Questions for cooks: Cleaning cookware

Reader Andy submitted the following to Questions for cooks:

I have a couple of nice stainless steel pots and pans that I’ve completely blackened with high-temperature cooking experiments and burning oils. They are completely black on the bottom and top and in one of them, perpetually sticky with safflower oil. Is there any trick to restoring them to their original silver cleanliness?

The first thing I would do is ignore their color for a minute and instead look at their shape. If you set the pots and pans on a flat surface, do their bottoms completely lie flat? Or, are your pots and pans warped so that they wobble a bit or only directly connect to the surface in a few places? If the pots and pans are warped, it’s time to replace them. The unevenness is creating hot spots in your cookware and isn’t providing a consistent heat to the food you’re making. If they’re not warped, then consider cleaning methods.

If you need to buy new pots and pans, and if you can afford them, look for stainless steel ones with a copper metal core. The higher price will make you think twice before attempting crazy (fun) experiments, and the copper core will also be able to handle higher heats than likely what you have now (my guess is that your stainless steel currently has an aluminum core, which will scorch foods at higher temperatures). Also, if you get new pots and pans, please let them completely cool before ever running them under water. Your cookware will last much longer.

When cleaning stainless steel, you may need to try a few methods before finding the exact one that works for you. I recommend starting with the least caustic method and only increasing to a more caustic product if necessary.

The insides of the pan may come clean by simply bringing 2 cups of water to a boil, adding 2 tablespoons of baking soda, stirring the mixture around for a few minutes, and then turning off the heat and letting the entire pan cool. Baking soda has a pH level of around 9, which is fairly high compared to other cleaning products. I’m always surprised by how well baking soda works as a cleaning agent.

If baking soda worked on the inside of the pans, then make a thick paste — 1 tablespoon of baking soda, a few drops of lemon juice, and a few drops of water — to use on the exteriors of the pans. Use it like you would any abrasive cleaners and scrub it in with a soft sponge before rinsing it clean. Don’t use a scouring pad on your cookware.

If the baking soda method is a failure, try the Bar Keepers Friend Cookware Cleanser. At $9 a can, it’s not that much more expensive than the baking soda option and is a trusted brand of cookware cleaner. Again, remember to use a soft sponge and not a scouring pad when cleaning your cookware.

Sadly, if neither of the previous methods work, look for a commercial degreaser that is specifically made for cleaning stainless steel cookware. You’ll need to head to your local restaurant supply store to get your hands on one that is guaranteed food safe by the USDA. Take a pot or pan with you, and the employee at the restaurant supply store may even let you try the product out in the store to make sure it will work for you (no guarantees, but they just might let you). If someone recommends you use regular Simple Green All-Purpose Cleaner, do not take this advice, as it is not food safe. Simple Green does make a commercial food-safe degreaser, but expect to pay $60 to $80 for a bottle of it. The food safe degreasers you’ll find at a restaurant supply store are a fraction of that price.

Thank you, Andy, for submitting your question for our Questions for cooks column. Please check the comments for even more suggestions from our readers.

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2 comments posted

  1. Posted by khasut - 05/20/2011

    We just dealt with this problem! Make a paste of Barkeeper’s Friend, let it sit in the pots overnight, and in the morning it should come clean just fine. Since yours have cooled and set, it might need two rounds (ours was a pan we treated the same night), but BKF is seriously magic.

  2. Posted by Andrea - 05/20/2011

    I cook a whole lot, even working in a cooking school for a time (notorious for high heat mistakes) and I have yet to find a pan that wouldn’t be cleaned by bar keepers friend. Actually, it’s kinda my go to cleaner for everything. Besides stainless steel cook wear, I’ve used remove scorching on my non-stick (let a small amount of powder soak in a the pan filled with water for 10min to an hour, and rinse away cleaning solution; then buff with a clean rag) and on my cook top, shower tiles, etc. Theres pretty much nothing this stuff can’t do. They even have a liquid cleaner now that makes it more amazing. Almost ever grocery/big box store has the powder can somewhere, and I’ve seen the liquid stuff at Bed Bath and Beyond as well as World Market.

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