When it comes to cleaning, we’ll take all the help we can get. Especially if there’s a centuries-old tip that’s free, fast, effective, and repurposes something we’d literally be throwing down the drain.

Sabrina Wang, a health advocate and blogger, says she always uses rice water — left over from rinsing rice before cooking — to clean her dishes, countertops, and kitchen appliances. It’s a cleaning tip passed down from her grandmother to her mother, and now to her.

“This is something that many people in China still do to this day,” says Wang, who now lives in Vancouver, Canada, but spent the first decade of her life in China. “Rice is so common there, so instead of wasting the water we use to wash rice, we collect it.” And yes, you should be washing your rice before cooking with it: It removes starch and other minerals from the surface and prevents your rice from clumping together or getting gummy as it cooks. That’s exactly the reason it’s a powerful aqua-upgrade for your cleaning efforts.

The starchy sediment in the rice water can act as a sort of abrasive — not unlike cleaning with cornstarch — making it effective at scrubbing anything that could use manual action to physically remove stuck-on dirt or other particles.

It’s a tip echoed by food expert Grace Young in her book The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen, in whichshe explains that Chinese people traditionally used starchy rice water to clean their woks and other cookware.

One thing rice water won’t do, though, is cut grease. Oil- and fat-dispersing cleaners are alkaline, with a pH of 8 or more. On the other hand, rice water is slightly acidic, with a pH around 6. So it won’t be useful at battling grease by itself, or even when combined with grease-cutting cleaners: it could actually neutralize the active ingredients in the product you’re using, making it completely ineffective.

“You’re not going to be able to use rice water to remove grease collecting for months from that lasagna you made,” Wang says.

Acidic cleaners are great at cleaning mineral deposits, though, such as hard water film or mild rust stains. So definitely go to town with rice water on your shower doors, kitchen fixtures, ceramic toilet bowl, and copper pans and utensils — or anything else you might ordinarily clean with vinegar or lemon. Although rice water is only very slightly acidic, to be safe you may want to avoid surfaces that can be damaged by acidic cleaners, like unsealed stone and grout.

How to Make Rice Water for Cleaning

Soak a cup of raw rice in two cups of water. Quickly swirl the rice around until the solution looks milk-colored. Use a strainer to remove the rice from the water (the washed rice is ready to be cooked into rice bowls for dinner now). Dip a clean cloth into the rice water and use it to clean your objects or surfaces.

If you have more than you need, or your cleaning and cooking don’t happen on the same night, you can save the rice water in an air-tight bottle or jar and keep it in the fridge for up to a week.

One more tip: If you’re making rice water just for cleaning, seek out short-grain or long-grain white rice since both have plenty of starch and will result in a more acidic rice water with a lower pH than most other varieties. “Avoid basmati rice or brown rice since these types of rice don’t have that much starch, which is what makes rice water such a good cleaning agent,” Wang says.

This post originally ran on Apartment Therapy. See it there: Rice Water is the Magic Cleaner We’ve All Been Throwing Out

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