It happens: You step away from the stove for a moment and return to discover that your dinner has scorched the skillet. If the pan burned for a while, the resulting look is definitely not pretty. But believe it or not, you can usually revive burnt pots and pans with the things you already have on hand in the kitchen. These tricks can make cleaning easy, whether you’re working with a non-stick surface or stainless steel.
Time It Right
Don’t try to tackle the mess while the pan is still hot (safety first), but you also shouldn’t leave a burnt pot sitting overnight or it will make it harder to clean. Get to work once the pan has cooled and is safe to handle.
Remove Food First
Your first line of attack is to scrape as much of the food off the surface as you can. Use a nylon or silicone-based spatula for non-stick cookware or a wooden spoon for stainless steel cookware—these implements will get a lot of the gunk without scratching the finish.
Soak It in Hot Water
Fill the pot with water so that the liquid completely covers the burned areas. Place it back on the stove over medium heat and bring the water to a simmer. Turn off the burner. The water and heat will help soften the remaining crud.
Next, add three or four sliced lemons (or just the lemon juice) or a cup of white vinegar to the pot. The acid breaks down bonds between the food and the surface of the pan. Let this sit until the water cools.
Jumpstart Your Scouring
Dump out the now-cooled water and liberally sprinkle the empty pot with baking soda (safe for all types of pots and pans). If you’re working with stainless steel, you can also use Bon Ami—it’s safe for stainless steel, copper, and enamel pots.
Choose Your Scrubber Wisely
Heavy-duty tools like steel wool or wire brushes may get the job done, but they can also degrade the delicate surfaces of non-stick pans, so err on the side of caution with a nylon bristle brush (bonus: look for one with a built-in scraper). You may think you’re not making progress if you don’t see immediate results, but keep at a small section for a few minutes and you’ll see progress. For more information on cleaning glass or non-stick bakeware, stainless steel cookware, and cast iron pans, check out our detailed guide.
Try a DIY Stainless Scrubber
If your usual soap-dispensing kitchen scrubber isn’t getting the job done, there’s a do-it-yourself trick you can try for stainless steel. Crumple up a piece of aluminum foil to form a ball and use it to scour.
Usually, with a little elbow grease, patience, and the right tools, burnt pans will eventually get clean. Some take longer than others, though. If your arm gets tired or you feel discouraged, repeat the steps of filling the pot with water, heating, adding an acid, and letting it sit (it’s OK for a pan to sit overnight as long as there is water in it to soften the crusted food). The extra soak may do the trick.