The Best Way to Clean Your Filthy Microplane, Zester, or Grater

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

My Microplane is a lifesaver—I love using it for zesting citrus and finely grating everything from garlic to cheese. The only problem is getting it clean. I can rub the smooth side with a cloth or sponge, but the grating side keeps snagging everything...including my fingers. Now there are little bits of food stuck in those tiny holes, and I can't seem to get them out. What should I do?

I totally feel your (often literal) pain—I live a dishwasher-free existence, which means that I'm forever losing bits of knuckle to my Microplane, box grater, garlic press, and other sharp, tiny-holed tools in service of keeping them clean. And even if you do have a dishwasher, once those bits of food have dried onto your grater or Microplane, a thorough wash cycle doesn't always get the job done. So what's a frustrated cook to do?

Right off the bat, I'll tell you that the most basic, effective cleaning method is to wash as you go. That means rinsing the thing immediately after using it—not leaving it for an hour while you finish making and eating dinner, and certainly not letting it sit on the counter till morning. Even if you don't give it a proper wash, a quick rinse of your Microplane will flush out most of the food particles, so cleaning it, be it one hour or one day later, will be a breeze.

The problem with this approach is that you actually have to do it. If you're a clean-as-you-go type of cook, you're golden. But if you're reading this article, I'm guessing you're a little late to the game. So, assuming you've left your dirty tiny-holed kitchen tool to languish, what's the best way to conquer those dried-on bits of food?

To put some different methods to the test, I decided to pair my Microplane—by far the hardest grater to clean—with ginger, the most infuriatingly sticky and stringy of grating candidates. I knew that any cleaning method capable of conquering ginger would also make fast work of persistent lemon zest, crusty garlic, and stubborn crumbs of Parmesan cheese.

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I started each test by passing peeled ginger along the Microplane 10 times, then left the tool to sit on my counter for an hour. From there, I tried everything I could think of to get rid of the stuff, from treating my zester with fizzy things like denture tablets dissolved in water and a fifth-grade-science-project-level combo of baking soda and white vinegar, to scouring it with a copper scrubber.

One thing I quickly learned is that there's no sponge or scouring tool that's going to tackle your Microplane without destroying either the Microplane or the sponge. I tested out a Brillo pad, a Dobie pad, and a Chore Boy copper scrubber to see how they performed at removing dried-on ginger from a zester. When used in the direction of the tiny blades (holding the handle at the top and wiping downward), things went fine. But when I dragged them against the blades, the cleaning surfaces were grated into the Microplane's blades, which shredded the sponges and, in the case of the Brillo pad, left strings of steel wool behind for me to pick out. Meanwhile, the copper scrubber was almost useless, and snagged regardless of the direction in which I used it. In the process, both metal scrubbing tools were undoubtedly dulling the zester's tiny, sharp blades. And let's face it: A Microplane that can't grate is basically just a glorified metal stick.

As for those fizzy things? I'd hoped they'd do a superior job of loosening the ginger, speeding up that soaking process and leaving the Microplane sparkling clean in no time at all. They might've looked cool in action, but, on closer examination, they didn't work nearly as well as plain old water.

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Because here's what my testing confirmed really does work: Simply soak your dirty zester in hot water for a few minutes before washing it. A high-sided bowl or pot is ideal for accommodating the Microplane's long, narrow shape, but you could also soak it horizontally in a plugged-up sink, or even a casserole dish. After five to 10 minutes, you'll spot all that crusty residue beginning to float off the zester—the soaking period essentially reconstitutes the dried-on food, returning it to its freshly grated state so that you can go ahead and give it that rinse you didn't get around to before. Whatever small amount of remaining food that's stuck to the grater will come right off with a swipe of a soapy sponge. So there you have it: a cleaning solution that just so happens to be free, easy, and pretty damn versatile.