What's the Best Way to Wash Dishes?

March 12, 2018
Scrub-a-dub-dub! Photo by Mark Weinberg

Welcome to Spring Clean Your Life, your one-stop shop for gotta-try-those tips & bookmark-me inspiration to spruce up your kitchen and home this season—and well beyond.

Dish washing, surprisingly, is a subject that has the unique ability to drum up conversation. What appears simple, mundane even, is anything but. Take, for example, our own Amanda Hesser who, in her book Cooking for Mr. Latte, describes the unique anxiety that watching someone else wash dishes can ignite:

“He does like to wash dishes. But this has only compounded the problem. Since I do not have a dishwasher, the dishes must be done by hand. We have different methods. Mr. Latte washes dishes in an empty sink with a soapy sponge, then risnes them. I, on the other hand, rinse the dishes, then fill the sink with very hot soapy water and scrub them with a dishcloth or coarse sponge before rinsing them again.”

I kind of vibe with her. There’s really nothing as frustrating as watching someone mess with a process you might otherwise have down pat (control freaks, raise your hands!). Dishwashing is definitely one of those duties. Amanda’s approach is specific: She loads a sink with dirty dishes then drowns them all in warm, sudsy water. One by one, she picks out the pieces and gives them a good scrub with a dish towel before placing them on a drying rack. Read more about her technique here:

But Amanda’s just one person. I was curious to see how the other half lives scrubs. Just recently, I learned a new cleaning method that’s turning my dish washing routine on its head. It actually comes from the father of a friend, a man whose guiding light is efficiency. He gives all his dishes a good rinse in the sink then turns off the faucet and soaps up his sponge. With the water off, he scrubs all his dirty dishes, coating them in bubbles and stacking them in a pile next to the sink. Next, he turns the faucet back on and rinses each dish, one by one, under hot water and organizes them to dry. His method is good because it doesn’t waste water—or time—and makes sure no resources are wasted while you, the dishwasher, idle. I like where he’s coming from, so I’ve folded this technique into my daily ritual. But what do other staff members think? Where do they stand on the matter? I asked them:

  • Connor, Social Media Manager: “Work from smallest to largest dishes. Makes organizing the dish rack easier, in my opinion.”
  • Eunice, our Director of Brand Activation, countered sharply: “I'm the opposite. I get all the large dishes out of the way so I can stack the small ones on top of the large ones in my drying rack (or dry the large ones separately). Then wash all the utensils last since they usually end up on the bottom of the sink.”

Hmm. They’ve both got a point, size definitely does matter. Especially when it comes to order. I could see how, when stacking and arranging a dish rack, starting small is the way to go. However, I totally know where Eunice is coming from when she talks about all those utensils that wind up on the bottom of the sink. It’s almost like gravity works better on your forks, knives, spoons—I’m often left with a basin full of dirty flatware begging to be cleaned. As for preferred washing utensils:

  • Eunice had more opinions: “Steel wool FTW with stainless steel pots & pans!”
  • While Hana, our Senior Lifestyle Editor, swore by one item: "Korean rubber gloves, always.”
  • Joyce, our Digital Ad Ops Manager, was a fellow Korean glove supporter and like Eunice, preferred washing big to small.

The debate doesn't just end there, however. It seems another facet of the dishwashing debacle had yet to rear its ugly head: Does one soap the sponge then wet it or wet the sponge then soap it? I'll admit, I'd never given any thought to this particular brand of cleaning quandary, but it seemed some staffers had a thing or two to say:

  • Karen, Executive Assistant, had this to say: "My husband puts soap on the sponge and then lets water run over the soaped up sponge before washing the dishes?! Isn't that a waste of soap? I wet the sponge and then add soap."

  • Meanwhile our office manager, Nick, is quite the opposite: "My mother won't let me wash the dishes at home because I put soap in the sponge and run hot water on it and it infuriates her."

Sponges, in general, seemed to provoke fierce emotions: "Always squeeze out the sponge after you use it! Nothing is worse than a cold, soaking wet sponge," said Managing Editor, Joanna. Meanwhile, Jackson, our Associate Buyer, stuck by his principles: "Really try to rinse everything off the dish before I use the sponge on it because I hate when food gets caught in a sponge (especially things like cheese). Also, only use a dish sponge for doing dishes, never use that sponge for wiping down counters, etc."

And then because no good saga is over without a twist, our data analyst, Sarah, surprised me with the mention of a product I had never heard of: “I'm particular about drying. I don't use a drying rack because I know it will sit for long and they can be difficult to clean. And I don't like drying mats because I don't think they're very clean. I use a roller mat. I roll it over half my sink to dry. It also forces you to put dishes away quicker to have full usage of the sink. Also they’re really easy to clean and store the roller mat.” Interesting take, I can’t say I’ve ever heard of roller mats, but I’m definitely intrigued.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“Forget little to big or big to little...In Home Economics class (I am of the age that, in NZ where I grew up, it was still compulsory for girls!) was taught that you start with glassware, then cutlery, then plates, and then finally move on to pots and serving dishes, i.e., from cleanest to dirtiest. And you filled up the sink with water, washed them all in the same water, before rinsing in VERY hot water to kill off the last bugs. This uses less water AND less soap.”
— Vicky

But I think Kaitlyn, our Senior Account Manager, had the best response. Her approach is definitely more hands-off: "Does just putting them in the dishwasher count as a technique?"

No matter how you slice it, we’ve all got our own way of scrubbing. Some are careful to clean the bottom of their dishes and others would simply pay that no mind. It’s safe to say there’s no correct method, just the way that works best for you. The only thing I’m going to have to say is a requisite, is that the dish comes out clean. We can at least agree on that, right?

What’s your dish washing approach? Tell us how you clean in the comments below.

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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.


Tiger S. January 10, 2021
My mother-in-law took offense when I wouldn't let her wash dishes at my house. But I couldn't stand to watch her method -- or my own mother's either (which is the same as my mother-in-law's). I gather the dishes onto the counter, then fill one side of the sink with hot, soapy water. Then, one by one, I wash the dishes using a cellulose sponge cloth (LOVE those things!) and stack them on the drying rack which sits atop a drying mat. I wash plates first, then glassware, then silverware and bowls. Pots and pans are always last, and I don't typically wash them in that same water. I just squirt a dab of soap into the pot, add water, and scrub the pot. If we've used something like a big gumbo pot, then I use that as my sink. The MAIN thing, though, is that there is only ONE dish in the sink at a time. I can't stand watching someone fish around in a sink full of dishes clanging against each other! Oh, and pots and pans I hand dry -- they take up too much room for the drying rack.
Tom December 16, 2019
Fill a large bowl with hot water and soap. Wash the dishes. Rinse with hot water. Dry the dishes with clean towel. Change the water as needed. That's all. Easy. And the dishes don't sit in a dirty sink!
Brenda C. June 4, 2018
I use the remaining boiling water in a kettle I've boiled for coffee or tea. I pour some in cups, glasses, bowls & soak the cutlery in them. I use a sponge that has dish soap drizzled into it before lubricating with boiling water as well as a scrubby and fully soap and scrub everything, inside out, head to toe. Then rinse in cold water. Air dry. Dishes are so clean they gleam. Seriously.
SDreamer March 16, 2018
We reuse small plastic containers for washing dishes (think like the cottage cheese container size). We have a two compartment sink. In the left we do the dirty work, the right is a holding compartment. We do a light rinse on the dishes, which have been stacked large to small, to not dirty up the sponge to much. Then we use the container mentioned earlier, on small spurt of soap, fill it up with water (warm preferred but I don't want to run water until it's warm, so cold works). Then we start suds-ing/soaping/scrubbing the dishes and placing them in the right compartment, this time in the reverse order of small to large (I usually do a bowl or a glass tupperware and put all the silverware in there). In the left side where I'm scrubbing all the soapy residue falls on the dishes below to give them a presoap soak, so by the time I get to them it's easier to clean. Then once everything is done scrubbed, turn the water on medium-medium high, and start rinsing again in the left compartment, letting you rinse out your sink as you're rinsing and quickly putting all of it into the drying rack just right of the right compartment. I find this the most efficient way of washing. Mainly use the dishwasher as an overfill drying rack, but at least once a week we use the dishwasher at the end of the day to keep it going.
BerryBaby March 16, 2018
1. Rise dishes; stack orderly to right of sink
2. Fill sink with hot, soapy water
3. Put silverware in sink, wash each piece with CLEAN dishcloth
4. Rinse with hot water
5. Dry silverware and put away
6. Glassware next; same procedure, wash, rinse, dry, put away
7. Next plates, cups, lastly pots and pans.
8. Drain sink, rinse out dish cloth. Clorox wipe sink.
9. Mission accomplished!
Lost_in_NYC March 16, 2018
I don't understand why the author thought their friend's father's technique was revolutionary - its been around for ages. That's how washing dishes (sans dishwasher machine) should be done and is done in other parts of the world outside the US where clean water is scare and/or people know not to waste. More importantly, this method saves you time and the hassle of cleaning up after a sink full of bubbles.

The American way of washing dishes in a big soapy sink is messy and wasteful!
Vicky March 15, 2018
Forget little to big or big to little...In Home Economics class (I am of the age that, in NZ where I grew up, it was still compulsory for girls!) was taught that you start with glassware, then cutlery, then plates, and then finally move on to pots and serving dishes, i.e., from cleanest to dirtiest. And you filled up the sink with water, washed them all in the same water, before rinsing in VERY hot water to kill off the last bugs. This uses less water AND less soap.
Greenstuff March 15, 2018
You're all wrong!!! But since you're the one who's doing them, have at it.
Smaug March 15, 2018
Why on earth do people use sponges? Save up $2 and get a pile of rags- they do a better job on the dishes and you can throw them in the wash at the end of the day- or 5 times a day, if you want.