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If you do any significant amount of cooking, you’re probably familiar with the waking nightmare that is burnt pots and pans.
Whether there’s actual food burnt onto the cookware or just black char-marks, burnt pots and pans can really affect the taste and even the food safety of anything cooked in them unless they are cleaned.
Plus, having pots and pans that look like they’re brand new is just a nice feeling. Unfortunately, the way most people clean burnt cookware, with a lot of strenuous scrubbing and maybe a little dish soap, is not very effective and is often bad for the pots and pans themselves.
In this post, I’ll go into how to clean a burnt pot or pan the right way. I’ll even talk about a few especially tricky cookware surfaces (e.g. cast iron and ceramic) and how you can clean those.
How to Clean Burnt Stainless Steel and Aluminum Pans
Stainless steel and aluminum are the most common materials used for the pots and pans found in home kitchens, so let’s start with a few techniques to clean off burnt-in food and char marks. I’ve even labeled each of these methods with its own superlative.
Easiest Option: Baking Soda & vinegar
Simply rub baking soda into the burnt parts of the pan and then add a mixture of 1 cup water and .5 cups vinegar (go for white vinegar or apple cider vinegar). Boil the solution in the pan for 10 minutes and the burn marks will usually come right off.
Vinegar is super acidic, so it breaks down the baking soda and releases some carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is great at dislodging small particles, such as burnt carbon, that are responsible for marking up pans. The carbon dioxide also creates a fun fizzing effect in the pan.
Most Fragrant Option: Lemons
Fill the burnt pot with water and cut 2-5 lemons into quarters depending on the size of the pot. Drop the lemons in the water and boil them for five minutes. Pour out the lemons and water out, and then use a wooden spatula or spoon to scrape the pot. The burn marks should peel away now.
Since lemons have such a high citric acid content, they are very acidic and great at killing bacteria. They’re also natural, so they can’t cause chemical damage like bleach or other ingredients that have chemical reactions like baking soda and vinegar. As an added bonus, lemons smell great, so your pans will smell even better than they look when you’re done cleaning the burn marks.
Most Heavy Duty Option: Bar Keepers Friend
Bar Keepers Friend is a store bought cleaning powder that works so well on burnt cookware, you’d swear magic was at work. The powder works so well because of its main ingredient, oxalic acid.
Add a little bit of water to the burnt pan. Then take your container of Bar Keepers Friend and sprinkle it liberally in the water until the ratio is about 50/50. With a wooden spoon, mix the water and Bar Keepers Friend until there is a thick white paste on the pan. Use your hands of a paper towel to spread the paste on all burnt or dirty surfaces of the pan. It’s okay if you spread it in a thin layer. Let the layer of paste sit on the pan for 10 minutes, and then scrub clean. You may need to scrub hard and even use steel wool, but the burn marks will come off.
This method is probably the hardest on the pan of any in this list, so don’t use it unless you have some really bad burn marks to get rid of. Don’t use Bar Keepers Friend on enameled surfaces, uncoated cast iron, or nonstick surfaces, because it can damage them and remove delicate coatings. Also, don’t leave Bar Keepers Friend on any surface for longer than 10 minutes, or it can cause discoloration.
Fastest Option: Aluminum Foil and Baking Soda
After rinsing the initial grime out of the pan, combine some hot water and baking soda inside it to make a paste. Now, tear off a bit of aluminum foil and crumple it into a ball about the size of a chicken egg. Use the ball to scrub the bottom of the pan, and it should pick up everything including burn marks.
I was amazed when I tried this method, and it worked as well as it did. I know baking soda is a good cleaner because of its extraordinarily high pH, but I still don’t really understand why a ball of tin foil works with the baking soda so well to clean the pan. Quora user Robert Wolff explains that “Aluminum foil provides a “sacrificial anode”, baking soda turns the water into a conductive but non corrosive (unlike salt) electrolyte, and both are readily available in the kitchen.” That explanation is far too scientific for me to parse, but make of it what you will. The method works surprisingly well to clean burnt pots and pans, and that’s good enough for me.
Most Effective Option: Dishwasher Tablet
Wet your burnt pan and put a dishwasher tab in it. Then, use the tablet itself to gently scrub the bottom of the pan and any other burnt areas in a circular motion, all the while running warm water over the pan. You don’t need to remove the plastic coating from the tab before scrubbing; the warm water will melt the coating gradually, which actually helps distribute the dish washing solution more evenly. You may need to go through two tabs to fully clean a burnt pan.
In this method, the dishwashing fluid is concentrated on one pan much more than it would be in the dishwasher. After all, you may have to go through one or even two whole dishwasher tablets just for one piece of cookware! The high concentration causes a heavy-duty cleaning effect without the abrasive nature of other heavy-duty methods, so this is the best method for cleaning heavily burned pots and pans with delicate coatings.
How to Clean Burnt Non Stick Pans
To make absolutely sure you don’t damage the nonstick coating, I’d recommend the tried and true baking soda and vinegar method. Pour about a quarter-cup of white vinegar into the burnt non stick pan, and then add enough warm water to where the entire burnt surface of the pan is covered.
Mix in a few tablespoons of baking soda. Finally, boil the solution in the pan for ten minutes. Let the solution cool and give the bottom of the pan a gentle wipe with a sponge. The burn marks should come right off!
How to Clean Burnt Cast Iron
If your cast iron pans are burnt or just need a heavy duty cleaning, use baking soda to clean them.
STAY AWAY FROM SOAP OR VINEGAR! These acidic solutions can damage cast iron.
Simply coat the bottom of the pan with baking soda and add just enough water to make a paste with the consistency of sand. Then, use whatever cleaning tool you want (I recommend a scouring pad) to rub away as much of the paste as possible.
Don’t scrub too hard, though, because it will remove some of the seasoning that makes cast iron heat up so evenly. You may need to repeat the process of making the paste and scrubbing it away if one time is not enough to clean the pan.
How to Clean Burnt Ceramic
Ceramic coating is pretty easy to clean, and I find that filling a burnt ceramic pan with water and a few drops of vinegar before leaving it to soak all night gets almost all stains out. If it doesn’t, use a similar method as with cast iron pans: coat the bottom of the pan with baking soda, fill the pan halfway with water, and boil the solution for 15 minutes. After that, the stains will brush away with a soft sponge.
Don’t Get Burned
Once you realize how easy it is to remove those unsightly burn marks from pots and pans, it seems ridiculous that so many people are still cooking with blackened cookware. After all, 15 minutes once every few months can get the kitchen implements looking good as new. So, next time your pans are looking old and charred, remember this brief guide, and your pots will be looking better in no time!