Jolie Kerr is a cleaning expert and advice columnist. She'll be here every week helping to answer your filthiest questions. Are you dirty? Check the Squalor Archive for assistance. Are you still dirty? Email her.
So my roommates and I rent a home in a large college town for our senior year. It's great, save for the whole "our appliances are from 1965, and our landlord is a horrible slumlord" deal. We've followed your advice for cleaning a frat house and applied it to ours, which has worked well. We have one issue we didn't foresee, though. During a party, someone decided to stick our plastic cutting board in the oven. We aren't sure why, but we discovered that fact when preheating the oven a few days later. Our kitchen is no longer filled with horrible toxic smoke, but our oven (an old gas-powered GE with the coil on the bottom) now has melted plastic on the inside of the door and all over the bottom of the oven. We don't really know how to get it out. Please help, because we are dumb.
Eh, you're not dumb. This is an actually very common thing that happens, and people are frequently unclear on what to do about it. I've written about melted-plastic oven mishaps before, including in my book, and I once had an interviewer get her knickers in a twist over it. First she was like, "This isn't a thing that happens," and I assured her that yes, indeed, it is a thing that happens. Then she got super judge-y about it? Calling people stupid and saying they shouldn't be allowed near a kitchen, that sort of judge-y. I was just like, "Lady, go ahead and judge. When you've collected yourself and would like to know how to remove melted plastic from inside an oven, you come on back."
So look, if this happens to you, just know that there's at least one person in this cold, cruel world of ours who won't make you feel bad about it.
The fix is pretty easy, too. You want to heat the oven up just enough to soften the plastic and use a scraper tool to, well, scrape it up. Because plastic will smoke when heated too much, turn the oven onto its lowest setting (usually 200 degrees fahrenheit) and stay nearby—you should be able to smell the melting plastic before it gets the point of being smoky, which will tell you it's time to go in and scrape. If the plastic hardens up while you're working, just close the oven back up and reheat it. You know this because you're not dumb (I said so, it must be true!), but professional responsibility dictates that I remind you to be careful not to burn yourself when working with a hot oven.
All of this gives me the perfect excuse to go over some basic oven-cleaning instructions, which I have on the brain this week anyway because that chore is one that needs to get done in my house. In a stroke of perfect timing, our Head Chef, Albert Burneko, posted his roasted chicken recipe over the weekend when I was already planning to serve one of those fine birds for Sunday supper—roasting a chicken makes a damned mess of my tiny oven, so it's a thing I'll do when I know I need to get out the Easy-Off anyway. And may I say that Albert's roasted chicken is one hell of a roasted chicken? You should make it.
There are a couple of things to know about commercial oven cleaners like Easy-Off before making the choice to use them. The first is that the stuff stinks. Even the "odor-free" kind. I don't know exactly how Easy-Off is getting away with billing their odor-free product as odor-free when I can smell it and confirm for you that it is absolutely not odor-free, but this isn't a column about transparency in marketing, so let's move this thing along. Open the windows before you work with oven cleaner. If your oven is in a place that has poor ventilation, seriously consider using a different cleaning method on it. The stink is that bad.
The second thing to know is that you must wear rubber gloves when working with oven cleaner. The gloves are not optional. The gloves are a requirement. (That was me repeating something three times so it sinks in.) Oven cleaner is super caustic and will burn you if it makes contact with your skin.
PERSONAL ESSAY TIME! One day, I came home from working out and cleaned my oven while I was still in my ganky gym gear, because it didn't make sense to shower and such before engaging in such a dirty job. Except that I foolishly didn't consider the fact that I was wearing a tank top.
You know where this is going.
I was wearing my gloves, like a good girl, and everything was just fine until the time came for me to basically insert myself into the oven to wipe down the back wall and "AHHHHHHHHHHH SON OF A BITCH FUCK THAT HURT FUCK FUCK FUCK." My upper arm made contact with a small patch of oven cleaner that I hadn't wiped entirely off the side wall. I was burned. Literally burned. It hurt so bad. I flushed it with cool water, applied some burn ointment, and survived, but I'd prefer that it not happen to you too. HEED ME.
The third thing to know, which I've already alluded to, is that cleaning the oven is a damned mess of a task. Just revolting.
With all of that said, the actual process of cleaning an oven is pretty straightforward. These instructions are for using a cold-oven oven cleaner—because that's what I use—but are more or less the same as hot-oven oven-cleaner directions, which provides me with the excuse to say this, now: Always read and follow the manufacturer's instructions when it comes to oven cleaners, because, again, this is a caustic substance we're talking about. Safety first!
Shake up the can of oven cleaner and spray the product on the entire interior of the oven, including the racks. Close the oven door and allow the cleaner do its extraordinarily stinky thing. After 10 minutes (or whatever length of time is prescribed by the manufacturer), it's time to go in. You'll need a bucket, clean water, and a sponge for this operation; in terms of sponge choices, I recommend the kind with the scrubby back like Scotch-Brite. You should also make sure your sink is empty, because you'll need it to clean the racks and then, when that's done, to dump the wash water. You will almost assuredly need to change out the water, but I'm getting a bit ahead of myself.
First up are the racks: Take them out of the oven one at a time and transfer them to the sink to be wiped free of the oven cleaner. Then set them aside while you turn your attention to the interior of the oven.
Sit down on the floor with your bucket of clean water and your sponge and wipe the oven walls, starting with the top, moving to the sides, then the back and ending with the floor. The reason for that order is that the cleaner and the mess it will remove will drip as you wipe, so you want to start at the top and work down. Stubborn spots can be worked out with the back of your sponge. You will need to rinse that sponge frequently and, as I mentioned, will probably also have to dump and refill your bucket.
From time to time I talk about cleaning jobs that are so disgusting as to be oddly satisfying; this is absolutely one of them. You all know that I'm gross enough that this request won't surprise you and I really, seriously mean it: You should tweet or IG photos of your oven-cleaning wastewater at me. I live for that stuff.
I love ammonia for cleaning the kitchen. Not everyone does, and that's fair—it's not the friendliest chemical on the block. But good goddamn, is it ever great on greasy, sticky surfaces. It can also be used to loosen grease and grime from the interior of an oven by placing a bowl of the stuff into a cold oven overnight. It doesn't need to be a particularly large bowl—about a cup of the stuff will do. After it's sat overnight, remove the bowl and wipe the interior of the oven with water and a sponge.
Ammonia also smells, so cracking a window is a good idea. You should also always wear protective gloves when working with it.
Time to level: You absolutely can clean an oven with products that are far less likely to cause, like, blindness. But you will have to work harder, in the elbow-grease sense. Employing a Dobie Pad or a steel-wool pad is recommended to make up for some of the heft that gentler products lack.
Vinegar and baking soda can be used in concert to loosen baked on grease; sprinkle the baking soda, spritz with white vinegar, and allow them to commingle for 30 minutes before going in with your sponge and scrubbing like the dickens. Hot water and dish soap can also be used. Simple Green is another way to go.
You've probably read through all of that and are like, "Jolie, listen, I know you love cleaning, but isn't this all a little extreme when we could just use the self-cleaning feature that ovens come with?"
Sure! Except for a few things. Not all ovens have the self-cleaning feature, so there's that. And then there's this: The self-cleaning cycle on many ovens can run for a few hours and heats the oven up to 900°F. Which means that if it's hot outside, that might not be ideal. It's also insanely harsh on the oven itself and can cause damage to the appliance. Manufacturers know this, but consumer demand is such that they keep the feature.
Plus, if you use the self-cleaning feature, you won't have any gross photos to tweet at me. Your loss, I guess?
Jolie Kerr is the author of the book My Boyfriend Barfed in My Handbag … And Other Things You Can't Ask Martha (Plume); more of her cleaning-obsessed natterings can be found onTwitter, Kinja, and Tumblr.
Illustration by Sam Woolley.
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