New & NowCleaning

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

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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.

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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.

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:

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  • 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.”

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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.

Tags: Kitchen Hacks, Essay