It started with the chocolate souffles.
No, that’s wrong. It started about 16 years ago when we moved into our house and I noticed that our oven could use a cleaning. Didn’t do it.
During the years of family cooking and recipe testing, the oven’s entire interior eventually turned solid black (roast chicken is my favorite dinner). A couple of years ago, I noticed that every time I cooked something at 425 degrees or higher, the oven smoked fiercely, filling the house with gray haze and setting off the smoke alarms. Because I mostly roast foods during winter, opening the doors and windows in sub-freezing temperatures became problematic.
Still, I couldn’t bring myself to clean it. I hate caustic chemical cleaners and, given the 1/8-inch-thick layer of black grime, it seemed impossible to clean without going nuclear. What about the self-cleaning function? According to our appliance repairman, employing that feature in old ovens like ours often makes the door seal shut — permanently.
So it stayed black. And anyway, what’s a little smoke among friends when roast chicken is on the menu?
But then, last week, I made Dave’s favorite dessert — Bittersweet Molten Chocolate Cakes — for his birthday. These wonderful treats cook at 425 degrees … uh-oh. Sure enough, when I opened the oven to remove the mini souffles, smoke billowed out. And when we ate those special-occasion treats, warm and topped with Talenti gelato, I tasted it: unmistakable, unpleasant, greasy smoke.
Smoky roast chicken, fine. Mess with my chocolate? Now we have a problem.
So I turned to Google and found this awesome tutorial from The Kitchn on cleaning an oven using only baking soda, vinegar, and elbow grease. Basically, here’s the process:
1. Make a paste with baking soda and water. One-half cup was not nearly enough; I used about 1 1/4 cups baking soda and about 7 tablespoons water.
2. Remove the racks (The Kitchn blog tells how to clean those, too). Smear the paste on every single interior oven surface except the heating elements. Close the oven and let it sit undisturbed for at least 24 hours.
3. Arm yourself with a sturdy washcloth that you don’t mind ruining, along with a bucket of very warm water. Wipe the oven surfaces — repeatedly — with the warm, damp washcloth to remove the grime. Rinse out the washcloth often (I must have changed the water about 20 times). I also placed an old towel lengthwise on the floor under the oven door, and I’m glad I did; it caught a lot of the accumulated gunk.
4. Once it’s all wiped out, lightly spray inside the oven with plain white vinegar to activate any remaining baking soda, and wipe clean again with a damp cloth. Done.
I had my doubts … but it worked! I forgot to take a full “before” picture (still not used to the blog mentality), but here you can see my initial wipe off of the oven door. Especially on the flat surfaces, the built-up layer really did wipe right off.
After the easy parts came off, that’s when the elbow grease came into play.
The blog warned that harder spots might need more scrubbing or even scraping. True that: I worked for about 2 hours scrubbing and scraping the hard-to-dislodge grime. I also used a flexible spackling tool to scrape some spots. It did not scratch the enamel, but use caution with your own oven; a firm plastic spatula might be safer.
In this photo you can really see just how thick my oven’s grime layer was.
I wasn’t going for perfection — as long as it no longer smokes, I don’t care about a few black spots — and I was extremely pleased, not to mention astonished, with the final result.
Before cooking anything, I decided to “roast” a pan of water at 425 degrees, just to be sure any lingering baking soda or vinegar smell didn’t infuse something I wanted to eat. A few scraps of grime landed in the water while it roasted, so I was glad I did it.
Takeaway: This all-natural technique worked beautifully on my lost-cause oven. There’s no need to use scary-harsh chemicals, even with the most awful, baked-on oven grime you can imagine.
Now I’ve got yet another reason to eat more chocolate.