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The Real Way to Wash Fine China

Six steps to spotless, chip-free china

When the last slice of pie has been passed, and guests have begun their “I-ate-too-much” groans, it’s time for the real family tradition to start: doing the dishes. In some households, the role of Chief Dishwasher (overlord of towel-wagging dryer serfs) is practically a birthright; other households employ a very practical wash-dry assembly line. Either way, every person on dish duty should know how to properly wash fine china so that Great Aunt Mildred’s ornate porcelain place settings can see decades of suppers to come.

1. Remove your rings …

… and bracelets, watches (even water-resistant ones) and long necklaces. We’re not worried about your jewelry—although dish duty can harm gemstones such as pearls and turquoise, as well as some metals—as much as your dishes: Baubles can nick, scratch or scuff china’s delicate surface.

2. Go ahead: Use the dishwasher (sometimes).

Nobody wants to work so hard at the sink that they find themselves hungry for a second dinner. You officially have permission to put your china in the dishwasher—if, that is, you’re positive the set is bone china or porcelain (other materials, like creamware, are too delicate); the pieces have no metallic (e.g., gold leaf) detail; the set is newer (older china can weaken over time); and your dishwasher has a “delicate” or “china” setting. If you can’t tick all four boxes, you should wash the china by hand.

3. Prep the sink.

Fold an old (but still soft) dish towel, and lay it down inside the sink; it’ll cushion the bottom and minimize clinking and chipping. Then, swivel the faucet neck off to the side, away from the center of the sink; you should be able to easily move large plates into and out of the basin without knocking the faucet.

4. Fill ’er up.

Fill the sink with warm water. (Never, ever use hot water to clean china, for the same reason you should temper teacups with a little milk before pouring in hot tea or coffee: A drastic change in temperature can cause china to crack.) Add a few squirts of mild dish soap; drop in a tablespoon of stain-busting white vinegar if the dishes are extra dirty (think spaghetti dinner).

5. Start (lightly) scrubbing.

Working in batches of a few china pieces at a time, lower the dishes slowly into the soapy water (remember: China hates major temperature swings!). Avoid abrasive brushes and scrubbers, and employ a soft dishrag or sponge to gently rub away food particles, using an extra-light touch on metal rims and raised details.

6. Drip dry.

Let china air-dry in a nonmetal drying rack, then use a soft linen cloth to lightly dry any stubborn droplets. Store china once it’s completely dry; alternate doilies or white linen napkins between plates and bowls to prevent chips.