Our faithful, if filthy, oven has roasted, baked and broiled its way through winter, Easter, Passover and spring's first, and maybe last, fresh mackerel (an impulse buy). To keep our next baking project from reeking of fish and charred fat, and avoid inhaling any more smoke and soot, it's time to open up and clean. Alright, and scour.
Apart from the bending and reaching, it's really not such an onerous task if you avoid conventional oven cleaning products, which are among the top three most toxic household cleaners to avoid, according to the Washington Toxics Coalition. The other two are acid-based toilet bowl and drain cleaners. A corrosive ingredient in drain and oven cleaners is sodium hydroxide, in common parlance, lye, which can be fatal if swallowed. And you can suffer chemical burns by touching it or inhaling its fumes. Sodium hydroxide can be such a killer it's listed as a pesticide by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Our ovens and ourselves deserve something much gentler. Below, a least-toxic* DIY recipe and method that really works.
*While often gentler, many natural materials such as washing soda, below, can still be toxic if ingested, and should be kept out of reach of children and pets.
•Washing soda (sodium carbonate, a natural alkaline mineral powder made by Arm & Hammer and others, and found in laundry aisle). While it's caustic and can irritate skin, washing soda does not give off fumes.
•Spoonful of dish soap
1. Wearing gloves, mix baking soda, washing soda, dish soap and water into a thick paste, then add a little white vinegar. If it fizzes, that's a good sign!
2. Before applying to oven, use a wet scrubber sponge and a rag dipped in hot water, which helps dissolve grease, to remove superficial baked-on crust.
3. Then apply paste thickly to oven ceiling, walls and floor, and leave on overnight where it will lift grease and harden into a cake.
4. In the morning, rinse and scrub (okay, so maybe it takes a little elbow grease), and voila!
Now you can roast, at least for a while, without fear of a fireball. And your kitchen won't smell like a chemical spill.
This story originally appeared in "Plenty" in April 2008.