Last week, my mom sent me this photo.
“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.
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.
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.
For milder burns and scorches on stainless steel and aluminum pans, you can usually make do with a few pantry staples.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.