According to the sensationalist media, our kitchens are about to kill us. Salmonella, E. coli, garden-variety germs -- there's all sorts of nastiness lurking everywhere, just waiting to pounce, right? Wrong. You do not need to cave in to this kind of fear by adopting an around-the-clock habit of cleaning and disinfecting everything. Reasonable daily care and attention, using some very basic cleaning ingredients, can make your kitchen as clean and shiny as it needs to be. And because you're using fewer harsh cleaners and disinfectants, the earth will thank you as well. Remember, less is more.
The best way to stock your green cleaning kit is with an economy-size box of baking soda, a gallon jug of vinegar, and some basic table salt in as large a quantity as you can find. Baking soda is an excellent green cleaning product to use throughout your home, especially in the kitchen. It's also food-safe and has no odor. Baking soda is mildly abrasive, yet it can't harm your surfaces, whether they're linoleum or expensive imported Italian marble.
You may also want to keep lemons and lemon juice around for some of the tasks described below. Vinegar and lemon can often serve the same purpose, but lemon has a much nicer scent.
It's time to roll up those sleeves and get started! We'll tackle the sink first.
First, a lesson in what not to use. One of the more caustic products you may have in your home is a commercial drain cleaner designed to unclog sinks. If you've ever had a clogged sink, you've probably used one of these incredibly corrosive cleaners. The typical acidic drain cleaner essentially burns the gunk in your pipes, clearing it away. Some drain cleaners are now designed to use enzyme action, which may sound better than acid, but enzymes can gradually eat away at your pipes. Injecting air or carbon dioxide into the drain is less harmful, so you might look for those products instead. Another approach is to use high-pressure water treatments. Still, quite often pouring a lot of boiling water down the drain will do the trick. Try that process first before moving on to the more advanced methods.
Once you've cleared a nasty clog, commit yourself to practicing preventative maintenance in your kitchen sink. For starters, make sure that nothing solid goes down the drain, especially if you do not have a garbage disposal. Keep a small compost bin or bucket next to the faucet to remind you to scrape those plates clean before putting them in the sink or dishwasher. Once a week, dump 1/4 cup baking soda down each of your kitchen drains, followed by 1/2 cup vinegar. Let this mixture sit in the drain for 20 minutes or more without any other liquids going down. While this is sitting, boil some water on the stove. Finally, flush the drains with the boiling water.
You might need to give the process some added oomph if a lot of greasy plates have been rinsed recently. If that's the case, mix 1/2 cup salt and 1/2 cup baking soda together, pour down the drain, and then flush with hot tap water.
Again, another household cleaning product no-no is the aerosol oven cleaner. It's so strong that the product's instructions practically scream, "Open all windows and doors, spray the stuff into your oven, grab the children, and run for your lives!"
Let's take that as a clue that perhaps you should use something different.
Self-cleaning ovens are a miracle of modern science -- if you have the technology, good for you. However, if you don't have an oven equipped with that feature (or yours has just given up), try not to reach for the can of spray-on oven cleaner.
To clean an oven manually, sprinkle about a 1/4-inch layer of baking soda over the entire bottom of the oven. Use a clean spray bottle to wet the baking soda with water. Over the next few hours, spray the baking soda every so often to keep it moist. Then let the baking soda mixture sit overnight. In the morning, scrape and scoop the dried baking soda and grime out of the oven with a damp sponge. Rinse the residue off.
As with your kitchen sink, the best way to tackle interior oven cleaning is with preventative maintenance. Keeping up with the grease and grime a little bit at a time will mean you don't have to do a big cleaning event very often. After you've done a major cleaning, finish the job by using a sponge to wipe down the entire surface with a mixture of half vinegar and half water. This will help prevent grease buildup. Be sure to give the entire interior a wipe once each week with a sponge soaked in pure vinegar.
Another preventative trick is to cover the bottom of your oven with aluminum foil when you're baking something that may overflow -- a blueberry pie, say, or perhaps an overstuffed lasagna. If something does accidentally spill inside and onto the unprotected bottom of the oven, as soon as it is safely possible (make sure the oven isn't hot!), cover the mess with salt and let it stand. It should become hard and crisp enough for you to lift off the surface of the cold oven with a plastic spatula or some other item that won't scratch the interior.
If you have vents above your oven, you should be checking them about every six months for grease buildup. To clean, wipe the vents with a sponge soaked in pure vinegar. Use an old toothbrush dipped in vinegar to get at the grime that may have built up in small crevices or other hard-to-reach places. If the filter is metal and removable, give it a soak in a vinegar solution.
Now that you've tackled some of the hardest jobs in your home, let's take a greener look at some more everyday kitchen cleanups.
Spills on the stovetop can be easily cleaned if sprinkled with salt first. The salt acts as an absorbent, plus it has a mild abrasive quality that won't harm the surface. If you've spilled something into your burner pans on your electric stove, sprinkle the spill with salt and cinnamon, and wipe away. The cinnamon will mask the burned-on smell the next time you use the burner.
All stovetops, even ceramic glass ones, can be cleaned easily with a baking soda solution. Use a toothbrush dipped in baking soda to get into any tight corners. Then rinse everything very thoroughly to avoid leaving a white residue.
Now, some of us have a natural talent for exploding things in the microwave -- usually involving some kind of red sauce that stains. To easily get rid of this type of spatter or greasy buildup, add 1/4 cup vinegar to 1 cup water in a glass measuring cup. Boil the mixture for three minutes in the microwave. But don't open the door just yet -- let it stand in the microwave for about ten more minutes. Soon, everything should be loosened up nicely.
Wipe the entire inside of the microwave clean with a damp sponge or soft cloth. Wipe from top to bottom and collect anything that falls to the floor of the microwave, tossing it into your compost bin.
Lemons also may be used as a variation. Heat a bowl of water with lemon slices in your microwave for 30 to 60 seconds, then wipe out the oven. Stains will be easier to remove and old food odors will be neutralized.
Remember to use microwave-safe containers when nuking your food. Many plastics and even paper towels break down when microwaved, releasing toxins that leach into food.
Utensils and Containers
Since baking soda absorbs oil, anything that has an oily residue, such as a salad dressing cruet, can easily be cleaned by shaking a bit of baking soda inside, then rinsing with warm water.
Plastic, silicone, and rubber kitchen utensils are easily stained. To remove these marks, make a baking soda paste and apply it to the stained areas using a scouring pad, sponge, or rag. Similarly, if you have stained plastic food containers for storing leftovers, use the same method. You can make the baking soda paste out of water or lemon juice, which will add a clean, fresh scent.
If you have a thermos or lunchbox that is beginning to smell a little funky, pour 1/4 cup salt into it and close it up for the night. In the morning, rinse and wipe clean, and it should smell fresh again.
Wood and Wooden Things
Clean a wooden cutting board with soap and a little water. Follow this by wiping it with a damp cloth dipped in salt. The salt will give the wood a new look and a fresh feeling. Similarly, you should wipe your wooden cutting board, breadbox, or salad bowls now and then with a sponge dipped in vinegar; it removes any grime and odor buildup, since wood tends to harbor grease and odors. A baking soda solution can also be used for this purpose. Another great cutting board cleaner is lemon juice. Just rub some into the cutting board and leave it overnight. In the morning, rinse thoroughly.
When your wooden utensils or cutting boards start to fade, crack, or become brittle, don't throw them out. Instead, apply a generous amount of olive oil onto them and rub it into the wood, following its grain. Depending upon how dry and cracked they are, it may take two or three applications to return them to a healthier state. If any oil seems to "pool," or if the utensils or cutting boards are still very oily to the touch even after letting them sit for a while, gently dab up the excess with an absorbent, lint-free cloth.
Pots, Pans, Cookware, and Dishes
While some of today's high-end enamel cookware shouldn't be cleaned with abrasives, it is fine to apply a baking soda paste to tough areas, then scrub to clear. A casserole dish with stubborn, baked-on food can be cleansed by adding boiling water and about 3 tablespoons salt. Let it stand until the water cools, then clean as usual.
Roasting pans and broiler pans can be among the most difficult to get clean. Often they won't fit into the dishwasher; even when they do, the machine still doesn't do a good job getting them clean. A way to avoid multiple cleanings and save time is to fill or cover the pan with very hot water and just let it sit. If more drastic measures need to be taken, fill the pan with water and boil it on your stovetop for a few minutes. Then wipe clean or scrub with some salt sprinkled onto a sponge. For the toughest spots, sprinkle salt directly onto the problem areas and scrub.
One of the best ways to clean a really messy broiler pan is to set it on the stove while the pan is still hot and fill the lower drip pan with very hot water. Then place the slotted upper pan on top and cover that with paper towels. The hot water underneath produces a steam that helps loosen the grime. The paper towels do their part by absorbing the grime or keeping it damp. After a half hour or so, the remains will be easy to wipe away, or at least a little easier to scrub off with a scouring pad. Finally, sprinkle the entire surface with baking soda and give it a good once-over.
Speaking of grease, you can clean a gritty frying pan by simmering it on the stovetop with 1/4 inch water and 1/2 cup vinegar for about ten minutes. Afterward, wash as usual.
Clay pots used in cooking also become stained or take on odors. To solve this problem, fill such a pot with water and add 1 to 4 tablespoons baking soda. Let the mixture stand for a half hour or more, then rinse and dry thoroughly. Sometimes a clay cooker can start to grow spots of mold. Brush the mold with a paste made of baking soda and water and let it stand. If you can, give it an extra boost by putting the cooker into direct sunlight. After half an hour, brush the paste away and rinse the pot.
If your copper-bottom pans and kettles need sprucing up, don't turn to toxic polishes. Polishes are high on the list of products to avoid; instead, toss the toxins and take up your salt and lemon juice. Copper-bottom pans and kettles can be made shiny again with a paste made of salt and lemon juice. Rub the paste in with a cloth, then wipe and rinse thoroughly.
You can also clean copper-bottom pans with a similar paste treatment substituting vinegar for the lemon juice. Or, if you like, try filling a spray bottle with undiluted vinegar and spraying it directly onto the bottoms of the pans. Let it sit for a bit, and you should see the tarnish begin to evaporate. Then sprinkle with salt, scrub, and rinse. For really tough stains, coarse salt (such as sea salt or kosher salt) works better than table salt. Another method is to simply cut a lemon in half, dip it in (or sprinkle onto it) some salt to cover the meat of the fruit, and rub in circular motions onto the copper. Afterward, rinse and dry thoroughly.
Wipe your kitchen countertops with undiluted vinegar once a day -- they'll shine and keep the kitchen smelling fresh. You can also cut a lemon in half, sprinkle it with baking soda, and scrub the countertop to achieve the same thing. Mind you, this would take quite an investment in lemons if you were to do it daily, but this trick works on any kitchen surface that needs cleaning, whether it is a counter, dish, or stove.
Cleaning the stainless steel sink can be a satisfying task to undertake. By week's end, the sink can look a little grimy, so it's best to clear everything out and away before starting the job. Then just sprinkle baking soda onto a sponge and go to it. Around the faucets and knobs, use a toothbrush dipped in baking soda. As long as you remember to rinse thoroughly, everything will turn out shiny -- baking soda can leave behind a harmless white residue if you don't get it all off immediately. Any stainless steel surface in the kitchen will benefit from this treatment. Lemon juice is also good for any soap scum or hard water deposits around your sink.
If you have a white porcelain sink, a combination of baking soda and vinegar on a sponge does a great job on minor stains. Porcelain stains very easily, so it's best to tackle any problem spots immediately.
If you have tile and grout in your kitchen, treat them regularly with undiluted vinegar on a sponge to cut the inevitable greasy buildup. Scrub stains with vinegar and allow to dry. Afterward, rub the vinegar off with a dry rag. For added strength, try tackling the stains by scrubbing them with a toothbrush dipped in a paste of baking soda and water. Afterward, rinse off.
Every so often, laminate countertops can get stained with something that seems unremovable, such as blueberry juice, tomato sauce, or red wine. Diligently apply a baking soda paste to the spot and allow it to sit until dry. Then rub the paste off with a dry towel and the stain should disappear. Such stains can also often be removed by applying straight lemon juice. Scrub, then rinse clean.
Tile floors can best be cleaned with a bucket of warm water and 1/2 cup baking soda. Just mop using the mixture and rinse thoroughly. Add lemon juice to the water to create a fresh scent. Use baking soda on a damp sponge to remove those black heel marks that spring up when you least expect them.
If your kitchen floor is ceramic, mop it with a gallon of warm water mixed with 1 cup vinegar. Rinsing is not necessary. Linoleum and vinyl floors can be cleaned with the same mixture. If you need a little extra polish, mop the entire floor with club soda.
Tea and Coffee Stains
Coffee and tea stains can be removed from light-colored cups and mugs by using a damp sponge dipped in baking soda. If the spots are proving stubborn, try rubbing them with a bit of salt.
If you have rust and mineral deposits on a teapot or an old stovetop-style coffee percolator, they can be removed by filling the pot with water and adding 2 tablespoons baking soda and the juice from half a lemon. Gently boil for 15 minutes, then rinse thoroughly. If you want to get coffee and mineral stains out of the glass or stainless steel pot of your coffeemaker, try this variation: Add 1 cup crushed ice, 1 tablespoon water, and 4 teaspoons salt to the pot when it is cold, swish around, and then wash as usual. Again, for really stubborn stains, substitute regular table salt with coarse salt.
Many of these methods can also be used for cleaning blenders and food processors. The baking soda will help get rid of any lingering odors from foods like peppers or garlic, and the salt and ice will help clean the blades as they "chew" them up. Rinse the blades thoroughly and let them dry, or run through the dishwasher if necessary (and if possible).
Silverware polish is on our list of the Terrible Ten home cleaning products, including drain cleaners, over cleaners, toilet cleaners, spot removers, furniture polishes, cleansers and powdered cleaners, window cleaners, bleach and liquid cleaners. Here's a more eco-friendly polish that will take the tarnish off of Grandma's silverware: Pour a little salt onto a soft cloth and gently rub the pieces. Then wash the silverware by hand with dish soap and warm water. Carefully dry each piece. Sterling silver can be cleaned with a paste of 2 tablespoons salt and 1/2 cup vinegar. Gently rub in the paste, then rinse and dry thoroughly. You can also substitute cream of tartar for the salt in this method.
Garbage Pails and Disposals
Keep your kitchen garbage pail smelling fresher by sprinkling a bit of baking soda in the bottom each time you empty it. Every now and then, wash and deodorize the can with a solution of baking soda in warm water.
It's also a good idea to give your garbage disposal the royal treatment every month or so. Pour 1/4 cup each salt, baking soda, and dishwasher detergent into the disposal, turn on the hot water, and run the disposal. Doing this should clean out the gunk and get rid of lingering odors. You can also drop the rind from a citrus fruit such as a lemon, lime, or grapefruit down the disposal. Grind away -- the rind helps to clean the disposal's "teeth" and gives a fresh scent to your kitchen.
You may already know to deodorize your fridge with a box of baking soda, but don't forget that you can also sprinkle some onto a damp sponge and use it to clean your fridge's interior surfaces. Add equal parts baking soda and salt if you need a little scrubbing action on spills and drips. For a deodorization variation, try storing half a lemon in an open container inside the refrigerator.
Do the cubes that are coming out of the automatic ice cube maker taste a little unpleasant? Try cleaning the removable parts of the unit with baking soda and water.
De-dirt Your Fruit
Worrying about what pesticides or other chemical residues may be lingering on fresh fruits and veggies? Scrubbing your produce with a little bit of baking soda can remove residues and dirt. Rinse everything well and be sure to dry the produce to ensure maximum shelf life -- leaving fresh foods damp will make them deteriorate more quickly.
Salt can help remove the gritty dirt that can sometimes hide stubbornly in your lettuce, spinach, or leeks. Place the vegetables in a bowl of lukewarm water, add 1 tablespoon salt, swish it around a little, and let soak 20 to 30 minutes. Rinse thoroughly in a colander.