Cookware Cleaning

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In the test kitchen, we've long debated the merits of various cleaning methods and cleansers. We decided to end the debate and apply the same exhaustive methods we use to develop recipes to figure out the best, most efficient ways to clean cookware. We tested a dozen cleansers on pots and pans made from a variety of materials. After weeks of work, our testers' hands were rough and chapped, but we did find some winners and losers among these cleansers. And by the end of this marathon cleaning session, the cookware in the test kitchen was looking much brighter.

Cast Iron

Old, well-seasoned cast-iron pans have become cherished heirlooms, making it hard to find even dirty, rusty, perfectly cruddy pans for a bargain price at yard sales and flea markets. If you are lucky enough to find one, it deserves a place on the stovetop. After scraping up a couple of dirty pans with several grades of sandpaper and emery cloth—both being too harsh for even these badly rusted pans—we settled on the following method to restore pans that have been subject to neglect.

First rub the pan with fine steel wool and wipe out loose dirt and rust with a cloth; repeat until the pan is largely cleared of rust. Then place the pan on the burner over medium-low heat and add enough vegetable oil to coat the pan bottom generously. Heat it for five minutes, or until the handle is too hot to touch; turn off the burner. Add enough salt to form a thin paste and, wearing a work or gardening glove, scrub with a thick wad of paper towels, steadying the pan with a potholder. Repeat the heating and scrubbing steps until the pan is slick and black.

To maintain a clean pan, we recommend the following after each use of the pan: Rinse the pan thoroughly in hot water, wipe it dry, and coat it with a thin film of vegetable oil, wiping off any excess oil with paper towels. If hot water does not work to rid the pan of stuck-on food, try a washcloth to scrub the pan with salt.


We came across a number of ways of removing tarnish: a salted lemon half, Worcestershire sauce, tomato sauce, ketchup, vinegar, cream of tartar and water, yogurt, even boiling milk. Enterprising and interesting as they all are, these home remedies were not as effective as the traditional commercial polishes we tried, which not only removed tarnish but added shine. Among the home remedies, ketchup was the only one that effectively removed tarnish. Unfortunately, it did not add shine.

But if you're desperate to clean up a tarnished copper pan and have no commercial polish on hand, we recommend spreading an even layer of ketchup over the surface of a pan with a paper towel or dishcloth. After five minutes, wipe off the ketchup with a damp towel or sponge. Wash the pan with warm water and dishwashing liquid, and dry.

Stainless Steel, Nonstick, and Hard-Anodized Aluminum

We found that these pans, which see the most action in the kitchen, present similar cleaning challenges. We identified three types of cleaning tasks: everyday messes on just-used cookware, stubborn messes that have built up over time, and burnt, blackened messes that make the cookware almost unusable.

When testing ways to handle these three types of jobs, we continually ran into stern warnings about mixing cleaning chemicals: bleach and ammonia in particular, as well as commercially prepared cleansers (which may contain bleach, ammonia, or any other harmful chemicals). When combined, bleach and ammonia create chloramine gases that are highly irritating to the lungs and can cause coughing and choking. With these warnings in mind, we forged ahead with testing.

For cleaning everyday messes, you can soak the pan overnight in sudsy water, but is there an alternative if you don't want to be greeted with greasy dishwater in the morning? Yes. Boil water in the pan. And you don't need to add either vinegar or baking soda to the water, as some sources recommend; we tried these formulas and they were no more effective than plain water. (The boiling water method is especially kind to nonstick cookware, since it allows you to clean the sensitive surface without any rough scrubbing.)

Fill the pan halfway with tap water and put it on the stovetop, uncovered. Bring the water to a boil and continue to boil briskly for about three minutes, then turn off the burner. Next, using a wooden spatula, scrape the pan and pour off the water. Let the pan sit for a few minutes; the residue will flake off as the pan dries. Wash the pan with hot water and dishwashing liquid, and dry.

Unfortunately, we found that this neat trick doesn't clean up the stubborn, brown, sometimes tacky residue seared into a pan from many past meals. Neither does boiling water work on two forms of discoloration a pan may suffer: rainbows and brown tints, likely caused by prolonged exposure to heat above 500 degrees.

After tests with dishwashing liquid, SOS pads, and various home remedies, such as baking soda, we found two powdered cleansers—Bar Keepers Friend and Cameo— to be superior for these tasks. Stainless steel responded especially well to these cleansers, but they are also safe for nonstick surfaces. For anodized aluminum surfaces, do not use Bar Keepers Friend; Cameo can be used, although some manufacturers recommend Soft Scrub, which we found to be less effective.

Start by moistening the pan with water, then shake a film of cleanser over it to cover. Using a copper scrubber for stainless steel and a nylon scrubber for nonstick or anodized aluminum, scrub the pan; circular motions work best. Finish cleaning the pan by washing it with hot water and dishwashing liquid, and drying.

For pans with a stainless steel exterior that has been deeply, darkly blackened and seems immune to any amount of scrubbing with powdered cleanser, we did find a cleanser of last resort: oven cleaner. We recommend its use only on the exterior of pans (making it fine for pans with steel exteriors and nonstick interior finishes) and in extreme cases; ideally, you'll treat a pan with oven cleaner only once, to get it back up to snuff. Oven cleaner should not be used on hard-anodized aluminum pans. If possible, bring the pan to a shady spot outdoors; otherwise, clean the pan in a well-ventilated room, with the windows wide open.

Place the pan upside down on newspapers and, wearing rubber gloves, apply an even layer of cleaner. Let it sit for 20 minutes (or the time recommended on the can). With gloves still on and using an old damp cloth or sponge, wipe off the oven cleaner. Discard the newspapers and thoroughly rinse or discard the cloth or sponge. Thoroughly rinse the pan in the sink under warm running water, then wash it with dishwashing liquid; thoroughly rinse again and dry.

Best Cleansers for Cast Iron

We found that a thick paste of warm vegetable oil and salt does the best job of bringing rusty cast-iron pots and pans back to life.

Best Cleansers for Copper

Among widely available polishes, Weiman Metal Polish did the best job of removing tarnish and adding shine to copper pots and pans. Ketchup does a great job of removing tarnish but won't add a brilliant luster to copper cookware.

Best Cleansers for Stainless Steel, Nonstick, and Hard-Anodized Aluminum

We found Bar Keepers Friend and Cameo to be the most effective in removing stubborn messes from most of the cookware in the test kitchen. Cameo can be used on stainless steel, anodized aluminum, or nonstick surfaces; Bar Keepers Friend is too harsh for anodized aluminum but works well on stainless steel or nonstick surfaces.