Um...You Missed a Spot: A Neat Freak's Guide to Kitchen Cleaning

[Illustrations: Vivian Kong]

Editor's Note: Want this kitchen cleaning checklist in a handy printable format? Want to fully flex your neat-freak muscle by laminating the printout, or—even better—framing it so you can reference it every time you're washing up? Click here for the PDF version.

Cleaning up should be an easy task for any functioning adult. But my observations combined with my keen reasoning skills lead me to conclude the world is short on functioning adults. I've moved into apartments with stovetops entombed in an armor of burnt-on carbon, cabinets sticky with years of vaporized grease, and microwave interiors splattered with the spits and pops of 500 dinners. The kitchen of my current home was originally littered with enough roach carcasses to stage a convincing tableau of the battlefields of Gettysburg. I had everything in that kitchen ripped out and replaced.

So let's talk kitchen cleaning. Or maybe let's not talk too much. I'm just gonna give you a checklist to help you remember what needs to be tended to. I don't think it's worth addressing the macro stuff. Hopefully you've already invested in some basic kitchen storage and organizational essentials. Yes, you should wash your dishes and take out that rotting bag of trash. Anyone who can't get that stuff done has bigger problems. Where the trouble really hides is in the smaller nooks and crevices or those layers of hard-to-see grime that one can ignore for months or years until every surface is compromised.

The list below (available here as a PDF) is organized by frequency. Some of the tasks should, ideally, happen after every cooking session. Some once or twice a week, and others more sporadically than that (but they should happen eventually!). Exactly how often you make your way through these tasks largely depends on how often you cook at home and what kind of foods you cook. If you're deep frying a couple times per week, your cleaning schedule is going to be more intense than someone who dines out or makes a lot of no-cook salads.

Always

  • Clean grease from stove hood/filter: Grease will glaze all the surfaces above your stovetop after sautéing almost anything in oil or searing meats. Ignore it at your own peril. In just days or weeks that vaporized grease will grow sticky as it polymerizes and as dust collects on it. Eventually you will be unable to get it off, even after unloading cans of oven cleaner on it. Stay on top of it, and your hood/vent/microwave will remain as good a new.
  • Fully wipe down stovetop, burner knobs, oven door handle, etc.: Drips, splatter, and grease will find their way all over your stovetop, onto the control knobs, and down the front of your range. Clean it all off while it's easy, because just like the vaporized grease that sticks to your above-stove vents, it will be a lot more stubborn later on.
  • Wash countertops and floor: My wife, Kate, wants to punch me every time I say it, but even a crumb of food is a meal for vermin.
  • Clean sink, drain filter, faucet, garbage disposal: After you've washed your dishes (because you have washed your dishes, right?), it's time to clean the sink of any food bits and gunk. Garbage disposals should be run to prevent food from stagnating down there, too (if anything goes in that shouldn't, deal with it following the manufacturer's instructions).
  • Wipe down appliances: Countertop appliances need to be cleaned and not just the obviously dirty parts. Food processor, blender, and stand mixer motor housings all need some TLC. I also have a particular pet peeve about electric multi-cookers (like the Instant Pot) and rice cookers. Dirty water collects in drainage channels on those things and it needs to be cleaned up. Well, that, or you could just change the name of yours to the Instant Fungus.

Frequently

  • Clean your coffee grinder, coffee machine: Coffee grinders generate a ton of dusty coffee grounds mess, and coffee machines get nasty fast, especially when wet grounds are left to rot overnight.
  • Clean interior of microwave: How often do people clean the turntable plate in their microwave but never stop to wipe down the walls and ceiling in there? Too often.
  • Wipe grease off anything that sits out (especially close to the stove): I keep a crock of cooking utensils near my range. Some of the tools are in heavy rotation and others are not. I try to spot-check them from time to time as well as anything else that sits out near the range. Anything that seems grimy or greasy gets a proper cleaning.
  • Clean crumb tray in toaster: I once had a roommate who moved in with his own toaster. The toaster, meanwhile, came with its own roach infestation, because he'd never cleaned out the crumbs in the damned thing. I made him throw it out. So, yeah, you probably want to deal with that.
  • Clean drip tray of grill and/or griddle: These trays get nasty fast. That's not so awful on an outdoor piece of equipment, but it's terrible on anything designed for indoor use. Don't forget to check them as needed.
  • Wash cabinets and backsplashes: Grease and splatter will eventually find its way onto every surface in a kitchen, and that includes the cabinetry and backsplashes. You don't have to wash those surfaces daily, but you do want to do it often enough that they don't reach a point of no return. If nothing else motivates you, think of your guests and how harshly they'll judge you for having grimy cabinets and food-spattered walls.
  • Check your cast iron for stickiness: Cast iron should be properly seasoned, but that, by definition, means it should not be sticky with old grease. Good seasoning on cast iron is oil that's fully polymerized, so that it's literally bone-dry. If your cast iron is getting sticky, it's time to give it a good wash, and then tend to its seasoning.
kitchen cleaning illustration of hard to reach spots like refrigerator coil and microwave interior

Occasionally

  • Clean gap between stove and counter: One of the underbellies of the kitchen is that tiny crack on either side of the oven where it meets the counter. Drips and spills seep down into them; salt and other small particles clog them with grit, and almost no ones bothers to clean any of it out. But you should. I often slide a cake tester or sheet of paper into the crevice to clear out any particles, and then occasionally pull the oven out to see what's really going on down in there. The answer is rarely "nothing," which is why you should do that from time to time, too.
  • Clean oven interior and glass window: Here's what you do want coated in a thin veneer of polymerized oil: your cast iron cookware. Know what you don't? Your oven interior. But that's what happens when fat sizzles and splatters as roasts brown and vegetables sear. A dirty oven can become a smoky oven, and it's also just plain annoying to try to peer through a clouded oven window. If you can remember to give the glass frequent washings, you won't have to resort to oven cleaner or the oven's aggressive self-cleaning cycle too often, but eventually you'll want to whip out those big guns to truly clean up the accumulated mess.
  • Clean drawers of crumbs and debris: One of the cooking transgressions that sends my hand careening toward my head is when I witness someone prep food on the countertop directly above an open drawer. Even if their hands are dirty, is it that hard to push the drawer closed with their hip? The weird thing is that even when you're conscientious about keeping drawers closed, crumbs still manage to find their way in. A periodic vacuuming is a good idea, no matter what your drawer habits are.
  • Discard old spices and condiments: Spices only last so long, especially ones that come preground. Go through your spice cabinet at least a couple of times a year and get rid of the old stuff. Ditto for condiments. Many, like ketchup and mustard, have near indefinite shelf lives, but anything that's been lingering in the pantry or fridge for an unreasonable (or, worse, unknown) amount of time may be better off in the trash. This is a good time to wipe up any spice dust or condiment spills that have collected as well.
  • Dust hard-to-reach areas: My countertop has several permanent fixtures. There's the compost pail, the utensils crock, and the salt-and-pepper tray, for instance. Most days I just clean around them. Sometimes I need to remind myself to move them and clean under them as well. And now I've reminded you to do it, too. This is also true of other easy-to-neglect areas, like the top of the fridge, open shelving, etc.
  • Clean dishwasher and refrigerator gaskets: The inside of a well-functioning dishwasher should remain pretty dang clean all on its own (you should still check from time to time, though). But the gasket that seals the door can get pretty grimy. Anyone who's spent some time around an old refrigerator knows it's just as true for that appliance. Run a rag around these parts to keep them clean and working well. If they're really old and beat up, consider replacing them.
  • Clean refrigerator shelves and bins: Refrigerators have a way of encouraging our worst cleaning practices, primarily because they stay cold, so messes can linger without getting unbearably funky. Don't let negligence get the best of you! Take those produce bins out, get rid of the dried herbs that litter them, and toss out that rotting bag of celery. Then wash and dry them well. The shelves in your refrigerator should get similar attention.

Rarely

  • Dust refrigerator coil: Your refrigerator only cools itself as well as the coils on its back allow, and the dustier they grow, the more difficult it is for them to shed heat. It's a drag, but every once in a while, it's worth getting back there to suck up the dust and, if you have pets, hair that are getting in the way of efficient cooling.
  • Dust and degrease vents: Look up. No, higher. If there's a vent on your ceiling, or anything else way up high that might be accumulating grease and dust, it probably needs your attention from time to time.
  • Clean and organize under-sink area: I recently let the cabinet under my sink at home get a little unruly. Unfortunately, all that clutter hid a leaking drain pipe. I only realized it once the water had run under the cabinetry and seeped out onto the floor. I managed to get it cleaned up, dry, and repaired before any real damage was done, but had I been a little more on top of the under-sink clutter, I probably could have caught the problem even earlier. I got lucky, but it's a good reminder that doing a little due diligence below deck is always better than having a downstairs neighbor alert you to the problem—along with a bill to fix their ceiling.
  • Defrost freezer: If your freezer looks like the inside of Superman's Fortress of Solitude, it's time to defrost it, which will improve its efficiency and also just clear out all that built-up frost. Follow your refrigerator's instructions on how best to do it.
  • Deep cleaning/declutter: Beyond all of the above, sometimes you just need to set your sights on a neglected cabinet, pantry, or other storage area and do a deep clean. That gives you a chance to throw out stuff you no longer need, reorganize, and otherwise get on top of the clutter.

Cleaning Supplies to Stock Up On

  • All-Purpose Cleaner: I got into the habit of using Windex to clean almost everything in the kitchen back in my restaurant days. It’s good for way more than glass—Windex can clean stainless steel and enameled appliances, cabinetry, and more, doing an impressive job of cutting through crud and grease.
  • Eco-Friendly All-Purpose Cleaner: I lean on Windex, but its crazy blue color sometimes gets me thinking I should be a little more careful about the chemicals I’m spraying all over my kitchen and getting on my skin daily. That’s why I also keep a spray bottle of a 1:1 ratio of water to distilled white vinegar. I don’t love the smell it leaves behind (it just doesn’t say "clean" to me), but at least I know it’s not something I need to worry about.
  • Heavy-Duty Cleaner: For stainless steel pots and pans, sinks, and other heavy-duty jobs that require some scouring, Bar Keepers Friend is the way to go. I’ve found it also works great on some countertops like Caesarstone, which can get scuff marks. Just make sure to do a test patch in a small corner on any material to see if they’re compatible.
  • Oven Cleaner: Easy-Off is just aerosolized lye, and it melts away burnt-on grease and polymerized fat. You can use it to clean your oven, obviously, but it can also be used to strip a badly maintained cast iron skillet back down to its bare metal before reseasoning. Wear gloves and protective clothing though, because this stuff will melt off your skin, too.
  • Sanitizer: I’ve really fallen for Bleach Crystals—a product that's just bleach in a dehydrated crystal form. The container is small and light, but it translates into what would be a large and heavy volume of bleach. Even better, it doesn’t degrade over time like liquid bleach does, so even if you don’t use it often, it’ll still be just as potent as the day you bought it. What do I use it for? Sanitizing cutting boards between uses if I’m concerned about cross-contamination, keeping kitchen towels from getting mildewy, and turning yellowed ceramics bright white again (well, that last one I mostly just intend to do, but maybe haven’t gotten around to it recently). It's also handy for bathroom cleaning and laundry purposes.
  • Dishwasher Detergent: I’m a sucker for the big-name brands here, like Cascade and Finish. I just want whatever magic they pack into their detergent, so that my dishes come out sparkling clean, streak-free, and all that other stuff years of television ads have convinced me matters.
  • Dish Soap: I try to be a little more “green” for hand-washing, since any basic dish soap seems to do the job just fine as far as I can tell. I opt for dye- and fragrance-free products like Seventh Generation that claim to be better for the Earth.
  • Sponges: I like double-sided sponges for cleaning dishes and surfaces. Scotch Brite's non-scratch scrub sponges tackle grime without doing damage to your surfaces. Remember that as soon as your sponges grow mildewy or straight-up gross, it's time to either boil them in a pot of water to kill whatever's growing in them, or replace them with new ones.