On the Cheap

How to Rid Your Stainless Steel of That Pesky Chalky Residue

February  2, 2017

Cooking with a high-quality piece of stainless steel cookware can be a little... unnerving. They're so pristine and shiny right out of the box! I will surely destroy this perfect thing, I thought to myself placing a Demeyere saucier gingerly on my cooktop last fall, and so I used it as nervously delicately as possible to start out: browned some chicken cubes, added spices, cauliflower, and coconut milk. In fifteen minutes it was dinner, and I cleaned and dried the pan instantly after finishing.

The next morning, I noticed cloud-like white spots had bloomed across its surface. Some were even rainbow-like, the way an oil slick can be. In distress, I did my research (and contacted the maker directly, as any crazy-curious cook would do).

The markings, I learned, are mineral deposits or "scale" from the tap water, also referred to as calcium deposits, lime deposits, and even protein deposits. (I'd imagine if you have extremely hard water at home, this issue becomes even more pronounced.) It's the same thing that sometimes happens to glassware in a dishwasher—the cloudy effect.

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These chalky blooms aren't harmful to you or your cooking, but a buildup can encourage bacterial growth, which would be—so either way, it's smart to clean them up at first sign.

Calcium deposits, soon to be very magic-ed away.

Whimsical though these wispies may appear, they won't wipe away with plain soap and water. (I know, I tried!) The solution is to combat them with diluted white vinegar. Our Senior Staff Writer (and one of the most dedicated kitchen cleaners I know) Sarah suggested bringing a 1:3 vinegar to water solution to a boil in the pan, then letting it cool before washing and drying as normal, so that's what I did.

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Top Comment:
“I keep a spray bottle filled with vinegar near my sink for spritizing my stainless steel and enamel coated cast iron pots right after washing them. I spritz and then dry them off. Ocassionally, I do have to use Barkeeper's Friend. Vinegar works especially well on the crockpot ceramic insert.”
— Elizabeth V.

I didn't even have to scrub; after the soak, a soft sponge wiped the wispies entirely away. (Scouring pad not needed and also not recommended—even gentle ones can scratch your stainless steel!)

Mission clean pan, possible. Photo by James Ransom

For heavier deposits (if you have very hard water, let's say), you might try discarding the vinegar solution, refreshing it, and boiling anew before cleaning the pan, or even leaving the solution to sit in the pan overnight before cleaning it. I admit to having also tried using a 50:50 solution on more dramatic deposits, which didn't hurt my pans a bit. There are also scale-removing products on the market, but you'd want to check to be sure they won't damage your cookware before using them (though why bother, when vinegar works so well?).

What kitchen cleaning conundrums are you facing, that you'd like us to tackle? Tell us in the comments.

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Amanda Sims

Written by: Amanda Sims

Professional trespasser.


j7n October 18, 2021
The deposits from cooking meat are different from those that arise after boiling tap water. I think meat delivers its own calcium mixed with the protein, because we normally do not add external water when frying. Muscle tissue needs some minerals to function. To remove water spots, all it takes is to swirl a few drops of citric acid in a hot pot. But a frying pan requires scrubbing with an abrasive powder, baking soda followed by vinegar or oxalic acid.
Maria J. June 5, 2018
I have read all your comments and find that my new calphalon skillet and stewing pot do not get clean of calcium deposits with boiling vinegar/water solution. Barkeepers Friend does do it. It does take some elbow grease to make it all go away. It just seems crazy to have to do that after every single use!!
Boo April 30, 2018
after washing the pan I just splash a little cold vinegar in the pan and brush it around and it dissolves the scale instantly. Then rinse with water. No need to boil the vinegar.
Anke T. March 21, 2018
Unless your water is very hard, it doesn’t even need to be 1:3. Just add a tablespoon or so of vinegar to a little water covering just the bottom of the pan and boil.
Your O. March 21, 2018
Bar Keepers Friend, per All-Clad website advice. Has kept my stainless stainless for over 10 years now. And the active ingredient? Rhubarb! I kid you not!
Smaug March 21, 2018
Well, sorta- the active ingredient in BKF (and competitor Zud) is oxalic acid, not the gentlest of chemicals and poisonous in sufficient concentrations.
Karin B. February 4, 2017
I have used my Spring (Switzerland) SS pots (the precursor for AllClad) daily since 1984 and they look fine except one. I will give that the vinegar treatment and report back (maybe). I use vinegar to clean my dishwasher and to soak shower heads in. I have also replaced the poisonous "Roundup" with vinegar to control weeds on my yellow pea gravel drive way. Thanks for reminding me how to rescue my pot.
Smaug February 3, 2017
Can't say I ever worry about this- certainly not about bacteria- but I have to wonder if baking soda would work as well- it's usually better for cleaning off burned on gunk, and has the advantages of being cheaper and not reeking to high heaven when boiled.
Jacqueline R. April 6, 2021
Nope baking doda foes not do it! Just cooked on mh very expensive stainless steel..will try vinegar..
Saffron3 February 2, 2017
Oh this so terrific! Thank you so much for this information; I can get to work on my pans.
Rob February 2, 2017
This is such a thorny issue for me. Generally, if there is a chance for patina, I take it. Especially on cookware. I have some old All Clad that I don't really use but it has the most amazing patina on the exterior and it looks awesome. That said, I am not a fan of the chalky residue and would like to avoid that without messing up some of the other wear that can develop on pans.
Elizabeth V. February 2, 2017
I keep a spray bottle filled with vinegar near my sink for spritizing my stainless steel and enamel coated cast iron pots right after washing them. I spritz and then dry them off. Ocassionally, I do have to use Barkeeper's Friend. Vinegar works especially well on the crockpot ceramic insert.
Saffron3 February 2, 2017
Nifty idea! Very nifty! I'm going to O this.
Judy February 2, 2017
Thank you for this article I am having the same problem and wasn't sure what to do. The comments were very helpful too.
Lesley P. February 2, 2017
I needed this information so bad.Am more then delighted to have answers and a solution thank you a Million times Thank you !
Stephanie H. February 2, 2017
My cleaning conundrum: I've inherited an old hand-cranked pasta maker and as far as I can tell, it doesn't come apart. What's the best way to go about cleaning the rollers, particularly the one for cutting spaghetti? I last used it for ramen noodles, which seem to have been a little softer than my usual pasta dough, and I was picking out bits with a toothpick forever.
Smaug February 3, 2017
It's a little easier if you let the scraps dry out. Brushes can be helpful.
foofaraw February 2, 2017
I'd like to know of why stainless steel pot that I used for deep-frying will have a thick brown-ish gunk that looks like watermarks around the wall, right where oil surface was. I never have this gunk problem when I used enameled wok before - which is the only other pan I used for deep frying before this. The gunk was really hard to clean, I have tried boiling it with water/vinegar/baking soda; put baking soda then vinegar then hot water then scrub it with pad. The only way I can clean it short of using oven cleaner is by scrub it really hard with copper scouring pad. Any idea why that happen? Also, is there a way to prevent the gunk on stainless steel pots due to deep frying?
Jaye B. April 15, 2017
Try Brillo Basics scouring pads. Something in the pink soap that's in the pad cuts through oily residue. These also work on the hard water clouds with very light pressure. The fine steel wool has not ever scratched my stainless pans.
Andy M. February 2, 2017
A quick wipe with Barkeepers Friend will do the trick. No boiling necessary.
Amanda S. February 2, 2017
I tried, but this was one time BKF actually didn't work for me (though there's no harm attempting if you feel so inclined). Thankfully a little vinegar did!
Greenstuff February 2, 2017
Barkeeper's Friend should work. My favorite for this situation is Kleen King, especially the liquid version.
Greenstuff February 3, 2017
It has occurred to me that the reason Barkeeper's Friend didn't work for Amanda is that she didn't buff the pot dry. I've found that to be an important step.