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

Stainless steel, cast iron, nonstick — we got you

Published January 2, 2022 1:30PM (EST)

 (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. I recently got a text from her that read: "Lovely start to my day. Ruined my favorite pan and burned the porch." This was the photo that came along with it:

A burnt pot, aka a kitchen nightmare.
A burnt pot, aka a kitchen nightmare. Photo by Camryn Rabideau. 

Apparently she walked away while making hummingbird food — which is essentially just sugar water — and somehow turned it into this monstrosity that looks more like volcanic rock. When she smelled the burning, she grabbed the pot off the stove and put it outside on the porch, forgetting that a hot pan on wooden flooring would result in even more burning. Oops.

She was fairly distraught over the state of her stainless steel sauce pan (understandably so), but I assured her that she could salvage it. As a writer specializing in various home categories, I've learned my fair share of pan-cleaning techniques. Here are a few of the tactics I recommended to her — and have tried on pots I've accidentally burnt myself.

How to clean a burnt pan

There are many types of pans out there — stainless steel, ceramic, cast iron, you get it — and each one has a slightly different method of cleaning burnt bits. I've got tips for the specific pans below, but here is a little cheat sheet that works for most pans. The one exception is cast iron — never soak your cast iron pan!

Whether you have a serious mess like my mom or just a mildly burnt pan, the first step is usually to take the pot off the stove and scrape off whatever you can while it's still warm. Just make sure to use a wooden spoon to avoid scratching the pan's finish.

After the pan has cooled down, fill it up with a generous squirt of dish soap and warm water. You can also try adding a dryer sheet to the mix, just remember to rinse it very well afterward. Let it sit overnight and then go back in with your trusty wooden spoon or a sponge to scrape things off. Repeat the soaking process, if needed, or try boiling water and dish soap to further loosen things up.

If soaking in soap and water still isn't cutting it, you might have to up the ante.

1. Deglaze with water or white vinegar

You've probably used the deglazing technique while cooking. Turns out 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, slowly pour in a cup of water or vinegar. You can then go in with your wooden spoon to scrape off the burnt-on bits.

2. Use a dishwashing tablet

So, 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 burnt pot with water, then drop in a tablet. Bring the water to a boil, then reduce it down to a simmer for 10 minutes. The burnt bits should lift right off.

3. Boil with hydrogen peroxide

As suggested by one of our readers, hydrogen peroxide can help lift stains without scrubbing. Simply fill the bottom of your pot or pan with ½ inch of the liquid, then bring it to a boil on your stove. (You'll probably want to open a window, as this can start to smell.) Reduce the heat and let it simmer for 10 minutes, and the stains should come off with minimal effort.

How to clean burnt stainless steel and aluminum pans

For mild burns 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.

1. Scrub with baking soda

Baking soda is the jack-of-all-trades that 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.

2. . . . 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 acidic so it helps 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.

3. 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 about 30 minutes, and scrub away.

4. 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 because it will scratch nonstick or ceramic finishes.

Best cleaning products for stainless steel and aluminum pans

If your poor pot is still crying out for help, you might want need to grab a heavy-duty cleaner.

1. Bar Keepers Friend, $9.26 $7.79

Bar Keepers Friend is an extremely popular cookware cleaner that you can use on 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 it.

2. Bon Ami, $9.49

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.

How to clean burnt cast iron pans

If you have a cast iron that needs cleaning, you shouldn't soak cast iron in water or even use soap or cleaners as it can damage the pan's seasoning.

Instead, you'll want to use a "cleaner" like Ringer — a piece of chainmail that you use like a washcloth to scrape off food particles — or simply rub down the pan with lemon and coarse salt, which will clean the pan without harming the finish.

How to clean burnt nonstick pans

With nonstick pans, you want 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, it 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 to 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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