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How to Clean a Stained or Scorched Stainless-Steel Skillet

No, it's not ruined. Yes, it can be shiny and sparkly again.

Published June 20, 2023.

As a professional cookware tester, I field a lot of questions from friends and family. Can you broil in a nonstick skillet? Is it okay to substitute Pecorino for Parm? What’s the best air fryer? 

(The answers, by the way, are: no, most of the time, and the Instant Vortex 6-Quart Air Fryer.) 

I recently received a frantic text from a friend. She was messaging with the kind of urgency I usually only see around Thanksgiving, when guests have started to arrive and the turkey isn’t done. She included a photo of her All-Clad skillet—the cooking surface coated in a bronze, sticky substance—and an all-caps question. 


No, it's not ruined.

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scorched stainless steel skillet

My friend and her husband are good cooks, and this isn’t a bumbling “has this ever happened to you?” infomercial. They hadn’t done anything wrong or unusual; they simply cooked a quesadilla in a skillet with a fair bit of oil over high heat.

It’s an easy problem to cause, but it can be a hard one to fix. 

Why Are Pan Stains So Hard to Remove?

When oil gets too hot, it breaks down into its components (glycerol and free fatty acids), which then scorch and form really sticky residues. The residue itself forms a barrier that prevents soap from getting to the surface of the skillet and dislodging the mess. As a result, dish soap is pretty much powerless.

When my friend texted me, she’d already tried unsuccessfully to scrub off the residue with dish soap and a soft sponge. 

Good news for my friend—and for anyone with a stainless-steel skillet that they fear is ruined—Bar Keepers Friend can tackle that mess.

bar keepers friend
Bar Keepers Friend is every home cook's friend.

What Is Bar Keepers Friend?

The household cleanser was created in the 1880s, when a chemist named George William Hoffman noticed that cooking some rhubarb had made a tarnished pot sparkle. Rhubarb, he realized, contains a powerful acid called oxalic acid. Hoffman created an oxalic acid–based cleanser, and it became popular with tavern owners who used to clean their tarnished brass rails. Hence the name Bar Keepers Friend.

In addition to oxalic acid, Bar Keepers Friend contains mineral abrasive and surfactant. It’s a powerful combination. Oxalic acid works chemically, breaking apart the sticky residue at a molecular level. The abrasive works mechanically, dislodging the residue from the skillet’s surface. And the surfactant combats the residue’s water-repellent properties, ensuring that the other ingredients can work their magic.


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Other Ways to Use Bar Keepers Friend

It’s not just sticky grease that Bar Keepers Friend helps with. The acid very effectively removes rust stains, mineral deposits (try it on the inside of a kettle), and the dark or rainbow-colored discoloration of stainless-steel cookware that can be caused by overheating. Meanwhile, the abrasive particles are great for scouring away even the most profoundly cooked-on food. I also use it to clean my kitchen sink

Although the company now manufactures a variety of products, I like the versatility of the classic powder. It’s simple to use: Simply wet the item you want to clean, sprinkle a little powder on the surface, and rub gently with a wet cloth or the soft side of a kitchen sponge. For really stubborn stains, you may need to repeat the process but you shouldn’t have to use much elbow grease. 

But don’t take my word for it. Here’s my friend’s second text:

text exchange

Name has been removed to protect the reputation of my friend, who it should be noted is a wonderful cook and takes very good care of her things.

Test Kitchen-Approved

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