This Laundry Staple Is the Key to Cleaning a Burnt Pan

Those pans aren’t ruined—they’re one secret ingredient away from being perfect again.

May 28, 2019
Photo by James Ransom

Welcome to Your No-Sweat Guide to Spring Cleaning a month-long series that puts the fun (yep, for real!) back into cleaning. We’re talking spruce-ups that take less than five minutes, why-didn’t-I-think-of-that hacks, and hands-off cleaning tasks that basically…do themselves—plus our trustiest tools and helpers. The goal: clean less, go outside more.

Have you ever burnt something on the stove so thoroughly that it more or less fused with the pan you were cooking in?

I have—more than once. In fact, I once spent an entire year of my early 20s cleaning the charred remains of homemade chicken soup from the bottom of my roommate’s soup pot. I was heating up leftovers, and my roommate was nice enough not to make me feel worse than I already did. But still!

I immediately started a long, arduous process of scrubbing and soaking (as I said, a full year of it). After 365 guilt-ridden days, I did eventually return the pot in pristine condition, but suffice it to say that my story should serve as a warning for what not to do.

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Top Comment:
“New? "Burnt" has been around a loooong time. It's the past participle of "burn." "Burned" is also acceptable.”
— tia

Indeed, by the time I stumbled upon what I should have done, I was living in an entirely new apartment with new roommates, and a newly scorched pan. This time, it was crab dip (I think), and I wasn’t the culprit, just someone older and wiser, who had seen a few things. This time, I had the wisdom to say, “There’s no way we’re going through this again,” and took it upon myself to find a better cleaning method.

Thankfully, it exists—and it’s cheap, easy to use, and most likely already in your laundry room: a dryer sheet.

Seriously. And all you have to do is put a single dryer sheet (or fabric softener sheet, if you prefer to call them that) in the bottom of your seemingly ruined pot or pan, add enough warm water to cover the charred bits, and let it soak. Depending on the level of destruction, you can go for as little as 15 to 20 minutes, or let it hang out overnight, but by the time you return, you’ll be able to sponge that scorched mess right off!

It feels like an absolute miracle—because it is. But, according to lifestyle reporter Anna De Souza, it’s also “likely the conditioning properties of the dryer sheet” that do the trick. And it’s not an exact science either: Feel free to use a second sheet if you’re dealing with an extreme case, and use hot water if you prefer. All I know is, it works.

Once you’ve gotten rid of the burnt remains of a would-be meal, wash your pot or pan with soap and water as you normally would, and be glad that you learned this information without sacrificing a year of your life. If only I had then what I do now: the guidance of a Food52 community that had this very wisdom to share with me.

In fact, upon further research, the first time someone ( a commenter also named Karen) recommended this dryer sheet hack on Food52 was in January 2014, by which time I was living in the second apartment. Was it her advice that changed my life? I can’t remember. But now I pass it on to you.

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  • Rafał Hard
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Karen Lo

Written by: Karen Lo

lunch lady


Rafał H. January 28, 2020
Many recommend using soda but I prefer citric acid, it works better and when combined with dishwashing liquid, it dissolves faster but you have to use a scourer too. In any case, it is easy to clean.
Roberta July 23, 2019
I use baking soda and lemon juice. Depending on how bad the burn, I will add dishwashing detergent and hot water and let it sit a while. Food sponges off easily. Don't use on the old brown coated non stick pans. It eats the coating away. But it is especially effective on corning ware or other glass casserole dishes.
Marilyn J. July 23, 2019
As a veteran of rescuing ruined pots and baking dishes and the bottoms of over used frying pans, I would like to add my foolproof method. Pour a copious amount (and I mean copious) of dish washing powder and very hot water - leave to soak. If it’s really awful - repeat the process. It never fails!
arielcooks July 8, 2019
Do you mean sAponification, rather than "sponification"?
W J. July 8, 2019
Yes, I did. Sorry for the misspelling. Though I type fast, I generally try to proofread, edit, edit. Sometimes one gets by me. I do my best proofreading however, after I hit the send button.

I just wish the mavens at Food52, who make more than their fair share of typos, btw, in their prose had an edit feature in their comment sections. But then again, it is far, far easier to spot the mistakes of others than one's own. Thanks for pointing that out.

If Food52 allowed do overs, I would correct that spelling and some other content, misspellings and punctuation issues that caught my eye, when scanning that comment and others over again, viz., "self cleaning oven" instead of "self cleaning off" [sic], etc.
Greg P. June 27, 2019
been using paper towels the same way for years, and no dryer sheet chemicals
W J. June 26, 2019
Back in the days of yore, viz., the 1940s and 1950s, we had few of the myriad of commercial products for cleaning tough burnt on foods on utensils and ovens. There was soap (but not the detergents of today such as Dawn), Spic and Span (1928) abrasive cleansers like Ajax, Old Dutch Cleanser, Comet (1956) etc, steel wool, and rags. Rags, because this was before paper towels were common as wet strength resins, like Kymene, had yet to be invented and commercialized. Every household had a rag bag.

But there was one product that worked very well, and was made by a chemical company Boyle-Midway. And that product was a gel, called Easy-Off. Easy-Off is available today, though no longer a gel, but rather in a spray can.

The Easy-Off in the days of yore was a thick, gloppy. brownish gel made with sodium hydroxide, trisodium phosphate and other nasties. It came in a jar with a brush applicator in the lid. You brushed it on a surface -- any surface -- such as a pot, pan, tray, or oven wall, preferably prewarmed, and waited for about ten minutes. Voilà! Old cross-linked grease, burned on bits, and that peculiar brown film you see on well used pans and utensils would wipe or rinse right off. You had to wear gloves though as that stuff would blister the skin, as my mother once found out when she cleaned the oven one day.

Today, Easy-Off is still available, is more convenient to use, and is reformulated as a spray. It contains sodium carbonate mostly instead of sodium hydroxide as the alkaline agent which hydrolyses those pesky burnt-on grease films by means of a sponification reaction. (If your organic chemistry is rusty or non-existent, you can look up sponification or just take it from me that it chemically breaks up the molecular structure of fats and grease.) Trisodium phosphate was pretty much eliminated in household cleaners in past decades owing to the issue of phosphate run-off pollution.

Easy-Off today comes in a variety of forms, as this has become a brand name. I recommend the Heavy Duty Oven Cleaner formulation for stubborn grease and burnt on items. You WILL NEED TO WEAR GLOVES preferably long ones, and avoid skin and eye contact. This is powerful stuff and can result in chemical burns.

If you have a collection of trays, racks, or pots with brown film, which is nigh impossible to remove, try it. You will be amazed.

I recognize that many readers of this list are probably not conversant with consumer chemicals, nor the companies that produce them. The Boyle-Midway of yesteryear was absorbed by other companies, but its remnants live on in the British Consumer giant, you never heard of, Reckitt Benckiser, known more simply today as RB. You have used other of their products most likely (Air Wick, Brasso, Calgon, Cēpacol, Clearasil, d-CON, Durex, Enfamil, Finish, Gaviscon, Glass Plus, K-Y, Lysol, Mr Sheen, Mucinex, Sani Flush, Vanish, Veet, Woolite to name a few). Easy-Off is one of them too, of course.

I am not now, nor have I ever been associated in any way with this company nor its predecessors.
Smaug June 26, 2019
Easy Off-and presumably it's competitors- does contain lye (Sodium Hydroxide); I've avoided it on the inside of pans, more as a knee jerk reaction than any rational fear of poisoning myself, but it's effectiveness can't be denied. Last I knew you could still find lye in the plumbing department of hardware stores, where it's sold as a drain cleaner. I remember TSP- widely used in painting prep, it's amazingly effective at removing stuff that you'd have sworn would never come off, but I'm not sure you can still get it; seems to me last time I wanted it they were selling some sort of substitute, called TPS or tSp or something like that, which was pretty good, but not the same.
Smaug June 26, 2019
By the way, I'm not sure of it, but I think there's some chance of lye etching the metal, which wouldn't be a serious problem but is to be avoided.
W J. June 26, 2019
Yes, I should have mentioned that sodium hydroxide does react with aluminum and will, if left on a bit too long will etch and roughen the metal.

Even still, I have used it on an aluminum cookie sheets to good effect. While it did react slightly with the surface, after I removed years of baked-on coating, the surface was easily polished smooth again with a bit of Bar-Keeper's Friend.

If one were so inclined, you can still buy TSP (trisodium phosphate) at most hardware stores along with lye and make up your own cleaning powder. But be super careful, WEAR LONG GLOVES AND EYE PROTECTION. On the whole, it is just easier and safer to buy a can of Easy-Off Heavy Duty Oven Cleaner. Use it in a well ventilated space and wear the above protection.
W J. June 26, 2019
One other thought. If you are dealing with a cast iron pan, which has the black patina coating, I would not recommend Easy-Off. Instead, I would remove as much surface gunk as I could and then put the pan in a self-cleaning off and let it run through the heat cycle. You will have to reseason the pan afterwards, of course, but even with a thorough scrubbing, you would have to do that anyway. Incidentally, flax seed oil is one of the best reasoning oils as it quickly cross-links and forms the non-stick black coating back on the iron surface. See the Cook's Illustrated article on this "The Ultimate Way to Season Cast Iron"
Smaug June 27, 2019
Considering how effective baking soda is- if used properly- I'm quite sure you could do with just the lye. Personally, I spring for a can of Easy Off every couple of years, but it's at least theoretically possible that someone out there is cheaper than I am.
Bev June 12, 2019
When I have a sugar based sauce that burns on to the point one wants to discard the pan and consider buying a new one, I use a razor blade to remove as much as I can then move to my chain mail scrubber. Lastly Barkeepers friend if necessary
Laurrie June 8, 2019
I cover the bottom of my Stuck On Cast Iron pots & pans with green dish washing soap, cover w plastic wrap and leave over nite. In the morning I wipe out the residue, flush w water, dry & oil my pan, and I'm good to go!
I'll try the dryer sheet!
Thanks, LV Laurrie
Jaye B. June 7, 2019
Anyone have a secret for easily cleaning off all those brown bits that accumulate on aluminum sheet pans?
Irene P. June 7, 2019
I have had great results with putting about 2" of water in the scorched pan, add 1/2 c. baking soda and boil for about 5 min. Dump out, rinse and if needed, a steel wool pad will remove anything left with no hard scrubbing.
Smaug June 26, 2019
I'm glad SOMEONE else uses that- so simple and effective that you'd think everyone would know it, but apparently few do.
Tommie L. July 9, 2019
Have Y’all tried the Scrub Buds scouring pads from Amway yet? They work way better than steel wool, they never rust and the little wires don't brake, so you don't get poked while you're scubbing. You hardly have to scrub with them. They seem to last forever. I bought a little box of 3 pads, 4 years ago and I am still using them. If one gets dirty, I just put it in the dishwasher and it comes out good as new. What I don't understand is how it can scratch off all of the stuck on food and gunk, but it doesn't scratch my pans or stove or any surface I have used it on so far. I was tempted to try it on the hardened tree sap on my car, but the box said not to use on mirror finishes, so I am going to go to a detailing shop and let them put in the elbow grease. But it did work great for the mat-finish hub caps.
shelagh June 6, 2019
This method requires constant supervision until pot removed from heat. Fill pot with 1/2 inch water, cover, bring to a boil for 1 or 2 minutes MAX. Do not lift lid, turn heat off and wait 15 minutes. The steam created from boiling water will remove most burned food.
Lori June 6, 2019
Boiling water, sprinkle with baking soda - let sit overnight. Use scrubbier the next morning. Magical!
Cookie June 6, 2019
Oxi-Clean. You must use very hot water to activate it; boiling hot is best. Cover all burned areas with water, then add a good dose of powder, say 1/4 cup for ever quart of water. Be careful because it does bubble at first in hot water. Leave for a few hours. It dissolves anything organic, which is why it works so well on stains. With crusty pans, it works even on old burned-on food, even on cast iron. I've tried everything else mentioned here --except the dryer sheet thing, which sounds too chemical-laden for my tastes, and Oxi-Clean works best, and is not toxic.
M.k. H. May 31, 2019
I clean burnt pans by filling them with water, dropping in a denture tablet or two, and letting it soak overnight. The next day, all the burnt-on grime just slides right off.
cookinalong May 30, 2019
If it's a stainless steel pan/pot, BarKeeper's Friend works great. It's a powdered cleaner that comes in a perforated shaker container like Comet or Bon-Ami. For almost any type of pan, I've used cream of tartar with a cup of boiling water to clean even baked on mac&cheese. Just let it sit awhile and all the burned on crud will come away with minimal scrubbing.
Cypress May 29, 2019
I use liquid Clorox/bleach; just enough to cover the bottom of the pan and let it sit 30 minutes to overnight. I learned this from a restaurant manager many years ago.
Smaug May 29, 2019
If you're not worried about toxicity, oven cleaner is actually made for this type of cleaning problem and works great.
Jamie May 29, 2019
I'll keep the dryer sheet in mind. I recently discovered another product that works quite well. (Unfortunately also after a multi year effort I thought futile with another burnt pan.) Biokleen's Soy Cream Cleanser. Rescued the aforementioned several years prior burnt pan, the inside of my oven from caked on overflow, and many other pans since. Liberally coat the burned bits, let sit overnight, then scrub.
GJN May 29, 2019
I've always had good luck by adding a spoonful or two of powdered dishwasher detergent to a pan and letting it soak. When I come back to it, the stuck-on food washes right off.
Smaug May 29, 2019
There's a great deal of controversy about the general safety of dryer sheets; their contents vary quite a bit and content listings on non food items are quite limited- at the least most of them contain scents. I've always used boiling with baking soda to clean off burned food; a lot of comments on the subject use baking soda, but for some reason few think to boil it, which makes a tremendous difference. Use a strong solution- 2 Tb./c and up- usually takes 10-15 min., but in severe cases may need more time. Some people also use oiling vinegar, which works pretty well but is expensive and reeks to high heaven
Smaug May 29, 2019
"...boiling vinegar..."
Bob May 28, 2019
Thanks, Karen. Any idea if this trick works on “aged” burned on problems? A small side question; is “burnt” the new acceptable “burned”?
tia May 28, 2019
New? "Burnt" has been around a loooong time. It's the past participle of "burn." "Burned" is also acceptable.