Don't toss that burnt pan! Here's how to clean it

Stainless steel, cast iron, nonstick, we got you

Published September 2, 2021 9:59AM (EDT)

 (Ty Mecham / Food52)
(Ty Mecham / Food52)

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I've burned a few pans in my life (who hasn't?), but my mom definitely takes the cake for "Biggest Mess." I got a text from her that said: "Lovely start to my day. Ruined my favorite pan and burned the porch." This was the photo that came along with it:

Apparently she walked away while making hummingbird food — which is essentially just sugar water — and somehow turned it into this volcanic rock-looking monstrosity. When she smelled the burning, she grabbed the pot off the stove and put it outside on the porch, not thinking that hot pan + wooden flooring = more burning. Oops.

She was fairly distraught over the state of her stainless steel sauce pan (understandable so), but I assured her there was a way to salvage it. After several years as a writer, I've learned my fair share of pan-cleaning techniques, and it was time to put them to the test! Here are a few of the tactics I recommended to her.

Scrape And Soak

Whether you have a serious mess like my mom or just a mildly burnt pan, the first step is usually to scrape off whatever you can — you'll want to use a wooden spoon to avoid scratching the pan. Don't worry if there are still clumps of baked-on food; these will loosen up in the next step.

Next, fill the pan up with a generous squirt of dish soap and warm water. You can also try adding this laundry room staple to the soak. Let it sit overnight and then go back in with your trusty wooden spoon to scrape off or sponge it off. Repeat the soaking process, if needed, or try boiling water and dish soap to further loosen things up.

Scrubbing? No Thanks

If you're anything like me, you avoid scrubbing pans unless there's absolutely no other option. (I'd like to say it's because I don't want to scratch my cookware, but in reality, I just hate dealing with a gunky sponge.) Luckily, there are several tactics you can try that require little to no elbow grease.

Deglaze with water or white vinegar 

You've probably used the deglazing technique while cooking, and it can help when cleaning pans, too! Heat the pan up on the stovetop, and when it's hot enough that a drop of water sizzles on it, pour in a cup of water or vinegar. You can then go in with your wooden spoon to scrape off the burnt-on bits.

Use a dishwashing tablet 

Ok, this technically isn't a pantry item, but dishwashing tablets can be used to clean tough stains — after all, they're formulated to help break down caked-on food. Fill the pot with water, then drop a tablet in. Bring the water to a boil, then reduce it down to a simmer for 10 minutes. The scraps should lift right off!

Boil with hydrogen peroxide 

As suggested by one of our readers, hydrogen peroxide can help lift stains without any scrubbing. Simply fill the bottom of your pot or pan with 1/2 inch of the liquid, then bring it to a boil on your stove. (You'll probably want to open a window, as this can be a bit smelly.) Reduce the heat and let it simmer for 10 minutes, and the stains should come off with minimal effort.

DIY away

For milder burns and scorches on stainless steel and aluminum pans, you can usually make do with a few pantry staples. However, these tactics do require some manual power, so roll up your sleeves and get ready to scrub.

Scrub with baking soda . . .

Baking soda is the jack-of-all-trades no pantry should be without, so it should come as no surprise that it can help clean burnt pans. Mix the powder with a bit of water to create a paste, then spread it over the burnt area. You can go in with a gentle sponge and start scrubbing, or you can spray a little white vinegar over the paste to make it foam, and then scrub.

. . . or cream of tartar

Similar to baking soda, this common baking ingredient is mildly abrasive, making it great for scrubbing off tough gunk without damaging pans. Plus, it's also acidic, helping to break down baked-on food. To use it on your burnt pan, create a thick paste using cream of tartar and white vinegar, then use it to scrub the trouble areas.

Soak in ketchup

No, that's not a typo! The acetic acid in ketchup effectively breaks down the copper oxide that forms when you burn food, so you can use the condiment to clean up burnt pans. Just slather the burn in ketchup, let it sit for 30 minutes or so, and scrub away.

Swap your sponge for tin foil

If your regular sponge isn't making a dent in the burnt-on mess at the bottom of your pan, here's a useful hack. Crumple up a piece of aluminum foil into a ball, and sprinkle a generous layer of baking soda into the pan. Use the aluminum foil to scrub and get ready to be wowed by how easily it removes stains! (This method should only be used on metal pans, as it will scratch nonstick or ceramic finishes.)

Bring in reinforcements 

If your poor pot is still crying out for help, you might want to invest in a heavy-duty cleaning product.

Bar Keepers Friend is an extremely popular cookware cleaner that you can use on pretty much most pans — stainless steel, porcelain, enamel, copper, and more. The product's combination of oxalic acid and fine abrasive particles will lift off even the toughest stains! Just be sure to thoroughly wash and rinse your pans after using this type of cleaner.

Bon Ami is another highly-touted kitchen cleaner that can be used to banish burns and stains. It uses all-natural ingredients, and some people say its smell is less offensive than Bar Keepers Friend.

Cleaning nonstick and cast iron pans 

The methods above work best on stainless steel and aluminum pans, but if you have a cast iron or nonstick pan that needs cleaning, there are things to remember when removing tough stains.

For one, you're not supposed to use soap or other harsh cleaners on cast iron, as it can damage the pan's seasoning. Instead, you'll want to use a product like the Ringer — a piece of chainmail that you use like a washcloth to scrape off food particles — or simply rub down the pan with course salt, which will clean the metal without harming the finish.

With nonstick pans, you need to avoid any type of abrasive cleaner or sponge that can damage the finish (though, if you're having problems with food sticking to the surface, your finish may already be damaged). Instead, fill the pan with water and add a generous sprinkling of baking soda. Bring the contents to a boil, then let it simmer for 10 or 15 minutes. This should help to loosen up the baked-on gunk so you can scrape it away with a spoon.

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By Camryn Rabideau

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