I once wrote an article on kitchen cleanliness in which I touched briefly on the subject of dishwashing. Recent experiences in some home kitchens have prompted me to revisit the topic in a little more depth. It seems a lot of people didn't learn to wash dishes the way I did.
I learned the art of dishwashing in the days before automatic dishwashers became as common as toasters. I learned at the hands of experts; my grandmother and my mother. I don't know that my grandmother ever even saw an automatic dishwasher, and I know for certain she never used one. My mother had such disdain for the devices that she used hers as a storage bin for her Tupperware. Both women were lifelong hand dishwashers. Add to that the fact that my first restaurant job was working as a dishwasher and I think I present with some valid credentials on the subject.
But that's still not enough. In order to avoid this being a “my mother taught me better than your mother taught you” piece, I went further and did some research on proper hand dishwashing.
Believe it or not, there are specific procedures to follow. It's not just a matter of running some water in the sink, dumping in a little soap, and throwing in the dirty dishes. But after observing some of the aforementioned kitchens it is obvious to me that these basic techniques are being ignored, if they were ever taught in the first place. Call me obsessive/compulsive if you will, but, based on the horrendous hygiene I have observed in some home kitchens, I have been known to sneak to the sink and stealthily rewash dishes before I use them. Here's why.
I know so many people who have an aversion to the most essential element of hygienic dishwashing: hot water. Beyond my grandmother and my mother, the experts with letters after their names will also tell you that dishes should be washed in water as hot as you can tolerate. Now this opens up a whole can of subjective worms as way too many people apparently can't tolerate water heated above 99°. That's body temperature, folks! If you can't tolerate putting your hands in ninety-nine degree water, you shouldn't be able to tolerate touching yourself! Many of these same folks will come out of a shower with their bodies a nice shade of candy-apple red because they like their showers hot. And yet they wash their dishes in lukewarm water. Go figure. Worse still, I know people who do dishes in room temperature water, water that is actually cold. I've said it before, I'll say it again: If you insist on using cold or lukewarm water for dishwashing, just set up little cabanas beside the sink for the e-coli, the salmonella, and the other varieties of bacteria you're inviting to go swimming in your sink. That's all you're really accomplishing. You're not getting anything clean.
Bacteria don't drown. Water won't kill 'em. Heat kills bacteria. To really sanitize your dishes, you need to heat them to above 140°. That's what dishwashers do. Obviously, sticking your unprotected hands in 140° water will likely send you to the emergency room.
But dishes washed by hand can still be sanitized. It just takes a little effort. You need hot water, a good dish soap – preferably an antibacterial formula, a little bleach, and proper technique.
For handwashing dishes, the FDA recommends a minimum water temperature of 110°. To make sure I'm practicing what I'm preaching, I stuck a thermometer in my dishwater. It registered 112.8°. I heat my rinse water a little hotter than my wash water – about 115°. Yeah, that's a little hot, but with rinse water, you can just snatch and grab. You don't have to keep your hands submerged in it like you do the wash water.
In restaurant kitchens, there are three sinks; a wash sink, a rinse sink, and a sanitizing sink. With only two sinks in my home kitchen, I combine the rinsing and the sanitizing in one. In restaurants, there is a specific chlorine level the health inspectors look for. (50 – 100 PPM, if you're curious.) At home, about a tablespoon of bleach per gallon of water will suffice.
But again, it's gotta be hot water. If your skin is too sensitive or if you're worried about “dishpan hands,” go get some rubber gloves. Don't risk your family's health.
Hot water also gets your dishes cleaner. Grease doesn't break down in lukewarm water. If you stick a dirty, greasy plate in a sink full of 90° water, you'll come out with a plate that looks clean – but it'll still be greasy. And if you've ever wondered why your glasses and silverware look so spotty and filmy, check your water temperature. You know that “sheeting action” one of the dishwasher detergents advertises? You get the same effect when you use hot water. Dishes washed in hot water dry faster and cleaner than those washed in warm or cold water.
Now let's talk about technique. First things first, scrape your plates. Dishes don't get clean when they're in the water competing with floating chunks of meat and potatoes.
Next, rinse your dishes. The first plateful of spaghetti sauce that you toss unrinsed into your dishwater is going to turn your water red and greasy for every subsequent dish you put in.
Now stack 'em. Stacking doesn't have anything to do with the actual cleanliness of your dishes, but organized stacking makes the dishwashing process cleaner and easier. Glasses, cups, and silverware stack first, plates and serving dishes next, and pots and pans last.
This is also the order in which you should wash your dishes. I know so many people who just throw everything in the sink at the same time. But think about it for a minute: what dishes do you really want to be the cleanest? The ones that actually come in contact with your mouth, right? The glasses, the cups, and the silverware. So it makes sense that you should wash them first when the water is the hottest and the cleanest. If you wash the glasses after – say – the greasy frying pan, what can you expect to happen to your glasses? Thank you, but I'll take my beverages without the floating layer of grease. And those aren't “water spots” on your knives, forks, and spoons. They're spots of whatever you had for lunch yesterday if you just threw them in along with the dirty dishes.
Plates should be next. Serving dishes and utensils follow the plates and then come the pots and pans.
If you've got really dirty pots and pans with lots of baked-on stuff stuck to them, soaking is probably in order. Start with hot water, please, and a little soap. I know the water will eventually cool, but starting with hot water will give you a leg up on a good, effective soak better than just soaking in cold water from the start. Allow at least ten minutes soaking time. Some people advocate overnight soaking. In fact, I just watched a TV commercial for an overnight soaking soap product. Don't waste your time and money. Anything that hasn't soaked off after, let's say half an hour, to be generous, in regular soap and water probably isn't going to. That's when scrubbing pads come into play.
Somewhere along the line, you may have to change your water. The glasses and silverware probably didn't do too much damage to the dishwater. But after a dozen or so plates and serving dishes, are you really getting anything clean? Think about it; what color is clean, fresh water? Clear, of course. It has no color. So by the time your dishwater develops a distinct reddish, brownish, greenish, or grayish color, is it still truly clean and fresh? And should you reasonably expect to get your dishes clean in such water? Time for a change.
Speaking of changing things, how about those dishcloths, sponges, and towels? Personally, I have no use for sponges. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being a hospital's surgical suite and 10 being a toxic waste dump, kitchen sponges rank number 11. You can't have them in commercial kitchens; you shouldn't have them in home kitchens. Unless you're preparing a science project on bacteriology. “Oh, but you can sanitize them in the microwave!” Yeah, until the first time you put them back in the water and the listeria and staphylococci invite all their friends aboard. Ditch the sponge. If you have some sort of unnatural addiction to sponges, at least try to find an antibacterial one designed to limit microbial growth.
Dishcloths are a better option, provided you take proper care of them. This means changing them out frequently and also keeping them in proper condition. A recent scientific study revealed that dishcloths containing the lowest microbial count came from households that replaced used dishcloths every day. Dishcloths containing high microbial counts were those used five or more consecutive days and never completely dried out during that time. The study determined that when dishcloths were dried out after use, bacterial growth was halted. So those of you who wad up your wet dishcloths and leave them lying in or around the sink take note.
I don't change my dishcloth every day. Nor do I use the same cloth for a week. And I follow the FDA food code recommendation regarding use of a sanitizer bucket for my dishcloths. But I don't leave them soaking in the bucket because research also shows that after a couple of hours, organic material present in the cloths neutralizes the sanitizer and bacterial growth can occur. I soak them after use, take them out and dry them, and replace them every other day. Unless, of course, they are filthy, in which case I replace them right away. Duh!
Dish towels are another issue. Again, if restaurant inspectors catch you drying dishes with a towel, there go a couple of points off your rating. Air drying is best. And for goodness' sake, clean your drying rack once in awhile! Putting clean dishes in a dirty drying rack is an exercise in futility. If, however, you are like most people – me included – and you sometimes use a dish towel, make sure it's a clean dish towel. Not the one with which you wiped the chicken blood off the counter. Not the one with which you mopped your sweaty forehead, wiped your greasy hands, or got that little spill up off the floor. Dish towel equals dish use. Nothing else. When the towel gets damp, get a dry one. In the first place, you're not really drying anything with a wet towel, now are you? And in the second place, here come those pesky germs again. Dish towels should be replaced in the same manner as dishcloths.
I mentioned cleaning your drying rack. How about your sinks? How often do you actually clean and sanitize your sinks and drains? Do you know that most household's toilets are cleaner than their kitchen sinks? That's because you think about cleaning the toilet, but you seldom think about cleaning the sink. And yet, where do you wash the dishes from which you eat? I sanitize my sinks and drains every day. All it takes is a couple of minutes with some hot water and bleach.
One of the most spectacularly, despicably unhygienic things I've ever seen in a home kitchen involved filling up a sink with tepid water and a little soap and then throwing dirty dishes into the sink throughout the day. At some point along the way, said dishes were treated to a brief encounter with a dirty cloth that had been wadded up on the counter. Then they were rinsed under cold running water before being dried and put away. I have to ask; why bother? For as much cleaning value as you're getting out of that sinkful of disgusting cold, gray water with grease and particulate matter floating in it and that nasty rag, you might as well just put the dishes away dirty.
Lukewarmers aren't quite as bad – but they're close. I'm sorry. I hate it for you that you can't stand hot water, but neither can the grease and the germs. If you're filling your sink with water that is cooler than body temperature, you're just throwing a greasy pool party for bacteria. Period. Turn up the water heater and get some gloves.
And remember the steps the experts recommend – the ones my mama taught me: scrape your dishes, rinse your dishes, stack your dishes, and don't do the pots and pans first and then try to get the glasses clean. It just won't happen.
See you in the kitchen. I'll wash, you dry.