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The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Thursday, March 15, 2018

How To Hand Wash Dishes Revisited


Everybody Knows How To Wash Dishes, Right? Well......Maybe Not So Much

I'm revisiting a piece I wrote a few years ago on the subject of dish washing. Recent experiences have prompted me to examine the topic in a little more depth because it seems a lot of people didn't learn to wash dishes the way I did.

The most vexing problem I faced in my last restaurant was not food quality or service; it was dish washing. It was a small place that didn't have an automatic dish washing machine. Dishes were done by hand in a three-compartment sink. Except for on busy weekend nights, we didn't have dishwashers on staff: cooks and waitstaff were responsible for washing their own dishes. Everybody on staff was younger than I by many years and in some cases by many decades. And after a couple of weeks of frustrating observation, I came to the inescapable conclusion that not a single, blessed one of these young folks knew the first damn thing about washing dishes. And they weren't all high schoolers; in fact, most were in their twenties and thirties and many were parents with little kids at home. The way they took care of my customers made me shudder to think of how they took care of their families. I had all the proper signs and regulations posted around the dish bay and I dropped hints and reminders from time to time in the vain hope I could awaken some form of common sense in these people. None of it worked and I finally exploded and called everybody in for a staff meeting on dish washing.

I learned the art of dish washing in the days before automatic dishwashers became as common as toasters. And 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 dedicated hand dishwashers who lived well into their eighties. Between the two of them, I don't think I could begin to estimate how many dishes they washed in their lifetimes. Add to all 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, consulting health departments and doing some actual scholarly research on proper dish washing.

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 hanging out in various home and restaurant kitchens it is obvious to me that these basic techniques are being largely ignored, if they were ever taught in the first place. Call me obsessive/compulsive or whatever you will, but, based on the horrendous hygiene I have observed in some kitchens, I have been known to 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 dish washing: hot water. Many of these 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 stone cold water. Go figure.

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. And way too many people of my acquaintance apparently can't tolerate water heated above 99°. That's body temperature, folks! If you can't stand to put your hands in ninety-nine degree water, you shouldn't be able to tolerate touching yourself! Worse still, I know people who do dishes in room temperature water; 70 to 74 degrees. 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 dish washing, 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 dishwashing machines do. Obviously, sticking your unprotected hands in 140° water will likely send you to the emergency room. For hand washing dishes, the FDA recommends a minimum temperature of 110°. To make sure I'm practicing what I'm preaching, I actually stuck a thermometer in my dishwater: 113.3°. The hot water from my tap registered 123.8°. Now, I can't tolerate 124° on my bare hands for long but for me, 113° is no problem. Personally, I heat my rinse water a little hotter than my wash water – about 115° – and I add a couple of drops of bleach to the rinse. Yeah, the water'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. But don't grab too quickly; the dishes should remain submerged in the hot wash water for at least thirty seconds and should be rinsed thoroughly.

As I mentioned, in some 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, measured by using paper test strips. (50 – 100 PPM, if you're curious.) At home, about two teaspoons of bleach per gallon of water will suffice.

But again, it's gotta be hot water. Observing the FDA minimum of 110° – along with using a good, strong anti-bacterial dish soap – will effectively do the job. 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 a little technique. First things first, scrape your plates. Dishes don't get clean when they're in the water competing with breadcrumbs and with floating chunks of meat and potatoes. It's not rocket science. Scrape your dishes.

Next, rinse your dishes. This is a hard sell sometimes with people who somehow find it redundant to rinse dishes that are going to be washed anyway. Again, it's just common sense. The first plateful of spaghetti sauce that you toss unrinsed into your clean dishwater is going to turn that water red and greasy for every subsequent dish you put in. Rinse your dishes.

Now stack 'em. Stacking doesn't have anything to do with the actual cleanliness of your dishes, but organized stacking makes the dish washing 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, and in this instance the stacking does affect the cleanliness. I know so, so many people who just throw everything in the sink at the same time. Plates, glasses, knives, forks, pots, pans all jumbled together willy-nilly all at once. 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 with or 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, if you please. 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 washed them along with the dirty dishes.

Plates should be next, as, theoretically, anyway, they should be cleaner than the pots and pans, especially if you've rinsed them. 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. Hot water, please. Cold water really won't do much good. And about ten minutes soaking time is all you need. Anything longer – like overnight – is just an excuse for putting off cleaning up the mess. If it hasn't soaked off in ten minutes, it's not going to. That's when scrubbing pads come into play.

Now, somewhere along the line, you may have to change your water. In many Asian cultures, dishes are always washed in running water because it is perceived to be more hygienic. And I do sometimes wash dishes under running water if I only have a few dishes to do. But in the interest of conserving water and saving on water and water heating bills, I generally adhere to Western customs that employ sinks or tubs of standing water. For large loads, that's going to mean changing the water at least once.

Now, 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 water 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? Come on. Change it, already.

Speaking of changing things, how about those dishcloths, sponges, and towels? Personally, I have no use for traditional 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.

Dishcloths are a better option, provided you take proper care of them. By proper care I mean changing them out frequently as usage requires and also keeping them in proper condition. A scientific study conducted a few years ago revealed that dishcloths containing the lowest microbial count came from households that replaced used dishcloths every day. Dishcloths containing high microbial counts had been used in household kitchens five consecutive days or more, and were 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.

Now, 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, 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!

To be honest, I don't use dishcloths nearly as much as I used to. Modern silicone sponges and scrubbers are much more efficient and easier to clean and sanitize.

Dish towels are another issue. Again, if health inspectors catch you drying dishes with a towel in a restaurant kitchen, there go a couple of points off your sanitation rating. Betcha didn't know that, huh? I know most of my dishwashers didn't. 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 outside a restaurant kitchen – and you 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. And when it gets damp, get a dry one. In the first place, you're not drying anything with a wet towel, now are you? And in the second place, here come those pesky germs again. And replace the towel in the same manner as you replace the cloth; break out a new one every couple of days or as needed.

I mentioned cleaning your drying rack. How about cleaning 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? Maybe you should try doing them in the toilet. (I know; yuck!) I sanitize my sinks and drains every day. All it takes is a couple of minutes with some hot water and a little bleach or cleanser.

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 and then they were rinsed under cold running water before being dried with a questionable towel 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. If this is you, save yourself some time and money. Money that you'll probably need for doctor bills. Uggghhh!

And you lukewarmers don't get off the hook, either. 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.

Oh, and one more thing: dishes have two sides, a top and a bottom. Remember to wash the bottom of your dish because it sits on the top of the one stacked below it in the cabinet. Just a little something to think about.

Okay, see you in the kitchen. I'll wash, you dry.

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