Should You Clean as You're Cooking or After You're Done?

January 25, 2018

Animated movies have a tendency to stretch the truth. They’d have us believe, for instance, that a mouse can slice and stew a vegetable dish worthy of a Michelin star or that an industrious, well-meaning waitress can instantly become an amphibian. But it’s a different kind of far-fetched trope that brings me here to quibble.

I’m here to complain about the myth of the animated self-cleaning kitchen. You know the one. It’s the stuff of Beauty and the Beast and Fantasia dreamscapes: plates and teacups seeing themselves into cupboards, brooms perking up and dragging themselves across floors. Without an ounce of human exertion, the kitchen cleans itself in a manic self-administered chore sequence, usually set to frenzied music. In one particularly egregious example, from Disney’s The Sword in the Stone, a wizard watches—and sings—as stacks of dirty dishes four or five rows deep (at least) spring into the air and zoom into sudsy casks of water. They emerge lustrous and clean. It’s a dishwasher’s daydream, a chore chart self-actualized.

I protest not out of an intense desire to preserve the world as I know it, but rather because I wish, oh so badly, that dishes that washed themselves did exist. To see them rendered on screen is but a taunt, a reminder that behind every good meal is a stack of dishes that sit, inanimate, in their own filth. “These dishes aren’t gonna clean themselves.” The adage does not lie. No, no, these dishes will not. I hang my head in all-too-knowing forfeit.

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The only concession I can muster, my only plan of attack, is to try with all my might to clean the kitchen as I cook. After I chop, I bring the cutting board and my knife to the sink for a rinse. As water boils, I take a second to lather a bowl or clean the utensils that have gathered around my work space. It’s an exercise in simultaneity, a culinary multitask, but it beats a leaning tower of plates—and pots and pans and bowls. I’ve cooked, however, with people who prefer to hold off on cleaning. They Tetris their cookware into an increasingly filling sink and promise to get to it later. They spend their cooking time, well, cooking and leave the unpleasant bits for the end. Though I abide mainly by the first method, I see merit in both approaches. Curious to know where others stood, I reached out to the Food52 staff. Their responses were as follows:

  • Hana, our senior lifestyle editor, was quick to chime in: “Clean as you cook, please (my husband is the opposite and it drives me up the wall).”
  • “Literally same," our managing editor, Joanna, concurred.
  • “Agreed!! I have a love/hate relationship when my fiancé cooks for that exact same reason (happy I don’t have to cook, but hate how he doesn’t clean as he goes!)” said Kaitlyn, our account manager.

The results for a clean-as-you-go approach continued to pour in:

  • Megan, digital designer: “Clean as you cook because #tinynycapartment and I don’t have room for all that.”
  • Victoria, controller: “CLEAN AS YOU COOK”

Then June, our digital design director, complicated things: “I am very strongly in the clean-as-you-cook camp in theory, but in reality, when I’m banging through my kitchen on a weeknight frantically trying to get dinner on the table quickly with a two-year-old, it often becomes clean after cooking.”

She has a point: Cleaning as you go is, in theory, a lot more efficient, but it’s not always the most plausible approach. We’re busy, messy people who can’t always be bothered to cook with the precision of a Swiss watchmaker. Rather, we’re distracted or tired and just want to save that dish for tomorrow (or the next day). Maybe to say that one is better than the other is misguided. Perhaps there’s a way to fold both into our cooking practices? What’s the word for half-cleaning as you go, half-cleaning after?

To those who keep their kitchens spick-and-span, keep on. The world needs tidy cooks who leave a kitchen looking better than when they entered it. And for those who wait to wash, no matter. You’re deliberate and live in the moment, and it must be serving you well. Maybe neither is better than the other, but rather different (ahhh, nuance). So, to each their own, I guess. Meanwhile, I’ll be over here casting a spell on my dirty plates, hoping, wishing, praying that they bounce up and rinse themselves.

When do you wash? Do you belong staunchly in either camp? Let us know your approach in the comments.

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Valerio is a freelance food writer, editor, researcher and cook. He grew up in his parent's Italian restaurants covered in pizza flour and drinking a Shirley Temple a day. Since, he's worked as a cheesemonger in New York City and a paella instructor in Barcelona. He now lives in Berlin, Germany where he's most likely to be found eating shawarma.


Mish V. December 15, 2018
I am definitely someone who operates in both camps. I do clean what I can as I go but some things just cannot be cleaned before you sit down to eat, otherwise you'd be having a cold meal and that's never appealing.
Frances D. February 26, 2018
I try my best to clean as I go. If it doesn’t happen, so what. Just hate to spend the extra time cleaning. Best of all - house rules: no dessert till all the other dishes, pots & pans are done!
Martin M. February 26, 2018
definitely clean as I cook... makes everything much easier, at least for me, and according to other comments I am not the only one... love the challenge to cook for a bunch of friends and to find myself in a kitchen who looks tidy and as though I wouldn’t have prepared a tasty meal... same after my guests are gone: I HAVE to tidy up right away, it (I 😉) cannot wait until the next morning... bon appétit from the South of France... Martin
Rachel S. February 2, 2018
Most likely the only people that don't clean as they go have a dishwasher whether it be the old fashion type of a teenager or young adult living rent free
or the modern kind that is installed under your countertop.
Erik W. February 2, 2018
I do nearly all of the cooking in our house, so I feel possessive of the kitchen ... it's my space, and I like to keep it tidy for ease of use and less stress. :-) I'm definitely a clean as I go type of person, and I think I've learned it from the pros. Last year my wife bought me an all-day cooking class at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris (we're lucky enough to be living here for a couple of years for work), and the chef wouldn't let us proceed to the next item until we had cleaned up after the previous one. And in every professional kitchen I've visited as a cameraman on TV cooking shows, they ALWAYS clean as they go ... it just makes things easier. Also, I find that everything is much easier to clean if you get to it right away ... otherwise things tend to dry on and harden, making cleaning later a real chore. And my pet peeve at home is when the kids dump their dirty dishes in the kitchen sink, making it completely unusable when it's time for me to start cooking dinner. And the dishwasher is two feet away! Haha!! :-)
Karen G. February 2, 2018
38 years ago my husband and I struck a deal; whoever cooks the other cleans. When our 4 children were young, my dog was my best assistant in the kitchen. Hardly needed to sweep the floor ;o). Now as empty nesters, I can't cook without hot soapy water at the ready. Having just remodeled our kitchen, keeping stainless steal shiny is a pain -but a must to avoid stains. If you've invested in your cooking tools why would you not take care of them? Also, on a side note, I think I've avoided the flu this season due to frequent hand / Kitchen washing.
DAVID February 1, 2018
50/50 Always start every meal with a empty dishwasher. Then add to it as you cook. Save the counter tops and stove for afterwards it will help burn a few calories also. #keepmoving
M.L. February 1, 2018
Always, my Mom says to clean as you cook and when your meal is finished, your kitchen is clean. My choice is to clean as I cook but sometimes it depends on the dish.
M.L. February 1, 2018
Always, my Mom says to clean as you cook and when your meal is finished, your kitchen is clean. My choice is to clean as I cook but sometimes it depends on the dish.
Lee U. February 1, 2018
My husband cleans... As I cook. That's his job if he wants to eat.
Brenda February 1, 2018
Clean as I go, always have, spouse polar opposite, generally can't cook together. He will get creative, trash the kitchen and be too tired to clean up and I will do it for him, mostly because I like it to be clean in the morning. (37 years)
Roger C. February 1, 2018
Interesting. My wife tends to trash the kitchen but my approach is different. If the kitchen is kept clean, I help cook, keep things clean, stack and unload the dishwasher, but once she makes a mess, it's all hers.
Irene B. February 1, 2018
When you are cooking a Blue Apron meal which involves a lot of prep, you have to be fully focused on the cooking . So there’s no time for cleaning. Unfortunately there’s a lot of cleaning afterward.
tony February 1, 2018
Absolutley. Clean as you cook. Just as most have expressed....drives me crazy when my wife cooks. a pile of bowels, pots, spoons....when a quick rinse can keep the use and mess to a minimum. Clean as you cook is just optimizing your time.
Blork February 1, 2018
It seems weird to NOT clean as you cook. And possibly a bit rude, since it is often someone else who cleans (or at least helps clean) after the meal. Leaving a big mess for someone else is a terrible thing to do. Cooks should own their mess and clean it up themselves!

Personally, my motto is to never stand still when cooking. If you have a minute between steps (waiting for something to boil, etc.) then clean something! It's very nice to finish a great meal and then have only a small cleanup to deal with. And nothing ruins a great meal (if you ask me) like having an hour's worth of cleanup work to do afterwards.
DocP February 1, 2018
It all depends on what I am cooking and how complicated it is. Sometimes it is easy to clean as you go, and I do but other times it is not possible so it gets done after we eat..
Roger C. February 1, 2018
My FIrst Law of the Kitchen is. Empty the dishwasher before you start. This lets you keep your sink clear and usable. As you use items, they get rinsed and go straight into the dishwasher. My Last Law of the Kitchen is when you finish, run the dishwasher even if it isn't full. That way it'll be ready for you to empty the next time you start using the kitchen.
Brenda February 1, 2018
I do the same thing! Great idea.
Roger C. February 1, 2018
There's another rule that states (with very few exceptions) If it can't go into the dishwasher, I don't need it.
Nancy W. February 1, 2018
Clean while I cook is my mantra.
If it's not possible I cope.
Maureen February 1, 2018
I read somewhere (in one of her cookbooks?) that Julia Child said to clean at the end. That's what I do unless I am having company. I have one of those nasty island/bars that has the kitchen sink on it so when having guests I must wash as I go or they will see the entire mess.
Teresa February 1, 2018
I always clean as I cook. It helps me feel less overwhelmed.
PetraAlexandra February 1, 2018
Totally clean as you go! There are some things I can't keep up with (especially on hectic nights), but I always find a way to half-clean while cooking. Makes the aftermath so much easier :)