While running an Airbnb for two years, I was shocked at how many people don’t know how to get dishes clean without a dishwasher. I quickly learned to check all of the plates, cups, flatware, and cookware — even the ones that had been put back in the cupboards and drawers — for food and gunk still stuck on.

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Hand-washing vs. the dishwasher

In my mom’s house growing up, we used a dishwasher, but more as a “sanitizer,” we still got every visible speck off of the dishes before we put them into the machine. At my dad’s, we went one step further. We would wash all the dishes completely by hand and merely use the dishwasher as an extra-large drying rack. I remember once asking him why, and just to get me off his back he replied “because I don’t have any dishwasher soap” so I bought him some for Christmas. Ah, the sweet simplicity of childhood.

In my college dorm, we didn’t have a dishwasher either. It wasn’t a big deal for me because I was used to it, but one of my roommates’ parents actually bought her an entire semester worth of paper plates and plastic utensils, fearing she wouldn’t be able to get her dishes clean enough and she’d get sick. Shockingly, this sentiment is not uncommon.

When Brian and I moved from our first home into our second, we thought we were in the lap of luxury because we had a dishwasher, but we soon found ourselves going back to hand washing everything like we’d been accustomed to in our studio and using the dishwasher as a drying rack just like my dad does. When we found the house that we have since bought and settled in, we actually looked at it as a perk, not a downside, that there is no dishwasher to be found.

Why wash dishes by hand?

Like many so-called modern “conveniences,” in my opinion, automatic dishwashing machines have become more of a hindrance than a help. Sure, there are days when I’ve done a lot of cooking or we have guests for dinner and I think it would be nice to have one, but much more often I am at the home of friends or family and I’m relieved that I don’t have the bother.

  1. Every dish is available when I need it. I can’t even tell you how frequently I’m cooking at my mom’s house and there is something specific we need, but we have to wait for a load of dishes to finish. At home, I can use my favorite knife to slice a raw chicken, some veggies, and a cake all within a few minutes with no problem. This also cuts down on the number of kitchen items I need to own and store — I only need to have that one favorite knife, not several to rotate between.
  2. The sink is available when I need it. Sure, I’m not always perfect at washing every dish the second I’m done using it, and some people are in that habit even with a dishwasher, but when you have a dishwasher it seems to be a lot easier to let dishes pile up and designate a time to do them all at once. Also, when the dishwasher is already full, there is nowhere else to put the dishes you use in the meantime. For me, no matter how clean the rest of the kitchen is, it feels like a mess when there are dishes in the sink, and no matter how much of a mess it is, if the sink is clear (and there are no dirty dishes scattered elsewhere) it doesn’t feel so bad.
  3. I can be sure every dish is clean. Dishwashers are thought of as all-powerful, and dish soap commercials would have you believe you can stick an entire lasagna in the dishwasher and still have your baking dish come out sparkling, but this is rarely the case. So often I see dishes come out of the dishwasher with spots or even chunks of food. And once it’s been through the heat and dried back on, it’s often even more difficult to clean the second time around.
  4. I can be sure every dish is clean enough. With a dishwasher, every dish in a cycle gets the same amount of water, the same amount of heat, the same amount of soap, and the same amount of time. But when hand washing, you have complete control. A salad spinner that touched nothing but a bit of lettuce and will never touch anything but a bit of lettuce really doesn’t need anything more than a quick rinse with cool water. On the other hand, a cutting board used to cut raw chicken can get a good scrub down with plenty of antibacterial soap and a nice blast of extra hot water. When washing each dish individually, you can spend extra time on the dishes that need it, but conserve resources on the ones that don’t. You also don’t have to keep track of which dishes are dishwasher safe vs top rack only vs hand wash only.
  5. It’s really not any more effort, but it’s much more rewarding. I guess if you have one of those magical dishwashers that can dissolve an entire inch of burnt food, it might save you some elbow grease to use it. For the rest of us, rubbing a little soap on the dishes that you’re already scrubbing and rinsing anyway doesn’t make much of a difference in the difficulty of the task at hand, but taking into consideration all of the above benefits, overall you will have actually saved yourself time and energy. Besides, I find it to be extremely satisfying to wash dishes by hand. When I worked in restaurants, I would love it when they needed me to fill in for a dishwashing shift (in most restaurants, the “dishwasher” is just a sanitizer, the dishes need to be 100% clean before going in), and I would often tell my coworkers that if it was the same pay I’d rather be a dishwasher than a chef!

My dish washing station

Knowing I didn’t have (and never will have) a dishwasher in this house — plus the fact that we plan on having a large family — I put a lot of thought into setting up the area around my kitchen sink to make washing dishes as easy as possible.

  1. Hanging racks and organizers. This is particularly important to me since I cook three meals a day for four people (and counting) without a dishwasher. Having drying racks all over the counter is no better than having a sink full of dishes. I wanted everything neatly tucked away so the kitchen could be clutter-free. The exact ones I have aren’t available anymore, but IKEA has a lot of great options.
  2. Lots of scrubbers in different shapes and colors. To avoid cross-contamination, you need one scrub brush for initially scrubbing your dishes and one for soaping them up. Brushes are better than sponges as they don’t hold onto as much bacteria and they are more durable. It is surprisingly difficult to find a soap dispensing brush with a long handle at a decent price, but it’s not a big deal if you keep your soap close by. I also have a specific handheld brush for scrubbing veggies and a different one for scrubbing extra nasty things like the trash can lid that I don’t want to have any cross-contact with my dishes that I eat off of.
  3. A plastic scraper. If you don’t have one of these, go get one right now! It will change your life! It’s also helpful to have other heavy-duty scrubbers on hand for those extra tough jobs.
  4. Sink drain strainers. We also don’t have a garbage disposal, so it is important not to let any food down the drain. These ones have a low profile and catch enough food but aren’t as hard to clean as mesh ones.
  5. Sink drain plugs. I try not to plug up the sink often, as the goal is to always wash dishes immediately and the method I use doesn’t require filling the sink, but they are still a basic necessity in any kitchen. I like silicone stoppers because they don’t stain and crack over time like rubber.
  6. Easily accessible dish soap. This is a key element to effortless dishwashing. You don’t want to have to lug a big jug of soap out from under the counter each time you use a glass and need to wash it out. I prefer to have dish soap alongside the hand soap in a pump for quick access. My grandmother kept soapy water in a spray bottle that she could spray on each dish, which is another fantastic method. When doing a big batch of dishes at once, I also like to put a bit of soap and water into a small cup or bowl so I can just dip the brush in as needed, which is even easier than using a pump or a spray.
  7. Extra dish racks. For the most part, as long as I stay in a good habit of washing dishes as I use them, the one out-of-the-way dish rack is enough. By the time I have more dishes to wash, the last ones are dry and ready to put away. However, when I do have a bigger batch to wash, I don’t want a lack of drying space to be what gets in my way, so I keep extra racks on hand to fill the counter as needed.

The best way to hand-wash dishes

  1. Wash dishes immediately. I have washed enough bottles and sippy cups with milk in every nook and cranny to know that it is never worth it to let a dish sit. What will rinse off in a fraction of a second immediately after use could take several minutes of hardcore scrubbing once you’ve allowed it to dry on.
  2. Don’t fill up the sink. This is my absolute #1 rule for hand washing dishes, and where I vary the most from the traditional methods most people were raised on, but it makes ALL the difference. Who isn’t grossed out by a sink full of nasty used dishwater with bits of food and who knows what else floating in it? I don’t care how much soap you’ve got in there, that water isn’t properly cleaning anything. I can see why my roommates’ parents didn’t trust hand-washed dishes to be germ-free.
  3. If you do have to wait: soak, soak, soak. If you are doing a lot of cooking and you know you won’t get to the dishes for a while, do your future self a favor and ignore everything I said above and fill up that sink! If you keep the dishes in water, they will stay just as easy (or easier) to clean as if you wash them right away. Also, if you have an especially difficult dish, never underestimate the power of some hot water and a little dish soap. Giving that burnt-on casserole even just a short time to soak while you wash the other dishes will make it clean up better than even the most miraculous dish detergent advertisement.
  4. Easy as 1–2–3. First, use one scrub brush, always the same one, to scrub off any food and visible debris under running water. Second, using a separate scrub brush, scrub each dish with antibacterial dish soap. Third, rinse off the soap under running water.

And voila! Sparkling dishes in a snap! This method works whether you’re cleaning a single fork or a stack of pots and pans taller than you are. Even if you aren’t ready to say goodbye to your dishwasher forever, it’s a skill that everybody should have.