Onerous ovens: why is cleaning the cooker such a chore?

As I write Thanksgiving was a few days ago, when most Americans traditionally cook a very large meal based around roasted turkey. Most Brits – and other countries of course – have the same thing coming up soon in the form of Christmas, and there are lots of other celebrations around this time of year that seem to feature cooking and food quite heavily.

Whatever your traditions, then, it’s a time when many of us frown critically at the dark, sticky depths of our oven and wonder if, perhaps, we should attempt to give it a clean. Or at least pay someone else to come and clean it.

Why is oven cleaning such a difficult and unpleasant job, anyway? It’s not that hard to clean other surfaces, is it? Why are ovens so particularly awful?

Well, to explain this, we first need to understand fats.

Fats vaporise during cooking.

Most of the grime in your oven is fat, combined with the carbonised remains of… something or other. The sorts of fats that are common in animal and plant products have boiling points around the 300 oC mark (animal fats typically having higher values than plant oils), but they start to form vapours at much lower temperatures, and certainly at typical cooking temperatures there’s plenty vaporised oil around. Besides, under typical conditions most oils will “smoke” – i.e. start to burn – long before they get close to boiling.

We’re all familiar with the idea that fats don’t mix well with water, and herein lies the problem: all that fatty gloop that’s stuck to the inside of your oven just doesn’t want to come off with standard cleaning methods, particularly when it’s built up over time.

Can chemistry help us here? What are fats, chemically? Well, they’re esters. Which may or may not mean anything to you, depending on how much chemistry you can remember from school. But even if you don’t remember the name, trust me, you know the smell. In particular, nail polishes and nail polish removers contain the simple ester known as ethyl acetate, otherwise known as ethyl ethanoate. (Some people say this chemical smells like pear drops which… only really helps if you know what pear drops smell like. Look, it smells of nail polish, okay?)

Fats are esters (image source)

Anyway, the point is that esters have a particular sequence of atoms that has a carbon bonded to an oxygen, which is bonded to another carbon, which is in turn double-bonded to oxygen. This is a bit of a mouthful, so chemists often write it as COOC. In the diagram here, oxygen atoms are red while carbon atoms are black.

There are actually three ester groups in fat molecules – which explains why fats are also known as triglycerides.

In terms of general chemistry, esters form when a carboxylic acid (a molecule which contains a COOH group) reacts with an alcohol (a molecule that contains an OH group). And this is where it all starts to come together – honest – because you’ve probably heard of fatty acids, right? If nothing else, the words turn up in certain food additive names, in particular E471 mono- and diglycerides of fatty acids, which is really common in lots of foods, from ice cream to bread rolls.

Glycerol is a polyol — a molecule that contains several alcohol groups (image source)

Well, this reaction is reversible, and as a result fats (which are esters, remember) break up into fatty acids and glycerol – which is a polyol, that is, a molecule with several alcohol groups. Or, to look at it the other way around: fats are made by combining fatty acids with glycerol.

And the reason it’s useful to understand all this is that the way you break up esters, and therefore fat, is with alkalis. (Well, you can do it with acid, too, but let’s not worry about that for now.)

Strong alkalis break up fats in a chemical reaction called hydrolysis — the word comes from the Greek for water (hydro) and unbind (lysis) and so literally means “split up with water”. Humans have known about this particular bit of chemistry for a long time, because it’s fundamental to making soap. As I said a few months ago when I was banging on about hand-washing, the ancient Babylonians were making soap some 4800 years ago, by boiling fats with ashes – which works because alkaline compounds of calcium and potassium form when wood is burnt at high temperatures.

The grime in ovens is mostly fat.

The really clever thing about all this is that two things are happening when we mix alkali with fat: not only are we breaking up the fat molecules, but also the substances they break up into are water-soluble (whereas fats, as I said at the start, aren’t). Which makes them much easier to clean away with water. Obviously this is the very point of soap, but it’s also handy when trying to get all that baked-on gunk off your oven walls.

Now, in theory, this means you could get some lye (aka sodium hydroxide, probably), smear it all over your oven and voilà. But I don’t recommend it, for a few reasons. Firstly, it’s going to be difficult to apply, since sodium hydroxide is mostly sold as pellets or flakes (it’s pretty easy to buy, because people use it to make soap).

Sodium hydroxide, sometimes called lye, is often sold in the form of pellets.

But, you say, couldn’t I just dissolve it in water and spray or spread it on? Yes, yes you could. But it gets really, really hot when you mix it with water. So you need to be incredibly careful. Because, and this is my next point, chemically your skin is basically fat and protein, and this reaction we’re trying to do on oven sludge works equally well on your skin. Only, you know, more painfully, and with scarring and stuff. In short, if you’re handing lye, wear good nitrile on vinyl gloves and eye protection.

Actually, regardless of how you’re cleaning your oven you should wear gloves and eye protection, because the chemicals are still designed to break down fats and so… all of the above applies. It’s just that specially-designed oven cleaners tend to come with easier (and safer) ways to apply them. For example, they might come as a gel which you can paint on, and/or with bags that you can put the racks into, and may also be sold with gloves and arm protectors (but rarely goggles – get some separately). They might also have an extra surfactant, such as sodium laureth sulfate, added to help with breaking down grease. The main ingredient is still either potassium hydroxide or sodium hydroxide, though.

Well, possibly, but also not really, if you’re sensible.

As an aside, it makes me smile when I come across an article like this which talks about the “serious” chemicals in oven cleaners and more “natural” ways to clean your oven. The “natural” ways are invariably weak acids or alkalis such as lemon juice or baking soda, respectively. They’re essentially ineffective ways of trying to do exactly the same chemistry.

And okay, sure, the gel and the bag and so on in the modern kits are newer tech, but the strong alkali? Nothing more natural than that. As I said at the start, humans have literally been using it for thousands of years.

A point which really cannot be repeated enough: natural does not mean safe.

Fumes can be irritating to skin, eyes and lungs.

Speaking of which, you will get fumes during oven cleaning. Depending on the exact cleaning mixture involved, these will probably be an alkaline vapour, basically (haha) forming as everything gets hot. Such vapour is potentially irritating to skin, eyes and lungs, but not actually deadly toxic. Not that I recommend you stick your head in your freshly-scrubbed oven and inhale deeply, but you take my point. It might give food a soapy, possibly bitter (contrary to what’s stated in some text books, not all alkalis taste bitter, but do not experiment with this) taste if you really over-do it.

In short, if you’re cleaning your oven yourself: follow the manufacturer’s instructions, make sure your kitchen is well-ventilated, leave the oven door open for a while after you’ve finished and, to be really sure, give all the surfaces an extra wash down with plenty of water.

Put the cleaning off until January – after all, the oven’s only going to get dirty again.

And that’s… it, really. Whether you’re cleaning your own oven or getting someone else to do it for you, the chemistry involved is really, really old. And yes, the chemicals involved are hazardous, but not because they’re not “natural”. Quite the opposite.

Or you could just leave it. I mean, it’s only going to get dirty again when you cook Christmas dinner, right?


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Are you ok? You look a little flushed.

PrintYesterday was World Toilet Day (yes, really). This is actually an admirable campaign by WaterAid to raise awareness of the fact that one in three people around the world don’t have access to a safe and private toilet. This, of course, leads to unsanitary conditions which results in the spread of infection and disease. You’ve probably never given it a second thought, but loos literally save lives.

portaloo

Has the TARDIS’ replicator function gone funny?

So, with the topic of toilets in mind, I started thinking about chemical loos. If you live in the UK, the name Portaloo ® will probably spring to mind. This has practically become a generic word for a portable toilet, but it is (like Hoover, Sellotape and others) actually a brand name. I’m told that in America they call them porta-pottys or honey-buckets, which I rather like. In any case, all the chemicals and plastic make them seem like modern inventions, surely?

Actually, not at all. The idea of a self-contained, moveable toilet that you can pick up and take from place to place may be newer, but people have been using chemical toilets for hundreds of years. For example after, ahem, ‘business’ had been completed in an an old-fashioned wooden outhouse – basically a tall box built over a hole in the ground – the user would sprinkle a little lye or lime down the hole to help with the smell.

SodiumHydroxide

Don’t get sodium hydroxide on the toilet seat.

Both of these are strongly basic chemicals. Lye is either sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide, and lime is calcium oxide. Both mix with water to form extremely corrosive, alkaline solutions and, incidentally, give out a lot of heat in the process. Both are very damaging to skin. These were the days before health and safety; whatever you did, you had to try not to spill it on the seat.

Urea, a key chemical in urine, reacts with strong alkalis in a process known as alkaline hydrolysis. This produces ammonia, which is pretty stinky (if rather tough on the lungs), so if nothing else that helped to cover up other smells. Ammonia also kills some types of bacteria (which is one reason it’s popular in cleaning products). Flies generally don’t like high concentrations of it either, so that’s another plus.

Alkalis also have another effect in that decomposition of human waste is pH dependent; it works better in acidic conditions. Adding lye or lime raises the pH and slows down this decomposition. On top of this (literally) both lime and lye are hygroscopic: they absorb water. This keeps moisture down and allows a solid ‘crust’ to form on the surface of the waste, making it difficult for any volatile, smelly chemicals to escape. Lovely.

Bleach and ammonia could result in a rocket up your...

Bleach and ammonia could result in a rocket up your…

One word of caution: it’s very, very important you don’t try to clean such an outhouse with any kind of bleach. Bleach, which contains sodium hypochlorite, reacts with ammonia to form hydrogen chloride, chlorine gas and chloramine. None of which are good for your health. Even more dramatically (if this is more dramatic than death – you decide) if there’s lots of ammonia you might get liquid hydrazine, which is used in rocket fuels because it’s explosive. Who knew that toilet chemistry could also be rocket science?

But you don’t find buckets of lye in modern chemical toilets (although, apparently, there are still some people out there using it). So what’s in there? At one time, formaldehyde, otherwise known as methanal, was common. You probably recognise it as embalming fluid; the stuff that Damien Hirst floated that shark in. It’s an extremely effective preservative. Firstly, it kills most bacteria and fungi and destroys viruses, and secondly it causes primary amino groups in proteins to cross-link with other nearby nitrogen atoms, denaturing the proteins and preventing them from breaking down.

shark

Don’t worry, this won’t appear in your chemical toilet.

Interestingly, whilst definitely toxic in high concentrations, formaldehyde is a naturally-occuring chemical. It’s found in the bloodstream of animals, including humans, because it’s involved in normal metabolism. It also appears in fruits and vegetables, notably pears, grapes and shiitake mushrooms. The dose, as they say, makes the poison. I mention this because there are certain campaigners out there who insist it must be completely eliminated from everything, something which is entirely unecessary not to mention probably impossible (just for the hell of it, I’m also going to point out here that an average pear contains considerably more formaldehyde than a dose of vaccine).

All that said, because formaldehyde is extremely toxic in high concentrations, and because it can interfere with the breakdown processes in sewage plants (because it destroys bacteria), formaldehyde isn’t used in toilets so much anymore. In fact, many of the mixtures on sale are explicitly labelled “formaldehyde-free”. Modern formulations are enzyme-based and break down waste by biological activity. They are usually still dyed blue (if you work your way though the colour spectrum, it’s probably the least offensive colour), but usually using food-grade dye. As a result, what’s left afterwards is classed as sewage rather than chemical waste, making it easier to deal with.

Toilet twinning So, this has been brief tour around the fascinating world of toilet chemistry. You’d never have guessed there was so much to it, would you? Now, have you considered twinning your toilet?