How to clean a burnt pan: expert tips on fixing the damage

Don’t despair if you’ve burnt a pan – there’s more than one way to clean it.

We’ve all known the pain of cooking up a culinary storm, only to discover you’ve somehow managed to cake some of the ingredients on the bottom of your pan.

Whether it’s meat or vegetables, pasta or rice, it’s easy to get distracted from stirring, or to even turn the temperature up a little too high to get the meal served more quickly.

man taking spaghetti out of panCredit: Shutterstock/Lightfield Studios
Even the simplest of ingredients can be burnt

But it’s an error we make at our peril. Burnt-on ingredients don’t budge easily, despite the extravagant claims of washing-up liquids and dishwasher-tablet manufacturers. In our experience, there’s always going to be a little bit of elbow grease required to shift those stubborn marks.

So, if you find yourself faced with a challenging cookery clean, here’s what the experts recommend.

1. Boil the burnt off

Add water and turn up the heat – even though it seems contraditory

“My top tip would be to boil off whatever is burnt,” says Mark McCabe, chef/owner of restaurant, The Ethicurean. “Sometimes a bit of bicarbonate of soda in the water also helps to lift up the carbon,” he adds.

Although it might seem strange to add more heat to a pan that already has ingredients stuck to it, it’s a quick and easy solution.

silver saucepan on gas hobCredit: Shutterstock/Arosoft
Use the power of hot water to lift away the burnt remnants

Rob Falconer, head of range at ProCook agrees: “A burnt pan can be quickly remedied: first, clean the pan with warm water, mild detergent and a non-abrasive scourer, to keep it from scratching the pan,” says Falconer.

“Then, for burnt food that won’t budge, fill the pan again with water, add a couple of squirts of detergent and start heating up to a boil.

“Use a plastic or wooden spoon or spatula to carefully scrape the food from the pan,” he adds, “then wash it as normal.”

2. Use salt, lemons and even cola to beat the burn

Raid your kitchen cupboard ingredients

In addition to being a vital seasoning ingredient, the abrasive powers of salt can be used to remove burnt food. Simply sprinkle some onto the offending area, rub with a damp sponge and you should see the debris lift away.

salt being spooned out of a glass jar with a wooden spoonCredit: Shutterstock/Ekramar
Salt is not just for seasoning

If you’ve overestimated how many lemons you needed for your G&Ts, don’t leave them abandoned in the bottom of the fridge. Instead, harness their acidic and antibacterial properties by chopping three or four (depending on the size of your pan) into quarters. Pop them into plenty of water, bring to the boil and then leave to simmer for around 10 minutes.

lemons on worktop and in cream pot with sunny window in backgroundCredit: Shutterstock/Davizro Photography
Call on the natural antibacterial properties of lemons

You’ll hopefully see the burnt food rise to the surface. Once the pan is cool enough to touch, empty the water and wipe any remaining deposits away.

We’ve all seen the stories that tell you to put a penny in a glass of cola and see how clean it gets. It’s not a myth as cola contains carbonic acid, which dissolves dirt. But don’t worry, it’s not as aggressive as it sounds – according to the Bosch website: “its acid is less potent than what’s already in your stomach.”

So if you’ve got a spare can or bottle to hand, pour some into your pan and then leave it to sit for a few hours or even overnight. Rinse and wash as normal and your pan should be revitalised.

3. Combine baking soda and vinegar

Embrace the chemical-free approach

Although we’ve already touched on a few chemical-free solutions, the trusty fail-safe cleaning solution of baking soda and vinegar can also be called upon if your cooking has gone awry.

glass jars with baking soda and vinegarCredit: Shutterstock/Focal Point
Baking soda and vinegar make powerful partners

Bosch recommends the following approach:

  • Add water and vinegar to your pan in equal measure.
  • Bring the mixture to a boil.
  • Add two heaped tablespoons of baking soda and watch it fizz up, then clean with a sponge.
  • Repeat if needed, adding water, vinegar and baking soda, mixing to a paste, and let it sit for 10 minutes. Wash your pan with washing-up liquid as usual.

Which pans are best?

Although it can be tempting to always purchase non-stick pans, as with most things, the tools are only as good as the person using them, and even busy restaurants with qualified chefs have the odd accident.

We asked McCabe what pans he prefers to use.

“It sounds counterintuitive, but stainless-steel pans are generally better than non-stick,” he tells us. “Because if you do burn something onto them, you can rely on good old-fashioned elbow grease to get it off, without worrying about ruining your pan.”

As my sons and I have burnt non-stick pans on more than one occasion, I think it may be time for a change of cookware in our home.

4. Use foil if you don’t have a scourer

You can pop it in the recycling once you’re done

If you want to add a little more abrasion to your burnt pan, but don’t have a scourer or scrubbing brush to hand, rolling up a ball of foil can have the same effect.

Using your preferred cleaning agent, scrub away the burnt bits with the balled-up foil and then wash the pan out. Clean off the foil and then pop it into the appropriate recycling bin or bag.

5. Douse with a dishwasher tablet

You can use them outside of the appliance

A Mrs Hinch favourite, dishwasher tablets are touted by many of her fans as the best means of removing burnt food from a pan.

Containing enzymes that break down the starch and proteins in food, they’re one of the reasons why dishes come out of the dishwasher so clean. So even if you’re still undecided on whether dishwashing or washing by hand is better, there’s no reason why you can’t call upon the power of the tablets to help you out.

hands in pink rubber gloves holding dishwasher tabletsCredit: Shutterstock/Aritel
Dishwasher tablets aren’t just for machines

Cover the bottom of your pan with water, heat and then remove from the hob. Make sure the water cools enough to not burn your fingers, then take a dishwasher tablet and rub it over the burnt areas using small circular motions until it’s dissolved. Rinse, wash with warm soapy water and you’ll have perfect pans once again.

Most dishwasher tablets come with a warning sign as they contain chemicals. We always recommend reading the instructions before using the tablets, and that you wear rubber gloves.

Can you avoid burnt pans?

Finally, if you are looking for prevention rather than cure, we asked McCabe if there is any way of avoiding burnt pans.

“Burning pans comes with the territory of cooking, I’m afraid,” he says, “but the best way to avoid it is to be as organised as possible before you start cooking so that you don’t get distracted when chopping ingredients or hunting for stuff in the fridge.

“Failing all of that… hire a good kitchen porter!”

I’m off to ask my sons if they are up for the job…

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Sarah Harley

Written by Sarah Harley she/her

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Since first picking up a paintbrush and experiencing the joy of re-decorating her bedroom in a questionable red, white and grey scheme as a young teenager, Sarah Harley was hooked on the world of interior design. This obsession even led to a real life ‘Grand Designs’ project in 2005 when she donned a pink hard hat and appeared on TV screens, project managing the renovation and extension of a Grade II listed 17th century Folly in South Wales.

Throughout her career, Sarah has gained an array of experience in several different roles, ranging from copywriting, PR, events management and photography to interior design and home staging. With her two passions being the written word and the joys of a beautifully designed home, Sarah’s mission is to open the door on the world of interiors, inviting readers in to help them work their way through the vast choice of products, ideas and trends so that their own homes can reach their full potential.

Away from work, Sarah fills her Pinterest boards with more ideas, dreams of where to travel, takes photographs and loves being by the sea. She has two sons and if she absorbed everything they said would also be a football expert. The fact is she is often more interested in the colour and design of the kit – but don’t tell them that.

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