Even seasoned cooks can scorch a pan, whether they’re searing meat at high temperatures or fiddling with a delicate sauce. And if you have the right gear, cleaning those tough stains isn’t as much of a pain as it would seem. Based on our years of experience cooking at home and in professional kitchens, here are the techniques we use to keep our cookware gleaming.
What you need
Spatula or paper towels: Use a spatula or paper towels to get rid of excess oil.
Dish brush: We like to use a long-handled dish brush, such as the OXO Good Grips Dish Brush, to loosen any bits of stuck-on food.
Scouring pad or sponge: A fresh Scotch-Brite scouring pad or sponge will be the most effective at removing stains. A softer Dobie pad will require more effort but will leave fewer scratches.
Dish soap: We recommend the unscented Seventh Generation Natural Dish Liquid.
Towel: Dry off pans before putting them away.
Baking soda: Baking soda or other powdered cleaners are abrasive enough to scrub off stains without damaging pans.
Towel or oven mitts: You’ll want to clean your pan while it’s hot, so protect your hands with a towel or an oven mitt.
Toothpicks: To get into the nooks and crannies of a pan’s rivets, you can pry off gunk with a toothpick.
Large pot, like a stock pot or roasting pan: If you want to boil your scorched pans in water and baking soda to remove years of grime, you’ll need to find a vessel large enough to hold them. We recommend a big stock pot or a roasting pan.
How long will this take to clean?
To clean most pans after cooking in them, you’ll likely need less than five minutes to wipe them out, scrub them down, and dry them off.
But removing tough stains can take longer. Whether you’re using elbow grease to scrub or boiling baking soda and water in your pans, it can take 15 to 30 minutes or more. In some cases, you may want to leave a baking soda slurry on stains overnight before washing it off the next day.
For basic cleaning
To clean a pan that you’ve just used, first scrape out excess oil with a spatula, or wipe it out with a paper towel. Then deglaze the pan by adding some hot water. Cleaning a hot pan is easier, and adding hot water won’t damage it. But always let your pan cool down before fully submerging it in cool water. Otherwise the sudden change in temperature (called thermal shock) can cause a still-hot pan to warp.
You can loosen any fond (the browned bits of food) with a long-handled dish brush—we like the OXO Good Grips Dish Brush, which we’ve used in our test kitchen for years.
Grab a green Scotch-Brite scouring pad or sponge, along with some dish soap, and scrub the inside and outside of the pan, using a continuous circular motion. A Scotch-Brite pad will lightly scratch the surface of the pan. But as long as you avoid harsh pads (such as steel wool), it won’t affect your cookware’s performance or lifespan. A softer sponge, like a Dobie pad, won’t leave scratches, but using one requires more elbow grease. And it won’t save your cookware from getting marked up by metal cooking utensils anyway.
Rinse and then dry with a clean, absorbent towel.
For tougher stains: Create a baking soda slurry
If dish soap and scrubbing aren’t cutting it, to remove cooked-on oil or burnt food, create a slurry of water and baking soda (or another powdered cleaner) in the bottom of the pan. Be generous with the baking soda.
Let the mixture sit for a few minutes, and then scrub it off with a scouring pad—preferably a new one with a fresh, unworn scrubby side. If the stains won’t come off, you can repeat these steps and let the paste sit for longer (even overnight).
For bigger, tougher stains that climb up the sides of a saucepan or skillet, Geri Porter, the longtime kitchen manager for Martha Stewart, suggested the following method: Add a small mound of baking soda to the center of a pan, cover with about ¼ cup water (you might need more for a bigger pan), and bring to a boil.
As the water boils and evaporates, it will leave a film of baking soda around the walls of the pan that you can then scrub off. When most of the water has boiled off, turn off the heat. Then use a long-handled brush or scouring pad to scrub off your mess (again, new pads will work better).
It’s best to do this while the pan is still hot, so it may help to use gloves and grip the pan with a towel or oven mitt. We’ve had success with this method for freshly scorched pans, but it isn’t as effective for boiling off years of grime.
A next-level approach to remove years of grime
Wirecutter senior staff writer Michael Sullivan has a special method for banishing years of built-up scorch marks. He fully submerges his dingiest pans in a pot of boiling water and baking soda to boil off the stains. Although it’s a little awkward to wrangle a large metal object from a pot of steaming water, the results are magical.
Choose a vessel that will fit your pan, like a large stock pot for small skillets or a roasting pan for larger ones. Then fill it with enough water to submerge (or mostly submerge) your pan, and bring it to a boil. If you’re using a large roasting pan, you can arrange it over two burners on the stovetop.
Add a hearty pour of baking soda (about ¼ cup or ½ cup), and then carefully place your pan in the water. Reduce the water to a gentle boil, and let the pan cook for about 15 to 30 minutes, flipping or rotating it if necessary, so that all the sides are boiled. You should start to see brown residue flaking off.
Using tongs and silicone oven mitts, remove the pans carefully. Then, to create an abrasive slurry to help break down the rest of the stains, add more baking soda and water to the pan, and scrub quickly while the pan is hot. You can hold on to the pan with a towel.
To truly scrape off every last bit of gunk, go at the rivets with a toothpick or a cheap paring knife.
About your guide
Anna Perling is a staff writer covering kitchen gear at Wirecutter. During her time here, she has reported on various topics including sports bras, board games, and light bulbs. Previously she wrote food and lifestyle pieces for Saveur and Kinfolk magazines. Anna is a mentor at Girls Write Now and a member of the Online News Association.