When was the last time you cleaned your oven? Have you ever cleaned your oven? You're not alone if you answered "ummm" and ". . . no."

Carolyn Forte, director of the home appliances and cleaning products lab at the Good Housekeeping Institute, suspects it's a "kind of out of sight, out of mind" mentality. Put something in the oven, take it out and close the door, until the next cooking session. Nothing to see here!

There's also an element of putting off the inevitable, says Melissa Homer, chief cleaning officer of US cleaning service MaidPro. People "delay it so long they make it such a miserable task."

So maybe it's time to take a look at that oven. After you get the job done, it will look and smell better, and take a weight off your shoulders. Here are some tips to keep in mind.

Advertisement

- Read the manual. Especially if you're about to engage in an intensive cleaning session, now is the time to dig out - or search online for - the instructions for your oven. It's especially important to know what types of cleaners are approved for your specific model. Some recommend nothing but water, Homer says. Whirlpool, for one, "advises against chemical oven cleaners. These products often contain harsh chemicals and can release fumes that can linger in your oven after cleaning is done."

There's a natural conflict when cleaning products say they're safe for self-cleaning ovens. Manufacturers are understandably cautious, Forte says, but generally you can feel comfortable using fast-acting sprayable oven cleaners for spot-cleaning. Again, read the label to be sure.

Your manual will also tell you whether the racks can be left in the oven during the self-cleaning cycle. Speaking of which . . .

- You don't have to fear the self-cleaning cycle (or use it). Self-cleaning "basically means burning all the junk out of your oven," Homer says. The process cranks the oven temperature very high, so that food residue inside is burned to ash that can be wiped out. Depending on how dirty your oven is, this can cause odors or even smoking. That's why it's important to do a preliminary wipe-down to remove anything that can be easily cleaned by hand. Also, you want to be home and paying attention in the few hours the process can take. Open a window or run a fan if needed. And try not to do it in the heat of summer, obviously.

That said, you don't have to use the cycle if you don't want to. No one's making you! If you're concerned about fumes, blowing a fuse or the energy required to run the cycle, skip it. Some models also offer a steam-clean mode, which runs at a much lower temperature and helps loosen buildup that can then be wiped away.

More on cleaners. Oven-cleaning products have improved over the years in terms of fumes and how caustic they are, Homer says. Among those she recommends: Easy Off's fume-free spray and Goo Gone Oven and Grill Cleaner. For extra scrubbing power, Homer suggests using a pumice stone, which won't scratch the oven as long as the surface has been lubricated with cleaner. There's always just dish soap and a sponge, especially as most oven cleaners are degreasers anyway, Homer says.

For her part, Homer would rather use a targeted cleaner developed specifically for ovens that require little to no scrubbing, but you can go the less-manufactured route as well. Whirlpool recommends cleaning the inside of the oven with baking soda combined with just enough water to form a paste. Brush it inside the oven, and let it rest for anywhere from 20 minutes to overnight, depending on how dirty the oven is. Spray with distilled white vinegar or lemon juice and wipe clean.

Whirlpool recommends cleaning the racks with water and dish soap or laundry detergent. You can spot-clean by hand for manageable messes. Otherwise, fill your bathtub (line with towels to prevent scratches) with hot water and ½ cup of mild dish soap or ¾ to 1 cup of laundry detergent. Soak for two hours, rinse and dry. Good Housekeeping's Forte also recommends Carbona Oven Rack & Grill Cleaner, which comes with large bags for soaking the racks in the cleaning solution. Just be sure to do this in a space like a garage or basement, away from kids and pets.

Advertisement

- Clean smart. If you're using a cleaner, Homer says you should take care to protect yourself and your kitchen. Wear gloves. Line the floor with trash bags and/or newspaper, as products may damage wood and laminate. That protection will also be useful if you're taking out the racks to clean in the kitchen. Homer recommends having a damp rag around (one you don't care about ruining) to quickly wipe away any cleaner that you get on your clothes or a vulnerable surface.

Also: Don't take apart your oven door to clean in between the panes of glass. "Just let it be a little dirty in there," Homer advises. It's not worth ruining the door, which should only be removed and disassembled by a professional. For the glass you do have access to, Forte suggests using a grease-cutting cleaner (i.e. dish soap) and scrubber or sponge. A Magic Eraser can help, too. Take care not to dislodge or damage the gasket, which is important for sealing in heat.

Take preventive measures, and make the job easier. The easiest way to clean a dirty oven is to not have a dirty oven. If you're baking a pie or casserole that risks bubbling over, use a baking sheet to catch any potential drips. If something does spill, "try and get to it as soon as you can," Forte says. Don't clean a hot oven, but going in while there's still a little residual heat can make the cleanup easier. Another tip from Forte: Place a hot, damp towel over a spot to loosen burnt-on debris. Then wipe off or remove with a plastic scraper.

Forte doesn't believe there's a set cleaning schedule that works for everyone. How often you need to tackle the oven may depend on how often you use it, what you're cooking and how conscientious you are in your routine maintenance.

"If you stay ahead of it," she says, "you probably don't have to clean it all that often."