How the Hell Does One Wash Dishes? Asking for a Friend.

How the Hell Does One Wash Dishes? Asking for a Friend.

Seat yourselves around the campfire, children, and I’ll tell you a tale of some grade-A dumbass sitcom shit I did when I was your age.

I spent the summer between my freshman and sophomore year of college in the same town where my father lived. He had just moved in with my soon-to-be stepmother, leaving his bachelor pad vacant. He agreed to let me live there rent-free while the place was on the market, but part of our agreement was that I had to keep the place spotlessly clean and ready to be shown at a moment’s notice. It was a sweet deal and I took it.

One day my father alerted me that a couple would be stopping by to see it that very afternoon. No problemo! I decided the first thing I needed to do was wash the dishes.

In the past, I’d always washed dishes by hand, because I only used a plate or two at a time. But I had a bunch of drinking glasses accumulated, and I wanted to go vacuum and do other things, so I decided to use the dishwasher. I loaded it up the same way I had seen my parents do it. Then I looked around for a place to put the soap, and saw a little pop-open divot labeled “soap.” Feeling self-reliant, I squirted about half of a cup of dish soap into the machine, turned the dial to “normal wash,” and pressed the start button.

… Did you catch that?

Yep, I just told you that I squirted dish soap into the dishwasher. Yeah, like Dawn or some shit. Some of you already know what this punch line is going to be!


I went upstairs to make my bed and stash my small suitcase of belongings out of sight. When I came back downstairs ten minutes later, the entire first floor of the condominium had vanished. In its place was a sea of tiny, pearlescent soap bubbles. When I stepped into it, I disappeared up to my ankles. And god, the smell… the lemony fresh scent was like a brick wall where the bricks were also made of lemons.

Honestly, can you blame me? Doesn’t it make sense to put dish soap in the dish washer? I was nineteen years old and had never run a dishwasher in my life, which makes me sound awfully royal. To be fair to me, many adult responsibilities were foisted on me at a young age. But for whatever reason, this was one task my parents had always done for me. I’d loaded it, I’d unloaded it. But I’d never actually added the dishwasher liquid and run it.

Adults must use a vast set of skills to navigate their lives. Everybody has gaps in their learning. I don’t know a single adult who isn’t embarrassed over their inability to perform some “normal” menial task like driving, cooking, doing laundry, or filing taxes.

So today we’re kicking off a basic life skills category. If you missed this information at some point in your life, we’ll teach you how to do it with no shade and no shame. And if you already know all this stuff, who knows, your ass still might learn something! At the very least, you’ll be entertained by our adolescent failures.

On an unrelated note, I’ll also tell you how to get rid of five hundred square feet of bubbles in twenty minutes!

How to wash a dish by hand

This is how I’ve washed dishes for most of my life, including to this day. My house was built in 1917, she ain’t got none of that Rosie the Robot shit.

Gotta do them dishes.

One thing to note is that this is the least efficient way to wash dishes. You’ll use more water, more soap, more elbow grease, and more time than a dishwasher will. So if you have a dishwasher, use the dishwasher! Unlike many labor-saving devices, it is actually also money-saving.

1. Check for a garbage disposal

So you’ve got some nasty boi dirty plates. The first thing you must do is check to see if there is a garbage disposal installed. A garbage disposal is, basically, a loud little blender that grinds up small amounts of food waste.

Oh, would you like to hear another personal anecdote that makes me sound like the prince in The Prince and the Pauper? I once stuffed some burnt rice down the drain in mine and Piggy’s dormitory sink because I had never lived anywhere that didn’t have a garbage disposal. I thought that all kitchen sinks ate garbage by definition! The building’s handyman was sent to snake the drain and yell at me.

For the love of god, don’t be like me.

Three ways to look for one. First: on the rim of the drain itself, where the water disappears out of sight, does it say “Insinkerator”? Second: is there a light switch right near the sink that makes a triggeringly loud noise when you flip it? Third: when you open the cabinet under the sink, do you see a large cork-shaped black apparatus attached to the pipes? If you answered yes to any of these questions, that’s probably a garbage disposal.

2. Scrape

Your dishes probably have some food waste still on them. Take your dirty fork and scrape that shit into the garbage. (You can also compost it if it’s non-meat, but that’s intermediate-level stuff. You’re in the remedial class; stay in your lane.)

If there’s a garbage disposal, you can safely wash SMALL amounts of soft food matter directly into the sink. But don’t stuff a bunch down, and don’t put anything hard like a chicken bone in there. When you’re done, run the water from the sink and pulse the disposal on by flipping the light switch until the quality of sound changes. Usually the pitch goes up just a little, and it sounds smoother—that means it’s done.

And if, like me, you ain’t got a garbage disposal, DON’T PUT FOOD DOWN THE DRAIN. I’m serious. Invest in one of those little $3 crud catchers. It’s a heckin’ lot cheaper than a plumber.

Never pour grease down the drain. Grease is any kind of cooking fat or oil—for example, what’s left in the pan after you cook bacon. This stuff is liquid when it’s warm, but becomes solid at room temperature. It’ll go down the drain easy, but it will turn into a big, water-repelling, solid block inside your drain.

3. Soak

Start with the stuff that you can tell will be hardest to clean—the crusty, nasty, baked-on shit. Put those items in the sink and fill them with warm water.

Hopefully one of those things will be a largish container, like a mixing bowl or a large piece of tupperware. Collect all of the silverware and small items, and chuck them inside to soak too.

Now ignore them while you clean the easy stuff.

4. Wash

There are lots of dish-cleaning implements, some of them quite fancy. But this cowgirl uses only two. In my right holster is a soft-scrub sponge, and that’s what I recommend you use most often because it’s disposable and safe to use on everything. In my left is a hard plastic scraping tool. Strong enough to pry up serious gunk, but flat to prevent scratches. Yeehaw!

Take your sponge; squirt a buncha dish soap onto it; work it into a lather; and go apeshit on them dishes. I mean, don’t no-lube-fist your champagne flutes, but do put some effort into it. I can definitely tell when someone has hand-washed dishes with a limp wrist. Fingerprints and smudges are all up in them boys.

Put the most effort into areas that touch mouths, hands, and food. You should wash the outside and the bottom as well—but they’re usually good with a superficial wipe-down. Go ham on areas like the interior and the handle.

I actually use the “scrubby” side of a sponge as my default! Your parents and grandparents might’ve told you not to do that, because these used to be much more abrasive and would scratch everything. But nowadays they’re much gentler, and they help disturb the surface of dried-on food stains. If you really care, you can read a great batch of sponge reviews here.

Reload your sponge if the suds run dry. And move from easy-to-clean stuff like water glasses to disasters like the casserole dish covered in four days of baked-and-reheated-and-reheated-and-reheated lasagna.

For the hardest ones, you may need a tool with more scrubbing power, or to soak them overnight. That’s cool! Two warnings. Don’t soak cast iron things—the water will cause them to rust. (You will know cast iron by its black, slightly pebbled texture and its enormous weight.) And don’t use abrasive cleaners like steel wool. There may be some situations that call for them, but you’re way more likely to wreck the finish of the dirty item with scratches.

5. Rinse

When your item looks good, rinse it off. Meaning: run it under clean water until all the soapy water is 100% gone. If you don’t do this, you’ll see weird soapy water stains on all your nice clean shit. Gross.

6. Dry

Unless you’re in an enormous hurry, towel-drying is very unnecessarily inefficient. Instead, stack the items in a drying rack and let the sylphs do their work.

Some double-sinks have a built-in drying rack. Some are even sculpted into the counter top, which is… unhelpful, but whatever. But most people will probably need a freestanding drying rack. Let the pegs and grooves guide you on how to stack the plates. Put large, sturdy things on the bottom and stack lighter, fragile things on top, because contents can shift! Especially if you, like me, try to reach into the pile and sneak your coffee mug out, Jenga-style.

I highly recommend an absorbent pad underneath (I swear by this one). Get two so you can launder it occasionally.

And for god’s sake, point the knives down! You are one clumsy roommate away from the perfect murder!

Wait… is all of this really sanitary?

These germs are doin me a heckin frighten.

There is no mythical way to hand-wash a dish that will result in perfectly sanitized plates. If any step here strikes you as gross and germy, it’s probably because washing dishes by hand is gross and germy. Sorry about it!

Take the magical process chefs call “seasoning.” It’s a fancy term meaning “when we cook a bunch on something and it gets a permanent patina of oily runoff baked into it.” And yes, seasoning is a good thing! It helps keep your cookware non-stick without a bunch of iffy chemicals that are probably banned in Europe (and California, the Europe of America.)

It’s normal for cookware, over time, to become dark, discolored, or shiny. It doesn’t mean you’re washing it badly—you don’t have to lash it with a scrub brush until looks fresh off the showroom floor of Bed Bath & Beyond. If I had a baby, I wouldn’t trust people with shiny cookware to hold said baby. Also I would have a lot of questions about where this baby came from, because my shit is on lock.

How to wash dishes in a dishwasher

Oh, you’ve got one? You lucky soul! Here’s how you use it.

Cats are great at chores, 10/10.

No, not like that.

1. Scrape

Yep, you’ve still got to scrape! If you leave half of a tomato on your plate, the washer will pick up that half-tomato, pulverize it with water jets, and fling it about onto everything before drying said tomato chunks into an immovable crisp.

… Not that I’m speaking from extremely unflattering real-life experience here. For the third time. In one post.

There’s no need to rinse, though. You’re likely just wasting water.

2. Load

Disparate dishwasher loading techniques are the key to a speedy divorce. No, it’s true! People have very strong opinions on “the right” way to do it. In my experience, every dishwasher is different, and you may need to use one several times before you figure out its quirks. But there are some best practices.

  • Don’t put anything in the dishwasher that can’t withstand high heat and lots of water. That means no wooden spoons, no cast iron, no fancy silver. (Who reads this blog and eats off silver? Please email me. I have to know you.)
  • Don’t dump everything in randomly. The dishwasher, like the drying rack, usually has suggested areas. Plates almost always go on the bottom, cups and bowls almost always go on top, and there should be a little basket for utensils. If the utensils are large, like a spatula, lay them flat on the top rack.
  • Try to keep dishes from touching. They rattle around a little in there, and you don’t want them to chip or break. Utensils can touch.
  • Stack vessels upside-down or on their sides. If bowls and cups are right-side-up, they will fill with dirty water. When possible, keep them at a slight angle so that water runs off of them during the drying process. (Usually the upper shelf is molded to do exactly this.)
  • Always point knives down. If you live with Piggy, go ahead and make it forks too.

It’s crucial not to under-fill or over-fill your dishwasher. If you run the washer on a small load, you waste money, water, and energy. Over-stuff it and nothing will get clean, forcing you to run it again. I personally never put pots, pans, cutting boards, or other large items in dishwashers. They always seem to obstruct the flow of water to other items, I’d rather just wash them by hand.

3. Run

Find the dish detergent container. It’s usually on the interior of the door, and it usually looks like a little hole covered by a pop-open door. There’s often a second one for big loads with extra dirty boys; ignore it.

How much you put in depends on the kind of dish detergent you’re using. Follow the directions on the box. If you’re not sure, use the overall size of the container as your guide. You don’t want it overflowing, but you probably want it pretty full.

Almost all dishwashers nowadays will spit your dishes out as hot and dry as my grandmother’s meatloaf (which is to say, lukewarm and exceptionally dry). So you don’t have to worry about drying them and can stack them right back in your cabinet. Or just take out the one you want and leave the rest there for your roommate to put away, you fucking monster.

He's right. You haven't.

Depending on how new and schmancy your dishwasher is, you’ll have a range of settings to choose from. Start with normal, and go from there. If you notice that the dishes didn’t get very clean, try loading it differently next time, or choosing a different setting. Labor-saving devices are soooooo hard!

So wait, let’s say I accidentally load the dishwasher with dish soap, and now I have a living room floor covered in bubbles, and potential buyers are twenty minutes away…

Okay, here’s what you do.

Wade over to the back door and open it wide. Grab a dustpan. Now RUN at the bubbles like a Japanese floor cleaner (reference here) with your dustpan out in front of you, scooping and thrusting them out the back door. Do this until 90% of the bubbles are outside on the back deck, then shove them off the deck and into the hostas. Then go back inside and vacuum. The 10% of the bubbles remaining will collapse without other bubbles to insulate them, and you can run a vacuum over everything. It will be surprisingly dry underneath, I promise you.

Question: won’t that kill the hostas?

Almost certainly. Concentrate on selling the house before they show signs of their death by poisoning.

Question: wouldn’t a broom work better?

No. The agitation of the sweeping motion will send them airborne. You will waste precious time.

Question: what about a snow shovel?

Absolutely. A snow shovel would’ve worked best. But there isn’t one in your garage. Believe me, I checked.

22 thoughts to “How the Hell Does One Wash Dishes? Asking for a Friend.”

  1. Oooh, this is an excellent series, y’all. My two cents on this for water-saving purposes: PLEASE FOR THE LOVE OF GOD TURN OFF THE WATER WHILE YOU’RE DOING THE ACTUAL WASHING OF YOUR DISHES. Save the water for the rinse stage, not the scrubbing! If you happen to have a double sink, you can close the drain, put some soap in, and run a bit of water. Don’t fill it up all the way. You can wash a few dishes in that water and rinse them in the same side of the sink so that you’ll get more water in the basin in which to wash dishes. After that you can rinse them in the other side so you don’t dilute down your soap too much. And you’re starting with your less gross dishes first, so no, it won’t kill you to rinse into the water you’re about to wash your next dishes in. As for dishwashers, I’m way more relaxed. Every time I come home to visit, my mom yells at me for not stacking the top rack of the dishwasher in the absolute optimal way because a) my dishwasher is different and b) I don’t remember years later the Proper Dishwasher Loading method! As long as it’s in there, it’s fine with me. But please, please don’t run the water while you’re scrubbing your dishes by hand.

  2. You need to license the reprint rights to this article, because I shit you not, every fucking office I’ve ever worked in needs this to be taught to the employees. I’m thisclose to organizing a meeting to teach everyone how to load the dishwasher at work.

  3. “California, the Europe of America”

    I freakin’ love you. This is the truest thing I’ve ever read & I’m stealing it forever.

    1. Then you’re just in trouble. If it’s carpet that can come up, I would roll it to the side and get it as out of the way as possible. Most carpet doesn’t come up, though, so that’s not always a solution. My wet carpet experience just comes from my parents’ problems for about a four year span where the basement floor (carpet over cement, so it wasn’t secured) flooded every time it rained hard.

  4. Fellow scrubby sponge user here! Although now we have a dishwasher and OMG HOLY J is it life changing. And our glasses literally come out sparkling clean. Also glad to hear they save on water (the amount of my crap my family gives me about having a dishwasher, and power/water…)

    @Erin – ironically we now also have a double sink after our reno, I nevr thought to use it this way but now I will, as there are still things we need to handwash!

  5. *deep breath after laughing so hard*

    So speaking of lacking life skills, I don’t know if you know this but the Asians in my neck of the woods in SoCal never use dishwashers, we call them dishracks. I’ve recently IN MY THIRTIES come to the dark side and convinced PiC that we should use the dishwater but that means that we’re learning The Optimal Way To Load. (I still don’t have a damn clue.) It’s still a little bit of a fight but I’m like – we literally have a robot that washes the dishes, why are we refusing to use it???

    So I laugh a little bit at you, but mostly with you, because if I had tried using the dishwasher when I was 19, I and everybody else in my family would have been appalled to discover that’s not what the dish soap is for.

  6. I didn’t know you needed to scrape before putting things in the dishwasher until I was…23? Ugh, I was wondering why there was so much gunk stuck in the center of it. Hmm, not too bright of me…

    I love all of your gifs!!!

  7. TRUE STORY–my MIL (a fully adult, retirement age grown-up lady) on one single day this past December did the following things: 1. poured a bag of dried beans PLUS a half-bag of flour down her garbage disposal; 2. called roto-rooter to deal with that mess; 3. LATER THAT SAME DAY, put a tupperware full of old cooked pasta (=flour) down the same disposal; 4. called roto-rooter AGAIN. They refused to come out a second time that same day and made her wait until the next day.

  8. If you have a dishwasher and you have to wait a few days between running it, make sure that you leave it cracked just a bit! In my experience, they get pretty stinky otherwise.

  9. Ok, too funny! I’ve never lived in a place without a dishwasher so handwashing dishes is not something I’m good at. When we bought our current dishwasher my boyfriend was sure he could install it but we didn’t think to turn off the water first, so there was a flood of the more normal kind in our kitchen that day.

    And to share my recent fail. I just discovered what tithing is today. Yes, today. Clearly I didn’t go to a family that went to church.

    1. I totally feel this pain. I spent one summer living in an apartment without one, and it was somewhat torturous as someone who was not used to fitting the extra time management that handwashing included.

  10. My bubble flood was at a younger age and under a way lower pressure situation, but I feel like it’s kind of a rite of passage? Like I’m not sure how I feel about this education business…

    I had a roommate in college who had OCD and he refused to use the dishwasher b/c he thought if he didn’t “feel the hot water on his hands” he couldn’t convince himself the dish was really clean.

    I was like, “Dude…the fact that it isn’t so hot it’s intolerable is evidence that hand washing isn’t as sanitary as the dishwasher.”

    But he couldn’t get over that compulsion so we had separate dishes and he washed his by hand and it was really weird and dumb.

    I’d like to say that was the weirdest thing about that living arrangement but it wasn’t and it’s not really close.

  11. So turns out laundry soap is next to useless at cleaning dishes…

    We spent a lot of time being really confused about why the dishwasher didn’t clean the dishes half the time — turns out my flatmate kept muddling up the laundry soap and the dishwasher soap, they both lived next to each other under the sink (the dishwasher and washing machine were both in the kitchen) so moved the laundry soap into the pantry and hey presto, clean dishes 100% of the time!

  12. Omg I started reading this and the words “No no no no nooooo” came out. I’ve TOTALLY done this before. I should have known better, because I grew up in a dishwasher-loving household, but that was a woeful gap in my knowledge. Fortunately I caught it before the bubbles went everywhere, but it still made an unholy mess.

    We do a combo of hand-washing and using our dishwasher. If we want a huge pile of dishes cleaned, we’ll load up the washer as much as we can and wash by hand. We also wash our “nice stuff”, like pots and pans and knives, by hand to lengthen their life span.

  13. Excellent explanation and good point out hand dryer system. Hand washing is essential, and so is the hand drying. Paper towel is the thing we use most for drying our hands. But, a hand dryer can be used for this purpose as well.

  14. Hi, I am your one reader who uses silverware in the literal sense.

    The story is this: We were asked by my husband’s family whether we wanted a part of the family silver stash for our wedding, we said no thank you, we got it anyway, and it seemed a bit silly to get another set when we had it.

    Some of that ridiculously fancy cutlery is over 100 years old. Still, if crisis hits us we’re selling that shit.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *