The Art of Conquering Piles of Dirty Dishes

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Nov 30, 2011 | Chaya Kurtz

This is my tiny kitchen. See the dishes in the bottom left corner?Certain embarrassments come with being the editor of a home & garden website, usually involving the deplorable condition of my own apartment. Not to compare myself to the queen of home & garden, Martha Stewart, but I feel marginally better knowing that her daughter, Alexis, talked smack about Martha'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 my work demands that I read books and blogs on cleaning comes in handy. For instance, I know how to handle a sink overflowing with dishes, even crusted in 4-day-old stew. Heat is the cure for a pot that's been sitting for a few days, getting crustier and crustier. Squirt a blob of dish soap into the pot, then fill with water. Put the pot on a burner and bring to a boil. When it's cooled down a bit but the water is still warm, 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 stovetop covered in dishes. The way to attack it is, as my pal Sadie taught me, "Go on auto pilot." Sometimes when dishes pile up, I get overwhelmed like, "I don't have two hours to clean. How will I ever do this? I'm exhausted!" That's when auto-pilot comes in. Just distance yourself from your emotions and be a robot. (Or 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 thus: First, clear the sink, because you can't actually wash dishes in a full sink. If you must (as in, there's no room anywhere else), put a few garbage bags on the kitchen floor and move all the dishes down there. Group by type -- plates, cups and pots. Fill a dirty pot or large bowl with hot water and dish soap. Grab all the silverware and utensils you find (if more turn up later, just add them) and put those in the pot to soak. If you have a very large stockpot, stack all the plates inside, and top up with hot soapy water. The presoak really helps. If all your pots are crusty, fill each with hot soapy H2O. You'll feel better with things consolidated.

Next, make yourself a cup of tea (or a stiff drink if that's how you roll). After taking 2 minutes to sit down and sip your drink, get up and do this:  Scoop out any gunk from your sink's food trap. Wear gloves, close your eyes and hold your nose if necessary. Once that's done, pull out a bottle of spray cleaner and squirt the line of grime that rings your sink. Wipe the residue away with paper towels. If you're 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 washing plates first, because they fit into the drying rack more efficiently than my pots. I can pile pots on top of them, but not vice versa. The easiest, fastest way to wash an entire stack of plates is to squirt soap onto a scrub pad and scour each one. Don't rinse. Just stack the soapy plates next to the sink. When you've scrubbed them all, then turn on the tap to rinse them, one at a time, and stand them up in your dish drying rack. By now you should be feeling your life is a little more under control. Your plates are clean; you don't have to eat on napkins anymore.

Next, wash 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 drainboard will be full, leaving you with 4 options:

  • stack pots on top of the dishes
  • dry the dishes with a towel
  • wait for them to air dry
  • wipe your countertop and/or table, cover with clean towels and let the remaining stuff dry there.

It's up to you. I've done all 4, and towel-drying each dish is by far the most annoying and time-consuming option. 

Now stop for more tea (or booze). Turn on an audio book because you're probably getting bored, and you need to make it through the final push. The next step is scrubbing the pots. If they're absolutely black, and you can't get the burned food off, heat them 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 like a good placebo.

I'm usually covered in dishwater 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 power through that last potful of utensils. If you can't handle any more, stop and finish in the morning before leaving for work. I resent dishes a lot less when I'm not exhausted from a long day. Right now, because I have a particularly large load of dishes to conquer, I've spread out washing them over a couple of mornings. I listen to the radio news while I scrub, and head off to the office already feeling productive.

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

Chaya Kurtz is a Networx writer. 

Updated February 13, 2018.

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