Essential Tools

How to Clean & Care for Stainless Steel Pans Like a Pro

Discoloration, damage, debauchery—we have tips to tackle 'em all.

September 14, 2020

The arrival of a new set of stainless steel cookware is a joyful occasion. The second you lay eyes on it—all shiny and pristine—you’re already dreaming of all the searing, caramelizing, and sautéing you’ll be doing. But in the same breath, you also think: Man, I really hope I don’t ruin this gleaming piece of perfection. Because as much as stainless steel pots and pans conduct, distribute, and maintain heat beautifully, and are an absolute joy to have around the kitchen, they also need your care and attention.

Let’s face it: bits of food will stick on, water spots will (too reliably) appear, and dings will happen. Luckily though, there are handy solutions for all this regular wear and tear. Protect your precious pots and pans from discoloration, damage, and debauchery by following these guidelines for cleaning and for caring.

How to Care For Your Stainless Steel

-The trick to prevent those rather annoying water spots is to actually get to drying as soon as possible, aka, immediately. If you don't get to it soon enough, and the spots appear, simply dampen the surface of the pot or pan, rub it with a moist sponge that's been sprinkled with baking soda, and rinse as usual.

-Only salt water once it has already come to a boil. When water is salted pre-boil, "pitting corrosion" can occur, which leaves tiny but irreparable pockmarks, as if from a nail, in the bottom of the pot. So salt your pasta water, yes, but only once it's boiling.

-Always heat your pan before adding on the oil. And then, add the food once the oil is hot.** According to Food Network, adding oil to the pan when it's hot causes the steel to become "static," which creates a temporarily nonstick surface. Always watch the oil to figure out if it's hot enough to start cooking: If it’s shimmering, you’re ready to toss in your ingredients.

-Take the chill off of cold foods. Cold food is more likely to stick to a hot pan, as the steel will contract when it comes in contact with a cooler temperature. So, if you're cooking foods like meat, chicken, or fish straight from the refrigerator, allow them to sit at room temperature for 10 to 15 minutes. Before cooking, make sure to dab with a cloth or paper towel to remove excess moisture.

-To determine whether your pan is hot enough for the oil, do this simple water test: Drop a tiny amount (about 1/8 teaspoon) water in the pan. When the water, immediately upon hitting the pan, comes together into a "ball" that glides and dances across the surface, your pan is preheated perfectly—now, you can add the oil! Note that this is past the point at which the water sizzles when it hits the pan's surface: When the pan is properly hot, the water shouldn't "sit" on the surface at all.

-Do not rush the preheating process by using high heat. Since high-quality stainless steel is effective at holding heat, preheating on high might lead to overheating your pan (and burning your food).

-Allow the pan to cool completely before washing it. Submerging or soaking a hot stainless steel pan in cold water could be the cause of irreparable warping.

-Only use non-abrasive cleaners and sponges. Coarse scrubbers and harsh cleaning solutions like bleach or household cleaners can scratch your stainless steel and damage its finish. And although baking soda and more abrasive scrubbers (like fine steel wool) can be useful in cleaning a burnished pan, beware that using these products might void your warranty.

-Stick to a routine. Clean your stainless steel pans and pots after each use (even if it doesn't get very dirty), to avoid a buildup.

How to Tackle Problem Areas

-For cleaning chalky white spots (which can result from calcium buildup in the water): Bring a solution of vinegar and water (think 1:3) to a boil in the pan, let it cool, and then wash and dry as normal.

-For general buildup: Fill the pan with hot soapy water, and let sit a few hours, before scrubbing with a non-abrasive sponge.

-For stuck-on food bits (which can result from adding cold food to a hot pan—see above!): Scrub the pot with a non-abrasive sponge to get off any food bits you can, then fill the pot or pan with enough soapy water to cover the food, bring to a boil, and scrape (the food should come away easily). You can also do this by replacing soap with a couple spoons of baking soda. Bring it to boil (but watch closely, as it will bubble up), and then reduce it to a simmer. Using a wooden spoon, scrape off the bits of food, which should come off pretty easily. Once you're pleased with the results, turn it off and let it cool (but don't let it get totally cold). Take it to the sink and use a long-handled brush or scouring pad to scrub off your mess (but don't forget to dry immediately!).

-For discoloration (often rainbow in appearance), which can occur from overheating: fret not, for a solution is well in sight. Here's what you do: Splash a little white vinegar diluted with water into your pan, swirl the mixture around, and use a non-abrasive sponge to wipe away the rainbow stains. Vinegar's acidity will help break down that thin oxidized rainbow layer while still being gentle on your pans. (Alternatively, a sprinkle of Barkeeper's Friend, which is similarly acidic yet non-corrosive, will also do the trick.) Rinse, dry, and...voila! Your stainless steel will be gleaming good as new.

-For hard-to-clean burnt or burnished pans:
- If you have Barkeeper's Friend: Pour a small amount of water in the pan or pot, add a few shakes of B.K.F., and create a paste or slurry by mixing the two together. Scrub with a non-abrasive sponge to remove the stains.

- If you don't have Barkeeper's Friend: Fill the bottom of the pan with water, then add 1 cup of vinegar and bring to a boil. Remove from the heat and add 2 tablespoons of baking soda (beware that this might void your warranty!). Empty the pan and scrub (some people even recommend using 0000 very fine steel wool, which should not scratch). For stubborn spots that still won't budge, you can make a paste of baking soda and water and leave it applied to the problem areas for a few minutes and then scrub and rinse off.

-Look to a cleaner our community recommends: We've had success with Ajax, S.O.S. pads, Chore Boy Scrubbers, and Hagerty Stainless Steel Polish.

We updated this article, originally published in 2015, because we love our stainless steel cookware.

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • kmkane123
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kmkane123 September 11, 2021
These tips re: heating, cooking are great, but for cleaning - don’t bother with the vinegar, etc. Just use Barkeepers Friend! It puts the shine right back on your pits and pans
jamesbpeterson September 10, 2021
If you haven't used chainmail to clean your pans, try it. It will be your best friend.
gayla August 29, 2021
Hubby did something to bottom of pan..underside, that do clean and remove the somewhat sticky residue....
Dave May 16, 2021
Caustic soda? Does that require that you wear a HazMat suit?
j7n May 10, 2021
Caustic soda solution prepared in advance poured onto a hot pan works to remove organic remains. It doesn't affect steel, and won't spray around if the pan is about boiling temperature. Then finish with vinegar to remove any white or rainbow coating. An aluminum oxide polishing paste from automotive supplies can restore almost mirror finish, remove unwanted "grain" from manufacturing, and make shallower pits from salt blend better.
epicharis September 20, 2020
I prefer Bon Ami. Bar Keeper's Friend works but the smell is so nauseating it makes me reluctant to use it. Bon Ami works just as well without the retching.
kmkane123 September 19, 2020
Bar Keepers Friend is your friend. I’ve been using it for 15 years on my Viking stain,ess steel, and it looks like it’s brand new!
Julie S. September 18, 2020
What about Easy Off Oven Cleaner? It works like a charm and as far as I can tell, doesn't damage the pan.
Susanna September 18, 2020
Curious whether people obsess over the (seemingly inevitable) brown staining on the bottom of their stainless skillets. Sure, I try to remove it as best I can, but I sort of accept its inevitability and focus on getting the interior as spotless as I can.
Dave September 22, 2020
I'll have you know that I've never been labeled as obsessive or compulsive. Excuse me, have to go, see a smudge on the table.
Dave September 18, 2020
I've gotten great results cleaning stainless steel stains, food, whathaveyou with "Bar Keeper Friend - Soft Cleanser". But, though it's not nearly as abrasive or strong as the regular bar keepers it's still powerful. When I'm cleaning I've got some water in the pan/pot with it, rinse really thoroughly, when all's clean wash a bit with your regular dishwashing cleaner, rinse and immediately dry thoroughly. I wash with the regular dish soap because I've found that if I don't I might get chalky spots from barkeepers. If you do find chalky spots, no problem - a quick was with your regular soap. Stainless steel pots and pans gleam like new after this wash.
sf-dre September 16, 2020
Tips for cleaning discolored aluminum half sheet pans?
Marti W. April 20, 2018
My husband made gouges with a knife inside my stainless steel pot. Is it still good to cook in this pot?
Sucheta M. September 16, 2020
Did you make gouges in your husband with the stainless steel pot? After you do so, it’s safe to cook in it.
Jokes apart, it’s steel, so it is safe.
Catherine February 14, 2018
I have had my Paderno pots for over 30 years. As recommended in the notice that came with the pots, whenever I need to clean out those stubborn stains, I fill the pot, add a dishwasher soap tablet, boil, then simmer for about 1 hour. Comes out clean as a whistle!
CoffeeAndBaconYum February 2, 2017
Can anyone recommend how to remove the haze from aluminum or copper pans that have gone thru the dishwasher, please?
Karin B. February 13, 2018
Sell them on ebay.
Doug D. January 21, 2019
Mothers Mag & Aluminum Polish
Requires some elbow grease. You'll get a mirror shine. Consider not washing dirty rags that have the old polish with good clothing in washing machine.
Dave September 18, 2020
I've done that only once and continue to kick myself about it every once in a while.
The pot doesn't look as good as it did, but it's a good pot and expensive - I continue to use it.
kmkane123 September 19, 2020
Use Bar Keepers Friend!
JaxieJilly September 16, 2016
I hesitate to send this in, but it's worked for me in the past and hasn't sent me to the ER. On two separate occasions, my stainless steel pots have developed a resin like substance that adhered to my pans. To the degree that nothing would make it budge. I tried my favorite, Bar Keeper's Friend, nothing. Then on to Goo Gone ... nothing. Brillo pads, baking soda, vinegar, etc. ... nothing. I took my pan outside and made a mixture of pure acetone and BKF. Since it didn't blow me or the neighborhood up, I put this concoction on my pan and let it sit (outside). After checking and scrubbing every fifteen minutes or so .... the goo began to budge until it was finally free of the "resin." Pretty sure some sort of chemical miracle that I don't understand ... but it worked!! And, thankfully, our neighborhood is still intact.
fastred1 April 18, 2016
It's worth nothing that Bar Keeper's Friend is not as safe as the other options. It's pretty harsh on your hands (and lungs, lest you inhale the dust), so I only use it once or twice a year if there's some buildup.
Anita L. April 16, 2016
I had a burnt saucepan once and got this tip from Martha Stewart, put a fabric softener sheet in pan with hot water, soaked and it came clean.
Cora R. February 23, 2016
These are a lot of helpful hints.but i just put put enough baking soda to cover the bottom of the pan an then add enough water to cover the bottom, an bring it to a boil. . then i wash the pan an it takes all the residue out an also the rainbow effect also. . comes out like new. , i learned this from my Mom. many years ago.
CatherineS February 23, 2016
I have a question. I badly burned a new stainless steel pot, and even soaking for days or using the more abrasive cleaners couldn't get the burned portions out -- it was as though they had bonded to the pot. My husband finally had someone sandblast it, which obviously damaged the inside finish. I mostly use it for cooking pasta, but I also occasionally need to use it for making something like soup or spaghetti sauce. With the finish damaged, is it still safe to use?
Mary February 23, 2016
Interesting article my go to for cleaning is Bon Ami or baking soda most of the info I knew,(thanks to my mom) except for the vinegar. Thanks for the info?