You don't need someone to teach you how to wash dishes -- but how about a few tips to make it easier?

Tips for Hand-Washing Dishes

Washing dishes by hand isn’t something new.  You’ve done it before.  So what is there to learn?

No, this isn’t a step by step “how to wash dishes” article.  But I did learn a few things while we cruised that didn’t necessarily make the job any more fun, but did help me to not make it any worse and/or save water.  Here are some things I wish I’d learned sooner:

Local dish soap. If you’re outside the US, local dish soaps can work even better than more expensive imported US brands.  In Mexico, where we cruised, few homes have dishwashers and hence there is a huge market for good dish soap.  Watch what the local women are buying and try a bottle.

No disposer. Most boats don’t have a garbage disposer.  Assuming yours doesn’t, it’s really important to scrape dishes and pots well before washing them to avoid clogged drains (if one does clog up, see the tips in Slow or Stopped Galley Drain).  Scrape not just food bits, but grease as well — I’d put the “gunk” into old Ziploc bags or jars from the trash whenever I could, as bugs were less likely to feast on the garbage. Read more here.

Crusty pans. I liked using non-stick pans as they were just so much easier to clean.  But not all my pans were non-stick and I know that some people just don’t like non-stick.  Four ways to get that burnt-on food off without using a ton of water:

  • Fill with water and drop in a few denture tablets (see my complete article on all the things you can clean with denture tablets).
  • Spray with vinegar and let sit 15 minutes or so.
  • Sprinkle some baking soda in the pan and then fill with boiling water above the stuck-on food.  Let sit 15 minutes.
  • Scrub with salt.  This still takes some elbow grease!

Steel wool and Brillo. If you’re in a salt water environment — even if you’re using fresh water for dishes — steel wool, Brillo pads and the like have no place on the boat.  Not only will they quickly rust and disintegrate, they’ll leave tiny particles on your pans that will cause little rust spots to form (yep, you can guess how I learned this).  Use the plastic or stainless scrubby pads instead.

Pasta and veggie water. Instead of just discarding the water that pasta or veggies were cooked in, save it and pour it into your dirtiest pans with a little soap after serving up.  The pans will soak while you’re eating and clean up will be a snap.

Wash the least soiled things first. If you start with the least soiled items — generally glasses — first and proceed to dirtier and dirtier, you’ll use less water as you probably won’t have to change the water.  But if you wash greasy items before washing the glassware, you’ll probably have to change the water.

Cold water will clean dishes. You don’t have to use hot water to get dishes clean, but it does make it easier to get grease off.  Cold water and scrubbing — and maybe a bit of ammonia (see above) — can do just as good a job.

You don’t need a sink full of water. I know, I used to like to soak dishes in the sink.  But I learned to just put soapy water in a cup or cereal bowl, then use it to wipe plates and other dishes and let them sit in the sink for a few minutes.  Just as good results with a LOT less water!

Rinsing dishes. Some cruisers suggest using a spray bottle to rinse dishes in order to conserve water.  It does use the least water, but a spray bottle takes forever and wears your hand out.  I use a small pressure sprayer called an Aquabot — learn about it here — it works great and saves a lot of water.

Air drying. Okay, I’m basically lazy and have always let my dishes air dry unless I was pressed for space or needed something immediately.  But I recently learned that air drying is MUCH more sanitary than drying dishes with a cloth, which can both spread germs from one dish to another, and also breed germs of its own when left damp.  Of course, you can’t leave dishes out drying if underway and it’s at all rough.

IMPORTANT: When I originally wrote this article, I said that a capful of ammonia in dish water could really cut grease on plastic and glasses.  Bad idea — Kelly left a note on Facebook that ammonia is harmful to marine life.  Doing a bit of research, I found that even in low concentrations, it damages the gills of fish — and in higher concentrations, kills a variety of marine life.  So my new rule is not to use ammonia!

Have you learned any other tricks to make dish washing easier?  Leave a comment!

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  • Jymmy Henry
    Posted at 20 June 2011 Reply

    Instead of steel wool look for brass, won’t rust and does the same thing.

    • Carolyn Shearlock
      Posted at 20 June 2011 Reply

      Thanks for the idea — I’ve never seen (or heard of) it, but now I’ll be looking!


    • Judith C
      Posted at 16 August 2015 Reply

      You can also get copper scouring pads. And there are even some made from a wood like material, they are totally biodegradable.

  • Diane
    Posted at 22 June 2011 Reply

    You can find the brass wool in the refinishing section of your local Home Depot/Lowes/Walmart/etc.

    • Carolyn Shearlock
      Posted at 22 June 2011 Reply

      Thanks! I’ll look for it. -Carolyn

  • Diane
    Posted at 22 June 2011 Reply

    For stuck on (or burnt on) foods in pots that are NOT non-stick, try using cream of tartar instead of scouring powder. If particularly stubborn, make a paste and let sit on the stuck food for a minute. Should come up fairly easily.

  • Sami Bolton
    Posted at 26 November 2011 Reply

    I keep spray bottles filled with rubbing alcohol in the heads and in the galley. As it dries, it kills bacteria and germs, so I dont feel like I have to use hot water or dry things.
    We spritz everything after using the head….seat, towels,rug, faucets etc., and it will not hurt rubber or anything actually like bleach will. Plus its CHEAP! You can go full strength or mix it with a bit of water. I buy the biggest bottles I can find of up to 90% strength.

  • Candy Williams
    Posted at 26 November 2011 Reply

    I have gotten used to using the Dawn foam-I am still in the states so I can get the refills but it works so well especially with cold water…I put one squirt on a dish rag and I wipe all of my dishes down (in a dry sink) then I rinse in a larger bowl-but I am going to try the watering can-like that idea. It really gets the dishes clean with minimum water usage -when I am ashore I do the same thing….I am trying to figure out what I can put in the soap dispenser that will foam and cut grease when I get south of the border.

    • Cindy Balfour
      Posted at 15 November 2012 Reply

      I put any liquid soap in my dawn foam dispenser. Vinegar in rinse water helps to break up the soap. I have read that lightly wiping the inside of plastic storage containers with some mustard before rinsing keeps plastic from growing odors.

  • Kelly on Facebook
    Posted at 26 November 2011 Reply

    Great article but one dishwashing tip I have is to only use soaps that are safe to the marine environment. I would love grease free plastic and glass too but ammonia is definitely not marine life friendly.

    • Barbara Lowell
      Posted at 15 May 2014 Reply

      neither is bleach marine friendly; it burns the eyes and hurts the respiratory system; I like to soak my burn dishes in vinegar and then boil for a few minutes; I use an old credit card to scoop out the crusty stuff; sometimes if its really bad i have to re-boil and try again; works great on cast iron too and directly on metal. You can cut and curve the credit card to match the contour of what you are cleaning.

  • on Facebook
    Posted at 26 November 2011 Reply

    Kelly — Thanks for letting everyone know about ammonia. I’ll be honest, I’d never heard about it being a problem. But I did some research and find that it is a real problem, even in low concentrations, particularly causing gill damage in fish. I’m going to change the article — thanks! -Carolyn

  • Kelly on Facebook
    Posted at 26 November 2011 Reply

    Thank you Carolyn! Very impressed by your diligence. Really enjoy Boat Galley, keep up the good work!

  • MaryJo Boyle
    Posted at 27 November 2011 Reply

    I leave my dishwater in the sink overnight and the next day I use that water to pre-rinse and soak extra dirty dishes, pots, and pans. When I’m ready to start washing, I drain that cold dirty water from the day before and fill the washing side of my double sink about a quarter full of water. I start with the silverware, glasses, and plates and as I rinse each item I let the rinse water go into the washing side. By the time I’ve finished the pots and pans, the sink is usually about two thirds full. Unless I’ve done an unusual amount of cooking or baking, I only wash dishes once a day after dinner, so I only use 2 to 3 gallons of water and no paper towels (to wipe off the food and grease) when I use this method. Also, if something is so burned on so badly that I can’t get it off, I just leave the pot in the water overnight and the next day it comes right off.

  • Dorothy Zurbriggen-Rice on Facebook
    Posted at 11 April 2012 Reply

    I guess my experience is more advanced for these postings. Good posts for beginners.

  • Jennifer Farr on Facebook
    Posted at 11 April 2012 Reply

    Thanks for the great tips and tricks.

  • Tami
    Posted at 05 October 2012 Reply

    If you deglace your pots you get a fair bit of clean right then.

    • tami
      Posted at 13 December 2012 Reply

      I’ve had good luck with a stainless scrubber. Found mine at Asian market. These are coarser than the wool.

  • New Girl on the Dock on Facebook
    Posted at 05 October 2012 Reply

    Ah darn, I was liking the ammonia tip until I read about the fish.

  • Jackie Bartz
    Posted at 23 November 2012 Reply

    I put my dish-washing detergent into a plunger-type liquid hand soap dispenser and just put a squirt onto my sponge with some water. Seems to work well cleaning the dishes with barely any water and then I rinse them thoroughly and air dry. If something is particularly greasy or cooked-on I might put a squirt IN the item with some water and let it sit for a while first. First choice for detergent is Dawn with Joy as second choice. Was not impressed with local brands when the other two weren’t available.

  • Sue Dwan on Facebook
    Posted at 17 June 2013 Reply

    Wish my kids had those tips. Somehow I don’t think it would have made any difference!

  • Laura
    Posted at 01 August 2013 Reply

    I love Dawn Foam! One squirt on a sponge can take care of a sink full of dishes and since it’s so concentrated it takes up way less space than a lot of bottles. As for pre-cleaning our dishes, and pots and pans, I probably shouldn’t mention that we have a pit bull on board who’s been informed that he needs to pay his way (and he does an amazing job!!).

  • John Ahern
    Posted at 06 April 2014 Reply

    Kewl Change Yacht Charters & Yacht Deliveries Another tip is to use a bucket 1/2 full with sea water and soak in there until yopu are ready to wash and plates have soaked themselves clean then take to sink and wash

  • Lupari Sue
    Posted at 06 April 2014 Reply

    I use sea water on passage to conserve water. Stainless steel wool available in Australia. Dishwashing liquid lathers in salt water. Boil water in kettle and start with just a little bit and rinse glasses with it as you move onto the next group of dishes. Rinse everything when fresh water available again. I had a salt water tap in the galley until we changed engines. Love your articles…we’ve learnt a lot of your lessons the hard way…which means they stick

    • The Boat Galley
      Posted at 07 April 2014 Reply

      So many times someone asks me how I know something . . . yeah, learned the hard way.

  • Lubna Zaidi
    Posted at 07 April 2014 Reply

    We use a spraybottle to rinse after the first cleaning round in seawater. We do not use soap. A good spraybottle will not tire your arm and will save you a lot of water 🙂

  • Diane Emigh
    Posted at 18 July 2014 Reply

    First we wipe down our plates using our soiled paper napkins right after we eat. I have a spray bottle that I keep filled with water and a couple of squirts of dish soap. After wiping the dishes down with the napkins, I spray the dishes lightly with the soapy water, and let them “soak” a bit if needed in the bottom of my empty (no water) sink. Then I put the drain plug in the sink and rinse my dishes water from the faucet. I use a plastic mesh scrubby, (no dishcloth) as I rinse to make sure all the food debris is off. Then when the dishes are rinsed, I still have a bit of soapy water in the sink that I can use for other cleanup in the galley, like the counterrop. I rarely begin doing dishes by putting water and soap in the sink. I find using the spray bottle with soapy water in it really cuts the grease and stuck on bits from our dishes, and it’s very handy for other quick cleanups in the galley. This seems to save a lot of water for us!

    Diane Emigh
    sv Harmony
    currently Sea of Cortez, Baha, Mexico

    • Barbara Lowell
      Posted at 19 July 2014 Reply

      love this … esp re-using the napkins which I already do already do; I keep a small cup of soapy water and a scrubber in the sink but the spray bottle is much better neater idea … thanx will adopt it.

  • Kaile
    Posted at 18 August 2014 Reply

    This is why I LOVE having dogs on board! Washing dog slobber off a pan is WAY easier than washing crusted on egg and cheese.

    It’s pretty rare that I make something too spicy, or with things they can’t have (that end up sticking to the pan anyway!) 🙂

    • Carolyn Shearlock
      Posted at 18 August 2014 Reply

      Our dog is Mexican . . . I’ve never made anything too spicy for her! Too bland, sure. But too spicy, never.

  • Dave Skolnick
    Posted at 04 May 2016 Reply

    A 12 VDC macerator makes a dandy garbage disposal and reduces stoppage issues. It doesn’t turn your sink drain into a garbage can, but does help get food scrapings out of the boat.

    +1 on cream of tarter.

    I haven’t seen brass wool, but bronze wool is readily available and avoids rust issues.

    I avoid stacking dishes. Why go from having to clean one side to having to clean both?

  • Laine Common
    Posted at 04 May 2016 Reply

    I’ve thought on more than one occasion how much a Maceration pump resembles a garbage disposal.. Usually while cleaning up half empty cereal bowls left by my 4 year old…

  • Judy Danz Swanson
    Posted at 05 May 2016 Reply

    Thanks for posting Kathy . Haven’t seen this site before!

  • Sonya Meredith Nyberg
    Posted at 04 July 2017 Reply

    You feel the need to blog about washing dishes? This is incredible. I’ve been living on board for 20 plus years w a 40 gal tank. Was hoping for useful tips. NOT

    • The Boat Galley
      Posted at 05 July 2017 Reply

      Not everyone is going to like every article. You have a lot of experience and this one didn’t appeal to you. Others who have never washed dishes with limited water may appreciate some tips to make it easier.

  • Confetti McGahee
    Posted at 05 July 2017 Reply

    Great article! Thank you

  • Terry Bogart
    Posted at 05 January 2018 Reply

    I need a servant!!!

    • The Boat Galley
      Posted at 06 January 2018 Reply

      Well, we’d all like that. But there’s no room on my boat — plus, I kinda like our privacy! <3

    • Terry Bogart
      Posted at 06 January 2018 Reply

      One can dream….

  • Jane Gammons
    Posted at 05 January 2018 Reply

    Don’t stack your plates and bowls. that way there is only one
    side to wash.

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