Q: I’m hosting a big do during the holidays, so I’ll be getting out the family silver. Some of the cutlery is plate, but other pieces are heirlooms. What’s the easiest, best way to clean it? —Tarnished in Larchmont
A: “Easiest” and “best” are rarely the same thing. But one easy, fast way to remove tarnish is to put a sheet of slightly crumpled aluminum foil in the bottom of a large vessel, add near-boiling water and washing or baking soda (about 4 tablespoons per gallon), then dunk the silver a few pieces at a time and watch the tarnish disappear like magic. Pieces must be in contact with the foil and the water must be very hot for this method to work. If you have a lot to clean, use a large pan that you can use on the stove to keep the water hot. Replace the foil when it becomes discolored, and use non-metallic tongs to remove each piece as it comes clean. The technical term for this phenomenon is electrochemical reduction. It’s not recommended for valuable silver as it can cause pitting, or for intricate pieces, as it may remove the desirable dark patina in the pattern’s crevices.
Chemical dips work fast, but they’re corrosive, toxic, and smell horrible. Professional silver restorers occasionally use dips, but only in dire circumstances and under controlled conditions. Avoid them, no matter how tempting the marketing.
If the silver is just dull, simply washing and drying it should brighten it up. You can remove light tarnish by rubbing with a soft cloth sprayed with Windex Multi-Surface Cleaner, a method given the nod by The Society of American Silversmiths. Otherwise your choices are various polishes, which are all abrasive to some degree. Weiman Royal Sterling Silver Cream won Good Housekeeping’s Best in Show, with Twinkle as first runner-up. Goddard’s and Wright’s Silver Cream are also on the gentler side. All work efficiently and have anti-tarnish properties to keep the silver shiny for longer. Before you begin polishing, wash or wipe each piece to remove any dust that could act as an abrasive. Apply the polish with a soft cloth and rub gently. Finish by washing cleaned pieces in warm, soapy water and dry them with a clean cotton cloth.
Support teapots and coffeepots at the bottom as you clean them; spouts and handles may be more fragile than they appear. And go easy with the arms on candelabras.
Don’t use toothpaste; it will scratch. Don’t wash silver flatware in the dishwasher, which has been called silver’s “chamber of doom.” Dishwasher detergent is too harsh, the temperature is too high and there can be an adverse chemical reaction with other metals, like the stainless-steel blade of a silver-handled knife, for example. Salt is highly corrosive to silver, so empty your salt cellars and wash them between use.
Tarnish is caused by hydrogen sulfide in the air, or by contact with certain materials and foods (particularly eggs). Humidity speeds up the process. The best way to keep your silver shiny is to use it and wash it after each use. To store special-occasion-only pieces, wrap them in cotton, linen or special silver flannel to deter tarnish. Avoid wool, felt, leather or paper that may contain acid. Store wrapped silver in boxes or drawers with a few packets of silica gel to absorb moisture.