On the Line / Operations / The Ultimate Guide to Cleaning Pans

The Ultimate Guide to Cleaning Pans

Become a master of kitchen clean-up: learn how to clean your stainless-steel pans, restore cast iron skillets, and keep all your pots and pans looking like new.

Pots and pans

Whether you’re a restaurant kitchen dishwasher or a home cook, cleaning and maintaining your cooking tools is a regular part of your everyday tasks. And though they can be a pain to wash, pots and pans are one of the essentials of preparing food. They’re durable pieces of equipment and usually quite an investment for any home or commercial kitchen. 

When they’re cared for properly, pots and pans will remain reliable for years. I have some pots that have been in my family for generations. Knowing I’m cooking on the same surfaces as my great-grandparents helps me feel connected to them, but they have only been in my family for so long because of our dedicated care for them. 

In restaurant kitchens, the quality – and cleanliness – of pots and pans is crucial to the success of recipes. Learning to care for that investment will ensure consistent products and save you time and money. And since restaurant pots and pans are used near-constantly, it’s even more important to clean them correctly so they stay usable for a long time.

Find out what types of pots and pans you use in your restaurant, and read on to learn the basics about what they’re used for and why. Then, scroll down to learn how best to clean them.

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A Practical Guide to Pans

Cooking and cleaning are both, at their core, chemical processes. The material your pots and pans are made of determines what you cook on them and how you should clean them.

There are a few popular types of cooking surfaces, like stainless steel, cast iron, carbon steel, teflon, ceramic, aluminum, glass, and copper. Understanding the chemical makeup of each kind of surface can help as a guide to which tools and methods you should use to clean them. 

What is Stainless Steel?

Stainless steel is one of the most common cooking surfaces because of its weight, ability to withstand high temperatures, and because it’s easy to keep clean. Food grade stainless is 300 series austenitic stainless steel; like all stainless steel, it is a mix of iron and chromium, which prevents the iron from oxidizing (rusting) when exposed to water and oxygen. Stainless steel is reactive with acids but can withstand a moderate amount of abrasion. 

Skillets, pots, and saucepans are most often cast with stainless steel, as well as some home grills.

What is Cast Iron?

Cast iron, which some might argue is indispensable in a kitchen, is also steel that is made of iron and carbon. It can withstand even higher temperatures than stainless but its heats unevenly because the metal is so dense. Cast iron pans are susceptible to rust and are highly reactive with acids. 

Skillets, grill pans, and Dutch ovens are often made of cast iron. Many restaurant and some home grills are made of cast iron. Some cast iron is coated with ceramic which creates a non-stick surface on the iron.  

What is Carbon Steel?

Carbon steel is also a mix of carbon and iron. It’s lighter and stronger than cast iron but even more susceptible to rust and corrosion from acids. Carbon steel has a very high melting point. 

Woks, skillets, and some large pots are made of carbon steel.

Teflon

Teflon is a polymer coating that is often bonded to aluminum to create skillets and saucepans. Teflon and aluminum are both great at conducting heat but are easily damaged with high heat or abrasion. A Teflon surface is superhydrophobic so very little will stick to it, making it easy to clean.

Ceramic

Ceramic, like Teflon, is bonded to the surface of cast iron to form a non-stick coating. Ceramic has an extremely high heat tolerance and is stronger and less easily damaged than Teflon.  

Aluminum

As noted above, aluminum is usually coated in Teflon for skillets and saucepans, but most baking sheets and many mixing bowls are made of aluminum. Aluminum isn’t susceptible to acids and resists rust, unlike steel, but it is easily scratched and damaged.

Glass

Glass has a high heat tolerance but cools slowly. It’s not weak to acids and has a strong surface that isn’t easily scratched. Glass is used in baking trays, mixing bowls, and measuring cups — but not all glass is heatproof, so check the brand of your glass cooking vessels before throwing them in the oven.

Copper

Copper is less popular these days for pans, but copper skillets and pots distribute heat effectively and cool down fast. Copper is even more susceptible to corrosion by acids than steel. The cooking surface of copper pans are often lined with tin and less often with stainless, so it’s important to know what the surface of your pan is composed of.

Getting Your Pans Clean

Tools for Cleaning Pans

There are two general categories of tools that people use to clean pots and pans – abrasives and non-abrasives. 

  • Abrasive tools are scrub pads, coarse brushes, steel wool, and anything that will remove food and oil with scrubbing.
  • Non-abrasive tools are cloths, sponges, and soft brushes that will remove food and oil without much force.

Cleaning vs. Sanitizing

Cleaning and sanitizing are two different chemical processes. What’s the difference between cleaning and sanitizing? Cleaning removes dirt and food particles, while sanitizing is the process of bacteria left on surfaces by food or people.  

Cleaning requires dish soap which is a solution of water and detergents. Soaps are fatty acid compounds that act as an emulsifying agent which allows them to dissolve food and oil. Dish soap usually also contains surfactants that act as a mild abrasive and help to remove dirt; surfactants are also responsible for the lathering effect and are activated by hot water.

Hot water is one way to sanitize dishes, but most restaurant kitchens use non-toxic sanitizers to ensure that their equipment stays free of bacteria, to follow USDA guidelines. Lots of restaurants have sanitizing machines that combine hot water and sanitizing solution to sanitize dishes.

Dishwashers

Dishwashers are home kitchen appliances, for the most part. They use detergents without surfactants and pressurized hot water to clean dishes. Steel and Teflon can be easily scratched by dishwashers. Aluminum, ceramic, and glass are scratch-resistant and can be cleaned with a dishwasher.

Baking Soda

Baking soda is a similar chemical compound to liquid soap, and adding it to water will form an abrasive and efficient cleaning solution that is especially good at absorbing oil or grease. The abrasive effect is not good for Teflon but the method is great for stainless steel or copper.

Lemon & Vinegar

Some people use lemon as a cleaning agent because it is a milder acid. Vinegar is also a mild acid that is sometimes used for cleaning. As steels react with and will corrode when exposed to acids, it is not advisable to use lemon to clean steel. However, it can be good for cleaning aluminum or glass.

Boiling Water

Boiling water is a popular strategy for cleaning burned or especially oily pans. While hot water is a great sanitizer, water alone will not emulsify or dissolve. Boiling a solution of water and soap or baking soda can help to loosen burned oil and is gentler than using an abrasive tool.

Pots and Pans Cleaning Guide

Tips Before you Start Cleaning

If you’re in a restaurant kitchen, treat your dishes – and your dish workers – as the valuable assets of your business that they are. Communicate with your staff about how each type of pot and pan should be cleaned and sanitized. It’s a good idea to have a standard operating procedure for how you expect all of your employees to treat the pots and pans in your restaurant.

Just as when you’re cooking, take a moment to get organized and assess what is to be cleaned before rushing headlong into the task. Is your pan burned on the bottom? When was the last time the cast iron was seasoned? Gather the tools you’ll need and make a plan of attack.

How to Clean Stainless Steel Pans

To clean a stainless steel pan, use a non-steel abrasive like a scrub pad or coarse plastic brush. Soap and hot water is the best combination of cleaners. 

Scrub the surface clean of food particles and oil that has stuck to the surface. Food should come off easily but lots of soap, hot water, and manual power will be useful to clean stuck or burned oil. Stainless can be easily sanitized with a non-toxic sanitizer solution, making it a popular choice for restaurant kitchens. 

Never use a steel brush or steel wool, as they can scratch the surface of the steel and leave metals on the cooking surface. Don’t use lemon or other acids to clean steel as they can corrode the metal.

How to Clean Cast Iron Pans

Cast iron is seasoned with a layer of hot oil before being used as a cooking surface. Whether the seasoning is in good condition or poor condition will determine how you approach cleaning your skillet, Dutch oven, or grill pan.  

Abrasives usually aren’t necessary for a well-seasoned cast iron pan – a soft sponge or cloth used with soap and hot will remove most food particles. Abrasives might be necessary for burned food, but since a layer of oil needs to stay on the pan, be sure to re-season the pan if you damage the seasoning with abrasive tools.

Avoid cleaning (or cooking) with acids like lemon that can corrode the cast iron and cause it to rust. Cast iron can be sanitized with non-toxic sanitizer but it’s suggested to avoid dishwashers or sanitizing machines.

How to Restore Rusted Cast Iron

If your cast iron starts to rust, it’s time to season it again. Before you begin to season it, however, it’s important to make sure that there’s no rust present and that the pan is very dry so that it doesn’t continue to rust under the layer of oil called seasoning.

Rusted cast iron requires an abrasive like steel wool or a coarse brush. Scrub all of the rust away and then put your pan in the oven on low heat to dry. Then, season the cast iron well before using it to cook again. When you clean your cast iron, be careful to maintain the seasoning as best as possible.

How to Clean Carbon Steel Pans

Treat carbon steel like cast iron – use soap and hot water and avoid exposing carbon to acids. Use abrasive tools or baking soda only when necessary to clean stubborn, burned oil carbon steel pans. 

One popular method to preserve a carbon steel pan is to do a mini-seasoning on these pans after cleaning, by brushing it with a thin layer of neutral oil on a paper towel, turning up the heat until it smokes, and wiping out the remaining oil.

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How to Clean Non-Stick Pans

How you clean a non-stick pan depends on the kind of coating on the pan and the composition of the pan, but it’s always a good idea to avoid abrasive cleaners or tools that might damage the non-stick coating of the pan.

How to Clean Teflon Pans

Clean Teflon pans with a non-abrasive tool, soap, and hot water. Never use an abrasive of any kind on a teflon pan. Because the surface of a Teflon pan is superhydrophobic, it should be easy to dissolve even burned grease or food without the use of any abrasives like baking soda. Lemon or other acids could be used to clean Teflon, especially when the pan is aluminum, and may help to dissolve burned oils.

How to Clean Ceramic Pans

Ceramic is much harder to damage than Teflon, but it is still important to treat the ceramic coating with care, so it doesn’t chip or scratch. Because the ceramic is bonded to the cast iron, it can withstand mild abrasives like baking soda, but abrasive tools shouldn’t be necessary. Avoid acids when cleaning cast iron coated in ceramic because even the smallest chip in the coating could expose the cast iron to corrosion.

How to Clean Copper Pans

Soap, hot water, and a non-abrasive tool are best for copper pans. Avoid coarse brushes, metal brushes, and acids. Be sure that you know if your copper pan is lined – clean it like stainless steel if it’s lined with stainless. Tin linings are equally as reactive to acid as steel, and copper should never be exposed to acid.

 How to Clean a Wok

Woks are commonly made from carbon steel, cast iron, stainless steel, and even aluminum and Teflon. Figure out what your wok is made of and then clean it like you would clean other pans with the same cooking surface. Be sure to maintain and restore cast iron woks when necessary. 

How to Clean Burned Pans

Burned pans are usually coated with stuck-on or burned oil that is dense and difficult to dissolve into water, even with the use of soap. Burned oil creates a hydrophobic surface that makes it more difficult to emulsify with soap. Boiling a solution of water and dish soap is a good way to loosen burned oil with heat. Abrasive tools can be used on stainless steel with soap and hot water to scrub burned oil. Some people use salt or baking soda with soap and water as an added abrasive. If your burned pot is Teflon and won’t corrode if exposed to acids, you might soak the pot in a solution of soap, lemon or vinegar, and water to break up the burned oil.

How to Keep Pans Looking Like New

Be prepared to put just as much effort into cleaning and restoring pots and pans as you do into developing recipes and cooking. Be sure to provide yourself, or your staff, with all the tools and cleaners necessary to meet the needs of all your equipment. Train your staff to know that your stainless will have to be scrubbed spotless of oil with a lot of manual power. Avoid using acids on steel or abrasives on non-stick coatings to ensure that your equipment lasts a long time. 

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