16 May, 2018
Kitchen Care and Cleaning Tips — Part 1
I had a special request for a non-recipe post about how to clean and maintain pots and pans. I started making up a list of different tricks for lining pans and how to clean cast iron. Then I started thinking about the different kinds of cookware, as each one has slightly different cleaning needs. Then I thought about cleaning products… From there, it kind of spiraled into “gee, why don’t I just make an all-inclusive guide to kitchen care!” The end result was SO extensive, I had to break it up into three separate posts, for the sake of my readers’ sanity. This post will be the first of the three (as the title implies), and once the other two are up, you can jump right to them from here: Part 2, Part 3.
In this post you can expect to read about:
• Cleaning tools — We’ll talk about scrubbers, cleaning wipes, cleaning products, and of course, sponges (including when to throw them out).
• How to clean/restore cast iron — An intimidating but useful subject!
• Pan linings 101 — Wax paper vs parchment paper vs foil vs plastic wrap. We’ll discuss the basic uses for each and what their limitations are.
• Different kinds of pans — What’s the difference between aluminum pans and stainless steel? Is ceramic really worth it? This section will go into WAY more detail than you’ll find elsewhere about exactly what makes each kind of pan different.
You can navigate to any header with the links above; that way you don’t have to scroll. This is a text-heavy article, though I’ve tried to include images where I can. I learned a lot while writing these posts, and I hope you can, too. Now — Let’s get cleaning!
A good place to start when it comes to kitchen cleaning is probably with cleaning tools. For dishes, most people use either a sponge or a scrubber. What’s the difference? Is one better than the other? How often should you change them out? What’s the best way to clean them all?
First off, there are two main types of sponges: Ones with large pores and ones with small pores (images linked for reference). So what’s the difference? Well, let’s start with what a sponge does — It cleans food particles off your dishes. With large-pore sponges, those food particles become easily trapped inside the sponge, and over time, they start to decompose, making the sponge smell. The smell, as we’d all much rather forget, is caused by bacterial growth. While all sponges are more likely than scrubbing wands to hold onto bacteria, you can disinfect your sponges by microwaving them for 30 seconds. The heat from the microwave kills the bacteria and can help with bacteria buildup, but between sponges and scrubbers, sponges are by far less hygienic.
A study shows that even after a week, there’s enough bacteria built up in your sponge to potentially cause a problem. They suggest that you ideally pick up a fresh sponge to wash your dishes with every week. Now, I don’t know about you, but that seems a bit wasteful to me. My rule of thumb was always to replace the sponge monthly, at the very least. One thing is for sure though — If your sponge smells, TOSS IT.
What about scrubbing brushes though? Since they don’t hold water the same way a sponge does and the bristles are made of plastic and easier to clean, they’re much cleaner and less likely to rub sickness-causing bacteria onto your dinner plates. I’ve followed the toothbrush rule with my scrubber, switching it out for a new one when the bristles start getting goofy (about 3 months, though I wash a lot of dishes). I started using a scrubber instead of a sponge while I was recovering from a wrist injury, and I haven’t looked back. The scrubber makes cleaning sponge-ruining messes like melted cheese, chocolate, and eggs a breeze, and the bristles are much easier to clean off than the surface of a sponge.
My next favorite cleaning tool (other than soap of course) is a container of Clorox wipes. I use them to wipe down my counter tops on a daily basis, and they are great for disinfecting the cutting board and other surfaces after working with raw meat. I’ve used other cleaners in the past, including natural wipes and melaleuca products, but nothing works quite as well as good ol Clorox. If I know I’m going to be putting food directly on the counter after I Clorox it (like I do with some cookie doughs), I make sure I wipe down the area with a wet paper towel first and dry it off, so that my cookies don’t pick up a freshly-cleaned flavor. I also use the wipes to clean my faucet, door handles, cabinets, and sink — plus, they’re the best cleaning wipes for use in the bathroom, so the whole house benefits!
Speaking of cleaning the sink, that leads me to the next item in my arsenal of cleaning products: Bar Keeper’s Friend. It’s a powdered cleaner that’s my go-to item for getting stains out of old pans, rust off of steel, hard water stains out of the sink, shining up old silverware, and the removal of pretty much any other type of gunk of of metal or ceramic. I’ll go into detail later on about how and when to use it, but this stuff is absolutely indispensable. You can find it in the cleaning aisle with window cleaner, wood cleaner and polish, and drain cleaner. Invest in a can of it. It’ll last you a long while.
Cast iron pans are great. They’re perfect for making steak, cooking eggs, preparing duck or other meats that take stove top prep before broiling them in the oven… Heck, you can even make cookies in a cast iron skillet. These hefty kitchen behemoths are a utilitarian cook’s best friend. What may seem intimidating about them, though, is that they aren’t meant to be cared for like other pots and pans. You can’t cook acidic foods in them, they aren’t supposed to be washed with soap and water, you can’t put them in the dishwasher, they need to be seasoned before use, and they aren’t rust resistant. So what do you do with them exactly? Let’s break it down.
So you’ve got a rusty cast iron skillet. Maybe you got it at a yard sale or a thrift store, maybe you dug it out of your grandmother’s basement, or maybe you got one ages ago, used it once, and then that was that. Fortunately, when you have an item that is a literal piece of iron that’s just shaped like a pan, you’ve got some metal to work with when you’re scrubbing off rust. What’s even better, there’s more than one way to remove rust from a cast iron skillet.
1) Take a piece of steel wool and scour off all the rust on the pan (don’t forget the sides and the bottom!). Once the rust has been scrubbed off, use mild dish soap and water to thoroughly wash and immediately dry the pan. Once it’s cleaned, season the pan (we’ll get to that in a bit),
2) Take about a half cup of table salt and half a potato. Pour the salt in the pan and scrub away the rust using the potato half, working in circular motions around the entire pan. Once the rust is scrubbed off, rinse and immediately dry your pan, and get ready to season it.
3) Soak the cast iron pan in equal parts water and white vinegar JUST until the rust is dissolved. Don’t soak the pan for more than eight hours, as the vinegar will start to eat away at the cast iron after than and may damage your pan. Once the rust has dissolved, wash the pan with mild soap, rinse it well, and dry it immediately. To make sure all the water is dried off the pan, place it in a 350 degree oven for 30 minutes. Then, season the pan.
Seasoning a cast iron pan is pretty easy. There are a couple of ways to do it, both of which are pretty easy.
1) Pour some vegetable or olive oil into your pan and, using a piece of paper towel to move the oil around, coat the whole inside of the pan. Let the pan sit over medium heat for half an hour. Once it’s done, remove the pan from the heat and blot off any extra oil with a clean paper towel. This method is most effective following the salt cleaning method from above.
2) If you’re using soap and water to clean your pan, you’ll want to take a slightly different route to re-seasoning your pan. Start by heating up your oven to 350 degrees. As with the other method, coat your pan with oil, this time on all sides, making sure only to use as much oil as you need so the surface doesn’t get sticky. Place the pan on the top rack of your oven and a piece of aluminum foil on the rack below it, to catch any drips. Bake the pan in the oven for an hour.
Cleaning & Maintenance
Cleaning your cast iron skillet after a meal is very different from cleaning any other pan. As I stressed earlier, you do not want to use soap and water to clean the pan, as it’s more likely to lead to rust and it’ll strip the seasoning off the pan. Instead, use coarse salt and paper towel to clean off your pan. Only if it is extremely dirty should you use soap and water, making sure to bake it dry and re-season it after cleaning. To store it, keep it well away from water and place it either in a bag or with a paper towel over the surface to keep the dust off.
One sure-fire way to keep your pans clean is to not let them get dirty! That’s the approach I like to take, anyway. Whether it’s lining bread pans with parchment paper or baking sheets with foil, there are several ways to keep your pans clean.
Let’s start with liners. The most common liners you’ll find are parchment paper, wax paper, aluminum foil, plastic wrap, and silicone sheets. We’ll work through each of these, giving some examples of how to use them and what their limitations are.
Parchment paper is probably one of the most versatile liners out there. You can cut it to whatever shape or size you need, you can use it to line pans, and you can use it to wrap foods. However, since it is paper, it’s recommended that you only use parchment paper in ovens no hotter than 420 degrees F (because paper burns as 451 degrees F… Brush up on your Bradbury). This makes it a great way to inexpensively line your cookie sheets, bake flaky fish, or line your bread pans. To line your bread pan, tear off a strip of paper the length of your pan and trim it to the width of the bottom. Cut another piece the width of your pan and place it across your other sheet perpendicularly, creating a paper cross. If you’re having trouble getting the paper to stick, grease the pan first and stick the paper to the greased sides, leaving a little paper hanging over the sides so you can lift the finished loaf out later. Pour in your batter, pop it in the oven, and once the bread has cooled, you can lift it right out of the bread pan!
Wax paper is a strange beast. At least in my kitchen, it’s overshadowed by parchment paper, which, honestly has been overshadowed by silicone mats most of the time, but I’ll talk about those later. What makes wax paper different from parchment paper is the wax. Parchment paper is coated in silicone, giving it both higher heat resistance and a non-stick finish. Wax paper, which is usually cheaper than parchment paper, is instead coated in a paraffin wax or soybean wax. Its heat tolerance is slightly lower than parchment paper, but other than that, it can do just about anything that parchment paper can for a fraction of the price. Outside of the kitchen, wax paper has a lot of craft uses that take advantage of the wax coating or the translucence of the paper. You can use it as tracing paper or, if you’ve got little ones, you can use it to make suncatchers. Otherwise, plan on using it where you’d use parchment paper, just be mindful of oven temperature.
As you can imagine, being sheets of metal, aluminum foil is going to be one of the most resilient lining options on the list. It works well for keeping hot foods hot, as well as lining surfaces that are too hot for paper. Aluminum foil is great for cooking juicy foods, grilling, or forming into useful shapes, like bowls, that you can toss when you’re done. I use foil almost every week when I make fish. I line my lipped baking pan with aluminum foil to catch the juice and marinade or sauce that runs off as the fish is cooking. Once I’m done, I can just ball up the foil and toss it, and I don’t have to worry about cleaning the pan. Foil is also great for grilling, particularly when you’re grilling vegetables. You can use it to make a little tray for your veggies so they don’t fall through the grill, or you can wrap your vegetables, like corn, in the foil to keep in any marinades or dressings and to heat the vegetables more evenly. Another barbecue use for foil is if your dripping basket has gone missing. You can pretty easily fashion one out of aluminum foil — or line your existing one with foil so you can easily empty and reuse it when it gets full! Finally, in the oven, foil is great for lining the bottom of your broiler pan when you’re making meatloaf, roast, or anything that’s going to drip. Just line the bottom half of the pan before you put the grate part over the top, and you’ll never have to deal with the hassle of trying to clean the broiler pan again.
I’m going to start off and state the hopefully-obvious: Don’t heat up your plastic wrap.
If you’re trying to cover some cooled leftovers or you’re working with cold “cooking,” this is the stuff for you. It’s great for ice cream cakes especially, because you can line the bowl or pan you’re using as a mold, put in the softened ice cream, let it harden again, and then just turn it over and remove the plastic wrap from over the top. Plastic wrap is also wonderful for protecting your wooden cutting board when seasoning raw meat. While I would not suggest cutting anything on the plastic wrap (because it’ll probably also cut the plastic wrap), if you cover your cutting board or other work surface with plastic wrap before you lay out the chicken or the flank steak and start throwing on seasonings, it’ll make cleanup easier and disinfecting less intense. You can also use plastic wrap to cover any meat (like chicken) you are about to tenderize. That way, when you take the tenderizing mallet to the meat, it won’t make a splashy mess.
One of my favorite liners when it comes to baking, silicone excels where parchment and wax papers cannot — it’s heat resistant. You can heat silicone up to temperatures near 600 degrees F and it still won’t melt. I don’t know about you, but when I make cookies, it’s usually at temperatures between 350 and 400 degrees F, not 500. Still, I bought a pair of silicone baking sheets about a year ago, and I don’t think I could ever go back. Not only do they help me cut down on the amount of waste I generate in the kitchen, but they’re so easy to clean, and I’ve never had an issue with my cookies sticking. Silicone baking sheets do cost a bit more than either of the papers, initially, but they’re well worth the investment, as they’ll last you a very long time.
Aluminum, cast iron, ceramic, copper, enamel non-stick, stainless steel… There are so many different materials that pans can be made of, how do you know which one is right for you? I keep an assortment, personally. I have nonstick pans, aluminum pans, and one cast iron. I like my aluminum pans for some things, while I like my nonstick for others. My cast iron pan is a special pan I only use for certain foods. I’ll break down the pros, cons, and uses for each type of pan so you can decide for yourself what you prefer.
First and foremost, aluminum pans are cheap, so if your cookware is solely budget-dependent, aluminum is going to be a place to start. My first pans were aluminum pans, and, in case you were wondering, you can buy a set for about $20 at Walmart. In addition to being inexpensive, aluminum is also really lightweight, so your 20-quart cooking pot doesn’t break your back when you go to pick it up. Aluminum pans also heat up quickly and are fire resistant, so if you have to keep them on the heat or over fire for a long period of time, the pan will be fine. With cheap aluminum pans, sometimes you run into the issue of hot spots developing on the pan, because of how quickly it heats up. Finally, aluminum is corrosion and rust resistant, so other than developing scorch marks and discoloration from age, aluminum is pretty much inert. Any stains that do develop on the surface, you can scrub off with steel wool or Bar Keeper’s Friend.
Now, the downsides. I already mentioned that there are good quality aluminum pans and not-so-good quality aluminum pans. The cheaper ones tend to heat more unevenly, but that’s the main disadvantage. Another disadvantage is that it does add aluminum to your diet when you cook with it, though it is a negligible amount. Unless you’re cooking five meals a day in your pan, every single day, the amount of aluminum it adds to your diet is trivial. Another downside is that, according to several sources I’ve found, aluminum reacts with acids. I’ve never noticed any reaction or change in flavor, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. While I mentioned earlier that you can clean aluminum pans with scrubbers, I should clarify that the reason that works so well is because aluminum is a soft metal, so scraping away layers of it is much easier than with, say, stainless steel. Softer metal also means it will dent and scratch more easily.
I would like to finally state that, while several other kitchen blogs out there state that there’s a link between aluminum pans and Alzheimer’s, there is not enough compelling evidence to support that statement. Here are a few links: Alzheimer’s Myths & Facts, What Causes Alzheimer’s, the evidence we do have (scroll down to the conclusion if you want layman’s terms), one more article about aluminum and dementia/Alzheimer’s. Consider yourself informed.
While it’s durable and very useful, cast iron is kind of the glass canon of the pans. It’s great for searing steaks and can be used for most cooking (and self defense, let’s be honest) needs, but it requires very particular care to maintain its usefulness. As I mentioned in one of the sections above, you can restore rusted or unseasoned pans with relative ease, and while you can’t clean cast iron with soap and water, cleaning isn’t terribly difficult. Cast iron is not going to dent or scratch, though it will rust if not properly cared for. An area where cast iron takes the cake is heat retention. Whether you’re cooking on the stovetop or on the oven, cast iron will hold onto heat much better than any other type of pan, which makes it great for searing steaks or cooking stove-to-oven meals like roast duck. There’s also the matter of cost, which, depending on what size and what manufacturer you decide to go with, can be relatively inexpensive (especially if you refurbish a thrift store pan). Finally, just like aluminum leaches into your food from the pan, so does the iron from cast iron, however, most of us can probably benefit from that.
Disadvantages are mostly in the maintenance department with cast iron, though I’ve beaten those to death. The other main one I’ve only briefly touched on is the fact that you should avoid cooking anything terribly acidic in cast iron as it can mess with the seasoning of the pan and open the door to rusting. Other than acidity and maintenance, the only other “downside” to cast iron is that it’s f*cking heavy. As long as weight isn’t an issue for you in the kitchen, it’s not a bad idea to have a cast iron skillet in your cookware arsenal.
Ceramic cookware… seems kind of like a fad to me. There aren’t a whole lot of pros to it, other than it is lightweight, easy to clean, and dishwasher safe (though most all brands recommend that you hand wash them anyway). Also, unlike the other two pans we’ve covered so far, ceramic is inert. It won’t leach anything into your food and it won’t react to acidic food… mostly.
I say mostly, because if you get cheap ceramic cookware, you run the risk of having small amounts of lead leach into your food from the porcelain glaze. On top of that, it has a relatively short lifespan. It can only be used on low to medium heat, temperatures must be changed slowly, you can’t use metal utensils with it, and, being ceramic, it’s prone to chipping. Lastly, even though ceramic cookware is marketed as nonstick, there are quite a few testimonies out there claiming that the nonstick coating wears off of the pan very quickly, contributing to the short lifespan of these pans.
Another somewhat high maintenance metal, copper actually works quite well as a conductor, allowing your food to heat up quickly. Other than its conduction properties and its shiny appearance, copper cookware, like ceramic, has more cons to it than it does pros.
First off, copper cookware is spendy. It also looks pretty, but to maintain that appearance, you need to keep it polished and patina-free. Copper also reacts with acids and bases, which can wear away at the stainless steel coating that’s present on most copper cookware. Once the steel coating has worn off, copper can leach into your food, which isn’t inherently bad, since it ‘s only in small amounts and copper is a trace mineral that our bodies use. Another word of caution for those of you who are interested in copper pans: Older copper cookware may be coated with tin or nickel. Those pans are not recommended for cooking, as both the tin and nickel linings are potentially toxic. If you’re looking for some display cookware, though, polish up those oldies and let them shine!
Some of my favorite pots and pans are enamel non-stick pans. They’re great for, well, not having your food stick to the pan. These pans heat up quickly, they can be as expensive or as inexpensive as you’d like them to be, and some types are even oven safe up to mid-temperatures. Some of these pans are dishwasher safe, but it’s recommended that you clean them by hand. Never use abrasive scrubbers or metal utensils with these pans as it may damage the nonstick coating. The coating also prevents any chemicals (iron, aluminum, etc.) from migrating from the pan to your food.
Easily one of the most durable pans out there, stainless steel can be used at any temperature with any utensil. You can put your stainless steel pans in the dishwasher or hand-wash them. You can go from stove to oven, and you can cook acidic foods in your stainless steel pan and not worry. Just don’t put this pan in the microwave.
Stay tuned for next week’s cleaning post, and in the meantime, good tidyings!