different methods to clean a burnt pan
Credit: Image: Joe Lingeman; Design: The Kitchn

We Tried 5 Methods for Cleaning a Burnt Pan and Found a Clear Winner

updated Sep 23, 2022
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Some recipes tend to wreak havoc on our pots and pans. Other times, it comes down to user error, i.e. if we’re not thinking and set the burner too high, scorching whatever’s in the pan. Regardless: We’ve all had to deal with burnt-on messes. But what’s the best way? It seems anyone you ask has a “best method” for getting cookware like new again. So, I decided to put five methods to the test to see which one got the job done in the quickest and most efficient way. 

How I Tested the Different Methods

I used the exact same pan and the exact same burnt food (a fried egg) while conducting my tests. I started by dropping an egg into the middle of a super hot pan (yes, I know this is not the best way to cook a fried egg!), I let it burn (in a well-ventilated kitchen!), then let the pan cool down completely before putting each method to the test. 

The ratings: Each method received a rating 1 to 5 — 5 being the best method overall, ! 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, as well as tips on which method works best for specific burnt on foods. After all, everyone works in their kitchen differently — some of us clean as we go, others clean after we eat. Depending on what you have time for, or what supplies you have in the kitchen, each of these methods work and can be used for different situations. 

Credit: Joe Lingeman

Method 1: Water, Vinegar, and Baking Soda

  • Total time: 25 minutes 
  • Rating: 1/5

The method: Add 1 cup water and 1 cup vinegar to the pan and bring to a boil. Turn off the heat, add 2 tablespoons of baking soda. Discard liquid and wash pot with a scouring pad. If you’re left with stuck on pieces, add more baking soda and water (make a paste) and let sit for a few minutes, then wash again with a scouring pad and dish soap

Credit: Joe Lingeman
It took a LOT of effort just to get this pan looking this good ...

How it went: Once the water started boiling, things got real stinky, real fast. During the boiling process no food seemed to come off and float to the surface, the water was relatively clear the whole time. Once I added the baking soda I couldn’t help but scrape my wooden spoon on a small part of the pan to see if the burnt food was indeed coming off. I found it was easy to nudge the top layer off, but the stuff under that wasn’t budging. I grabbed my scouring pad, which removed some of the grime, but it was a relatively arduous process and didn’t get things completely clean.

In the end, I added more baking soda and water and let the paste sit for another 10 minutes before scouring once again. After a lot more effort, I was able to get the pan back to clean. The entire process, from start to finish, took me about 25 minutes. 

While you do see results with this method, boiling the vinegar and water really didn’t seem to do all that much. Ultimately, this method requires a lot more effort and ingredients than others. I don’t really recommend anyone try this. If you really want to, be sure you’ve got time, a good scouring pad, and a sweatband because this method is intense. 

Credit: Joe Lingeman

Method 2: Dryer Sheet

  • Total time: 65-70 minutes (active time 5-10 minutes) 
  • Rating: 1/5

The method: Add a few drops of dish soap along with some hot water to the pan. Submerge a dryer sheet in the water and let sit for an hour. After an hour, remove and discard the dryer sheet and rinse out the pan using a scouring pad and dish soap. 

Credit: Joe Lingeman
Not the best results.

How it went: I wasn’t too excited about soaking a dryer sheet in a pan that I cook food in, and was even less excited about the end results. This method has been floating around online for a while, supposedly helping people remove stubborn baked-on food from glass and pans alike. But for some reason, it didn’t work for me. Some bits of food came off the top layer, but the really stubborn stuff still clung to the bottom of the pan. I thought maybe I’d done something wrong, so I tried it again, three more times. Here’s what else I tried:

  • Burnt egg, dish soap, dryer sheet, in simmering hot water on the stovetop for one hour. 
  • Burnt egg, dish soap, dryer sheet, hot tap water overnight. 
  • Burnt cheese, dish soap, hot tap water for one hour. 

Each test yielded similar results, the burnt-on food was loosened but didn’t actually come off in the scrub/rinse process as a thick sludge like other methods. After researching and watching as many videos online as I could find, it seemed like this process worked differently for everyone. At best, it helped loosen the top layer of burnt on food, saving me a bit of elbow grease. However, to get it back to clean I had to enlist a different method. 

You might use this method if you don’t have time to get to the dishes right away. If anything, it will start to loosen the burnt-on food, making your efforts a bit easier once you’re ready to get to the dishes. I’d suggest increasing the soak time and possibly adding in a second or third dryer sheet. Either way, you’re still looking at quite a bit of wait time.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

Method 3: Dishwasher Tablet

  • Total time: 3-5 minutes 
  • Rating: 3/5

The method: Cover the bottom of the pan with a tiny bit of water and warm it up on low heat. Remove from heat, scrape the tablet across the burnt on bits. Rinse and wash with warm soapy water. 

Credit: Joe Lingeman
The tablet got the brown bits off but did leave some discoloration.

How it went: After my success using a dishwasher tablet to clean my oven, I was pretty confident in its power to clean a pan. I removed the wrapper from the tablet and, with a gloved hand, began scraping it over the scorched area. The burnt-on food came up immediately, and after a few short minutes, it was completely clean! I found there was no need to use a sponge because the tablet worked as both the detergent and scouring pad. 

This process makes the least mess out of all the methods, but there’s a disclaimer: I haven’t tried any tablets other than Finish Powerball Tablets; other tablets may yield different results. 

Credit: Joe Lingeman

Method 4: Boiled Lemons

  • Total time: 25 mins (active time 5 minutes) 
  • Rating: 4/5 

The method: Quarter two or three lemons and place in the pan, fill with a few inches of water and bring to a boil. Boil for 5-10 minutes or until you start to see food particles float to the surface. Discard water and lemons, rinse, and use a scouring pad to remove any leftover bits. 

Credit: Joe Lingeman
The rest of these brown bits came off super easily!

How it went: Almost immediately after the water came to a boil I began seeing food particles float to the top. I let it continue to boil for about 5 minutes, then removed the lemons and poured the water down the drain. I was shocked to find a few tiny bits of leftover burnt pieces that came off easily with some dish soap, my scrub brush, and a quick rinse. I don’t know why, but I didn’t have a lot of faith that this method was going to work — it just seemed too simple! — and yet it did.

Honestly, this method is fantastic, especially if you’ve been cooking with lemons and have leftovers to discard. It is the easiest of all the methods, requiring hardly any scrubbing effort at all. 

Credit: Joe Lingeman

Method 5: Aluminum Foil

  • Total time: 3 minutes 
  • Rating: 5/5

The method: Cover the burnt area with 2-3 tablespoons of baking soda and add a bit of water to make a paste. Crumple up some aluminum foil and begin scrubbing it all around until all food bits and stained areas are clean. Rinse pan with warm soapy water. 

Credit: Joe Lingeman
A work-in-progress, but you can already see how clean it's getting!

How it went: Plain and simple, this method worked in hardly any time with the tiniest amount of effort. Yes, you’re going to “scrub” the pan, but you don’t have to use the same amount of effort you might use with a scouring pad. Just work the foil ball around in circles or back and forth — whatever works for you. You may need to repeat the process because the baking soda gets really dirty and makes it difficult to see the areas that still need attention, but this is, by far, the best and easiest method to use when cleaning a scorched or burnt pan.

Tip: This is a great way to put a random extra piece of foil to good use. Let’s say you used some to cover a casserole dish while you were baking something in the oven. Instead of recycling that foil right away, ball it up and save it for this cleaning hack! Also: You can use the same ball of foil to clean a few pans.

This method makes your pans look brand new and is the best out of the five I tested. Meaning: Everyone should try this. It relies completely on your scrubbing with the baking soda paste and the foil, but you don’t need to press hard at all — just scrub as you would with a washcloth. Use this method often because it leaves your stainless pots and pans looking like they just came off the assembly line. 

Do you have a go-to method for cleaning burnt-on messes off your pots and pans? Share it in the comments below!