We Tried 5 Methods for Cleaning Discolored Stainless Steel Pans — And the Winner Was Not What We Expected

published Aug 7, 2021
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Credit: Sarah Crowley

Stainless steel doesn’t always look so stainless. Boil-overs, messy drips, deep-fried anything — they’re all known for wreaking havoc on the surfaces of our pans. Turn over the bottom of most cook’s cookware, and you’ll see a motley medley of black and brown marks that show no sign of ever coming off. 

All is not lost, though! With a little elbow grease, those stains can come off. The question, of course, is how much effort will it require? And the answer depends on what you reach for. There’s a world of powders, creams, and solutions promising to get pots and pans like new again, plus a whole host of scrubbers. Do any really work? Or, more specifically, can they work without a sweat-inducing workout session for your arms?

I scoured the web to find out what experts were touting as the best way to clean these stains off pots and pans. Three cleansers rose to the top: Brillo Cameo cleaner, Bar Keepers Friend Cookware Cleanser & Polish, and Easy-Off oven cleaner. In addition, old-fashioned steel wool was another big favorite, as was the classic baking-soda-and-lemon remedy. I decided to put an end to wondering and put each of these to the test. 

Credit: Sarah Crowley

How We Tested the Methods for Cleaning Stainless Steel Pans

I don’t baby my stainless steel pans. The bottoms are covered in brown stains and black marks, and this doesn’t bother me one bit. So, suffice to say, I had a lot of cookware prime for the test. I gathered five of my most-stained pans (yes, I have a lot of pans!) and divided the bottoms of each one into sections, so that I could try a few variants of each method (more on that below).

The results of my test were not at all what I expected.

The ratings: Each method received a 1 to 5 rating; 5 being the best method overall, and 1 being the least effective method. Along with the rating you’ll find notes on how easy or difficult the method was, how much elbow grease it took, and how much time it took to clean the pan.

Credit: Sarah Crowley

Stainless Steel Cleaning Method: Easy-Off Oven Cleaner

  • Ease of use: 3/5
  • Performance: 2/5
  • Price: 2/5 (I paid $7.02 for 24 ounces)
  • Overall: 2

The method: I sprayed the oven cleaner on the bottom of a large pot. I let it sit for 5 minutes and scrubbed one section, using a sponge first then the scrubby side. Then scrubbed the second section after it had sat for 30 minutes. I let the third section sit for over an hour. Each time I noted how well the cleaner was performing and how much effort I had to expend.

How it went: I use oven cleaner for so many things, so this was an absolute shocker. I thought for sure the oven cleaner would melt the stains right off. I used it on my worst pot and, well, nothing budged. Even after letting the solution sit for an hour, I could only scrub off a little bit. Considering there was prep involved in using this cleaner (I had to lay the pot on newspaper to protect my surfaces from the spray and put gloves on), the amount of downtime, and its performance, this method ranks at the bottom. Save your oven cleaner for other things.

Credit: Sarah Crowley

Stainless Steel Cleaning Method: Brillo Cameo

  • Ease of use: 4.5/5
  • Performance: 3/5
  • Price:  2/5 (I paid $6.82 for 10 ounces)
  • Overall: 3/5

The method: For the two powdered cleansers, I applied them directly to the stains, wet a sponge, and rubbed back and forth to see how much effort it took to power through one section. Then I used the scrubby side of the sponge for another section, and steel wool for the third section. Each time, I noted how quickly the stains began to lift off — or not — and how much effort I had to apply, and for how long. 

How it went: I expected big things from this powder, which seemed specifically made for cookware. After all, Cameo has been around for a long time. It’s a classic cleanser that the manufacturer of Brillo acquired and renamed. I’ve used it (with great results) for cleaning burnt-on gunk, but for these sorts of stains it was just OK. It took a lot more scrubbing effort than I had hoped. 

Credit: Sarah Crowley

Stainless Steel Cleaning Method: Baking Soda and Lemon 

  • Ease of use: 4.5/5
  • Performance: 3.5/5
  • Price: 5/5 (about $1.50)
  • Overall: 4/5

The method: I wet the bottom of the pan, sprinkled generously with baking soda, then scrubbed with the cut side of a lemon, as directed by Arm & Hammer. After a while, I switched to a scrubby sponge.

How it went: Most of us have baking soda and lemons on hand, making this method very doable. That earns it a ton of points alone. Performance-wise, it did pretty well — better than oven cleaner, and almost as good as Brillo Cameo. It took a fair amount of scrubbing effort, but the combination seemed to fizz up and help dissolve stains, while the abrasive powder helped scrub them off. The worst stains had a hard time budging. Still, the metal eventually ended up beautifully shiny, similar to the shine after using Bar Keepers Friend. If you want a cheap, good-smelling, eco-friendly way to remove not-too-heavy stains from your pans, using stuff you likely already have on hand, this method does the trick. 

Credit: Sarah Crowley

Stainless Steel Cleaning Method: Bar Keepers Friend Cookware Cleanser & Polish

  • Ease of use: 5/5
  • Performance: 4.5/5
  • Price: 2/5 (I paid $7.43 for 12 ounces)
  • Overall: 4/5

The method: I tested this the same way I tested the Brillo Cameo cleaner.

How it went: I was knocked out by the performance of this version of Bar Keepers Friend (aka BKF). I could see the stains practically melting off. They lifted after just one or two back-and-forth scrubs. And when I added the scouring power of steel wool, no stain no matter how old stood a chance. I tried the duo on a deeply stained pot, and it’s like I have a brand-new pot. Seriously, like it’s right out of the box. I have regular BKF, and use it frequently for all kinds of scouring jobs, but this version actually polishes the cookware too. My pans weren’t only stain-free, but they were also noticeably glossy and shiny!

Credit: Sarah Crowley

Stainless Steel Cleaning Method: Steel Wool

  • Ease of use: 4.5/5
  • Performance: 5/5
  • Price: 4.5/5 (I paid $6.14 for 10)
  • Overall: 5/5

The method: I simply wet the steel wool with water and started scrubbing.

How it went: Where has steel wool been all of my life? Right in front of my face, of course, but it took this test for me to officially join the unofficial fan club. The steel wool pad powered through the stains — no problem. It’s cheap, and it’s moldable, so it was easy to fit into crevices, too. And as long as you’re not cleaning something full of burnt-on bits, the pad rinses pretty clean, and can be reused tons of times.

I also tried a plain steel wool pad (the kind without any soap at all) and, when combined with the Bar Keepers Friend Cookware Cleanser & Polish, it was the most magical combination. The stains came off nearly effortlessly and the cookware looked shiny and new. Note: Steel wool can leave scratches on soft metals and delicate surfaces, like porcelain enamel, so I’ll be sure to only use it on my stainless steel. 

How do you clean stains on your stainless steel cookware? Tell us in the comments below.