RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—As spring kicks in, everything outdoors is starting to look reborn and sparkling-fresh, which somehow makes any grubbiness indoors look far worse than it did even last week. This past weekend, I alternated between enjoying the balmy prelude to spring going on outside, and giving my kitchen a good old-fashioned, deep-green cleaning inside. The weather’s still not warm enough to throw open the windows, but since I use only nontoxic and fume-free kitchen cleaners, my kitchen not only looks great, it also smells fresh and clean (not chemically perfumed). I spent a total of $2 on cleaning products—and the only trash I generated was a small recyclable cardboard baking soda carton.
Freshen Up Your Fridge
If your refrigerator is anything like mine, it collects its share of smears and dribbles, plus a selection of partially used containers, and even a science experiment or two that somehow got pushed into a hidden corner. Here’s how to give it a good makeover: Pull out your picnic cooler and unload everything from the fridge into the cooler. Take out all the removable shelves and bins and set them aside, wipe out any loose crumbs, and spray down all the interior surfaces with a nontoxic spray cleaner (see our story on nontoxic cleaners for an easy recipe). Close the fridge door to let the cleanser soak the insides while you clean the bins and shelves that you removed. Spray those, and clean using a scrub brush or rough sponge on the shelves, and a regular sponge or damp cloth on the bins (so you don't scratch them). The bathtub makes a good place to do this if your sink is too small. A retired toothbrush is great for getting into cracks where food residues may lurk.
Allow the bins and shelves to dry (outside in the sun if possible). While they're drying, scrub or wipe all the surfaces inside the fridge clean. Be sure to scrub in and under the door gasket. Wipe off the dirty water with clean terry cloth rags until everything is sparkling and dry. Reinstall all the shelves and bins, and put your food away, careful to dump or compost anything that's unrecognizable, moldy, or past its expiration date. Clean off any sticky containers, too, before replacing them.
Do the same thing for your freezer, only wipe down sprayed surfaces immediately so your cleaner doesn't freeze. Put an open container of baking soda in each part of the fridge to soak up stray odors.
Spring is also a good time to clean dust off the condenser coils of your fridge so it works more efficiently and uses less energy. If the coils are on the back of your fridge, pull it away from the wall and unplug it, and use your vacuum cleaner or a damp sponge to remove dust buildup on the coils. If they're on the bottom, unplug your fridge and remove the coil cover panel. Vacuum the coils with the wand attachment until you don't see any more dust (use a flashlight if need be).
Keeping baked-on messes in check will reduce the amount of fumes released every time you turn on your oven. But noxious, chemical oven cleaners can be the harshest products in your kitchen because they contain corrosive ingredients that can burn skin and trigger asthma attacks (particularly if they're in aerosol form). I’d also skip the stove's automatic-cleaning feature, as it uses up fossil fuel and releases all that crud into the air, but if you do use it, be sure to run your exhaust fan the entire time.
It’s best to clean spills and splatters as soon as possible after they happen. For fresh spills, spray or sponge on your nontoxic cleaner (keep it off electric elements), or a solution of 2 cups of hot water, 1 tablespoon of natural dish liquid and 1 teaspoon of borax. Let it sit for 20 minutes, scrub the crud off, and wipe dry with a clean cloth. For really greasy messes, wipe out as much as possible with crumpled newspaper first, then spray the solution and let it sit for 20 minutes before wiping it away.
Read on for more kitchen-cleaning tips.
For older spills, you need to invest some time to reduce the amount of elbow grease required. Moist baking soda is nontoxic and surprisingly effective at loosening even really old baked-on gunk. The trick is getting it to stick to vertical surfaces, and keeping it moist (baking soda does very little if it's dry). After some experimenting, here’s my answer: Mix 2 tablespoons of cornstarch with 2 cups of cold water in a saucepan. Bring it to a boil, whisking constantly, and simmer, still whisking, until it turns clear and gooey. Mix in about a cup of baking soda, or enough so that the mixture becomes a paste with the consistency of yogurt. Smear the paste in a thin layer over all the walls of your oven, keeping it off electrical elements as much as possible. The layer should be thick enough to be white, but doesn’t need to be any thicker than that. Once an hour for the next 12 to 24 hours, at least while you're awake and at home, spray the baking soda paste with water to keep it damp. You'll see the baking soda start to turn brown in spots as it works. After the 12- to 24-hour period, scrub the paste off a test area to see if the grime is well loosened. If it is, get to work on the rest of the oven. Scrub stubborn spots with steel wool or a steel coil scrubber (your fingers will thank you if you use your sponge to hold it). When you're finished, rinse with water.
Cleaning grubby microwaves is easy! Spray the insides with your nontoxic spray, put a cup of water in a microwave-safe container in the center of the microwave, microwave on high until the water boils (in mine, that takes two minutes), and then wait 10 minutes. Use the microwave's timer to keep track. When it beeps, use a sponge to wipe the microwave clean. If any stubborn stains remain, repeat the process but add a splash of vinegar to the water before heating it.
Finish with the Small Stuff
Polish off your kitchen duties by attending to the little things. Scrub out all your trash and recycling containers and let them dry outside in the sunshine. Put two cups of vinegar in your dishwasher and run it empty. Run a pot of water with ¼ cup vinegar added through your coffee maker (followed by two pots of plain water). And finally, pour ¼ cup of baking soda, followed by a teakettle of boiling water, down each of your drains.
Now…doesn’t your kitchen look and smell wonderful?
Farm gal, library worker, and all-around spendthrift Jean Nick shares advice for green thrifty living every Thursday on Rodale.com.