Housewifery: Sterilizing Silver

Well, I'm going to try my hand at doing a regular Saturday feature on running a household. Given the current state of my house I'm not notably qualified to write such a feature… but hey, there's more to domesticity than cleaning.

One of the things I brought back from my grandparent's house was my grandmother's silver. My little family is still using the extremely cheap set I picked up during college (twelve place settings for $20, so cheap I can bend the spoons) and no one else in the family wanted the trouble of cleaning and caring for silver. So I took it.

Trouble is, it was filthy. Not especially tarnished, but filthy. Abandoned in a slowly disintegrating, mildewed house fithy. Rodent droppings in the silver chest filthy. A few pieces, where the plate was marred, had some minor corrosion. But it was still an almost complete set of twelve place settings, most of it was in good condition, and it was worth saving… if I could just get it clean.

There's lots of information, bad and good, on polishing tarnished silver out there. But not much on thoroughly cleaning such dirty silver. You can't use bleach. You can't use ammonia. You can't submerge hollow pieces. You can't even use rubber gloves to protect your hands. Here's the method I eventually settled on:

  1. First, I separated out the knives from from the forks and spoons. The knives have hollow handles with cemented blades, and shouldn't be submerged. Submerging them could let water inside the handles, which would cause the base metal beneath the silver plate to corrode.
  2. Second, I washed everything with dish soap and hot water as hot as my hands would tolerate. The forks and spoons went on one towel to dry, the knives on another.
  3. I filled my biggest pot and when the water was boiling, I gathered up the towel with the forks and spoons into a rough bundle and carefully lowered it into the hot water. I brought the pot back up to a boil, and boiled the forks and spoons for 5 minutes. The towel protected the silverware from too much banging around, and kept the silver from direct contact with the metal of the pot. When the five minutes were up, I lined my sink with another towel (in case any pieces came loose) and carefully drained the contents of the pot into the sink. When the silverware had cooled enough to handle, I set each piece to dry on a fresh towel.
  4. The knives posed a special challenge, since they can't be submerged. On the other hand, they were also cleaner than the other pieces since they were stored on the inside of the silver chest's lid and out of the general mess. I lined the sink with a new clean towel, laid the knives on it, and scalded them with boiling water from the kettle several times before removing them to another clean towel to dry.
  5. Next, I polished everything. I used Haggerty's Silver Foam, and I put higher preference on removing tarnish and any remaining corrosion over preserving the patina. This polish, applied with a damp cloth, foams up soapily to clean the silver and was wonderfully effective. I rinsed everything as directed, and the silverware looked, if not new, definitely clean.
  6. Then I washed it one more time with hot, soapy water. Just for good measure.

Then I took everything out of my flatware drawer and thoroughly cleaned the drawer and dividers. Because it would be ridiculous to put my nice clean silver, after all that effort, into a dirty drawer.

If you have silver that's dirty, not just tarnished, this method worked very well to sterilize it for use. Nothing was damaged, and no one has taken ill from using it. And as a happy side effect, (since it needs handwashing) my preschooler has learned to dry it and put it away.

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