Is your oven ready for The Big Show? |

Is your oven ready for The Big Show?

Cassie Pence
Greener Pastures
Vail, CO Colorado

Ovens need to be clean to perform well on Thanksgiving. You don’t want to stuff your carefully prepared candied yams and heritage bird into a dark hole with dried-on goop and ashes from past meals.

Out of all the surfaces and appliances in the kitchen, most of us hate to clean the oven. We use it all the time, but the mess that accumulates is easily forgettable – just close the door and hope nothing smokes when you turn it on next time.

So when smoke does billow out, indicating it’s time to clean the oven (or go out to eat), we reach for something quick – and seemingly painless – to free the heart of our kitchen from bubbled-over cheese and crinkled potato pieces.

Conventional oven cleaners are quick, yes, but painless? Not so much. Oven cleaners are some of the most toxic cleaning products on supermarket shelves. Many contain neuro-toxic and central nervous system depressants (such as ether-type solvents, petroleum distillates and methylene chloride), chemicals that can cause headaches, confusion and lack of concentration and symptoms of mental illness.

Some oven cleaners even contain butane, a fossil fuel. And many contain high levels of sodium hydroxide, a caustic soda or lye. Sodium hydroxide irritates the skin, eyes, nose and lungs, and when exposed to it in concentrated quantities or ingested, it can kill.

Exposure to these harmful chemicals usually happens when you’re cleaning – kneeling before an open oven door, dousing the oven in spray and inhaling it while you’re doing it. The residual chemicals left in the oven seep into your food (and, thus, into your body), dishing up a second exposure. Mmmm … turkey with a hint of lye – sounds delicious.

This is how the crew at Organic Housekeepers cleans an oven: First, we remove all racks and soak them in a large sink with vegetable-based dish soap. Second, we spray the entire oven in vinegar, a natural degreaser. Next, we sprinkle the wet oven with Bon Ami scrubbing powder, made from limestone, feldspar and baking soda. Then we head back to the racks with our pumice stone (yep, basically the same tool you use to soften your feet) and scrub off stuck-on particles, which, after the rack’s tubby, can be pretty easy, depending on the mess. While we’re scrubbing the racks, the vinegar and Bon Ami is softening the goop inside the oven. To finish off, we return to the oven and scrub using a stainless-steel pad, such as a Chore Boy (careful not to scratch), and finally, we use a warm, damp rag to remove the released grime and wipe the oven completely clean.

Compared to popping the cap off an aerosol can and pressing a trigger, Organic Housekeepers’ method of cleaning an oven takes a little more elbow grease. But the payback is clear: clean air, healthy lungs and a nervous system that remains uncompromised. Personally, I’d rather work up a sweat.

Annie Bond, the original goddess of green cleaning, has figured out a way to clean naturally without using any elbow grease at all. Bestselling author of “Clean and Green” and a regular contributor to, Bond sprinkles baking soda in the bottom of her oven, sprays it damp with a little water and lets it sit to work its magic. The key is to keep it moist. She’ll let it sit overnight, and in the morning, she’ll scoop out the baking soda along with all the oven grime. To remove the white residue, she takes a damp rag and wipes the entire oven clean.

I can feel the smugness coming from those who own a self-cleaning oven. Those magical appliances eliminate the dirty work and the need for harsh chemicals, right? Wrong. Self-cleaning ovens fall into life’s too-good-to-be-true category.

The first time you use the self-clean setting, substantial amounts of acrolein and formaldehyde gasses are released from the oven’s insulation. Both gasses are respiratory irritants, causing sore throats, watery eyes and coughing. Not much is said about the second, third and fourth uses, but my guess is it just keeps de-gassing.

According to the Environmental Working Group, most self-cleaning ovens are lined with PTFE (Teflon), and during the self-cleaning cycle, the temperature reaches 900 degrees Fahrenheit, a temperature at which Teflon is not meant to perform. So Teflon reacts and emits gasses into the air. It’s hard to say what Teflon does to humans when it off-gasses – I didn’t find any facts or research on it – but when birds are exposed, they drop like flies.

Dupont, the creator of Teflon, warns that hundreds of birds die each year from being near the kitchen when the oven is self-cleaning.

For me, that’s the canary in the kitchen.

Freelance writer Cassie Pence is passionate about living a more sustainable lifestyle. She owns Organic Housekeepers, a green cleaning company, and is actively involved in the EagleVail Community Garden, the Eagle Valley Alliance for Sustainability and Slow Food Vail Valley. Contact her at

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