Don't Spread Germs With Your Kitchen Sponges

To use sponges safely, own more than one for different purposes, sanitize them in the microwave and keep them dry when not in use.

You want to protect your family from food-borne illnesses, so you keep your kitchen clean. You know all the obvious tricks about preventing cross-contamination from meat or poultry to fruit or vegetables, you wash your hands, and you wipe down your counters. But what are you using to wipe your counters?

If the answer is a sponge, be careful! Kitchen sponges, with all those little holes, and usually left lying around damp, make very appealing homes for germs. Tests of sponges used in home kitchens show that most of them are harboring potentially dangerous bacteria- bacteria that you spread all over your kitchen when you wipe it down with a sponge.

Before you panic, there's a lot you can do to keep your kitchen sponge clean, but it takes more than just common sense. All those little holes and crevices that germs love so much make kitchen sponges devilishly hard to sanitize. Simply washing the sponge with soap and water is not nearly adequate, and soaking in bleach solution is not entirely effective, either. Putting the sponge in the dishwasher is better, but still not necessarily enough.

The key to keeping a sponge safe is keeping it not only clean, but also dry; like people, germs can't live without water. At the very least, wring out your sponge thoroughly each day and allow it to dry completely. When you run the dishwasher, throw the sponge in with the dishes to remove food particles and surface gunk. For the most effective cleaning, after you have hand-washed your sponge or put it through the dishwasher, finish the cleaning process by putting the sponge in the microwave on high power for one to three minutes, depending on the power of your oven. The sponge should be quite damp when it goes in, as the microwave sanitizes the sponge by boiling the water contained in it and as dry sponges can catch fire in the microwave (which would certainly sterilize the sponge, but would reduce its utility and the utility of your microwave). Experiment to find out how long the sponge should go in for; because you want the sponge to reach the boiling point, it should come out noticeably dryer than it went in. Not only have you killed most of the germs in the sponge, you have also started drying it. Remember, dryness is the key to sponge safety. Note that microwaving is only for cellulose sponges, not natural sponges, and handle the sponge carefully when you remove it from the microwave, as it will be very hot.

Be selective about what you use a sponge for. Some experts recommend that when raw chicken is involved, you clean up with disposable paper towels. Salmonella is both very common in chicken processed in the United States, and remarkably hardy. If you handle raw meat or poultry and clean up with a sponge, have a separate sponge (color-coded) just for that purpose, and keep it clean according to the instructions above.

Because only being kept dry really keeps sponges safe, you can't get a sponge sanitized instantly (microwaving is the best quick fix, but is not ideal as the sponge comes out too hot to handle). That's why you need to own more than one sponge, and keep them color-coded. If you have used one sponge to clean up a raw egg spill, you can use a second sponge to wipe the rest of the counters, and a third to wash the pots and pans. Owning more than one sponge allows you to let each sponge dry completely between uses, instead of keeping your sponge a moist little germ haven.

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