The Art of Conquering Piles of Dirty Dishes

If your pots are absolutely black, and you can't get the burned food off of them, heat them up as I described before. You can add some baking soda to the mix, which I'm not sure actually helps but it makes me feel like I am doing something.

Posted by Chaya Kurtz | Nov 30, 2011
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This is my tiny kitchen. See the dishes in the bottom left corner?There are certain embarrassments that come with being the editor of a home & garden website, and these usually involve the deplorable condition of my own apartment. Not to compare myself to the queen of home & garden, Martha Stewart, it makes me feel marginally less bad to know that her daughter, Alexis, talked a lot of smack about her mother's lack of domestic activity in her vaguely scandalous memoir. It makes total sense: Anyone who spends her time writing about homes & gardens is not usually in her own home or garden taking care of it.

Still, the fact that I have to read books and blogs on cleaning for work sometimes comes in handy. For instance, I know how to handle a sink that is overflowing with dishes, even if those dishes are crusted in 4-day-old stew. Heat: Heat is the cure for a stew pot that's been sitting there for a few days, getting crustier and crustier. I squirt a big blob of dish soap into the pot, then I fill the pot with water. I put the pot on a burner and bring it to a boil. When it's cooled down a bit but the water is still warm, I attack it with a scrub pad. It's magical, folks, magical.

I understand the horror of looking at a sink, no not just a sink, but a sink and a counter and a stove top covered in dishes. The way to attack it is, as my good friend Sadie taught me, "Put it in auto-pilot." Sometimes when dishes pile up in my kitchen I get overwhelmed like, "I don't have two hours to clean.  How will I ever do this? I am exhausted! I worked ten hours and spent an hour on the train!" Dirty dishes can seem insurmountable. That's when auto-pilot comes in. Just distance yourself from your emotions and be a robot. (Or you can hire a cleaning service. I can't afford one, but it never ceases to amaze me how many broke people actually do hire them.)

Program your auto-pilot like this: First, clear out the sink, because you can't actually wash dishes in a sink that's full. If you have to (as in, there's no room on your kitchen table), put a plastic tablecloth or a few garbage bags on the kitchen floor and move all the dishes onto the floor. Group them by type: Plates, cups and pots. Take a dirty pot or large bowl and fill it with hot water and dish soap. Then take all of the silverware and utensils that you can find (if more turn up later, just add them) and put them in the pot of water to soak. Wash them last. If you have a very large stock pot, stack all the plates in it, and fill it with hot soapy water. The pre-soak really helps. If your pots are all crusty, fill each with hot soapy water. You'll feel better with things consolidated like this.

Next, make yourself a cup of tea (or a stiff drink if you roll that way). Take two minutes to sit down and sip your drink.  Then get up and do like this: There is probably some gunk in the food trap of your kitchen sink. Scoop it out.  Wear gloves, close your eyes and hold your nose if you need to. Once that's done, grab a bottle of spray cleaner and squirt the line of grime that rings your sink. Wipe the grime away with paper towels. If you are so not-domestic that you don't have paper towels, use toilet paper. Now rinse the sink with water. You're ready to begin. Have another sip of your tea or gin & tonic.

I like to wash plates first, because they fit into my dish drying rack more efficiently than my pots do.  I can stack pots on top of them, but not vice-versa. The easiest and fastest way to wash an entire stack of plates is to squirt tons of soap onto a scrub pad and scrub each plate down. Don't rinse the plates. Just stack the soapy plates on the counter next to the sink. When you have scrubbed all of the plates, then turn on the tap and rinse them, one at a time, and stand them up in your dish drying rack. By now you should be feeling like your life is a little more under control. Your plates are clean; you don't have to eat on napkins anymore.

Next, wash the bowls, cups and mugs.  Use the same method of scrubbing with a soapy sponge first, stacking by the sink and then rinsing. At this point your dish drain board will be full and you have four options: Stack pots on top of the dishes; dry the dishes with a towel; wait for them to air dry; or clean your countertop and/or table, cover it with clean towels and let the remaining stuff dry there. It's up to you. I've done all of these, and drying each dish with a towel is by far the most annoying and time-consuming option. 

Now stop and drink more of your tea (I mean booze). Turn on an audio book because you're probably getting bored, and you need to get through the final push. The next step is to scrub the pots. If your pots are absolutely black, and you can't get the burned food off of them, heat them up as I described before. You can add some baking soda to the mix, which I'm not sure actually helps but it makes me feel like I am doing something and isn't that what matters? I do like a good placebo.

I'm usually covered in dish water by this point and ready to plop down in bed and read Gore Vidal's memoir. The key is to keep up the momentum and get through that last pot full of utensils. If you can't handle any more, stop and do the last pot in the morning before you leave for work. I resent dishes a lot less when I am not exhausted from a long day. Right now, because I have a particularly large load of dishes to contend with, I've spread out washing them over a couple mornings. I listen to the morning news over the radio while I wash, and I leave for work already feeling productive.

Once you're done, you can snap out of robot-mode and feel fully-satisfied with your accomplishment. I find that showering with an expensive body scrub (grapefruity Gloomaway from Origins is my scrub of choice) is a good reward. It's a bit Pavlovian, I know, but it's efficient. There's nothing wrong with being pragmatic.

Chaya Kurtz is a Networx - - writer. Get home & garden ideas like this - - on

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