Don’t Panic If You Burned Your Pan — Here’s How You Can Fix It

Water is scourge of cast-iron cookware. Thankfully, when it comes to big messes, cast-iron is also a worthy adversary. With a few supplies you probably already have in your house, you can vanquish burned-on food with a little elbow grease and these tips.

How to clean a burned cast-iron pan

The big rule for cast-iron is never to let it soak in water for long periods of time, as this can cause it to rust. But that doesn’t mean you can’t use water at all. You just need a little help from an abrasive to help you get the gunk off.

Supplies:

  • Paper towels or clean rags
  • Coarse or kosher salt
  • Steel wool or abrasive scrubbing pad

Directions:

Step 1

Remove any food that’s still in the pan. Do not use water during this step. Use a paper towel to wipe out any non-burned bits if necessary. Sprinkle the pan liberally with the coarse salt. Use the paper towels or rags to scrape the burned-on bits out of the pan and into the trash. If that solved the problem, clean and season as usual. Otherwise, go to step 2.

Step 2

Run some hot water into your pan (only as much as needed), whip out your steel wool and get to scrubbing. While there’s no need to bare down any more than necessary to get the burned-on food up, cast-iron can take quite a lot of abuse (and if you can’t get the food off, it’s ruined anyway). When all the burned food is off the pan, clean and season as usual and get it dry (in the oven or on the stovetop) as quickly as possible.

A note on cast-iron care: A lot of people say you can’t use water on cast iron at all or that you can’t use anything abrasive like metal tools (or steel wool) because you’ll wash or scrape off the seasoning. But science tells us that’s hokum. If you’ve properly seasoned your cast-iron pan using the right oil and heat, that oil you poured on is no longer a thin layer of oil, but a polymerized oil. According to Popular Science, “Polymerized oil is more like a plastic than a fat, which makes it hard and resistant to sticking. By heating the whole pan to a high enough temperature, you permanently bond the oil to the raw iron. In this form, it protects the metal from air and food.” So relax and enjoy the simple beauty of cooking with cast iron. Your pan will be fine.

how to clean a burnt pot
Image: Terese Condella/SheKnows.

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