A household slattern finds a loophole in the rules of good housekeeping.
Using your fine china and sterling flatware is an easy way to set a beautiful table. But you can’t put them in the dishwasher and you’re supposed to wash them by hand, and you’re not supposed to leave the washing for the next morning. This can make for a long night. But once I looked at the reasons behind the rules I found a way to use the dishwasher for part of the job and make cleanup easier without compromising care.
Why You Can’t Wash It in the Dishwasher
There are several reasons why you can’t wash fine porcelain and silver in the dishwasher:
1) Abrasion: The dishwasher detergent is abrasive and wears painted and gold decoration on porcelain and over time damages the finish of sterling silver and wears silverplate.
2) Heat: The high heat of the drying cycle can soften the decoration and gold trim on porcelain, can possibly craze the glaze, loosens the glue and other material that holds knife blades onto hollow handles and can compromise any filled holloware.
3) Chemicals: The detergent’s chemicals can soften the paint and gold trim on porcelain, and haze the finish on silver and remove the detailing oxidization added to ornate silver patterns.
In short, the abrasives and chemicals of the detergent and the heat of the drying cycle are a threat to fine porcelain and silver surfaces and to hollow handles.
The Risks of Hand Washing
Hand washing is kind and gentle and will not in itself cause damage. But breakage is the big threat to the longevity of china and glass and hand washing can increase the risk. There are several routine hazards to guard against in hand washing.
1) The sink: Sinks are made of hard materials and knocking or dropping china dishes in the sink can chip, crack and break them. Silver is not compatible with stainless steel, it can scratch the softer silver and also interact with it and stain it. So a stainless steel sink is not ideal for washing silver. In any event, line the sink with plastic or rubber pads made for the purpose or with towels, or use plastic or rubber dishpans for washing and rinsing.
2) The faucet: Move the faucet out of the way, it is easy to crack china or glass against it and damage them. Don’t wash in haste.
3) Your jewelry: Jewelry can scratch china, silver and crystal. Remove it when you wash the dishes – which is also a favor to the jewelry.
4) Hand drying: Hand drying with towels is more handling that risks dropping or chipping china and glass, is arguably not that sanitary, and it is chore. You should have half-a-dozen clean dish towels at hand to do the job right.
5) Rack or dish drainer drying: Letting china air dry in a rack or dish drainer is more sanitary and certainly less work, and if the rinse is hot enough, the water evaporates quickly. But you need a lot of racks for a full dinner’s worth of china, silver, crystal and serving pieces. In any event, silver must be finished by hand drying after a brief time in the drainer or it will have water spots.
How I Do It
After one Christmas dinner I stood at my sink looking at stacks of dishes and a pile of flatware, not to mention rows of glasses, and a single, lone dish drainer. Then I looked at the empty racks of my dishwasher. There was temptation. But mostly, when I looked at the dishwasher I saw a giant drying rack. And then I realized that I was also looking at my dishwashing partner, specifically my rinsing and drying assistant. I could wash the dishes by hand and let the dishwasher rinse them and then they could air dry while still in the racks. It eased my work and streamlined the process.
So this is how I do it: The dishes and silver are properly scraped clean of food and rinsed and ready for washing (see First Things Last below). The sink is lined with rubber mats and full of hot, soapy water. I have a clean sponge, dishcloth, or dish brush ready. I put perhaps half-a-dozen pieces of like-size china in the soapy water and start washing. As I finish with each piece I do not rinse, I stack it in the dishwasher. I do it systematically, doing the dishes that fill either the upper rack or lower rack and filling that rack completely before moving on to the other rack. I empty the sink and refill with clean hot, soapy water as needed. Doing the china first clears more counter space, a psychological boon.
After the china, I move on to the sterling flatware, washing and loading it into the dishwasher without rinsing. When loading knives with stainless blades into the flatware baskets, I place them blade down, grouped separately in one or two compartments at one end and leave an empty compartment between them and the rest of the flatware. In other words, I separate the stainless-bladed knives from the rest of the silver flatware to avoid damage and staining from contact between stainless and silver. Alternatively, wash, rinse and dry the hollow-handle knives entirely by hand since it’s not that big a chore and re-cementing blades to handles is expensive. Do not ever mix silver and stainless steel flatware. Finally, I wash silver holloware (sugar, creamer, gravy boats) and heavy crystal serving pieces that can survive the dishwasher in soapy water and load them in the dishwasher, again without rinsing.
Then I close and latch the dishwasher with EMPTY detergent cups, turn off the dry cycle, and choose a short cycle, either Rinse Only/Rinse and Hold, China and Crystal/Gentle, or Quick Cleanup, and run the machine. (The Rinse and Hold/Rinse Only cycle will definitely avoid heated drying if you have any doubt.) The dishwasher does the rinsing, and when it finishes running, I open it and pull out the racks so the warm dishes can air dry as I grab a clean dish towel and hand dry the silver flatware and holloware to avoid water spots.
By this method, I have avoided the harsh abrasion and chemicals of dishwasher detergent and the damaging high heat of the dry cycle, but cut my work substantially by avoiding hand rinsing and much of the hand drying.
A Warning or Two
KitchenAid, the manufacturer of my dishwasher, warns that soap (like liquid dishwashing soap) left on dishes run through its dishwashers will impair the cleaning ability of the machine. I haven’t found this to be true, but then I employ my fine-china-rinse-in-the-dishwasher method infrequently. It also didn’t harm my previous dishwasher, a G.E. Bear this warning in mind if you choose to follow my method and check your dishwasher manual for its warnings and advice.
Many of the newer models of dishwashers now super heat the wash water in order to use less of it in the wash cycle. These cycles run over an hour or more, even two. Obviously, superheated water is a major no-no for fine china and silver and should be avoided. Check how the cycles on your machine run. I have at least two that run on ordinary hot water. When in doubt use the Rinse Only or Rinse and Hold cycle to rinse porcelain and silver.
A Word on Crystal Stemware
While, as mentioned above, I have some heavy crystal bowls that can handle a rinse in the dishwasher if carefully place in the rack, stemware is another story. Many dishwashers have gentle cycles, sometimes called China and Crystal, I’ve heard of some commercial liquid dishwasher detergents made for fine china, crystal and such, and there may be crystal glasses out there sturdy enough to withstand the dishwasher, but I do not advise trying to wash or rinse crystal glasses in the dishwasher ever. Do it entirely at your own risk. As the columnist and author Miss Manners (aka Judith Martin) has observed, crystal tends to form troublesome fragments in the dishwasher. If it doesn’t break, it will be etched or scratched.
I always hand wash my crystal glasses. While the dishwasher is rinsing the china and silver, I refill the sink with hot, soapy water, line the other sink with rubber mats (or use a dishpan) and fill it, adding some dishwasher rinse agent. I dig up and set out an extra dish drainer and begin hand washing the glasses in batches of four to six, rinsing under the tap before transferring them to the rinse water. I place them carefully in the draining rack and give them time to air dry. Then I carefully spot dry with a clean, pure linen towel reserved for only this purpose. If you don't have enough dish drainers, use flatweave towels spread on the counter. Do not use metal dish drainers for crystal.
Hand drying stemware has a high rate of breakage. Baccarat recommends never putting your thumb inside the glass to wipe it dry. I can tell you that once when pressing my thumb along the inside of a crystal glass while drying, a large piece of the bowl broke right off. While the china can stay in the dishwasher racks or be stacked on the buffet with the silver overnight, the stemware is put away in a closed cabinet before I go to bed to avoid any risk of breakage. The only alternative I see to hand washing crystal stemware is not using it and substituting ordinary glasses that can be washed in the dishwasher.
If you do decide to risk putting crystal glasses in the dishwasher follow the advice of crystal manufacturer Baccarat: place glasses so they do not knock into anything and break; set the water temperature to 104 degrees Farenheit (40 Celcius) to avoid high heat shattering the crystal; use a gentle or crystal dishwasher setting; use a mild, non-abrasive, non-acidic (no citrus scents or additives) dishwasher detergent recommended for crystal and fine china to avoid etching and scratching. Even following these guidelines is no guarantee that the crystall will be undamaged. For one thing, I have no clue as to how to adjust my dishwasher water temperature to a mere 104 degrees, which is lukewarm water.
Fundamentals of Dishwashing by Hand
The reason you have to wash fine china, silver and crystal sooner rather than later and you can’t leave it for tomorrow is that the usual elements of dinner -- wine, acids and salt -- tend to etch and stain china and crystal and tarnish and pit silver. Getting the food and drink off fine tableware as soon as possible is basic to its care and preservation.
Hand washing dishes is best done methodically, with a system. Pick up dishes from the table and take them into the kitchen one in each hand. Do not stack them at the table. Discard in the trash bones and fibrous vegetable scraps, scrape the rest of the remains of the meal into the disposal with a rubber, plastic or silicone scraper or spatula. Do not scrape your dishes with your flatware. Treat the garbage disposal with respect, do small batches at well-spaced intervals with loads of water. Dishes should be rinsed and stacked in an orderly manner with due regard to size, in other words dinner plates together, saucers together, bowls together, not mixed willy-nilly. Flatware should be rinsed and stacked separately, not left between, under or on top of dishes. Glasses should be emptied and lined up where they can’t be knocked over. All this should be set to one side of the sink, the dish drainer should be on the opposite side.
A double sink is best for dish washing by hand, but dishpans are fine. As noted earlier, the sinks should be padded with mats or towels – also pad the divider between double sinks. The late Duchess of Windsor, that maven of the material, particularly checked to make sure her kitchen staff was following this rule. Dishes should be washed starting with the cleanest and ending with the dirtiest (generally, glasses first, silver second, china next, then serving pieces, finally pots and pans), changing the water as needed. Like should be washed with like. Do not mix china with silver with glass. Never crowd the sink. Rinsed dishes should be placed in the dish drainer, if you then choose to towel dry you must use clean, dry towels, changing them as they become damp. Don’t use a towel that’s been in general use at the sink. Do not leave fine china or silver to soak. Do not use abrasive cleaners or pads. Dinnerware that is washed in orderly groupings is easier to put away.
First Things Last: Getting Ready to Wash the Dishes
Everybody always seems anxious to help me clear the table and it really is an exercise in diplomacy to make sure that dishes, glasses and flatware do not end up piled about the kitchen with china plates tilted on their edges in the sink amongst a scattering of flatware and salad plates. I have four rubber dish pans that I bring out for such occasions into which I sort the dishes and flatware. Obviously, flatware goes in one dishpan, and cleaned-off dishes are stacked by size in the others. This allows me to clear the china and silver out of the sink and off the counter in safe containers when I need to. I can even stow them out of the way under the kitchen table. Again, glasses should be emptied and grouped on the counter in an out-of-the-way place, as should serving pieces. Then, when you’re ready, you can do the washing up as I’ve outlined above.
A Stopgap in a Pinch
Faced with an emergency that prevented me from washing dishes, short of cataclysm, that is, I would quickly scrape and rinse my dishes and silver, stack them in the dishwasher as described above and run the Rinse and Hold cycle (no detergent, of course) and look to an actual soap and water wash the next day. For the crystal, I would empty the glasses, rinse out the wine and stow them in a safe corner. (Note that doing this and washing things later is actually more work than just washing in the first place, but if you’re too sick or tired to wash dishes or called away by an emergency, this stopgap will save the tableware and set you free quickly.)
Silver flatware: these are the knives, forks, spoons with which you eat and serving knives, forks, spoons and ladles. They can be sterling silver or silverplate. Anything acid (many fruits, vinegar, wine, coffee, tea), salty, or containing sulfur (eggs, spinach, onions, garlic) will tarnish or pit silver. These elements are in almost all foods. Towel drying by hand not only prevents water spots, it is a polishing action that deters tarnish. As you hand dry silver check for tarnish and black marks that need the attention of silver polish. Moisture will tarnish and corrode silver. Even after hand drying, leave the silver out to completely dry in the air before storing it.
Holloware: this refers to silver plates, platters, bowls, pitchers and such used for serving food or for display, like trays, candlesticks and vases. Care for it as for silver flatware. Like silver flatware, it should be stored in anti-tarnish cloth or polyethylene ziplock bags to exclude air and its tarnish-promoting elements.
Fine porcelain: be it bone china or hard paste porcelain, the ceramic material is fired at high temperature and is strong enough to make relatively thin, nearly translucent dishes. The clay is an admixture of fine kaolin and is naturally white and vitreous on firing. Decoration and gilt is applied over the fired surface, making it more vulnerable to wear, especially if hand painted. Don’t put antique porcelain in the dishwasher ever.
Crystal: is glass with a high lead content (24-30%), which gives it clarity, a special ring when pinged and allows it to be formed into relatively thin pieces or cut and faceted. The lead makes it less brittle, softer than ordinary glass and more prone to scratching. Do not store wine or acid liquids in crystal for more than a few hours. Do not leave it out for the cats to knock over.
Perfectionism: something to avoid. I used to stay up and get everything cleaned and put away after a holiday dinner, even to the point of washing the kitchen floor. Don’t do this. Leave the things that can be left to tomorrow and go to bed, unless, like Martha Stewart, you thrive on a routine of four hours of sleep.
Antiques: trying to use delicate antiques at the table while taking great care to preserve them can be exhausting. Consider alternatives.
Materialism: we wouldn’t be on eBay if we didn’t like things. Nice china, sterling flatware, crystal and a nice tablecloth make it very simple to set a pretty table. Taking care of these things so they last is important. But entertaining should not be an exaltation of stuff. How people feel, a life of the mind, convivial conversation are more important than showing off dishes, fussing about table linens, or fancy cooking. Set a nice table, take good care of the things you put on it, but pay greater attention to the company you put around it. My parents entertained perfectly well with stoneware and stainless steel. And my in-laws routinely ran their sterling through the full dishwasher cycle with detergent, and passed it on to us.
How to Clean Everything by Alma Chestnut Moore (Simon & Schuster) (4th ed. 1980) pp. 49-50, 66 -- The author is expert and succinct. Even if you only concern yourself with housekeeping matters three times a year, this is the book to have.
The Amy Vanderbilt Complete Book of Etiquette by Letitia Baldridge (Doubleday 1978) p. 97 --The former White House social secretary knows how to do housework, too.
Home Comforts by Cheryl Mendelson (Scribner 1999) pp. 107-11, 544-46, 547, 555 -- Thorough, comprehensive, nearly obsessive, she can name that microbe.
Saving Stuff by Don Williams and Louisa Jaggar (Simon & Schuster 2005) pp. 83-84, 90-91 -- Don Williams is a Senior Conservator at the Smithsonian.