How to Make Kitchen Cleanup Laughably Easy

Cooking seems sooooo easy on TV food shows, doesn't it? Martha Stewart, Ina Garten, Emeril, choose whichever TV chef you like: they all seem to whoosh into their studio kitchens and whip up amazing meals without any stress, annoyance or effort.

Of course it's no coincidence that in the entire history of broadcasting, no TV chef has ever washed a dish.

Hmm. That's why cooking seems so easy on TV! All that annoying and time-consuming cleanup happens off-screen, after the show's over. Some intern probably does it.

Sadly, we don't have interns here at Casual Kitchen. When I cook, the person who cleans up is... me. And, as many home cooks know, cleanup can take as long as the entire cooking process itself--which means that many of those seemingly easy recipes cooked on TV actually take twice as long to make once you consider cleanup time.

Finally there's the emotional cost involved in cleaning up. It's draining enough to try out a complex new recipe for the very first time, or to host a big dinner party for a group of friends or family. But once dinner's all over, and find yourself facing down a mountain of dirty dishes, crusty pots and greasy utensils precariously piled up in every corner of your kitchen....well, I don't know about you, but that's when I usually curl into a ball on the linoleum floor, whimpering.

I can't have my readers whimpering. So in today's post I'll share with you my top tips for managing and minimizing the challenges of cleanup. And PS: if you'd like to share any additional tips with all the readers here at CK, please add your thoughts in the comments!

1) Recipe Selection
Believe it or not, you can make a big dent in the dishes before you start cooking. How? By choosing the right recipes. Recipes that involve multiple steps or separate processes typically yield many more dirty dishes, mixing bowls and additional utensils--all of which will need to be washed. In contrast, big batches of soups (see tip #3 below) or healthy, simple and laughably cheap dishes like CK's own Black Beans and Rice will leave you with very little to clean up beyond a cutting board, a knife and the dishes you use to eat.

2) Clean As You Go
Possibly the most discouraging thing in all of cooking is a gigantic mound of dirty dishes in your sink at the end of a big dinner. Readers: don't whimper on your linoleum floor like I do. Instead, wash as many of these dishes as you can while you prepare the food.

You're likely to have frequent down-time periods while preparing most recipes. Perhaps you'll find yourself waiting for water to boil, waiting for an oven to preheat, or standing around doing nothing while a cake or casserole bakes. Put that time to maximum advantage by cleaning and putting away a few dishes. A few minutes here and there of efficiently-used "intra-recipe" time will keep you on top of the cleanup--rather than letting the cleanup get on top of you.

3) One Pot Dishes
There's a certain type of ideal recipe that's perfect for the dish-phobic cook. The one-pot recipe. Soups, stews and many sauces are classic examples. You make them by simply chucking everything into one pot. Best of all, when you're done eating you can put the whole pot right into the fridge to be reheated for your next meal. Heck, why not leave the ladle and spatula right in the pot too?

The result? Not only do you have only one dirty pot to wash, you can even defer washing it until days later--after you've finished off all the leftovers! See CK's Laughably Easy Lentil Soup, Groundnut Stew, Yellow Split Pea Soup, and the popular variation Fiery Sausage and Split Pea Soup for textbook examples of one pot meals.

4) Don't Wait--Do It Now
The only thing worse than a mountain of dirty dishes in your kitchen.... is a mountain of dried dirty dishes in your kitchen the next day. Keep in mind that dishes get harder to clean the longer they sit. Which means your cleanup task grows in duration and difficulty the longer you put it off. Don't wait and make this job even worse--get it over with now.

5) Enlist Help
Sure, you might not have your own unpaid intern at home. But many of us have kids, a roommate or--in rare instances--a compliant spouse. Any of these hypothetical beings might be surprisingly willing to trade cleanup duties up for a delicious hot meal. Here at Casual Kitchen, Laura and I have successfully used this technique for years to cajole each other into helping out. Face it: cleanup just isn't so bad when there's somebody else doing the cooking.

Readers, what are your favorite tips for making cleanup easier? What have I missed?

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Eleonora said...

Dan, you forgot investing in a dish washer!

Meghan said...

Fill up one side of your sink, or a big bowl, to put dirty dishes in as you go, have a trash can or bowl nearby for garbage, and if cutting anything juicy put a towel under your cutting board.

februarymakeup said...

Just keep a goat in the cupboard under your sink!

Karin said...

I modify recipes all the time to use fewer pots and pans. The other day I made pizza with roasted onion and broccoli rabe that required roasting the onions and sauteing the greens in two different pans. Instead, I sauteed the onions and then the greens in the same pan. It was a sacrifice I was willing to make to have one fewer pan to wash. :)

chacha1 said...

@ februarymakeup, LOL. We all need a goat!

I often use the same pan for different stages of a meal prep. There is no earthly reason chicken can't be cooked in the same pan the bok choy was braised in. Just transfer the veg to a dish (for quick reheat in the microwave later), pour off the liquid, wipe off the pan's edge, add some oil, and go to town.

Typically I get away with this, I guess, because my vegetable preps always take longer than my meat preps, so I don't usually try to do them simultaneously.

Exception would be if I'm broiling. And to be honest, if I'm broiling a steak, I'm probably doing a tomato salad on the side which gets assembled directly on the dinner plates.

"Clean as you go" is the almost-never-fails tip. There is ALWAYS downtime, unless you're wokking.

Joanne said...

As someone with a kitchen full of dirty dishes right this second...I needed this!

Ronda said...

I use all these! And I'll enlarge on them a bit:

Fill your sink with dishwater when you start, and toss things in as you finish with them. Even if you don't have time to wash anything until you're done, they have mostly soaked clean.

When I'm baking, I have a set of measuring cups/spoons for dry things, and another for wet things. The dry ones can be reused over and over without washing, and the wet ones you throw into the sink so that if you need them again, you just swish and rinse, and they're ready.

Always look first at the dirty dishes rather than getting out something else. If you just need a place to park some chopped veggies while you use the cutting board for something else, an emptied can or bag might work, and will make one less thing to wash.

And I definitely second the dishwasher advice! Nothing makes a big cooking day nicer. :)

Julia said...

As an addendum to the "clean as you go" I always clean everything before I sit down to dinner. That way, when I'm through with dinner, I only have a few dishes to contend with, and it seems less daunting.

Anonymous said...

I clean as I go along, etc etc. But sometimes I sigh and looked waif-like just when husband walks in. Then he volunteers to help. Much faster method of clean-up, lots more fun, and sometimes I even squirt him with the sprayer. Sometimes I read from a joke book while we work (I usually don't ask him for help, he works very hard all day.) Laughter makes the job enjoyable.

James said...

I have actually cling filmed a whole work bench a few times. You make as much mess as you like all over the bench, pick up the cling film and throw away - clean bench. Same thing as a disposable tablecloth really.

Foil the top of roasting trays? Similar thing - your roast/ grilled food drips all over the foil and you take up the foil and throw it away - roasting tray much easier to clean.

Spread the cooking between different days - spreading a whole dinner party over a few days rather than trying to do it all at the same time, and you forget that you're doing the same amount of cleaning up as it's just spread over more time.

Disposable foil trays - not exactly environmentally friendly, but you use them and throw them away rather than washing up. We cooked in a house where the host had stacks of them for this very purpose. Too easy!

Don't weigh ingredients into individual bowls - you're going to have to wash up each one! Sounds so obvious, but you'd be amazed by the amount of people I see do it - it's what you see on TV innit.

figleaf said...

Yes to dishwashers. A good modern one will always use less than a full sink plus rinsing. It's been a few years but I figures out the energy electricity to run a dishwasher (with no dry cycle) is about the same as what you need to heat the extra water. So... It's basically a wash. :-) Energy wise anyway. Time and sanitation wise it's a huge bonus.

That plus clean as you go. And yes, pick or modify recipes for less prep and fewer dishes.

Good post, Daniel.


Brooke @ Foodwoolf said...

What a great tips list, Daniel! I think that if you don't clean as you go, you'll probably never want to cook b/c there will be so many dishes to do. Thanks for the reminder of how to stay ahead of the pile!

The DutchMac Tribe said...

On the weeks when I'm organized enough to meal-plan, I'll also do most of the meal prep in one go. Having the knife and cutting board out ONCE to slice, dice, and chop all the meat and veg AND THEN PORTION IT OUT in cheap little plastic sandwich bags saves a TON of time (I then recycle all plastic bags that don't contain raw meat). I do this with baking, too. If I have the flour/sugar/raising agents out for one recipe, I might as well measure them out for multiples and have them ready to go in the cupboard. It's kind of like having your own stashes of Hamburger Helper and Betty Crocker mixes, but made with real ingredients instead of science projects.

This takes a little bit of time ONCE on the weekends, but ends up saving a lot of time and dishes during the week when time is most valuable.

Eleni said...

I wholeheartedly agree with Ronda - put things in the sink to soak as you go along = no more crusty dishes!

But I would also like to mention doubling-up: whenever my mum is serving boiled peas and carrots with a meal, she will boil the peas in one pan, and the carrots in another - SUCH a waste of time! I double-up rice, pasta, and veg all the time. We're lucky enough to have a rice cooker as well, so a lot of the time I'll just throw all my veg and seasoning in the with the rice from the beginning, and it all cook itself!

I've also got into the habit of chopping my veggies first, then putting them onto a plate until I need them, then using the same chopping board for the meat. Of course you can then serve the food on the same plate! Even if the meat needs to be cooked first, I find this to be much less effort than having to chop the meat, then wash the board, then chop the veggies on it - less time pressure, too!

Lana said...

For everyday meals, I don't fret too much - I have a 13 and 14 year old daughters to set, bus, and wash. But for the bigger parties, I have to clean as I go (my mother would not have approved otherwise, and I am sure she knew it from across the ocean:)
Great tip on picking the right recipe! I have to implement that one:)
Helpful, as usual!

Tragic Sandwich said...

Clean-as-you-go is key for me, and that applies to things that are handwashed and things that get put into the dishwasher. We have a toddler, so it seems like there are always things to be cleaned--but better to do them in smaller batches than to have a mountain of dishes.