After years of using a hodgepodge of whatever cookware my roommates and I could scrape together, I finally bought a full set of stainless steel pans. I wanted to buy something that would last, so I went with a non-nonstick, all-metal set that I (hopefully) won’t have to replace anytime soon.
In that spirit, I’m trying really hard to keep them in decent shape. My question is: how?? I’m pretty good at dealing with the occasional burnt-on mess, but I’m less sure how to regularly clean them to prevent them from getting dingy over time. I usually hand-wash them with hot water, dish soap, and a scrubby brush (and, if needed, Bar Keepers Friend, which I know you hate — sorry!) That gets them functionally clean, but I sometimes notice faint spots/marks that I can’t get out even with tons of scrubbing. While it’s barely noticeable now, I want to get ahead of it if possible.
I’m also wondering if there’s something different I should be doing storage/cooking-wise. Should I season them like you would a cast-iron pan? If so, what does that even mean? Do I need one of those chainmail scrubbies?? Help!
This might surprise you guys, but I’m actually not a huge advocate for keeping your cookware totally pristine looking, and here’s why: In addition to being a Clean Person, I am also A Person Who Cooks. Because of that, and because I actually do inhabit the same real world as the rest of you, I know that pots and pans that are used will get dinged up over time — and that’s the mark of, you know, actually using them. Which you should do! Use your stuff! Life is short! Don’t save things for a special occasion! Use your good stuff on Tuesday just because!
With that being said, okay, you caught me … my stainless cookware, despite being many years on, still looks pretty good! So I can for sure help you out with some product and technique recommendations.
Before we get into it, though, a quick word on stainless versus cast iron: There are BIG HUGE WHOPPING DIFFERENCES in how the two metals need to be cared for and you know it must be a BIG DIFFERENCE because I wrote it in all caps to emphasize the bigness. Sometime down the line we’ll cover cast iron care in this space, but for the time being, just be aware that the instructions for stainless DO NOT APPLY (now I can’t stop, sorry) to cast iron cookware.
Sponge Choice & Other Washing Tips
Probably the best thing you can do for the health of your stainless steel pots and pans is choosing the right sponge. The two I recommend over all others are Scotch Brite Heavy-Duty Scrub Sponges and Dobie Pads — I spend a lot of time thinking about, and using, sponges, and these two truly are the ones you want for your stainless. The Dobie, in particular, is so clutch because it allows you to scour the steel without scratching it, so it’s great to use when you need to really bear down and scrub stuck-on food from a pan.
Our letter writer mentioned chainmail scrubbers, which are great for cast iron, but not for stainless. Avoid them! It’s also best to skip the use of soap-impregnated scouring pads, like Brillo and S.O.S, on stainless steel, because the steel wool can leave scratches.
After washing, the best practice is to dry stainless cookware immediately, which will help to prevent mineral deposits from water from discoloring the pans. If mineral deposits do form, or if the pan develops that rainbow-y effect, wiping it out with a soft cloth that’s been dampened with white vinegar will take that discoloration right out. Or! You can cook something super acidic, like tomato sauce, which will have the same effect as wiping a pan out with white vinegar but will have the added effect of leaving you with a delicious batch of tomato sauce. I’d like to recommend to you this recipe, it will change your everloving life, no joke.
Speaking of things I recommend! If you’re in need of new dish towels, look for flour sack-style ones; I made the switch from terry cloth and tea towel-style dish rags years ago and I’ve never looked back. (Oh my God tea towel dish rags can send me into an utter fury, you guys. I’ve still got stuff I have to cover in this column so I can’t allow myself to fully unleash on you, but WOW just know that I HATE them so so so so so much!)
Products for Polishing Stainless
There are all kinds of stainless steel polishes that you can buy; All Clad makes a powder cleanser that is comparable to Bar Keepers Friend and Bon Ami. BKF also offers a soft cleanser that can be a little easier to work with than the powder versions. You don’t need to use these every time you wash your pots and pans, but if keeping your cookware looking attractive is important to you, using a stainless polish maybe … once a month? Sound good? Okay! … will help to keep buildup and discoloration from ruining the good looks of your pots.
If you don’t have one of those products on hand, good old baking soda works wonders for polishing stainless. This is actually the technique I use in my own life, on my own cookware — I learned it from a friend who runs test kitchens. The technique here is actually The Thing, more so than the product, and can certainly be used with BKF or Bon Ami or that All Clad powder cleanser if you opt for one of those over baking soda.
Here’s what you’ll do: Get the pan hot and, being careful to mind your hands, scrub it with baking soda and a damp sponge (either a Scotch Brite or a Dobie). That’s all! I know, it seems too easy and honestly, it is easy, though it does require some elbow grease. But it really works, and will make your stainless steel pots and pans look like new.