Cooking Tips

The Easiest and Most Effective Ways to Clean a Sticky Pan

How to conquer the worst of dirty dishes.

Published Oct. 11, 2021.

It’s a universal truth that doing dishes is the worst thing about cooking. The worst dirty dish of all? One containing the remnants of something sticky, like caramel.

I run into this issue pretty often, since two of my favorite desserts—Millionaire’s Shortbread and Chocolate-Caramel Layer Cake—include making caramel. They're so delicious that tackling a hard-to-clean pan felt like a fair trade-off. But when I heard that Cook’s Illustrated test cook Lan Lam had figured out a way to make cleanup easier, I was thrilled.

Lan had spent weeks making caramel while developing her foolproof All-Purpose Caramel Sauce recipe. By the end, she was an expert on making caramel (she even put together this article with answers to all of your long-held caramel FAQs) and cleaning up afterwards.

So what’s the best way to clean a pot, pan, or skillet after using it to make something sticky? That depends on how much time you have and the effort you want to expend.

  • If you don’t mind waiting it out, the obvious option is to fill the pan with water and let it soak overnight. The next day, the sticky bits will wipe away easily with a soapy sponge. Why scrub when you can soak?
  • The fastest way to clean a sticky pan is one you might not have thought about: put it back on the heat. Fill the pan about ⅓ full of water and bring it to a simmer over medium heat, stirring frequently. If it’s caramel you’re trying to dislodge, don’t use high heat. As Lan explains in her article about making foolproof caramel, the caramel at the bottom of the pan will heat quickly, and any water in contact with that bottom layer will turn to steam and splatter as it escapes. It's a good tip—the last thing you want to do right now is create a mess on your stovetop.

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I hate leaving dishes in the sink overnight, so I prefer the quicker method. But either option will make easy work of those stubborn bits, whether they’re caramel or another sticky ingredient.

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