9 Things Chefs Know About Cleaning (That You Don’t)

published Jul 14, 2021
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Sous chef chopping ingredients for dinner service at workstation in restaurant kitchen.
Credit: Getty Images/ Thomas Barwick

As any chef worth their salt will tell you: Cooking in a restaurant means doing all of the jobs. Even head chefs have to roll up their sleeves and scrub pots and pans every once in a while. And so we had a feeling our favorite professional cooks could teach us a thing or three about keeping our kitchens in fighting shape (if not completely spotless). We asked some of the best chefs in the country to share their top cleaning tips. These are the lessons we thought you might not have heard before.

1. Use vinegar to cut grease and grime.

Ron Hsu, the executive chef and co-founder at Lazy Betty, cleans crusty griddles with vinegar. The trick is to pour on a bit while the surface is still hot (stand back; it will splatter!). He also boils copper-lined items in a salted vinegar-water solutions. “It helps make the scrubbing of the copper much easier,” he says. White vinegar is also a staple for cutting grease at Rodney Scott’s BBQ, according to Rodney Scott himself: “I always keep a little white vinegar around when I’m cleaning to help cut the grease.” If simple, old-fashioned vinegar is tough enough on grease for a pitmaster specializing in whole-hog barbecue, it’s tough enough for us!

2. Clean and sterilize a bread basket in the oven.

If your pandemic bread-baking habit is still going strong, you may have invested in a banneton shaping and proofing basket. When was the last time you cleaned it? The eleventh of literally never? Chef Ethan Pikas at Cellar Door Provisions says they regularly clean their bread baskets by using a strong bristled brush. Afterward, they sterilize them in the oven: 225˚F for 15 minutes does the trick, according to Pikas.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

3. Refresh stainless steel work surfaces with flour.

Many restaurant kitchens have stainless steel countertops, but this tip from chef Susan Feniger of Border Grill translates to any stainless steel surface in your kitchen: Wash and dry it per usual, then sprinkle with flour and buff it with a kitchen towel. “It shines!” says Feniger.

Read more: How To Polish a Stainless Steel Sink with Flour (Yes, Flour!)

4. Clean a clogged drain with a coat hanger.

Specialty tools are helpful for slow or backed-up kitchen sinks. But if you’re fresh out of drain snakes, a wire hanger works to break apart and pull out the clog. Warning: This isn’t a pleasant job! Feniger of Border Grill says one word about the process: “Yuck.”

5. Clean as you cook to save time at the end.

The staff members at Sister Pie always clean as they work. Admittedly, it doesn’t make sense to suds up after every step in a recipe, but little completed tasks add up to a quicker cleanup in the end. “Even just rinsing a dish right away can go a long way in making the cleanup process less daunting — especially if the food was sticky or has a tendency to harden up,” says team member Lana Williams.

Credit: Joe Lingeman/Kitchn

6. Soak used towels in a bleach-and-water solution.

Restaurant kitchens go through a lot of towels! Jared Stafford-Hill, chef and owner of Saint Urban, extends their lifespan by keeping the restaurant’s towels on a two-day rotation. On the first day, the towel is for general use. After an overnight soak in bleach water, the towel becomes a disinfecting, wipe-down agent. If your towels don’t get used as hard and fast as a line cook’s, the same concept applies: Just use the towel as you normally would for however long you typically do, then give it the bleach-soak treatment and disinfect high-traffic surfaces.

7. Clean glass votives with boiling water.

Another trick from the Saint Urban crew is to clean congealed wax from a glass candle holder with minimal elbow grease and no toxic cleaning products. Here’s Stafford-Hill’s method: “Put votives with the spent candles in a large container and cover with a few inches of boiling water. In the morning, there will be a sheet of thick wax on top; throw that away and underneath you’ll have crystal-clear votive holders. (And a few wicks!)”

8. Use sponges differently as they age.

These ubiquitous green cleaning pads are effective and cheap. You probably hear a lot of talk about throwing sponges away sooner rather than later, but Stafford-Hill keeps them around because they perform certain tasks better as they age and lose their coarseness. Here’s their method: Brand-new, rough pads tackle pans with stuck-on food. Almost-new pads become pot scrubbers. After that, when the texture turns medium-fine, they’re used for polishing copper.

9. Clean pots with this super-industrial product.

When it comes to anything copper at Eugene’s Hot Chicken, Chef Zebbie Carney skips delicate kitchen cleaning products and uses Flitz, a mega-efficient, multi-purpose metal cleaner that bills itself as “the Swiss Army Knife of Polishes.” That’s right: It can be used on virtually any sort of metal.

Do you have any secret cleaning tips of your own? We’d love to hear your hacks! Share your suggestions below in the comments.