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Clean your kitchen top to bottom with homemade solutions that reduce waste and cut costs

(Scott Suchman for The Washington Post/food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post)
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Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that baking soda is nonabrasive. Also, the previous version did not include a warning that a baking soda slurry can damage or darken some cabinets depending on their finish. This version has been updated.

For a recipe developer and food writer working from home, you could say this past year felt Sisyphean.

In the past 12 months, I’ve spent a lot of time in my kitchen developing and testing recipes, preparing food for our remote photo shoots, making multiple meals a day for my family, and spending an inordinate amount of time cleaning up after each of those tasks. It was a never-ending cycle of cook-clean-repeat.

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I was going through cleaning supplies so fast; it was getting unwieldy — and cluttered. I had a spray for our table, one for our countertops, a third for our stainless steel appliances, as well as a coterie of scrubbing agents all piled unceremoniously under my kitchen sink. Aside from the increased expense of having to buy products at such a frequent clip, I also was discouraged by how much single-use plastic waste I was creating.

Then it dawned on me that cleaning products were mostly just water. I recalled both of my grandmothers keeping spotless kitchens with little more than a bar of all-purpose soap and a box of baking soda.

Reducing personal single-use plastic may feel like a drop in the bucket when it comes to environmental solutions (reducing or avoiding traveling by airplane and switching to an electric car sit at the top of that list), but small steps, if done on a larger scale, by many people, can have an impact. Other benefits of making your own all-purpose cleaner include reduced costs, an end-product that’s lower in toxins and having less stuff in the kitchen.

Less stuff = less clutter = more room to breathe.

Though I’m focusing on an all-purpose kitchen cleaner, this solution also can be used in other parts of your home, such as bathrooms, windowsills, and so on.

Early on in the pandemic, to streamline my cleaning arsenal, I started making my own solution with Dr. Bronner’s unscented Castile soap (a biodegradable product,) essential oil and a reusable spray bottle.

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My formula was simple: 1 teaspoon of Castile soap + 1 pint (480 milliliters) of water + a few drops of essential oil of choice. (I like orange essential oil, but many like tea tree oil for its antimicrobial — not antiviral — properties.) Seal the bottle and shake to combine.

That formula was my go-to until I discovered Dr. Bronner’s Sal Suds, which, unlike the aforementioned product, isn’t a soap. Instead, it’s a concentrated biodegradable cleaner for all kinds of surfaces, including stone, wood and stainless steel, among others. After trying it, I discovered that it rinses easier than the Castile soap. And, thanks to the natural piney scent from evergreen needles, I no longer needed to add essential oils. The proportions remained the same: 1 teaspoon of suds + 1 pint (480 milliliters) of water; seal the bottle and shake to combine.

Because I’m a nerd and like the precision of numbers, I did the math on how many refillable 16-ounce bottles a 32-ounce bottle of Sal Suds would get me. Turns out, it’s about 190 bottles — which is extremely economical, given the $15 cost of Sal Suds. (Yes, I high-fived myself, delighted by how practical and frugal this approach was.) While using Sal Suds doesn’t completely solve the single-use plastic issue, it reduces the waste significantly. (I’ve also liked the results I got using Biokeen All Purpose Cleaner Concentrate, in case you can’t find Sal Suds.)

I’ve used this cleaner on my wooden dining table, my granite countertops, my stainless steel appliances and my stove top. It works as well, if not better, than premade brands.

Still, the kitchen sometimes requires deeper cleaning. For those grimy, greasy kitchen cabinets above my stove, I tried a slurry of baking soda and water until it was slightly thicker than Elmer’s glue. I spread the paste all over the cabinets, waited a few minutes and then wiped off the slurry using a wet Swedish cloth (any wet and wrung out towel will work, too), with a big bowl of warm water for refreshing the cloth. The months of grease and grime came off easily, and since baking soda is less abrasive than scrub powders, the paint on my kitchen cabinets remained intact. (A caveat: Depending on your cabinets’ finish, this treatment could damage and/or darken them, especially if you leave it too long or don’t rinse and dry them completely enough. Experts advise that you try water and mild soap first, and that before using such a slurry you test it on an inconspicuous spot to make sure it doesn’t damage the finish.)

Finally, it was time to tackle the oven. Because of migraines, I can’t use the harsh chemical oven cleaners that bring your oven back to that I-just-bought-it look. I’ve also had bad luck with my oven’s self-cleaning feature, setting off smoke detectors and filling the house with fumes that lingered for days. I decided to try the same baking soda-water mixture, which I applied and let dry overnight. If your oven is like mine and hasn’t been properly cleaned in a couple of years, you may need to repeat this exercise a few times to get your appliance pristine.

Mix together 2 pounds of baking soda + about 1/4 to 1/3 cup of water to create a very thick paste; thin it out as need be for easier spreading. Remove the oven racks and, while wearing rubber kitchen gloves, spread the paste in a thick layer all over the inside of the oven, including the inside of the door, but avoiding the heating elements. (Placing aluminum foil over the slots helps keep the paste from sneaking in.) An offset spatula can help to spread the paste evenly. Leave the oven door open overnight until the paste is fully hardened. In the morning, use a microfiber cloth or Swedish cloth and a large bowl of warm water to wipe away the dried paste, changing the water as needed.

Keep a vacuum or dustpan and brush handy to pick up bits of dried baking soda that escape.

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You may be wondering where is plain ol’ distilled vinegar in all this? I love vinegar and use it a lot as fabric softener when doing laundry, or to get rid of persisting smells in my compost bin or garbage can. I also have used a 50/50 solution of vinegar and water to spray my countertops and wipe down my sink, and have found it effective. However, I can’t use it on wood surfaces, such as my dining table, and it’s not as effective for deep cleaning my countertops as the Sal Suds and water solution. So, while I buy my distilled vinegar in gallon jugs, for an all-purpose cleaner I stick with Sal Suds.

Although these methods are effective at cleaning your kitchen in a more sustainable and less toxic way, they aren’t substitutes for thorough antiviral disinfection.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends proper mask-wearing and hand washing as the most vital action we can take to combat infections during the pandemic. The agency also advises that washing surfaces with soap and water will remove most virus particles and that disinfecting sprays and wipes are needed only when someone who has covid-19 has recently been present.

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If you need to go a step beyond and disinfect against SARS-CoV-2, also known as the novel coronavirus, you may need to consider less green solutions.

Diluting 1/4 cup of bleach in a gallon of water makes a solution that’s effective for up to 24 hours but needs to be mixed anew after that. Make sure you use it on surfaces that won’t get damaged by bleach, and leave the solution on the surface at about 10 minutes to disinfect properly. You also could use rubbing alcohol at about 70 percent concentration — leave on surfaces for about 30 seconds. Avoid 100 percent rubbing alcohol as it evaporates too quickly to work properly.

If you have a store-bought disinfecting product, this infographic from CDC can help you identify whether it will be effective. The Environmental Protection Agency also provides a list of disinfectants, listed by registration number, that kill the virus.