I love to cook, but I’m hopeless in terms of cleaning up as I go. When I’ve finished preparing dinner most nights, my kitchen is a minefield of messes: several knives covered with the remnants of various minced herbs and diced vegetables, a wet cutting board reeking of garlic, and two or three pots and pans coated with meat drippings and dried-up sauce. Ever since I got a bunch of high-end kitchen equipment as wedding gifts a few years ago, I’ve felt guilty about my tendency to neglect these implements until long after I’ve finished making (and eating) my meal. If you find yourself doing the same, read these tips for properly using, cleaning, and preserving your cooking gear—and then steel yourself to work up some serious elbow grease.
A good set of knives is a must-have for your kitchen arsenal, but taking care of them can feel like a full-time job. Still, you’ll be thankful for your diligence when you consider how many hundreds of dollars you’re saving by keeping your blades in tip-top shape, rather than having to replace them every couple of years.
Always use knives for their intended purpose—that means not only avoiding slashing things like plastic packaging with your nice cutlery, but also using paring knives for peeling and cutting fruits and vegetables, serrated bread knives for slicing loaves of bread, and butcher or carving knives for handling meat.
Keep your knives sharp at all times. Hone the blades frequently at home using the steel device that comes with most knife sets—position the knife at a twenty-degree angle away from the steel, then pull it toward you with a fluid motion a few times—and take them to a professional sharpener at least once a year (or, better yet, twice).
Wash knives by hand after each use, and never leave them soaking in dishwater (doing so can dull the blades and cause handles made of wood or other organic materials to deteriorate much more quickly). Instead, wipe stainless steel blades with dishwashing liquid and warm water, rinse well, and dry immediately and thoroughly with a paper towel.
Store knives in a safe place where their blades won’t come in contact with potentially damaging surfaces. The ideal solution is a wooden knife block, which you can keep on your counter for easy access; look for one with horizontal slits (or insert knives into vertical slits with the sharp edge facing upward). In a pinch, durable sheaths work for knives you need to keep in a drawer.
Pots and Pans
When cooking with gas, maintain low enough flames to avoid burning the sides of your pots and pans. If your recipe calls for high heat, ensure that the surface area of the base of the pan is large enough to cover powerful flames.
Don’t leave dirty pots and pans sitting out overnight; wash them inside and out soon after you use them, but always allow them to cool first. Store them on hooks or a rack, if possible, instead of stacking them on top of one another.
Scratching the surface of your brand-new, shiny-as-the-chrome-on-a-1960s-Cadillac cookware is horrifying enough to give a gal night terrors for a month (trust me, I’ve been there). To avoid this pitfall, never use abrasive cleaners or steel wool–type scouring pads on stainless steel surfaces. Instead, try a nylon-net pad and a mild cleanser.
If you’re tackling a particularly tough mess, such as a coating of burnt food, soak the pan in warm, soapy water for one hour, then boil the water for fifteen minutes. After you’ve let the water cool slightly, use a nylon scrubbing pad to remove residue. Rinse and repeat as necessary.
Nonstick pans are excellent for many types of cooking, but they’re also fragile. To protect your nonstick cookware’s delicate finish, never use metal utensils with it—only wood, silicone, rubber, and plastics. While nonstick pans are dishwasher-safe, you’ll increase their longevity if you coat their interiors with a thin layer of vegetable oil after each washing. If you have a stained pan, boil a mixture of one cup of water, one-half cup of liquid bleach, and two tablespoons of baking soda in the pan for five minutes before washing.
Wooden Cutting Boards, Butcher Blocks, and Spoons
You wouldn’t soak your cherrywood coffee table in a bubble bath, so why would you think a maple stirring spoon or a bamboo cutting board deserves any less TLC? No matter what its size, any wooden kitchen implement that you purchase needs to be oiled regularly to prevent cracking. Mineral oil works well for this purpose; avoid olive and other vegetable-based oils, as they can contaminate your tools’ surface over time. Using a soft cloth, rub a thin coating of warm oil into the wood, wait thirty minutes, and then wipe off any excess oil. Repeat once or twice over a twenty-four-hour period if you’d like. If you use wooden items frequently, you’ll need to re-oil them approximately every eight weeks; when the wood has become noticeably lighter after regular use, it’s ready for another coat.
Use gentle dishwashing soap and warm water to clean all wooden kitchen equipment by hand, but never leave it to soak. Wash each item as soon as you’ve used it—with each passing minute, more bacteria accumulates on each wooden surface. Then rub a lemon half over it to remove any lingering bacteria, towel-dry completely, and store it in a dry, temperate environment.
Plastic Cutting Boards
Unlike their wooden counterparts, plastic cutting boards are nonporous and therefore resistant to bacteria, a quality that makes them preferable for cutting meat on. But they require equally thorough cleaning with hot, soapy water. While you can generally run them through the dishwasher, make sure your plastic cutting boards can withstand the heat of the water in there before you make a habit of doing so. After washing, pat down the plastic with a dishtowel, and store the board upright (to avoid surface-bacteria retention).
Plastic and Rubber Items
While silicone-rubber cooking implements (spatulas, measuring cups, baking-sheet liners, and so forth) are capable of withstanding high temperatures, ordinary plastic and rubber utensils and containers can melt or crack quickly if they’re exposed to intense heat or even sunlight, so keep them at room temperature and away from strong natural light.
Some plastic and rubber cooking tools are dishwasher-safe; consult the manufacturer’s instructions to determine whether your specific items are. If not, stick with gentle cleansers and pads, and combat stains with a paste made from baking soda and water and applied with a sponge. To deodorize Tupperware and the like, crumple a piece of newspaper inside the container and seal the container overnight.
If you brew your own cup o’ joe every morning, you may not realize just how much gunk is accumulating in your coffeemaker. To sanitize it, clean it once a month with a 1:1 mixture of white vinegar and water. Pour the solution into the machine, then run it through one cycle. Afterward, rinse out both your filter holder and your glass coffeepot thoroughly to wash away the lingering scent of vinegar. Repeat the process two more times to make sure you remove every last bit of residue from the machine, then complete one final cycle using 100 percent water, and voilà—ultra-fresh coffee without any traces of icky buildup.
Clean Kitchen, Happy Home
Sure, most cooking enthusiasts would love to have a full set of top-of-the-line kitchen gear provided by the Food Network (à la Ina Garten), but outfitting your home with good-quality equipment costs a small fortune. If you’ve taken the plunge and invested a good chunk of change in culinary creature comforts, protect your assets by treating them with the same care and respect you’d bestow upon a nice car or a new laptop—wash, dry, protect. Would the Barefoot Contessa leave her dirty Wüsthof knives sitting out on her counter or her Le Creuset Dutch oven encrusted with the burnt remains of a roux? I don’t think so.