We were in the test kitchen, making scrambled eggs without oil or butter in stainless-steel skillets over high heat. The eggs stuck to the pans and made terrible messes. The test cooks working around us kept shaking their heads, no doubt wondering why we hadn’t switched to nonstick pans or tossed pats of butter into the skillets. We just smiled and ignored them.
We wanted those eggs to stick to the pans. We’d just started working on a review of kitchen sponges and needed to use them for some challenging cleaning tasks. As anyone who’s ever goofed up their scrambled eggs knows, getting these skillets clean would be tough.
Several major brands had multiple options for all-purpose sponges, so we conducted a two-step preliminary test: cleaning onions and sticky, cooked-on barbecue sauce off skillets and washing delicate wine glasses. We eliminated the lowest performer from each brand. Our final 10 sponges varied considerably in price, from about $0.70 to about $6.00 per sponge, and came in a wide variety of designs and materials.
We expect a lot from a kitchen sponge and tested accordingly, using them to clean nonstick, traditional, and cast-iron skillets containing a variety of cooked-on foods; mixing bowls with sticky biscuit dough; stained carving boards; cheese-smeared box graters; dirty chef’s knives; fragile wine glasses; and small measuring spoons. Throughout testing, we controlled both the water temperature and the amount of soap used. Finally, we purchased three additional copies of each sponge and sent them home with staffers to use in their kitchens for several weeks.
Some sponges were ineffective and sometimes downright unpleasant to use. But many performed well, and several really impressed us. Our favorites were more versatile, stayed cleaner longer, and made quicker work of tough messes, such as those pesky stuck-on scrambled eggs.
When we think of a kitchen sponge, most of us picture a blue or yellow rectangle with slightly rough, textured material on one side. We had a sponge like that in our lineup, as well as a few others that were a similar size and shape, but many of the sponges were very different. We grouped them into three main styles.
First, there were those familiar sponges made of fairly soft, flexible material with an abrasive pad on one side. The gentle parts of these sponges were made from either foam or cellulose (see “Does Material Impact Performance?”). The second category consisted of sponges with soft foam cores encased in semiabrasive fabrics. We also had two outliers. One sponge was made entirely of silicone and covered with tiny bristles on two sides. The other was made of a special kind of foam. It was disk-shaped—a little taller and thicker than a hockey puck—with cutouts forming two eyes and a smiling mouth (to wipe silverware clean) plus ridged “hair” for scrubbing.
To our surprise, neither material nor design were important factors in a sponge’s performance. We found sponges we liked across a range of materials and styles. So what mattered most?
We zeroed in on the abrasive scrubbing surfaces of each sponge. The sole silicone sponge really struggled with cleaning. Its soft, flimsy bristles slid over food instead of scraping it up. The soft fabric wrapped around another sponge was similarly ineffective. It became soggy and matted, resembling the fur on a wet teddy bear. If we scrubbed with that fabric, the soft fibers became slick with eggs or barbecue sauce or whatever food we were scrubbing, so the sponge just slipped around the skillet.
The other eight sponges had better, more effective scrubbing surfaces. Two sponges had abrasive pads that looked fairly flat and smooth from a distance but were actually made from swirls of fibers that had been glued together. It didn’t matter if those fibers were plant-based or plastic. With a little effort, both sloughed off cooked-on food and grime. Our favorite sponges had coarser, more visibly textured surfaces that made cleaning even easier. Two had fibers formed into loops or woven into netting, which acted like mini scrapers. The others had wide ridges, much like those of a grill pan, or were covered with bumps and valleys resembling an egg crate mattress pad. Overall, sponges with abrasive surfaces and extra texture added some force to each scrub, helping us loosen food and nudge it off cookware.
Next, we looked at the size and shape of the sponges. The smallest sponges, though precise and agile, compressed under our fingers when we pressed down hard. We liked sponges that were thick enough to put some distance between us and whatever we were cleaning but also small enough to feel maneuverable. Meanwhile, bigger, puffier sponges were hard to squeeze into wine glasses or tiny measuring spoons. The most versatile sponges were midsize, roughly 4.25 inches long, 2.5 inches wide, and 1 inch thick.
We also had a quibble with the one round sponge, the Scrub Daddy. We struggled to wrap the springy, disk-shaped sponge around the blade of our chef’s knife and to tuck it into tight spaces. Although this sponge was great with cookware and big pieces of equipment, it just wasn’t versatile enough to be an all-purpose sponge.
Many people use their sponges to clean up spills on their countertops, so we also tested how much liquid the sponges could soak up. Water streamed off the silicone sponge: It absorbed less than 4 grams, hardly enough to make an impact on a big spill. One foam sponge was only a little bit better, absorbing about 18 grams. Interestingly, there wasn’t a correlation between absorbency and material. The rest of the sponges absorbed significantly more water, with the most absorbent sponge soaking up more than 105 grams of liquid.
By the end of testing, some of the sponges looked downright dirty. One fabric-wrapped sponge trapped food and never recovered from the dough test. The fibers became so matted and gunky that the fabric resembled carpet into which gum had been trampled. Food stuck to the silicone sponge despite its “stay clean” promise; no matter how we picked at or bent the sponge, those stubborn bits of food remained embedded between its bristles. Two other sponges struggled with cleaning biscuit dough. Their fairly flat woven fibers trapped dough, and when we tried to pluck off the residue, the fibers became pilled and grubby. The other sponges sometimes trapped food temporarily but were easier to rinse clean.
We also noticed some wear and tear. The netting on one sponge tore. The smiling mouth of the Scrub Daddy ripped on one side. And big patches of bristles were missing from the silicone sponge; they had been accidentally sliced right off when we were cleaning sharp knives. All the sponges were at least a little stained or discolored by the end of testing, but we think that’s to be expected.
Which kitchen sponge should you buy? The O-Cedar Scrunge Multi-Use Scrubber Sponge impressed us throughout testing. It looks like a traditional, flat sponge—but it’s better. Its scrubbing surface is heavily textured and gritty, so it’s especially effective at dislodging cooked-on food and grease. The surface is covered with bumps and valleys, which made our scrubbing even more efficient. The Scrunge was also one of the more absorbent sponges we tested, which makes it handy for cleaning counters or wiping up spills. Our new favorite was durable and easy to rinse clean, even of sticky biscuit dough. Whether you regularly cook elaborate meals and produce a pile of hard-to-clean kitchen equipment or you just need to wash a coffee mug every morning, we recommend it.