Just imagine the possibility that after cooking up a feast, you could leave your kitchen cleaner than what you started with. No, I’m not talking about hiding everything under the counter like they do on celebrity cooking shows. I’m talking about simple, quick strategies to clean as you go, while you cook. Professional chefs are trained to keep their workspaces clean, and trust me, they are busier than you, preparing many meals a night rather than just one. You can do this!
Before You Start Cooking
Empty the dishwasher, scour the sink, and clean the countertops. It goes without saying that your counter and prep space need to be clean, to give you room to work. Working on a cluttered countertop multiplies the mess exponentially, as you go to, say, place a bowl of ingredients down and find you have no place to put it. Remove any clutter from the counters and give them a wipe with a microfiber cloth and all-purpose cleaner.
The sink needs some love too, since you’ll be needing it for water and for washing. Remove anything in it and give it a quick scour before cooking. I do this with a sponge, a squirt of dish soap, and a few sprinkles of baking soda.
Cooking will create dirty dishes, utensils and the like. So, make sure the kitchen is ready to receive them. Unload the dishwasher or have a designated spot for your dirty stuff to gather—even consider a plastic bin for temporary storage.
Prepare a Utensil Soak
This idea comes from my mom, who often hosts big dinners—but they do it in restaurant kitchens, too! A soak is perfect for utensils that are used multiple times throughout cooking.
All you need to do is fill a sink or a large bowl with hot water and a couple pumps of dish soap. When you’re done using a utensil—a whisk, tongs, a slotted spoon—just dump it in the utensil soak and let it swim around. If you end up needing it again, just give it a quick rinse. When you’ve got some downtime, say while onions are sautéing and other prep is mostly done, you can refill the sink with clean water and soap, and give these a final quick rinse and dry. (It’s also great if you’re hosting a party and need to re-use salad forks as dessert forks.) Two quick warnings: 1. Keep anything that touches raw meat separate from the soak. 2. Keep knives out of the soak too, to avoid closing your hand around the blade when you’re reaching in the suds.
Plan ahead. Set out the right cutting boards and utensils to keep meat and vegetables separate. Keep clean cloths and paper towels handy. I pre-portion paper towels so that I don’t have to touch the roll with… CHICKEN FINGERS.
Consider using disposable gloves if you are handling raw meat or doing some hands-on work (making meatballs or patties, slathering a roast or chicken with marinade). I stash a box under my kitchen sink.
Setup a Garbage Bowl
I love me a good garbage bowl. It helps keep my cutting board clean and free of peels and trimmings so that I can use it to safely cut everything, and it’s just. So. Easy. Plus, it saves trips to the garbage, which reduces spills and dropped peels that stick to the tile and are a P.I.T.A. to clean when you find them a few days later. Use two bowls if you keep certain cores or peels for stock. The contents of the garbage bowl can also be dumped into your compost!
Prepare Ingredients Beforehand
The pros call this mise en place, which is French for putting in place. If you chop, measure, and portion out what you need ahead of time, you’ll reduce the mess created from a frantic scramble to measure or prep. Set out little bowls or a couple of plates (that are easily washable) and contain all your ingredients as you go.
Clean Up Spills Right Away
Trust me on this: A fresh spill is about a million times easier to clean than one that has baked onto the surface. If you spill something on the floor, stovetop, counter, or backsplash, wipe it up.
Wash As You Go
When you use a knife, wash the knife. When you use a measuring cup, clean the measuring cup afterwards (or at least stick it in the dishwasher). To save water, I keep a spray bottle of my all-purpose cleaner handy and give anything that needs cleaning a quick spray, a scrub with a sponge or cloth, and a rinse and dry. It reduces the strain on the dishwasher and makes cleaning up after cooking much easier, as you’re just putting clean items away instead of washing them.
Invest in a Good Splatter Screen
These things make a huge difference in oil splatter around the stovetop and backsplash, and even the kitchen exhaust filters. They are quite inexpensive and easy to store, and you only need to bring them out while something is cooking on a high heat, spraying up fat and oil. Simply rest it atop your frying pan, and remove when you need to stir or check your food.
Just Before Eating
Sneak time in to clean while you wait.
If you’re waiting for pasta to cook, potatoes to bake or a sauce to reduce, you’ve got a few minutes. Take time to wipe up counters, place items in the dishwasher, or dry anything that’s been hand washed.
Pre-treat anything that goes into the dishwasher.
Give your dishwasher a head start on stubborn food by spraying items with a pre-treater (I just use my all-purpose cleaner). You’ll have an easier time getting items cleaned once they’re in the care of your dishwasher.
Soak items while you eat.
When it’s time to sit down ando enjoy your creation, you should have a relatively clean kitchen. But for the cleanup that remains, give everything a gentle nudge to make it easier to clean later. Remove food from the cooking vessels and pre-soak them with dish soap and hot water while you eat. If there’s stubborn stuff to clean, add a little baking soda or Barkeeper’s Friend.
As I’ve learned to incorporate these habits into my cooking, I feel that my food tastes better, since I don’t have to scramble for an ingredient or interrupt my cooking flow to deal with a surprise mess. It’s also a great way to stay calm when you’re hosting guests for a meal—they can walk in at any time, and your kitchen will look wonderful and smell divine. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got friends coming over for brunch in two hours, and I’ve got some stuff to do!
What are your cook-while-you-clean tips?