Why You Really Should Clean As You Go When Cooking
Before I learned and, more importantly, embraced the revolutionary tactic of “clean-as-you-go,” I was as messy a cook as they come. I cluttered my counters with bowls and spoons and left the stove covered with miscellaneous splatters as I cooked a meal. While I lived with her, my mom would often pester me with the notion that I needed to clean up along and along throughout the cooking process, as she would follow behind me, wash rag in hand. Even if I had the gas flame cranked up to the highest setting, my mom would appear to wipe down the hot stove and murmur in my ear, "cleanliness is next to Godliness." Of course, that wasn’t enough of a reason for me to try cleaning in tandem with my cooking, because I believed doing so would take me away from the task at hand—which was cooking.
Well, years later, like many other lessons in life, I “discovered” that my mom was right. (I’m sure you saw that coming.)
I have gradually developed the instinct of cleaning in the kitchen as I go, and it’s a practice that I sincerely believe everyone that steps into the kitchen to prepare a meal can benefit from adopting. In theory, it’s a fairly straightforward plan of action—as you use specific dishes for prep, wash them shortly you’re finished with them; wipe counters and other surfaces clean as you transition into another step of the cooking process; discard any food scraps and trash as needed, rather than letting them pile up.
The trick to mastering cleaning as you go is discipline. This may be hard for some to conquer at the beginning, but I swear it gets easier as you practice and soon, cleaning behind yourself as a part of the process will simply be apart of your muscle memory. You will be doing it without much thought, and that is the goal. Because in reality, cleaning the kitchen as you cook not only clears up the space you need to work, but it also allows your mind to better focus on each given task. It’s a similar to how working in a clean office space supposedly makes you more efficient than working in a junky space; cluttered work area= cluttered mind.
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In a more practical sense, the benefit of continually keeping your kitchen tidy is that it reduces the likelihood of you cross-contaminating your food and accordingly lowers the risk of foodborne illness. In professional kitchens, this mantra goes without saying—it’s simply implied (largely by the minimal amount of space you have to work) and expected. When you are a line cook working in an intensely fast-paced environment, cleaning as you go is the only way that you can efficiently prepare a plate of food with accuracy—especially in an era when dietary restrictions often dictate highly specific food preferences. Thankfully, as a home cook—without the pressure of an executive chef watching over your every move—you have the luxury of time (albeit, somewhat less so in the case that you’re rushing to get a weeknight meal on the table for the little ones), which allows you to leisurely wash up a few dishes at a time or use separate cutting boards for your produce and meats.
In the end, when you’ve finished your meal and it’s time to tackle the remaining dishes, the task won’t be nearly as daunting. Let’s face it, dirty dishes are a part of cooking, and when you fully accept that there will always be dishes that need to be hand-washed or loaded into a dishwasher, and busting the task up can make this fact of life less annoying—you can approach the chore with joy. (Or something closer to joy, at least.)
Here are a few other practical tips on how to keep your kitchen tidy while you are cooking at home.
- Always do a quick inventory of your refrigerator to toss expired or rotten foods before you even start into meal prep.
- If you only have one sizeable cutting board, use it to cut your fresh fruits and vegetables first. Give your cutting board and knife a quick rinse and/or wipe down, and proceed to use the same board to handle your meats and seafood.
- When you are frying foods, it’s inevitable that oil will splatter. Try covering your frying pan with a splatter-proof screen to help control the grease from popping everywhere.
- Keep a large bowl close to you where you can easily discard scraps and trash as you cook. You can empty the bowl in the trashcan towards the end of the cooking or once it’s completely full.
- Always have a (non-decorative) dish towel or paper towels within reach. It’s much easier to wipe up accidental spills and messes as they occur when you have something to sop them up with on-hand.
- Designate a side of the sink to fill with warm soapy water and soak dirty dishes in as you finish with them, so they will be easier to clean when you get a second. (Just be sure not to place your knives in the water; you always want to immediately clean and dry sharp knives, and then store in a safe place.)