Kitchen Hacks

How to Clean a Burnt Pan To Make It Look New Again

Stainless steel, cast iron, nonstick, we got you.

July 19, 2019

Last week, my mom sent me this photo.

A kitchen nightmare Photo by Camryn Rabideau

“Lovely start to my day,” she wrote. “Ruined my favorite pan and burned the porch.” Oops.

Turns out she was trying to make hummingbird food—that's essentially sugar water—and got distracted. In just a few minutes, she smelled burning and, well, you can probably figure out the rest.

The bad news is that she had to start a new batch of hummingbird food, but the good news is that her pan can be saved. I’ve read enough DIY articles to know there are several ways to salvage a burned pan—every kind of pan—and it seemed like as good a time as any to revisit them.

This could be your burnt pan! Photo by Ty Mecham

Scrape And Soak

Whether you have a serious mess like my mom or just a mildly burnt pan, the first step is usually to scrape off whatever you can—you’ll want to use a wooden spoon to avoid scratching the pan. Don’t worry if there are still clumps of baked-on food; these will loosen up in the next step.

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Next, fill the pan up with a generous squirt of dish soap and warm water. You can also try adding this laundry room staple to the soak. Let it sit overnight and then go back in with your trusty wooden spoon to scrape off or sponge it off. Repeat the soaking process, if needed, or try boiling water and dish soap to further loosen things up.

DIY Away

For milder burns and scorches on stainless steel and aluminum pans, you can usually make do with a few pantry staples.

Deglaze with water or white vinegar

You’ve probably used the deglazing technique while cooking, and it can help when cleaning pans, too! Heat the pan up on the stovetop, and when it’s hot enough that a drop of water sizzles on it, pour in a cup of water or vinegar. You can then go in with your wooden spoon to scrape off the burnt-on bits.

Scrub with baking soda

Baking soda is the jack-of-all-trades no pantry should be without, so it should come as no surprise that it can help clean burnt pans. Mix the powder with a bit of water to create a paste, then spread it over the burnt area. You can go in with a gentle sponge and start scrubbing, or you can spray a little white vinegar over the paste to make it foam, and then scrub.

Scrub with cream of tartar

Similar to baking soda, this common baking ingredient is mildly abrasive, making it great for scrubbing off tough gunk without damaging pans. Plus, it’s also acidic, helping to break down baked-on food. To use it on your burnt pan, create a thick paste using cream of tartar and white vinegar, then use it to scrub the trouble areas.

Soak in ketchup

No, that’s not a typo! The acetic acid in ketchup effectively breaks down the copper oxide that forms when you burn food, so you can use the condiment to clean up burnt pans. Just slather the burn in ketchup, let it sit for 30 minutes or so, and scrub away.

Use a dishwashing tablet

Ok, this technically isn’t a pantry item, but dishwashing tablets can be used to clean tough stains—after all, they’re formulated to help break down caked-on food. Fill the pot with water, then drop a tablet in. Bring the water to a boil, then reduce it down to a simmer for 10 minutes. The scraps should lift right off!

Bring in Reinforcements

If your poor pot is still crying out for help, you might want to invest in a heavy-duty cleaning product.

Bar Keepers Friend is an extremely popular cookware cleaner that you can use on pretty much most pans—stainless steel, porcelain, enamel, copper, and more. The product’s combination of oxalic acid and fine abrasive particles will lift off even the toughest stains! Just be sure to thoroughly wash and rinse your pans after using this type of cleaner.

Cleaning Nonstick and Cast Iron Pans

The methods above work best on stainless steel and aluminum pans, but if you have a cast iron or nonstick pan that needs cleaning, there are things to remember when removing tough stains.

For one, you’re not supposed to use soap or other harsh cleaners on cast iron, as it can damage the pan’s seasoning. Instead, you’ll want to use a product like the Ringer—a piece of chainmail that you use like a washcloth to scrape off food particles—or simply rub down the pan with course salt, which will clean the metal without harming the finish.

With nonstick pans, you need to avoid any type of abrasive cleaner or sponge that can damage the finish (though, if you’re having problems with food sticking to the surface, your finish may already be damaged). Instead, fill the pan with water and add a generous sprinkling of baking soda. Bring the contents to a boil, then let it simmer for 10 or 15 minutes. This should help to loosen up the baked-on gunk so you can scrape it away with a spoon.

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How do you clean your worst burnt-on messes? Tell us in the comments below.

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Freelance writer, product tester & baking enthusiast.


Steve M. April 23, 2021
Hydrogen peroxide boiled for 5 minutes. After burning oatmeal, under the penalty of death from my spouse, I found the only solution. Trust me, it tried em all.
Christine B. March 30, 2021
I have found that in an Australian summer, put the pot out in the hot, harsh sun for a couple of days, and the burned on food (tomato sauce, ie, ketchup in the USA, or jam) will eventually just lift off in flakes. Anything remaining can be soaked and scrubbed off.
Tunafishie February 13, 2021
This no-scrubbing method has helped me numerous times. Sprinkle a good amount of Bar Keepers Friend powder in the pot/pan to cover the burnt parts, add a little water to dissolve, swirl around in the pan, let water evaporate overnight. The next morning the burnt parts will flake off either by itself or you can scrub lightly. The pan will look as new as the day you got it. I don't even bother scrubbing beforehand anymore because this method works so well. Try it! Save your arms and your time. 😁
Tracy W. June 6, 2020
I find myself here after burning - like a foot out the top of the pan - my second pan of sugar water. In between these two pans of hummer food gone wrong I did manage to set a timer and not repeat the first one, but I made a bigger mess than your mom!

I would like to add how I've saved cast iron disasters. I just put them in the self clean cycle in the oven. All the crud comes off, even years of rust! Of course you have to season the pan again, but a light scrub with steel wool to get the fine rust that's still there loose and you're ready to season again.
Gina F. July 26, 2019
This might not make your mother feel better. While attending a hummingbird seminar, the expert said it wasn't necessary to boil the water. It just needs to be stirred until dissolved. I literally stopped his discussion so he could repeat himself. No more boiling!
Lee S. July 21, 2019
I take the pan outside, spray it with oven cleaner and leave for an hour or so. Then I wipe off with paper towel and wash as I normally would. Usually only takes one go, but sometimes I repeat on any stubborn bits
epicharis July 20, 2019
I've had better results with Bon Ami than Bar Keeper's Friend - and it doesn't make me gag, either.
zoemetro U. July 19, 2019
I have always used the "volcano method" plus a dash of dawn. It works well with baking sheets as well, I sprinkle baking soda and then add vinegar and put it on the stove or warm oven and leave overnight. This also works wonders with cheese.
13e July 19, 2019
I’m a bit disappointed that this is the second time in recent weeks you've recommended dryer sheets as a kitchen solution. They’re not biodegradable and add to plastic and micro plastic pollution. Plus the chemicals are really not great for coming into contact with items you cook food in.
Smaug July 19, 2019
It does seem that this whole subject has been beaten to death in columns, comments and Hotline questions. Lord knows why dryer sheets keep coming up; I suppose the eternal search of the American public for "secrets".