How to Wash Dishes by Hand Until They’re Sparkling Clean

Use these tips for hand washing dishes, whether you’re dealing with stuck-on food or dinnerware that can’t be placed in the dishwasher.

Hand washing dishes may not be as common as letting the dishwasher handle clean-up, but it can be one of the best ways to get dishes clean, especially if you’re dealing with a tough mess. Some dishes aren’t dishwasher-safe (most types of china, cast iron, and crystal are usually hand-wash only), or you might need to use a little elbow grease for baked-on food and other messes. Whether you like leaving the dishes to soak or getting them washed and dried right away, a few easy tips can make it much easier to hand wash dishes until they’re clean and spotless.

How to Wash Dishes By Hand

Washing dishes by hand is simple but there are a few important things to keep in mind for the most sparkling clean results.

Start With the Right Supplies

It might seem obvious, but you’ll need a few basic items to make hand washing dishes a success, such as a sponge and a concentrated dish soap. Wearing rubber gloves can also help protect your hands and prevent skin from drying out if you’re hand washing frequently, but having a sponge is a must. “Sponges with a soft side and a slightly more textured side are helpful for cleaning both delicate items and dishes that need a bit more scrubbing power,” says Morgan Eberhard, senior scientist for North American home care at P&G. “Since sponges are in close contact with food, they are susceptible to harboring bacteria if overused. Make sure to rinse and wring them out thoroughly after each use, clean them by running them through the dishwasher, and change them out regularly—especially if you start to notice a smell.”

Having a drying rack on the side can also help when washing dishes. It’ll provide a separate place to set clean dishes, and can start air-drying dishes as you continue to wash.

washing dishes by hand

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To Soak, or Not to Soak?

Whether you soak or not, start by scraping or wiping any large pieces of food off the dishes into a trash can before washing. Large bits of food can end up clogging the sink drain. If you’re using a non-concentrated dish soap, you might want to soak dishes next. The soap may not cut through grease and stuck-on food as well without soaking.

If you prefer to soak your dishes before you start washing, there’s usually no harm in it—soaking can also help loosen stuck-on food so you use less elbow grease later. The one exception is cast iron. Soaking cast iron skillets in water can make them more prone to rust. You can still use hot water to wash them, just skip the soak. For washing other types of dishes, fill the sink with hot water with a small amount of dish soap mixed in to create suds and a place to submerge dishes as you wash them.

Start with the Cleanest Items

As you get started, hand wash the cleanest items first. This will usually include drinking glasses, and might also include silverware without any visible food stuck on. By starting with the cleanest dishes, you’ll prevent the dishwater from getting soiled right away, since the grimiest dishes will hit the water at the end. “For dish liquids, dampen your sponge with warm water, then wring it out and add a few drops of concentrated dish liquid,” Eberhard says. “Scrunch it a few times to disperse the soap throughout the sponge and to create suds.” Then, use the sponge to scrub dishes, beginning with glasses and utensils and moving on to dirtier dishes like plates, bowls, and cooking pots and pans.

Be sure to scrub the entire dish with the sponge to clean and eliminate bacteria, not just the spots that are visibly dirty. Once the entire dish has been cleaned, rinse with running water, and set aside in the drying rack.

When to Use the Scrubbing Pad of the Sponge

For most dishes without stuck-on food, the scrubbing with the soft side of a sponge should be enough to get them clean. But when food is baked on or won’t come off, switch to the rough side. The soft side usually holds more water and can create a better lather of soap, but the opposite side is usually more effective for scraping off tough stains. However, avoid scrubbing nonstick pots and pans and delicate dishes with the rough side, because it can scratch them or damage the nonstick coating.

How to Dry Dishes

You don’t necessarily have to hand-dry everything too if you’re in a rush. Pots, pans, plates, and bowls can air dry in a drying rack next to the sink just fine without an extra wipe-down with a clean, dry towel. However, a quick hand dry can prevent spots on some dishes. “For those dishes where you want to ensure no water spots, like for glasses and stemware, let them air dry the majority of the way, then use a clean, dry towel or polishing rag to finish drying any remaining water droplets and polish them to a sparkling shine,” Eberhard says.

How to Hand Wash Delicate China and Crystal

“For special items or dishes with intricate or delicate designs, make sure to only use a soft sponge without harsh texture and a gentle dish liquid,” Eberhard says. Avoid using the scrubbing side of the sponge, because it can scratch dishes and damage their decorations. “Always start light scrubbing pressure, building as needed, to ensure not to scratch the surface or design on your specialty dishes, like fine china.”

Crystal might also need a little special attention. “Crystal is softer than glass and more easily scratched,” Eberhard says. “Your best bet for maintaining their sparkle is to line your sink with a towel and gently hand wash them with a gentle dish liquid, like Dawn EZ-Squeeze, and warm water.” She also recommends washing just one crystal item at a time, then placing it on a dry towel spread over the countertop to dry to avoid breaking dishes.

What Items Should Always be Hand Washed?

Always check your dishes, pots, pans, and other cooking utensils to see if they are dishwasher-safe or hand-wash only (most dishes and pans will have a stamp on the bottom with any washing restrictions). In general, crystal and delicate china should always be hand washed to prevent damage to the dishes and any decorations on them. It’s also better to hand wash knives, because a dishwasher can damage the blade and dull their sharpness quicker. Wooden utensils like spoons should also be hand washed to prevent cracks.

Delicate silver utensils are also better washed by hand to prevent tarnishing. To preserve their coating longer, you might also want to hand wash nonstick pots and pans. Finally, cast iron should never be placed in the dishwasher, and some plastic dishes may also not be dishwasher-safe (if they fall onto the heating coils, they can melt). Many materials are dishwasher-safe, such as stainless steel, metal utensils, glass, ceramic, and stoneware dishes–though you can always hand wash them if you want!

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