If you wipe appliances regularly with a damp cloth or sponge, most will require little additional maintenance. A buildup of grime, however, calls for a bit more elbow grease and sometimes even a particular cleaning solution. Before you get to work, be sure to consult the owner's manual or call the company's customer-service line, since manufacturers use a variety of materials to make their appliances.
Basic maintenance consists of periodically cleaning out crumbs and wiping down the interior and exterior.
Interior: Remove racks; wash them in warm, soapy water. If the inside of the toaster has a nonstick coating, wipe it with a cleaning pad that's labeled safe for this purpose. On a bare metal interior, you can use soap-filled steel wool. To avoid scratching a porcelain surface (or making it more difficult to clean the next time food cooks on), use nothing stronger than a nylon pad. Some toaster-oven interiors may look rough and feel gritty, indicating a continuous-clean surface that automatically burns off food residue. Do nothing more to this type of surface than wipe it with a damp cloth.
Exterior: Since most toaster ovens are plastic or painted steel, use only a nonabrasive liquid cleaner. If burned food discolors the paint on a toaster oven, a degreasing cleaner may minimize the discoloration, but nothing will remove it entirely.
To clean mineral deposits from steam irons, homemakers used to run vinegar and water through them. Today, some manufacturers warn against that procedure because it may result in a brown substance oozing from the holes. Instead, they recommend cleaning an iron with its own steam. Use the steam-clean setting if there is one. Or place the iron on a metal cake rack over a surface that won't be harmed by heat or water; turn the setting to steam and maximum heat, and let steam and water jet through the holes. Always empty the reservoir before storing the iron.
Soleplate: If an iron drags, the soleplate needs cleaning. Buy a hot-iron cleaner, which comes in a tube (like toothpaste) and is sold in most hardware stores. Put a dab on a scrap of an old terry-cloth towel, and run the hot iron over it. Remove residue by ironing a clean terry-cloth rag. If residue lingers in steam holes, repeat process, or wad up the cloth so you can rub the buildup out of the holes without burning your fingers.
Wash beaters by hand unless you know they are stainless steel. Many stand mixers have beaters made of brushed aluminum, which dishwasher detergent discolors. Beaters that look plastic may actually be aluminum with a nonstick coating and should not be washed in a dishwasher either.
The base: Wipe with a damp cloth or sponge. If the vent is clogged, loosen the dirt with a toothpick or toothbrush, then vacuum it out.
Place coffeemaker carafes in the top rack of a dishwasher (so plastic handles and lids won't melt.)
Mineral deposits: About once a month, clean the buildup inside the machine with a commercial coffeemaker cleaner (to prevent pipe blockage). Or pour equal parts white vinegar and water (two cups of each) into the tank. With the carafe in position, run the machine for half a cycle, then switch it off. After an hour, turn it back on, and let the rest of the solution filter through. Run two or three cycles with fresh water before brewing coffee.
A frost-free refrigerator dehydrates its interior, turning liquid spills into caked-on lumps. Soak removable parts in warm, slightly soapy water or a solution of one or two tablespoons baking soda for every quart warm water. Loosen a hardened spill on fixed parts by covering it with a damp sponge or cloth; use a toothbrush in crevices. Don't use bleach or ammonia, which can damage some surfaces.
Odors: Plastic linings absorb odors. Before tackling them, move food to a cooler or into paper bags wrapped in an old quilt or blanket for insulation. Unplug the refrigerator, wash the interior with the baking-soda solution, and wipe it dry. When the refrigerator is on again, slide a shallow pan of activated charcoal (available at plant nurseries and pet stores) onto a shelf. If odors return, recharge the charcoal in a 300-degree oven for an hour. If the bad smell isn't gone in two weeks, place a small dish of vanilla extract in the refrigerator to mask it. Don't use odor-control products with a lemon scent because the fragrance sinks into plastic and stays there. To avoid unpleasant odors in the future, store leftovers in covered containers or resealable plastic bags, and wipe up spills promptly. An open box of baking soda inside the refrigerator will trap smells; when you notice the odor, replace the box with a fresh one.
Coils: Refrigerators cool by stripping heat from the air inside the compartment and releasing it through condenser coils. Dust acts like insulation on the coils and keeps them from releasing heat efficiently. Clean the coils with a vacuum wand or a long-handled brush. Older refrigerators may have coils located in the back. To avoid damaging your floor, try to clean them without moving the appliance. In newer ones, the coils are usually at the bottom, accessible by removing the front grill. Although some models have coils that their manufacturers say never need cleaning, pet dander can disprove that claim. Check coils periodically if you have cats or dogs.
See the refrigerator entry above for cleaning and odor control.
Drain hole: In side-by-side refrigerator-freezers, ice can build up on the bottom and block the defrost drain tube. If you can see the drain hole, mix one teaspoon baking soda in two cups hot water, put it in a turkey baster, and squirt it into the hole. If this doesn't work or if you can't find the drain hole (in some models, it's inaccessible), arrange for a service visit.
Manual defrost: With chest freezers and old refrigerator-freezers, never try to pry off ice with a spatula or other tool; it might puncture the lining. Instead, turn off or unplug the appliance, and store food as suggested above for cleaning a refrigerator. Melt ice with a fan or a hair dryer set on low.
When an oven starts smoking, it's time for a heavy-duty cleaning. Wash racks by hand unless the owner's manual says they're dishwasher-safe. Then try this homemade cleanser from "Clean House, Clean Planet," by Karen Logan (Pocket Books; 1997). Use aluminum foil to plug holes leading to the broiler. (Be sure to remove the foil after cleaning.) Mix one-quarter cup salt, three-quarters cup baking soda, and one-quarter cup water into a paste. Brush on, avoiding bare parts -- salt corrodes metal. Let it sit overnight; remove mixture using a slotless spatula or a putty knife. Wipe with paper towels. Use a plastic scrubber or sponge to remove remaining spots.
Stains and odors are the biggest problems with microwaves.
Plastic interiors: Wipe stains with warm, soapy water, then plain water. If that isn't enough, clean with one or two tablespoons baking soda mixed into a quart of water. For caked-on residue, heat water in the microwave on high for three minutes; let stand five minutes (keep the door closed), and then wipe interior. In the future, cover food with a paper towel before cooking or reheating. To remove odors, clean with the baking-soda solution, wipe surfaces dry, and leave the door open for a few hours. If the smell persists, stir six tablespoons baking soda or one-half cup lemon juice into a cup of water. In a microwave-safe dish, heat mixture on high for two to three minutes. Then leave the door open for a few hours.
Stainless-steel interiors: Use a plastic scrubber and a gentle abrasive. If that does not work (and you don't mind scratching the surface), try soap-filled steel wool.
Other parts: Clean doors with only warm, soapy water or a mild, nonabrasive cleaner, and a sponge or soft cloth. Wipe control panels with a barely damp (not wet) cloth; moisture behind the panel could ruin the oven.
Electric burners: Wipe food off burners when they are cold. If residue remains, open windows or switch on an exhaust fan, turn burners to high, and let the food smoke off. If plastic melts onto a burner, scrape it off with a wooden spoon while coils are warm.
Gas burners: You can wash porcelain-coated stove-top pans and grates by hand unless their manufacturer recommends putting them in a dishwasher. Dishwasher detergent is more alkaline than hand-dishwashing liquid, and the machines keep their contents damp longer. Both factors may cause rust at gaps in chrome or porcelain coatings. You may not see the gaps, but the dishwasher will find them. Uncoated metal parts are best soaked and then rubbed with a scouring pad.
Glass cooktops: These must be protected from scratching. Clean with a pad safe for nonstick coatings, and dedicate it to only this use. Wipe up sugary spills while they are still warm. For burned-on food, use a razor blade fitted into a plastic handle: Hold it at an angle of about 30 degrees, and carefully scrape with the full width of the blade, not just a corner. Follow up with a dab of commercial cooktop cleaner on a dry paper towel, and then wipe off the cleaner with another dry towel. If pans with copper or aluminum bottoms discolor your cooktop (and they might), switch to pans made of another material and use a cooktop cleaner recommended by the manufacturer; with daily application of the cleaner, stains should gradually disappear.