How to Clean Scorched Pots and Befouled Ovens


Jolie Kerr is a cleaning expert and advice columnist. She’ll be here every other week helping to answer your filthiest questions. Are you dirty? Email her.

I am generally a wonderful cook and a spectacular baker, and have only ever burned anything a handful of times in my life. BUT. The other day, I was boiling a potato, and it was taking just forever to cook through, so while I was teasing my hair into a giant elegant poof, I totally forgot about it. About a half hour later, my I noticed that my whole house was filled with thick, thick terrible-smelling smoke, and I ran to the kitchen to turn of the stove, dump what was left of my potato, open all of the windows, and apologize to my neighbors.
So now I have a sad saucepan. I would just toss it, but I love it, and I hate being wasteful, and so I’m hoping there might be a way to salvage it. I have attached pictures here, and as you can see, the bottom of the pan is encrusted with a thick, hard layer of black stuff. And when I say hard, it is REALLY hard—like, not even remotely scrubbable. Can I dump some vinegar in and boil it or something? I don’t care if it makes my house smell funny, because nothing would be worse than that burning-potato smell.
Please help me save my favorite saucepan! I will be forever grateful.

Ah, a scorched pot. Happens to the best of us, truly. And it’s almost always an affliction that befalls our favorite pot. (Probably because our favorite pot is the one we’re most often reaching for, but let’s pretend there’s some larger, mystical force at play because it’s October and I’m feeling at my most mystical.)

The good news is that I can help you save your favorite saucepan! My go-to remedy for a scorched pan is a combination of baking soda and boiling water. I like this method for two reasons: (1) Just about every home has a box of baking soda hanging around, so it doesn’t require a run to the market for a product you may not have on hand; (2) it’s cheap and not terribly labor intensive, which means that if you’ve got a particularly nasty scorch sitch on your hands and on your favorite pot, having to make a second, or third, pass won’t break your bank or your back.

The method is as follows: Cover the bottom of the scorched pot with a liberal amount of baking soda; pour boiling water over the soda; cool and then wash as usual with soapy water. It seems too insanely simple, doesn’t it? It does. But it totally works. Would you like to see an example? I have one for you!

With that said, there are other options and we should chit chat about them here, especially because the pot in question was scorched much, much more badly than was the one in my bourbon salt example. If I were a betting lady, which I am not because I don’t want to risk my Scrubbing Bubbles money on a folly, I would wager that in addition to what I’m about to mention here some among you will have tips of your own that you feel compelled to share with the group.

  • Boiling Dish Soap: Place water and a few drops of dish soap in the pot, bring to a boil, cool, wash with soap and hot water;
  • Baking Soda & Vinegar 1: Liberally sprinkle baking soda to cover bottom of the pot, pour white vinegar over, enjoy the theatrics, wash with soap and hot water;
  • Baking Soda & Vinegar 2: Cover bottom of the pot with white vinegar, bring it to a boil, remove from heat and add a liberal dose of baking soda, enjoy the theatrics, wash with soap and hot water;
  • Bar Keepers Friend: I suppose one day I should tell you about my irrational hatred of Bar Keepers Friend, but today is not that day. Instead, today I shall tell you that just about everyone (but me) absolutely, 100% love love loves BKF for use on pots and pans. You should probably believe them and ignore the rantings of the insane lady writing this column.
  • Bon Ami: On the flip side of my irrational-hatred-of-Bar Keepers Friend is my devotion to Bon Ami. My great-grandmother used it! Plus: Adorable packaging.
  • Dobie Pad: Dobie Pads are sponges covered with a plastic netting that serves to safely scour pots and pans without scratching, which is a great thing to know about for cleaning all manner of cookware blighted by stuck-on food.
  • Soap-Impregnated Steel Wool: These are your Brillo pads, you S.O.S pads, etc. They can cause scratching, so you should know that and reserve them for use on very, very tricky messes only. But they do work! One way to minimize the potential for scratching is to cover the bottom of the pan with water and work with the steel wool while it’s submerged. Another tip is to fight the natural inclination to bear down on the pad, opting instead to move it over the stained area lightly, allowing the steel wool to do the work for you, which will help to minimize scratching.
  • Oven Cleaner: We’re going to talk more about oven cleaner in the next Q&A, but it usually comes up when we talk about badly stained cookware, so! Some people SWEAR by oven cleaner for getting pots and pans super clean, but I recommend it only as a last ditch resort. It’s incredibly caustic stuff, which can cause fine cookware to become discolored. It should also never be used on anything with a non-stick coating, as it will completely obliterate the finish. If you’ve got a pot, however, that is almost beyond salvaging and nothing else has worked, oven cleaner might be the ticket to avoid having to trash it. You must promise me that you will never work with oven cleaner without first donning a pair of rubber gloves, though. Do you promise? I want to hear you say it! I’m waiting. Okay thanks!

Since we’re on the subject, a quick note on anodized aluminum and non-stick (Teflon) pans: The instructions in this post apply to stainless steel cookware, not to anodized aluminum or Teflon-coated pots and pans. Teflon can safely go in the dishwasher, if you’re lucky enough to have one of those fine appliances, but anodized aluminum should only be hand washed using soap and hot water. Do not use baking soda or any other alkaline-based cleaning product on anodized aluminum cookware; Calphalon, manufacturer of anodized aluminum products, recommends Dawn dish soap and Bar Keepers Friend for cleaning. When washing Teflon pots and pans, be sure to stay away from any sort of abrasive cleaning product or tool—boiling dish soap and water is my suggestion for cleaning mucked up Teflon, for whatever that’s worth, and Dobie Pads are also safe for use on Teflon, which is a helpful thing to know.

Not that I have a ton of experience with actually using one, but I find that after 10 years of having an oven I have no clue how to clean it. I know a lot of them have some sort of self-cleaning mode (which I assumed function like a dishwasher when I was younger) but will that really get all the grime off of the door and what not? Is there some sort of safe, more natural product I should use? Do you already have water and vinegar saved to paste into the answer for this?

The notion of a self-cleaning oven working like a dishwasher is tickling my funny bone in juuuuust the right spot. Also: now I’m imagining it working like a car wash with those fun giant rag machines swishing about the interior of the oven! Aww man, I actually want to make that happen. I’m a grown woman, but I still get all crazy excited and clap like a five-year-old when I get to go through one of those car wash contraptions. Simple pleasures, I suppose.

Sorry, but you wanted to know about self-cleaning ovens. The quick and dirty (heh) answer regarding self-cleaning ovens is that they work by applying extreme heat which burns off any residue from splatters or spills that occur during cooking. No chemicals involved! And, you know, no real work on your part. Cycle time and results vary widely from model to model—some self-cleaning functions just work better than others. So in order to answer your question about whether or not your self-cleaning option works in a most maddening way, you’ll have to try it out for yourself. Sorry! What I can tell you here are two important things you’ll want to consider: (1) Most cycles run upwards of three hours and heat the oven up to about 900°F, so in warmer months/climates this approach may not be ideal; (2) the self-cleaning feature is hard on your oven and can cause it to go kaput.

To help make up for the fact that the first part of my answer was kind of an annoying non-answer, we’ll move on to some more concrete things that I can tell you. First up, you asked about safe and natural products, which there are. Fair warning, though—they will require a substantial amount of time and elbow grease. Which is fine! But you should know that.

As you correctly guessed, vinegar is indeed one option. It often is! For this task, the vinegar is best used in concert with baking soda; sprinkle baking soda liberally on the oven floor and door and then spritz it with vinegar (a spray bottle will facilitate the spritzing action). Let that sit for 30 or so minutes and then wipe it clean with a sponge or clean rag. A sponge with a scrubby back is a good tool to employ for the task, as it will help to slough off any particularly stubborn spots of baked on gunk.

For those of you who hate vinegar, a good grease cutting dish soap like Dawn, Palmolive, or Seventh Generation mixed with hot water is a good option. Again, a scrubby sponge will be a helpful tool. If things are really bad, a steel wool pad is the ticket.

Moving along the spectrum to slightly more toxic solutions brings us to ammonia, which is marvelous on grease in general and also is a relatively labor un-intensive method for oven cleaning. Place a bowl of ammonia (a half to full cup will do it) in a cold oven, shut the door and let it chill there over night. The ammonia will loosen up stuck-on food and grease, which you will be able to wipe off easily with a damp sponge. Just be aware that ammonia smells, and so you may want to crack a window to keep the fumes from taking over your home.

Which leads me to the last item for discussion: OVEN CLEANER. This stuff stinks to high heaven (even the “odor-free” kind, seriously) and it will burn the hell out of your skin if you make contact with it. But it works. Like, it really, really, really works.

Before you start in with oven cleaner, you must open the windows and you must don a pair of protective gloves. I once made the mistake of cleaning my oven post-gym while wearing a tank top, swiped my bare shoulder on a patch of oven cleaner and it burned me so badly it left a scar that didn’t heal for almost a month. The stuff does not mess around!

Generally, I feel more comfortable with cleaners that are used on a cold oven—something about the notion of a hot oven + chemicals makes me uneasy. Directions vary from brand to brand, so it’s important to take a gander at those before using any new products, but the basics go like this:

  1. Open the windows and don your gloves.
  2. Spray the interior of the oven, being sure to hit the back wall and ceiling, as well as the door, sides, racks and floor, with the oven cleaner.
  3. Close the oven door and walk away for 10-15 minutes. If you’ve got items in your sink remove them, as you’ll need the sink to rinse the racks as well as to dispose of and replace the wash water, which you’ll likely have to do at least once during this absolutely disgusting process. This is a photo from one of my oven cleaning sessions. I KNOW, RIGHT??? So freaking gross.
  4. Fill a bucket with water and grab a sponge; just like with other methods of oven cleaning one of those sponges with a scubby back is recommended to help get at tough spots.
  5. Open the oven door back up, and remove the racks to the sink—you’ll want to wash those first, using a sponge to wipe them down followed by rinsing them thoroughly with hot water. Dry them and set them aside.
  6. Make yourself comfortable in front of the oven, and begin the process of wiping the interior down, starting with the side walls and roof. Then stick your head in the oven, which is always a fun instruction to give out! The reason I give that instruction is that, unless you are blessed with a phenomenally broad wingspan, the only way to reach to the back of the oven to hit that far wall is to kind of get yourself fully in there. It goes pretty fast though, promise.
  7. The last part of the oven you’ll clean is the bottom panel (the floor, as I like to call it), and the reason for that is when you’re cleaning the top, back and sides the cleaner will drip down. So if you’ve cleaned that first, you’ll find you need to do a second pass at it.

Throughout the process of wiping away all the oven cleaner and the grease and grime it’s lifted, you’ll need to rinse that sponge out frequently; you will likely also need to change the water in your bucket out, because as you wring your sponge it will turn into an ugly basin of sludge. It is absolutely disgusting work. But also incredibly satisfying in a very strange way.

Jolie Kerr is the author of the upcoming book My Boyfriend Barfed In My Handbag … And Other Things You Can’t Ask Martha (Plume, 25 February 2014); more cleaning-obsessed natterings can be found on Twitter, Kinja, and Tumblr.

Squalor appears on Jezebel and Deadspin on alternating weeks.

Image by zimmytws/Shutterstock.

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