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How Not to Make a Huge Mess in the Kitchen

“Clean as you go” doesn’t have to be annoying

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Jaya Saxena is a Correspondent at, and the series editor of Best American Food Writing. She explores wide ranging topics like labor, identity, and food culture.

So you’re becoming reacquainted with your kitchen. Perhaps you’re learning how to cook for the very first time, or you’re an old pro and are using some newfound time indoors to get really good at sourdough or Beef Wellington or something. And perhaps you realize that once the cooking is done there’s a pesky second part to the task: cleaning.

“Clean,” right now, probably evokes its cousin term “sanitized.” In terms of disinfecting your kitchen, here’s a guide on how to do that, and here’s an interview with an expert on the risk of contracting a virus from your groceries. If this is the only thing you do, great. But aside from viral concerns, a messy kitchen just isn’t an inviting kitchen. You’re not going to want to roll out dough on a countertop spotted with hair and crumbs, and you’re not going to be able to measure out spices when all your measuring spoons are at the bottom of a dirty pile of dishes. You don’t have to commit to Marie Kondo-levels of organization, but there are a few tricks to finishing cooking and having it not look like a bomb went off in your kitchen.

Start With an Empty Kitchen and a Clear Work Surface

This is pretty logical even though I’ve been very guilty of not following my own advice here. If you start cooking and there’s already stuff all over, then anything you dirty up while cooking has to go... somewhere else. Which means there’s less room for you to do actual cooking, and also it feels sort of gross to move around greasy pans when you’re trying to get a casserole in the oven, or god forbid, realize that you have to drain pasta and there’s nowhere for you to put a colander. Start with a clean sink. Make sure all your dishes are washed and put away before you start, or if you’re lucky enough to have a dishwasher, that it’s empty and ready to be filled. Then once you start cooking you can fill the sink with abandon and things will still mostly look fine.

You also want to make sure there’s room to actually do the prepwork required of cooking, so you’re not pushing junk mail and sacks of clementines around while you’re trying to make space for a cutting board. If you’re short on counter space, try to make sure the area you clear off is near the stove, to make it that much shorter a distance between whatever you’re prepping and the cooking vessel it’ll go into.

Along these lines, try to start with an empty, or at least not-needing-to-be-taken-out-imminently, garbage can and recycling bin, so any food ends and opened cans have a place to go too. There’s also Rachael Ray’s trick of starting your prep off with a designated garbage bowl, where every scrap, wrapper and other piece of trash you accumulate goes, so you’re not constantly running over to your trash.

Get a Lot of Dish Towels

There’s a reason every time you see a chef on TV they have a dish towel effortlessly slung over one shoulder. One, it looks very sexy. Two, it’s great for getting any of the little messes that happen as you cook. Sauce is sputtering onto the stovetop? Wipe it up. Counter covered with breadcrumbs or garlic paper? Brush it into the (empty!) sink or the (empty!) trash. Especially when it comes to liquid spills, it’s better to clean them up early than leave them to dry and possibly stain your counters.

Prep and Measure Out Everything Beforehand

A few years ago I took a cooking class with Julie Sahni, icon of Indian cooking in America, and she told us the easiest way to cook spice-heavy food was to have everything measured out, and laid out next to the stove in the order it was added to the pot. This seems so obvious in hindsight that it’s almost embarrassing, but until then I had absolutely been scrounging through my pantry looking for bottles of spices and measuring them directly into the dish the moment the recipe called for it, which was both stressful and inefficient.

So before you start, read the recipe and lay everything out. See which things get added at the same time and put those in the same container, and line everything up in the order they’re added. It’s useful to have little bowls for spices and herbs, but if you don’t have little bowls, this is not the time to order a bunch of little bowls. Use mugs or wine glasses or literally anything else. Anyway, once you’re done prepping and measuring, put all the spices you’ve taken down back where they came from, and as you add everything to the dish you can just toss those containers into the sink. And then, look, no stuff on the counter! You did it!

Reuse Whatever Tools You Can

It is tempting to take out a new cutting board or skillet for every task, but most of the time you can do a quick rinse and keep going. If you cut your vegetables first, you can rinse your cutting board with water and use the same one for meat without worrying about contamination. If you use your measuring cup to measure water, you can wipe it off and put it straight back in the drawer because it didn’t actually get dirty. Also, instead of getting out a second skillet, wipe out the one on the counter with hot water and a tea towel, using tongs to hold it. One fewer dish to do later.

Cleaning As You Go Doesn’t Have to Be Annoying

I’m sure you’ve heard the chipper advice to “clean as you go” at least once before, and I’m sure you’ve wanted to punch whoever said it. You are already cooking. What do you mean you have to do a second thing as you go? Unfortunately there’s no real trick to getting good at this. It’s more of a mindset of getting to messes as they happen instead of waiting for One Big Clean at the end.

To help, start using cooking time to your advantage. For a lot of people, once the meal goes in the oven, or the lid goes on the pot, and the timer is set, then the cooking is done. Now it’s just time to wait. But then you wait, and you eat, and then you’re full and tired and you look at your kitchen and it’s full of dishes and now cleaning seems like an even bigger chore.

Instead, see if you can trick yourself into thinking of the hands-off cooking time as still chore time. If something has to bake for 30 minutes, that’s 30 minutes you can use to make sure you’ve addressed messes in the high-use areas of your kitchen: Make sure your supplies are put away; wipe off your counters and stovetop; get started on washing or soaking the dishes. By the time your meal is ready, you’ll probably have nothing left to do but enjoy it.