Washing Dishes Clean

And now, as promised, a treatise on how to wash dishes clean. Feel free to post a printout by your kitchen sink for the passive-aggressive edification of your housemates.

How to Wash Dishes Clean

It is commonly understood that to “wash dishes” means to “wash dishes clean”. However, as there exist people who don't seem to understand the distinction, the point of this article is, primarily, to point out that there are a few more steps to “washing dishes clean” than merely scrubbing them with soap and water. Specifically, the process is:

  1. Wash the dish with dish soap, both the interior and the exterior.
  2. Rinse the dish
  3. Inspect the dish (both interior and exterior) for cleanliness:
    • Using your eyes: there should be nothing visibly stuck to or coating the dish.
    • Using your fingers: the surface should be smooth and not greasy.
  4. If the dish fails inspection, repeat from the top.

The inspection process is key. Most people who fail at washing dishes clean do not realize that the inspection step, and potential subsequent repetition, is necessary. There is frequently something left to clean even after the initial scrubbing, and you must use your Powers of Observation as well as your powers of manual labor to wash dishes clean.

The second most common problem is failing to wash the exterior, believing it to be clean already. Hint: If the dish was anywhere near a frying process, it is not.

The third most common problem is failing to use adequate soap, whether that be quantity or quality.

For those of you who need a little more guidance, or who simply want to level up on your dishwashing skills, I'm gonna break it down.


Essential equipment, aside from a sink and a source of water, includes:

dish soap

Technically, this is dish detergent; it is also known as dishwashing liquid.

To be effective, dish soap needs a degreasing agent. Many dish sops claim to have a competent degreaser; not all do. To test degreasing power, grease a Teflon pan. Now wash it. It should no longer feel greasy at all.

Fwiw, the control for this experiment is Dawn Ultra, which is the stuff biologists use to rescue birds from oil spills. For the eco-conscious, Consumer Reports rated Ecover second place in its dishwashing tests awhile back. (It has since been reformulated, however, so I'm not sure where it stands now.) “Eco-friendly” brands that are competent at degreasing include Ecover, Mrs. Meyers, and Kirkland Signature. “Eco-friendly” brands that are totally incompetent at degreasing include Ecos, which afaict can't degrease a pan to save its life.

If you have never used a competent dish soap, or suspect that perhaps you have not, I recommend buying a bottle of a really good one to get a feel for it before resigning yourself to the cheapest-per-ounce or nicest-smelling or otherwise most-seductive. Then you can make an informed trade-off. In the US, Dawn and Palmolive are quite reliable and readily available; Ecover and Ms. Meyers also work well in my experience. (I tend to go for the eco-friendly brands, partly for their stated virtue and partly because they tend to be less harsh on my hands—I have literally bought people dish soap during extended stays for the latter reason.)

Note, handwashing soap is not a good substitute for dishwashing detergent because it lacks a degreaser (for good reason—it's not particularly good for your hands).

Also, do not ever use dish soap in a dishwasher. I promise you it will be a disaster. For the dishwashing machine you really do need to use dedicated dishwashing machine detergent.

scrubby sponge

The “scrubby sponge”, as I tend to call it, is a sponge that has a rough texture on one side. You can get away with a regular sponge, but imho having the scrubbing power of the rougher material makes for cleaner dishes. There are basically two kinds: the kind that has two layers glued together, one spongy, one scrubby; and the kind that is a soft sponge encased in a scrubby casing. Both kinds work equally well.

The first rule here is, never use a sponge that is not Teflon-safe. It doesn't matter if you don't have Teflon: the Teflon-unsafe scrubbing material will scratch up the surface of your pots, making them harder to clean in the long run.

The second rule is, squeeze the sponge when you're done and place it somewhere dry, such as next to the sink (rather than in it) or in its own dedicated drying rack. Wet sponges left soaking in their own juices get really gross really quickly.

The third rule is, when the sponge starts to disintegrate, replace it with a new one. You can, however, give it a retiree job cleaning the bathroom. (A friend of mine brands his sponges as successively more derelict and gross by clipping their corners as they are demoted: this prevents any contaminating mix-ups.)

Scrubby sponges have the advantage over brushes that you have a better feel for the surface of what you're cleaning: you can more easily tell from this sensitivity to the surface texture whether you have successfully cleaned the pot yet or not. They also allow the transfer of higher scrubbing power when you need to apply large qualitites of elbow grease; brushes are limited in this respect by the springiness of their bristles.

scrubby brush

Dishwashing brushes are particularly good at getting into crevices and corners, cleaning rough surfaces, and loosening thicker layers of food (where a sponge would quickly get gunked up). The key qualities of a brush are the length and stiffness of the bristles. Stiffer bristles can transfer more scrubbing power, longer bristles can get into deeper corners; however the longer the bristles the less effectively stiff they are. (This is the slenderness ratio effect on buckling.) Brushes wear out through their bristles bending and permanently kinking with use, and they start to collect bits of food and get gross as well as less effective.

My personal experience with scrubby brushes is that the IKEA Plantis Brush is the best. Its bristles are long enough, but still sufficiently stiff; they (somehow) don't kink; and through some amazing magic or engineering (hard to tell which), they always rinse clean. If you can get one, you really need look no further.

wooden spoon or spatula

This may seem like an odd one, but wooden spoons are very effective at scraping off food stuck or burned onto a pot. It works best after a bit of soaking, or, if the food is particularly stubborn and the dish is burner-safe, simmering with liquid over the stove.

If it's something that won't come off with a brush, but is too thick for a scrubby sponge spiked with baking soda to be particularly effective, the wooden spoon is a good tool.

baking soda

The cheapest, safest scouring powder, baking soda adds additional scrubbing power to a scrubby sponge or brush. Good detergent and baking soda will scrub off just about anything.

(Baking soda is also, incidentally, the best way to clean a tub: just spray it down with diluted white vinegar, and scrub with a sponge generously piled with baking soda. The soap scum will scrub right off.)

dishwashing gloves

Dishwashing gloves serve two main purposes: they protect your hands from the detergent, and they enable you to use hotter water than you otherwise can stand. (Since hotter water cleans better, this is a useful property.) Find a pair that fits, and replace it when it starts to leak.


The first line of defense is a wooden spoon, and the second is baking soda. No, seriously, try it. Although if it's a pot of stuck rice, soak it overnight (or at least for 20 minutes) first. Unless it's burned very badly, soaked rice will come right out.

Troubleshooting tricks include

You can also use copper wool as a last resort. But seriously, try the earlier methods first. Unless you're in the habit of burning your food beyond recognition, it'll work, and it won't scratch your pots.


Some of you are lucky enough to have a dishwasher. Hopefully it's a dishwasher that can actually wash dishes! (Some of them, particularly older models, are only good for rinsing and drying. And maybe, thanks to the miracles of modern detergent, some degreasing of otherwise-clean pans.)

There are many ways to stack a dishwasher, however some are good and some are not.

Good ways to stack a dishwasher place dishes so that

Bad ways to stack a dishwasher place dishes so that

The best way to stack a dishwasher fits the “good” criteria while in cramming as many dishes as possible. That's it.

Also, don't use dishwashing or handwashing liquid in the dishwasher. (Did I mention that before?)

Last Words

Wash your dishes clean after every use and they'll last a lifetime in excellent condition. My mom has had her pots and pans for literally the duration of my entire life, and because she takes care of them by cleaning them properly each time, they are as clean as the day she bought them.