July 14 2015, 1:01am,
It was 10.30pm when a message arrived from a friend with an incriminating photograph of a dishwasher stacked by her husband. Five bowls loitered at a slant, thoughtlessly blocked by plates. The profligacy of this caused a sharp intake of breath — it was aesthetically distressing and plainly the product of a diseased mind.
We all have our dishwasher-stacking quirks. Some recklessly stick knives in blade up. Others are misguided perfectionists who pre-rinse crockery. Some domestic delinquents jam bowls too close together at sloppy angles, practically willing them to emerge gunk-covered.
Yet whatever our habits, chances are they make our partner huff at our ineptitude. In a bid to end kitchen sink dramas across the globe, Bosch has issued definitive guidelines to loading the dishwasher correctly. And, yes, you were doing it wrong.
In a two-minute instructional video, “Stephanie from Bosch Home Appliances” begins with the bombshell that modern machines work better if plates are dirty. Scrape off excess food but please step away from the tap. Otherwise the chemicals in the dishwasher tablet, which include detergents, alkalis and enzymes, can’t do their work. “Detergent’s job is to cling to food and wash it away,” says Stephanie. “If it doesn’t have anything to go after, it could attach to your glasses and scratch them and even make them cloudy.”
Knives, meanwhile, should be placed blade down in the cutlery basket — “safety first” — although with spoons and forks we can live dangerously and “mix it up”. But don’t go mad. Or spoons will, heaven forbid, “nest” — surprising you with a revolting caked-on crust of avocado or yolk. Although, in a revolutionary innovation to eradicate unauthorised nesting, most Miele dishwashers now boast a “3D” cutlery tray on the top rack — “I paid a thousand pounds for a cutlery tray,” sighs one friend — with specific slots for each piece of cutlery. Apparently, life isn’t too short.
Sian Bailey, the category manager in charge of laundry and dishwashing for Miele, explains that the company pioneered the cutlery tray 27 years ago. The 3D version is phase two (improved flexibility for larger utensils) to give customers more space in the lower rack but also to effect “a better wash: rather than cutlery clumping together in the basket, the cutlery tray has separators”. And yet, Bailey confides, “I do have colleagues who still argue about which way and order to put cutlery in the tray, so if couples have an OCD tendency, I don’t think anything will stop them quarrelling.”
Plainly, if the divorce rate isn’t to rocket, the nation needs nannying on this issue. Distressing tales of serial reloaders abound. That some people care enough to reposition four plates and a cup is a source of envy to some: “There’s never much to reload in this house,” says one friend, “because nobody else opens the dishwasher up — their job is done when they dump stuff on the side, apparently.” In a survey by the UK home improvement specialists Betta Living, 31 per cent of women cited “dishwasher etiquette” as a prime cause of marital argument.
Which is why Naomi Davies, 46, a Cambridge-based genealogist, leaves nothing to chance. A neat hand-drawn diagram pinned to the kitchen noticeboard instructs her husband and daughter on how to load the Bosch correctly. Essentially: align cereal bowls to the left (smallest at the front) and pasta bowls, stir-fry bowls, small plates then large plates to the right, with a precise spot for the coffee jug and water bottles.
She explains: “Despite me saying ‘this is the best way’ and trying to get the family on board, they seemed to find that difficult. My husband said: ‘To take away any confusion, could we just see a sketch, so we can refer to it at all times?’ Fine. Very happy to do that.”
Presumably she referred to the manual? “No, no — it just made sense. Large plates at the back because the small plates mustn’t be hidden behind them or the jets of water won’t get to them. If you stack the bowls behind the plates, it’s not ergonomic. This is the way to get the most in and still be clean.”
Stephanie from Bosch also warns against placing bowls face down because they will receive insufficient “water flow”. Position them tilted up. Meanwhile, large bowls should sit “where the tines are farther apart”. (Even with my limited grasp of physics, I understand that water cannot penetrate china.) Gratifyingly, although worryingly for the cat, Stephanie’s motto is: “If it fits in the dishwasher, it goes in the dishwasher.” Her point is that “even heavily soiled pots and pans come out clean” if placed at a tilt, facing inward. Stemware and cups should be loaded at an angle, for optimum drying.
Incidentally, the Miele operating instructions for dishwashers, available online, are also a revelation. Turns out that if crockery or glassware is cloudy, this is a cue to decrease rinse aid not chug in more. Miele is also fussy about placement: “Tall, narrow, hollow items, eg, champagne glasses, should be placed in the centre of the basket to ensure better water coverage.”
The upper basket is for “small, lightweight and delicate items such as cups, saucers, glasses, dessert bowls”, although you can knock yourself out and stick a casserole dish up there too. However, the lower basket is best for “larger and heavier items such as plates, serving platters, saucepans, bowls”.
Our dishwasher-loading beliefs are so particular that the US conglomerate General Electric has defined a range of “loading styles”. Those who prissily arrange cutlery prong down so that removal can be effected without contamination are “protectors”. Oddly, people whose main goal is speed are called “organisers”, instead of “lazy”. And domestic artistes who place “all their tall plates together” as if each wash were a still life are dubbed “curators”.
Even the lifestyle guru Martha Stewart has added her two-cents worth: “The dump-and-turn-on is not my approach. I’m much more orderly,” she told The Wall Street Journal. Never put knives, pewter, wood, china, crystal, cast iron, non-stick pans or gold-plate flatware in the dishwasher, advises Stewart. Nor does she mix sterling or silver-plate flatware with stainless steel because a reaction between the metals can damage both finishes.
I confess that I’m a serial reloader with the disgraceful habit of opening the appliance halfway through a cycle, removing a frying pan (I only require the machine to wash off the grease) then adding a few lightly crumbed plates. This is either my bad-housewife prerogative or akin to interrupting a ballet, but I am certain that no bowl can sparkle when my husband jams it in too close to its neighbour. And I am at a loss to comprehend why this isn’t obvious.
Yet it isn’t. A study conducted by scientists at Birmingham University using the well-known technique of positron emission particle tracking was published recently in the Chemical Engineering Journal. It concluded that, because the water in a dishwasher is ejected in a circular pattern, dishes shouldn’t be positioned facing each other like two opposing armies but — brace yourself — arranged in circles around the cutlery basket.
Flying in the face of my husband’s analysis of the appliance as “basically a sink”, engineers noted: “Dishwashers are complex systems in which a combination of chemistry, temperature, water flow and inner properties of soils are evolving dynamically during a wash cycle.”
The spotlessness of our crockery is largely dependent on coverage produced by the water jets and the “shear stress thus generated . . . Water produces shear stresses over crockery items by direct impact of the water jets, transports the chemistry on to the soils, dissolves certain types of foodstuff and removes low adhesive soils.”
The chemical engineer Serafim Bakalis, one of the study’s lead authors, agrees that this is a contentious area. (His area of expertise includes how dishwashers and washing machines clean, but his mother still won’t let him do the washing when he returns home.) He believes that the most heinous dishwasher crime is to overload it: “We found out, unless you overload it, for most dishwashers, your stain would experience a quite even distribution of water and chemistry. If you put too much in, or a plate underneath a tray, there isn’t enough room for the water to move and to deliver the chemistry and some of the hard stains won’t be removed.”
Perhaps we should count our blessings. The psychotherapist Wendy Bristow (whose otherwise perfect fiancé “places bowls sideways where the plates are meant to go”) says: “If you are both loading the dishwasher, at least you’re both doing chores, but dishwasher wrangles are indicative of a world of differences in partnerships. Many people believe ‘if you don’t cook spaghetti like me, stack the dishwasher like me, you either don’t love me or you’re doing it wrong’. In fact, you’re just doing it differently.”
Bristow is at peace with the sideways-bowl situation, although she admits to the occasional “furtive reload”. Meanwhile, her fiancé reports that his wife-to-be allows Tupperware to float freely and fill with water — and also “puts knives point up and I cut my fingers”.
Bristow believes our dishwasher beliefs can trigger annoyance because they often come from our conditioning rather than from reading the manual. “It’s unconscious — you don’t realise that you have a belief about how to correctly stack a dishwasher until you see someone else do it differently.”
Essentially, reloading to our preferred specification may be our modest way of exerting control over our general anxieties and working off a little frustration. Family therapist Jean-Claude Chalmet believes it is “a cheap way of measuring passive-aggression within couples” and believes that in a healthy relationship “one loads the dishwasher, puts the soap in, shuts the door and gets on with it”. What — and ruin all our fun?