So as I was setting the table for Thanksgiving dinner last weekend I noticed – horror of horrors – that my cutlery was all dull and stained. Fortunately that gave me an immediate opportunity to engage in one of my favourite cleaning tasks: polishing my flatware. I find this supremely satisfying. Curious, but true.
My cleaning product of choice for this task is washing soda, sodium carbonate (Na2CO3). If you don’t happen to have any washing soda on hand, you can substitute its close relative, baking soda, sodium bicarbonate (NaHCO3 : shouldn’t that be sodium hydrogen carbonate?).
Washing soda is quite a bit more aggressive and more strongly alkaline than baking soda but it is a little hard to find in pure form. I get mine at a local eco-store called Arbour. It is also the major ingredient in water softener so you can, according to this article, use that instead. Or try on-line.
For basic cleaning jobs, washing soda does a fantastic job. Its main strength, as far as I am concerned, is in removing brown tea stains from mugs, teapot spouts and teaspoons. Just soak items in a hot washing soda solution (I am very casual about my dilutions) and the discolouration simply dissolves away. Stubborn stains might take a few hours, or require a bit of rubbing, but teaspoons and other cutlery come clean almost immediately.
The only thing you should not allow to touch washing soda is aluminium (tools and pans) as it will turn these black. However….if you want to clean your silverware, aluminium is just what you need.
Place a sheet of aluminium foil in the bottom of a large ceramic or glass bowl and put your silver knives and forks blade-down in the bowl (the handles don’t tend to get that dirty anyway). For those who are keen on purchased inputs, you can actually buy aluminium plates to stick in the bottom of your bowl, but this seems a little crazy to me.
Next, sprinkle in some washing (or baking) soda. Then pour boiling water from your kettle into the bowl and, hey presto, your silver tarnish will dissolve away before your eyes. (after which you just need to rinse and dry the items). The solution suggested on-line is 1 cup soda to one gallon of water. Again, I am very approximate.
Obviously there is a clever chemical reaction going on when you do this (you will smell the gas produced, not an unpleasant odour). If you want to know more about what is happening, see this fact sheet.
This cleaning method is great for flatware, but also works for silver necklaces and other small items that you can fit in a bowl. The downside is that the chemical reaction does not put up any barrier to further tarnish (as I believe commercial silver cleaners do) so things do appear to get dirtier again a little sooner than they might if you were to rub away with chemicals. But I am actually happy not to be eating with flatware covered in anti-tarnish coatings.
And here’s a bonus: crafts. If you always wanted to make a washing soda snowflake crystal, look no further.
To finish, I should extend my thanks to my mother who taught me this, and several other cleaning tips, when I was still quite young. It is such a simple solution, I am amazed that it is not more commonly known. A silver-cleaning-product-company conspiracy, no doubt.