My Favorite Kitchen Tip, Ever

dirty dishes

This isn’t the most photogenic of posts, but one of the dirty secrets of writing cookbooks is the dishes. And this season, as the cavalcade of cooking tips comes tumbling forth in anticipation of all the holidays – and the cooking and baking that go along with them – this is the best tip I’ve ever been given.

Most of you probably know how many dishes to takes just to bake a simple cake: a stack bowls, a mixer and the whip, a gaggle of spatulas, and for my fellow Americans, a bunch of measuring cups and spoons. Now imagine if you made that same cake three times in a row, making a few other sets of dishes dirty. Then did it again.

In spite of that fact that I have a real dishwasher, I spend a few hours each and every day washing dishes. It’s funny because when friends call and ask me if I’m free for dinner, sometimes I have to decline because I have to work, and they don’t seem to understand that part of my “work” is washing and/or putting away dishes and pots and pans. It’s a cycle that’s part of my life and when I left the restaurant business, being able to hand off a bustub full of dirty dishes to someone else was something I missed a lot. (If you ask anyone who is the most important person in a restaurant kitchen, even more than the chef, it’s the dishwasher.)

tons of dishes to wash

The tip is one I learned from Marion Cunningham, who wrote a fair number of cookbooks herself, which I’ve adopted. Simply fill the sink with warm, soapy water, and as you finish with dishes, slide them into the water. Later, they’ll be easier to clean after a leisurely soaking, and you can usually just scrape or scrub them with a sponge and load ’em up in the dishwasher. Or finish washing by hand. And with any luck, you’ll get to accept more of those dinner invites than I do.

sinkful of dishes

Contrary to what some believe, dishwashers are not necessarily a luxury and using one requires less water than handwashing. There are various opinions about that, but for someone like me who works for themselves, it allows me to do other things rather than stand in front of the sink. So the whole issue for me, if you’ll excuse the pun, is a wash.


Now if someone could invent a device that prevents people from calling you the moment you start rolling out buttery pie pastry, or stick your hands in a batch of sticky cookie dough, that would be great.

All-Clad pans

A couple of other useful home cooking and baking tips I’ve culled from my experience:

Leave frequently used pots and pans on the stovetop. Putting them away and taking them out again, over and over, is a lot of wasted time and work.

chocolate cookies measuring cups and spoons

Keep graduated measuring cups and spoons in a bowl on the counter rather than in a drawer, where you have to fish them out every time you want to use them. And you don’t have to fuss with stacking them together all the time. Or switch to using a scale. And if you use a scale, be sure to always keep spare batteries on hand; there is nothing worse than your scale running out of power when you’re in the middle of a baking project.

-If you’re space-challenged, set up an ironing board to use as a temporary extra shelf.

ironing board

Never, ever run a cooking knife through the dishwasher. The high heat can ruin the blade, as can it being knocked around with other dishes and objects during the cycle. And there’s nothing less-enjoyable or dangerous than to try to cut something with a dull knife. If you don’t have them, the only three knives you truly need are a chef’s or Santoku knife, a paring knife, and a serrated bread knife.

Avoid swapping out ingredients. Recipe writers spend a long time developing recipes so they work with the ingredients presented. If you use other ingredients, your results won’t be the same and for all your hard work (and dishes you’ll be washing) you won’t be happy. Keep things on hand so you don’t run out, especially during the busy holiday season.

Buy in bulk, especially things like butter, sugar, flour, and chocolate. Even if you don’t have a lot of room, keeping the basics well-stocked in your pantry will save you a lot of time running back and forth to the grocery store. Butter stores well in the freezer and even though good chocolate is expensive, buying a 5- or 10-pound block reduces the price dramatically.

Use excellent chocolate for dipping, okay chocolate for baking. I love chocolate and when I eat it, I buy artisanal brands or the best I can get. For baking, when the chocolate is going to be melted, then mixed with flour, sugar, butter, and other ingredients, I use a medium-grade chocolate. It doesn’t matter which one I like, choose one that you like, and what’s available to you. Around the holidays some stores sell chocolate in bulk in anticipation of customers doing a lot o holiday baking. Buy it. (If stored in a cool, dark place, dark chocolate will keep for up to five years.)

Don’t toss that sponge. I’ve been using the same sponge since 1975 and it’s lived on three continents. (Just kidding.) But you can bleach a sponge and bring it back to life. (And yes, I am aware that bleach isn’t the most ecological item, but I live in France and if we don’t go through at least 2 liters a month, the locals start getting suspicious.) I put it in a bowl with a spoonful of bleach and add water so the sponge is saturated. Then let it sit. After about thirty minutes, I take it out carefully, and squeeze it clean under running water wearing my trusty rubber gloves.

-Speaking of which, wear rubber gloves for washing dishes. Your skin and hands will thank you after a few years of dishwashing. Invest in a good pair since the cheap ones break and tear easily, and need constant replacement.

Get an oven thermometer. Ovens are notoriously off temperature and I keep one in my oven all the time to make sure baking temperatures are on track.

Check before the indicated cooking time for doneness. Ovens may be the exact same temperature, but surprisingly, each can cook differently. Cooking times can also vary depending on the material of the baking pan or cooking dish, or perhaps if the item going into the oven is already warm or has been cooled down (as in custard mixes), so check for doneness before the time indicated. When I worked as a professional cook, I rarely used a timer. I found my instincts and senses could tell when something was done rather than slavishly counting seconds and minutes. Trust yourself in the kitchen. Chocolate cakes and other desserts are notoriously finicky, and usually benefit from underbaking rather than overbaking.

Keep an open garbage can handy, rather than one that you have to keep opening a door or lid to get to. Rachael Ray recommends keeping a bowl on the counter for the same purpose (and she even sells one), although I suspect she has more counter space than I do. And I am pretty sure you could get by with just a tall bowl that you already have on hand.

Buy extra spatulas, whisks, measuring cups and spoons, and an extra bowl and attachments for your stand mixer. Most of these things are inexpensive and last a long time. Having extras will reduce the amount of time you have to start and stop while in the middle of baking projects to clean up.

Read recipes through before making them. Although I’m working on doing this myself when making someone else’s recipe, when I write a recipe, I try to say in a recipe what size bowl to use, since it’s kind of annoying to put a few spoonfuls of something in a large bowl only to find out you’re adding it to something else.

Above all, stay calm and relax. There are some really serious problems out there. Having a cake come out goofy, burning a tray of cookies, dropping a bowl of custard mix, not getting everything to the table at the same time, isn’t the end of the world. When I’m having a bad day, or whatever, I’ll stop to think about how lucky I am to have electricity, heat in my apartment, a roof over my head, a comfortable bed to climb in to every night, friends and family to share good food with, and yes, even a sink to wash dishes in.

Happy Holidays!


Favorite Holiday Recipes

Pumpkin Ice Cream

Apricot, Almond and Lemon Bread


Spicy Glazed Nuts and Pretzel Mix

Belgian Hot Chocolate

Persimmon Bread


Vanilla Ice Cream

Glazed Citron

Chocolate-Cherry Fruitcake

Apple Spice Cake

Chocolate-Pecan Pie

Nonfat Gingersnaps

Oatmeal Raisin Cookies

Fruitcake Bars

chocolate cake non-fat gingersnaps
Wittamer's Belgian hot chocolate upside down cake
fruitcake bar chocolate pecan pie
pretzel nut mix cake

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  • December 3, 2011 5:05pm

    No room for an ironing-board in my kitchen – I couldn’t get in there too!

    What I find works even better (unless, of course, you have the luxury of a double sink) is to put the washing-up bowl full of hot water on the draining-board. That way, you can rinse off the first lot of excess gunk under the cold tap so that the water lasts longer. Otherwise it fills up with bits of gunk and then when you come to do the actual washing-up it’s Most Nasty!

  • December 4, 2011 1:34am

    Microwaving a wet sponge for 3 minutes is just as good and a lot quicker. Apparently kills 99.9% of bacteria.

  • December 5, 2011 6:08pm

    I should admit that when I first read the title, I had great expectations, which then turned into a disappointment. I thought I would see a thing, which would change my life and when I read through the blog I said “I am already washing them under the flowing water before putting in the dishwasher, so what is interesting in this?”. But I had guests at the weekend and after I collected all the dishes, I wanted to stay with them rather than sponging the dishes, so I did fill the sink with water and let them in. It was really easy to put them in the dishwasher after they are gone. So, thank you very much for this very important tip, really saving a lot of time in the kitchen :)

  • Mary L.
    December 5, 2011 6:49pm

    Great tips. Instead of bleaching sponges, fill up a microwave-safe cooker with half water and half vinegar – enough to immerse the sponge, cover and cook on high for 10 min. Or simply boil the sponge in water in a covered saucepan on your stovetop.

  • December 5, 2011 7:34pm
    David Lebovitz

    Mary, Chris, et al: A number of people have mentioned microwaving sponges (I don’t have a microwave) but although that may sanitize them, it doesn’t seem to me like it cleans them. My sponges get really dark and muddy-colored (from all the chocolate!) and they look awful after a few loads of dishes, so I bleach them.

    Does microwaving actually clean them?

  • December 6, 2011 4:36pm

    As a former bakery owner, I too had dishwashers that were treasured for their ability to clean a massive amount of pans and utensils and keep things orderly. Today, in my own kitchen rather that let the dishes mount up, I simply rinse them quickly and stick them in the dishwasher. I also keep a bowl of hot soapy water and wash the hand wash items as I go along. At the end of the session I have very little to clean up and can go out to dinner! Love the rest of your tips.

  • December 8, 2011 2:21am

    Great Tips, as always! I was having guilty conscious from throwing away each week a sponge! Keeping water with detergent in sink is a tipp I learned from my mum, works great unless you have a dough that has mastika paste in!:(

  • December 8, 2011 9:13am

    I like you David. I like reading your post and appreciate your point of view (your perspective on “stuff”). Really, you make me smile. Thanks. :-)

  • December 8, 2011 4:07pm

    Hi David, great post, very helpful. May I add a tip of my own? You know those wooden handled silicone spatulas? Pop the silicone part off of the wooden handle (it should be detachable) and only put the silicone part in the dishwasher. If the wooden handle is dirty, gently wash with soap and sponge, and dry (if still damp, let air-dry completely before reattaching the silicone). This way, your wooden handles won’t get dried out and splintered from the dishwasher cycle, and the top part that goes into the silicone won’t rot from any trapped water. Et, voila! Your silicone spatulas should stay new-looking for a very long time :)

  • December 9, 2011 10:57am

    Re: microwaving sponges. No, it doesn’t clean them, but if you have rinsed them thoroughly and then wrung them out in cold water before putting them into the microwave they are fairly clean anyway – you can always put them in the washing-machine with the rest of the weekly wash.

    Another reason I prefer a bowl of hot water to a sinkful is that at least then I have somewhere to drain my pasta, run cold water over my eggs, etc. I wish I had room for a double sink!

  • December 10, 2011 4:46am

    David, these are wonderful tips, from the ironing board right down to the final one about having a sense of proportion about things.

  • kamila
    December 11, 2011 6:16pm

    I appreciate your real-life photos! My tiny kitchen often looks just like those pics, with dishes piled EVERYWHERE. I don’t have the ironing board set-up but do use the top of the bed and sofa when needed.

  • December 13, 2011 4:07am

    Mrs. Cunningham is full of practical advice, and “the friendly sink of hot soapy water” is one of the most practical. I preach to my kids — we handwash dishes here and can use every help we can find. Mama can’t stand to walk into a messy kitchen when she’s ready to work!

  • December 13, 2011 8:23am
    David Lebovitz

    Lori: In professional kitchens, there’s a motto: “Clean as you go”, which I always followed. But for home cooks, I think it’s really not a great idea to stop in the middle of a recipe and wash a few dishes here and there. (Unless you have to.) Which is why I like having two stand mixer whisks, a handful of spatulas, etc…

    (My mother made us kids wash dishes when we were kids…glad to hear you’re doing the same!)

    kamila: I know a while back in small NYC apartments, people used to put boards over their bathtubs and use them as extra counters, too.

    Janae: I wonder about those wooden handles as well, and try not to soak my spatulas in the sink too long. But I’ve never had them warp or splinter. I’m a huge fan of the Le Creuset spatulas that are spoon-like. I check out the sale racks at Sur La Table stores in the US, where they put them on sale when they discontinue a color (!)

  • December 13, 2011 9:35am

    David-I love reading your blog posts, thank you so much for this one-how is Marion? I’ve been gone from the Bay Area and out of touch…remember her fondly from Baker’s Dozen.
    and I’ve used drawers as pan racks-just pull them out and there you go!

  • Lynda
    December 13, 2011 10:44pm

    Hi! I know exactly what you mean about the phone always ringing when you’re rubbing in fats or some other messy operation. I don’t know if this would work for any of you; I work at a clinic that performs aromatherapy massages with oils. All the remote controls on the music systems in the treatment rooms are covered in clingfilm so the volume can be turned up or down without the remote and little buttons getting dirty. I don’t know if you could do this with all your phones but hey, it’s an idea!

  • December 15, 2011 7:15am

    This is a fantastic post – I love the tip about soaking dishes. I’ve been soaking dishes since I was a teenager and it never occurred to me that not everyone does that.

  • December 19, 2011 8:34pm

    I just have to say that these are hilarious but useful tips!!!