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Cooking Tips

You Should Be Marinating Your Dishes

We discovered a backed-by-science trick to making dish duty a little less tedious.
By Published June 9, 2022

Dishes are without a doubt my least favorite part of cooking. They seem to multiply on their own at my house, never abating. And there’s nothing worse than spending what feels like an eternity standing at the sink scrubbing dried sauces or caked-on food to no avail. 

But when working on our dish soap review, I learned about a trick to make this dreaded chore go a little faster, something I do every single time I wash dishes now.

You’ve heard of marinating chicken thighs or steak tips, but what about marinating your dirty dishes? 

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During our dish soap testing, we dirtied identical sets of dishes with measured portions of hard-to-clean foods, such as béchamel and teriyaki sauces. After controlling for soap quantity, water temperature, and sponge, we used the soaps to wash sets of dishes two ways—presoaked in soapy water and not presoaked. 

While some dish soaps definitely work better than others, we discovered that no matter which soap we used, it took notably less time to wash the dishes if we let them marinate in warm, soapy water first. 

So, what gives? It turns out that both plant- and petroleum-based soaps use surfactants (little tadpole-shaped chemicals with water-loving heads and oil-loving tails) to clean. The two parts encourage water and fat to mix, freeing dishes of their grime.

But here’s the key: The surfactants are working whether you are actively washing the dishes or not, as long as they’re dispersed in the water (hence the aforementioned soapy marinade). Once they’ve soaked (er, marinated) for 5 to 10 minutes, wash your dishes by hand as normal. The surfactants will have done their job, and it'll take a whole lot less elbow grease to scrub your dishes clean. Even caked-on sauces come off so much easier than they would presoak.

It’s like having a million tiny dishwashers give you a head start, and who doesn’t need a head start on the dishes? 

Tips for Marinating Your Dishes

  • Shrink down your sink. You could fill up your sink with water, but I've learned it's more effective (and uses less water) to use a soaking vessel that is about half to two-thirds the size of your sink. Any large bowl, basin, or pail will work. That way, you can still use your sink while you wash. I usually pile my washed (but not rinsed) dishes beside the soaking vessel as I go, and then rinse everything at the end so that I don’t have the water running the whole time. 
  • Don’t soak anything with wood. If wood absorbs too much water, it’s liable to crack over time. 
  • Use your downtime wisely. While my dishes are soaking and my little surfactant buddies start cleaning for me, I spray and wipe down the counter, oven top, and table. By the time I’m done with the surfaces, the dishes are ready for me to swoop in and finish things off. 
  • Marinating doesn’t mean leaving them for the morning. You only need to soak the dishes for 5 to 10 minutes or so—don’t take this as an excuse to leave them overnight! 

Now that I started marinating my dishes, kitchen cleanup has gotten a whole lot more manageable. It’s one of my favorite cleaning hacks—that and a good true-crime podcast to pass the time!

Photo: Chris Collins via Getty Images