Essential Tools

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

Everything you need to know.

November 30, 2015

If you've been lucky enough to acquire stainless steel cookware—the kind that conducts, distributes, and maintains heat well and is meant to live as long as you—you're going to want to take good care of it.

And whether you're trying to get rid of burnt food, discoloration, a tough stain, or just general wear and tear, there's a handy solution. Protect your precious pots and pans from dinks, damage, and debauchery by following these guidelines for caring and for cleaning.

Best Practices for Caring for Stainless Steel

  • To prevent pesky water spots from forming, dry your pot or pan immediately after washing. To clean water spots that do occur, 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.

Photo by Mark Weinberg
  • Heat the pan before adding oil and then, once the oil is hot, add the food. 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.

  • 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'll be 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, dab with a cloth or paper towel to remove excess moisture.

  • To determine whether your pan is hot enough for the oil, do a 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—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, to avoid a buildup.

Photo by James Ransom

How to Clean 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 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).

Photo by James Ransom
  • For discoloration (often rainbow in appearance), which can occur from overheating: Try washing your pan with vinegar or using the pot to cook a high-acid food, like tomato sauce.
  • 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.

    -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.
Photo by James Ransom

Have any secrets to cleaning stainless steel cookware? Let us know in the comments below.

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Marti Wells
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  • fastred1
Sarah Jampel

Written by: Sarah Jampel

A (former) student of English, a lover of raisins, a user of comma splices. My spirit animal is an eggplant. I'm probably the person who picked all of the cookie dough out of the cookie dough ice cream. For that, I'm sorry.


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?
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.
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?
Elva M. February 22, 2016
For stubborn stains on my Le Creuset I soak then use a paste of Bon Ami cleaner and water which works very well.
meredith February 22, 2016
I use very fine steel wool and barkeepers friend to clean my pots every wash. i find that it removes all food and cooked oils from surface of pan leaves a fine finish, and it does not scratch. my pans never stick. food sticks to microscopic food residue left behind in regular washing.
when i prep a pan to cook in i heat it on the burner and put a drop or two of oil in and rub out the pan with a side towel, this creates a surface that non stick, i add my cooking oil then food. p.s. never put pans in the dish washer!
Eileen February 22, 2016
Interesting about letting cold food warm up a bit before putting in hot oil, to reduce sticking. I remember Yan Can Cook constantly repeating his mantra "Hot pan, cold food, food won't stick!" so I always start with cold meat. Perhaps with a seasoned wok it works differently from stainless steel?
Author Comment
Sarah J. February 22, 2016
Yes, the properties of stainless steel are unique. You want the pan and the oil to be hot and the food to be room temperature in order to optimize its non-stick qualities.
Windy C. March 17, 2018
Yes I love this Martin Yan gem as well. However, I remember it as “Hot Pan, Cold *Oil*, Food Won’t Stick”
Eileen February 22, 2016
The author must have meant to say baking soda - not baking powder - can be used to scrub off water spots.
Author Comment
Sarah J. February 22, 2016
Yes, you're right! Sorry about that error. Baking soda, not baking powder.
Christopher K. February 22, 2016
Nice article - great tip about the water dancing and a nice visual. I have AllClads and a year or two discovered (imagine my surprise) that All Clad makes its own cleaner - I suspect it's much like BKF - they often have it on sale, I've been using it with a plastic scrubby/tuffy thing and it works well.
msmely January 20, 2016
The paste with baking soda actually makes a really gentle abrasive if you don't have barkeeper's friend.
Maureen M. December 4, 2015
Any tips on dealing with a stained Le Creuset casserole dish please?
Christine December 29, 2015
My Le Creuset Dutch oven became very stained after a pot roast got a little too brown, opps! I read many different cleaning tips and tried a few, but the one that worked wonderfully was 1/4 cup baking soda and enough hydrogen peroxide to make a thick slurry. Just mix it together in the bottom of the pan, let sit overnight, and the next morning scrub with a soft scrap of cloth, rinse and enjoy your nice stain free Le Creuset.
Karin B. February 13, 2018
My mother turned all my Le Creuset brown with her high heat meat searing methods. She sadly is gone now and so are the Le Creuset pots. I replaced them with Staub enameled cast iron, matte black inside and out, which I was introduced to by Food 52, Thanks Food 52
sexyLAMBCHOPx November 30, 2015
Very helpful article. Thank you!