How to Clean the Worst Cooking Messes in Your Kitchen

A longtime Food & Wine Test Kitchen pro spills the tea on cleaning stubborn cooking stains, from baked-on roasting pan crud to scuffed-up cookie sheets. Plus, the most bizarre, ridiculous, and effective cleaning solution he has ever encountered.

I really love to cook. I really love to eat. I really hate to clean. But many years ago, I realized that if I intended to continue my love affair with the first two, I needed to come to peace with the third. For a few decades, I was the Test Kitchen assistant at Food & Wine and if you think you make a mess in your kitchen, imagine four cooks testing and developing recipes for eight hours straight, five days a week.

I came to some very clear conclusions about how to clean in the kitchen—namely that if at all possible, clean up immediately so stains don't have time to set, and gunk doesn't have time to fuse to your cooking surface—but, for those times when that is not in the cards, here are some after-the-fact solutions.

kitchen illustration
Illustration by Pedro Nekoi

Discolored Enamel

Enameled cast iron is a great kitchen workhorse but after a lot of hard usage, the interior can stain. This won't affect the cooking itself, but it looks "dirty." Soaking in hot, soapy water before a vigorous scrub with the rougher side of a sponge will often solve the problem. If not, half fill the pot with water, add a few tablespoons of baking soda, heat the water and simmer gently for 6-10 minutes, then wash. If you're still not happy, add a solution of one teaspoon bleach to every pint of water, and let that sit for three hours, then wash. And keep some Bar Keepers Friend on hand. It cleans a lot more than your bar, and it's safe on enameled cast iron.

Crusted Cast Iron

A properly-seasoned cast-iron pan will release most residue with nothing more than hot water and a quick going-over with a sponge. But sometimes, especially if sugar and meat are involved, you should break the most mythical of all cast iron rules and use hot water, a sponge scrubber, and— heaven help us—soap. And yes, you can soak the inside of a cast-iron pan to soften what's stuck; an hour or so should do the trick. If worse comes to worst and you have to scrub like crazy, just re-season, and soon it will be your go-to pan again.

Messy Microwave

If there is a race for the worst, and least frequently done cleaning job in the kitchen, I nominate the microwave. It can not only stain, it can smell to, as my mother used to say, "high heaven." Water and baking soda paste works if you scrub stubbornly dirty areas and then wipe clean. To attack both stains and smells, partially fill a bowl with either vinegar or lemon juice and water, let it boil for a minute or so, then leave the door closed for about five minutes. Wipe away that acidulated steam with a damp sponge, and don't forget the roof.

Stained Surfaces

Granite and marble need special care if you're going after stubborn stains. Baking soda and water paste can gently be rubbed in, rinsed off, and dried thoroughly, and a bit of peroxide can be used on light-colors. As for quartz, if dishwashing liquid and water doesn't do enough, you can try a glass cleaner, but avoid anything containing lemon, ammonia, or bleach. Because of that, most general purpose household cleaners are not a good idea. (I can get a new mug easily. Not so much a new countertop.)

Dishwashing soap and water, or often just plain water will do the trick for stainless steel, as will a commercial glass or stainless steel cleaner—but they may leave your stainless steel surfaces dull, and that's not the look you paid for. After a good wipedown with either dish soap and water or vinegar and water, wipe off any residue with a damp cloth, then dip another clean cloth in a tiny bit of olive oil or baby oil and shine away. Wipe off any residue, and your stainless steel will look like new.

Wrecked Roasting Pan

Cooked-on fat, sugars, and meat juices can make a beautiful roasting pan look dreadful, but there is a solution. Notice I didn't say "easy," because this requires some elbow grease. Put the pan over two burners, add water and baking soda, and heat. Let this simmer for 20-30 minutes or so. When it's cool enough to touch, begin washing it in very warm soapy water with a scrubber sponge, like a Dobie. This will take some scrubbing because the fats have bonded with the metal. (The soda has loosened the bonds somewhat, but breaking them is up to you.) If the pan is small enough, submerge it in a stock pot with water and a lot of baking soda and boil away.

You can use a stainless steel scrubber, but it will scratch the surface. This does not interfere with the roasting pan's ability to do its job, but I try not to scratch things unless there is no other option.

Scuffed Sheets

Sheet pans are every cook's best friend, and usually the dirtiest piece of equipment in the kitchen. The usual suspects work here: hard scrubbing with a paste of baking soda and vinegar, or water, or peroxide, or my old standby, Bar Keepers Friend. If you have the time and the sink space, soak the sheet pan in a sink with water to cover, and any of the above ingredients for an hour or more, and then scrub.

However, I would like to tell you about the most bizarre, ridiculous, and effective cleaning solution I have ever encountered. Take a sheet pan so messy that you want to toss it away. Add some dish soap and warm water, top that with two or three dryer sheets and a few more squirts of soap. Let that sit for a few hours, toss the sheets, pour out the water, and boy will you be surprised. Scrub anything that's left, rinse, and dry.

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