I wash so many dishes that I sometimes dream I’m standing over the sink washing dishes. When I have this lucid nightmare, I tell myself, you wash enough dishes during the day, stop washing them in your sleep! The unconscious dishwashing immediately stops. But the conscious dishwashing never does.
Our dishes tend to pile up because I prepare staples from scratch—pasta, sourdough bread, the yeast for the bread. I don’t buy disposable items—plastic wrap, plastic baggies, tinfoil. And I use jars for all the things (fermenting, shopping, freezing, storing) and wash lots of them (wide-mouth jars you can fit your hand into clean up more easily). I consider the dishes a small price to pay for the scrumptious food.
The following tips will help reduce the number of dishes you wash while conserving precious resources—water, energy and your time.
Dishes and accoutrements to reduce washing dishes
1. Own fewer dishes
If we had 100 cups in our cupboard, at some point, I would find 100 dirty cups scattered throughout my home. With fewer cups available to dirty, we (I) never come across a daunting number of cups to wash. Owning fewer cups also increases the likelihood that family members will reuse a “dirty” cup they drank water out of earlier in the day.
2. Banish (most) specialty tools
If you have your heart set on this $24 pancake batter dispenser to make uniform sized-pancakes, for example, try reusing the measuring cup you poured liquid ingredients into when mixing the batter. Tools designed for only one task create more work because now you have this extra thing you have to wash. And it also requires precious storage space.
3. Use your hands as tools
When forming pizza dough for example, I first shape the dough ball into a disk on a floured surface using my palm. With my knuckles, I push the ball down and out, adding a bit more flour as I continue to stretch and move the dough around until it forms a flat round. Although my tapered rolling pin does a nice job, I’d rather not wash it and my hands are already covered in flour so…
4. If you have a scale, use it
You won’t need to dirty a cup to measure sourdough discard to make these chocolate chip cookies, for example. Everything goes straight into the bowl and the scale renders more accurate measurements.
5. Keep the platters in the cupboard
You may want to haul out the platters to serve Thanksgiving dinner and other special meals but for everyday cooking, place the pots or pans of food on the kitchen table (on trivets). When you do use platters, place multiple main or side dishes on it.
6. Cook in cast iron
I almost always bake galettes in cast-iron pans. Cast iron cleans up with just a bit of water and a loofah or brush to scrub away stuck-on bits of food. Roasting and baking fatty foods also adds a layer of seasoning to your pan.
7. Switch to induction when you buy your next cooktop or range
Okay, this may not actually reduce the number of dishes you wash, but you will spend less time cleaning. Gas stoves are a pain to clean (and they pollute our homes).
If you’re in the market for a new cooktop or range, consider induction not only because it emits no methane and heats water lightning fast and lowers your energy bill but also because it cleans up so easily—usually with the mere wipe of a wet cloth.
Cooking methods to reduce washing dishes
8. Cook one-pot (or one-pan) dishes
9. Cook hand-held foods
Utensil- and plate-free foods will cut down on loads of dishes when you entertain. Lately I’ve been making calzone with a sourdough discard crust. Essentially, shape the dough into a round, fill half the crust with various toppings, fold the dough across the filling and seal the edges by pressing them together with wet fingers. Bake, slice, eat—no utensils needed.
10. Increase the food-to-dirty-dish ratio
If you’re about to mess up the kitchen, make it worth your while and triple a recipe. You’ll yield three times the food for the same number of dishes—a three-to-one ratio. Freeze some of the food to enjoy later.
11. Plan your cooking strategy
Let’s say you crave pastry—always a good idea! I prefer to make pastry quickly in a food processor but dislike washing the food processor bowl. So I’ll use it at least a couple of times before washing it. While the pastry chills, I might switch out the blade for the slicer disk to cut uniform apple slices for an apple galette. If I made lots of pastry, in the now-empty bowl, I could make a lemony filling for a tart. Three uses, one wash, two desserts. Or more if I made extra pastry to bake later.
12. Eyeball it
If you feel comfortable, eyeball measurements such as two tablespoons of olive oil when cooking (but not so much for baking because chemistry). You’ll wash fewer oily measuring spoons.
Attitudes and methods to reduce washing dishes
13. Don’t wash clean stuff
A dry scoop doling out flour likely only needs a wipe afterward. Or, keep a one-cup scoop in your flour jar and use it over and over. Similarly, after emptying a jar of dried beans, if it looks clean, refill it with more dried beans without washing it.
14. Be less picky
I’m not suggesting you serve food on dirty plates but you can drink tea or coffee from the same cup all day and you won’t die.
My sourdough starter Eleanor lives in her jar for months and months. If I get to the bottom of the jar, only then do I wash it. Fermented foods are very safe. The acidic environment they create kill harmful bacteria that may find their way in there. My jar may be crusty but it’s not contaminated. Same with my discard jar. I add and remove discard over many months, using the same jar. (Go here for more on maintaining sourdough discard.)
15. Clean as you go
Wiping up spills as they happen, returning ingredients to the pantry after cooking and emptying the compost bucket regularly so the new food scraps occupying your cutting board have a place to go will all make cleaning up more efficient. You also won’t have to search for certain tools or dishes when you need them because your kitchen will remain fairly organized while you cook.
16. Scrape dishes immediately after eating
To quickly remove bits of food from dishes, grab a (dirty) fork or knife and scrape the bits into a compost bucket. No water required.
17. Soak dishes in captured water before washing
Place dishes in the basin of a double sink (stopper closed) or in a dishpan or in a large bowl placed in the sink. As you wash an apple or rinse your hands or fill a glass of water, do it over the basin/dishpan/bowl to capture the overflow and soak the dishes (you’ll conserve water this way). Washing soaked dishes requires less time and effort.
18. Rinse a bunch of dishes at once
After washing the dishes, fill that basin/dishpan/bowl with clean water and submerge the soapy dishes in it to rinse them.
19. Run a (full) dishwasher
A dishwasher will buy you many hours of time. I’m not sure non-efficient models exist today but perhaps my drought-colored Californian lenses have biased my thinking. I did recently see a Cascade ad that urged consumers to wash small loads of dishes (and subsequently consume more product). The ad argued that because today’s dishwashers require much less water than hand washing dishes, running the dishwasher filled with only a few dishes conserves water—assuming hand washing is the only other option. We have a third option: wash full loads and buy less Cascade.
Better yet, buy no Cascade. And you won’t want to after reading ProPublica’s in-depth piece, The Dirty Secret of America’s Clean Dishes.
Our reporting offers a rare look at how the production of a single consumer good — Cascade dishwasher detergent — contributes to elevated cancer risk for an estimated nearly 1 million people in multiple communities across the South.ProPublica
Your probably now wondering which dishwasher detergent you should use. Check Environmental Working Group’s rankings from least toxic to most toxic. To arrive at these rankings, EWG scientists analyze the ingredients in cleaning products, worker safety documents, governmental and academic information on toxicity and more.
20. Train your family
Unless you want to do all the dishes yourself. As any good salesperson will tell you, to convince your family to do things they don’t want to do, like chores, sell them on the benefits. Tell them they’ll save time; they’ll be able to find their favorite mug whenever they need it; your kitchen and home will look tidier when their friends visit… you’ll make it work. And you’ll work less!
Buy my award-winning cookbook!
- Taste Canada silver for single-subject cookbooks
- Second-place Gourmand cookbook award in the category of food waste
- Shortlisted for an award from the International Association of Culinary Professionals