If you’ve ever invested in an expensive cast iron cookware set, and then been horrified when it rusted overnight odds are that you failed to clean and store it properly. You are not alone. This problem isn’t uncommon and isn’t confined to cast iron pots and pans. Many aluminum, ceramic, and other cookware types have fallen victim to improper cleaning and care over the years.

In this excerpt from the book Household Magic by Joan Wilen and Lydia Wilen the authors explain how to clean pots and pans, and discuss the care of aluminum pots, cast iron skillets, and ceramic cookware as well.


The late author Susan Sontag once observed that “fewer and fewer Americans possess objects that have a patina…old furniture, grandparents’ pots and pans—the used things, warm with generations of human touch, essential to a human landscape.”

If you’re lucky enough to have your grandparents’ pots and pans—or if you have your very own collection—here are ways to take care of them as they develop that rich patina Ms. Sontag spoke of…

The following suggestions are reserved for more dramatic scenarios like burned-on gunk, scorches and discoloration, as well as for cast-iron and clay cookware.

Be Dishwasher Safe

It’s safe to put anodized aluminum, stainless steel, enameled cast-iron and glass cookware in a dishwasher. But never put aluminum, copper or cast-iron cookware in a dishwasher.

Removing Stuck-on and Almost-Burned Food

◆ For most types of cookware, just fill the gunked-up pot or pan with water and one or two tablespoons of liquid dish detergent. Put the pot back on the stove, and bring the water to a boil. Then shut off the heat and let it soak until the water cools completely. Rinse out the water, and don’t be surprised if the food comes out with it. Whatever is left should sponge off easily.

◆ To clean burned-on food from a cast-iron pan…fill the pan with water and one or two teaspoons of liquid dish detergent. Let it simmer until you see pieces of food starting to lift off the bottom. Then wait until it’s cool enough to touch, and scour off whatever didn’t come completely loose. You may want to reseason the pan again.

◆ To loosen food stuck on an enamel pot, mix two tablespoons of baking soda with two cups of water, bring it to a boil and let it boil for 10 minutes. Once the water cools down, scrape off the food and wash the pot.

Cleaning Burned Pots/Pans

◆ If the burn is moderate—meaning, not easy to clean, yet not burned to a crisp—put about two inches of water in the pot and bring it to a boil. Once it starts boiling, cover the pot and let it boil for another five minutes.

As soon as it’s cool enough to touch, scour off the burn. If it doesn’t come right off, add a few tablespoons of baking soda and/or distilled white vinegar. Give it a few minutes to sink in and scour again.

◆ For moderate burns, boil one cup of cola in the pot, wait for it to cool and then you should be able to scrub off the burn.

◆ If the burn is severe…fill the pan halfway with water. For a small pan (up to seven inches in diameter), add ¼ cup of baking soda…for a big pan (eight inches or larger), add ½ cup of baking soda. Bring it to a boil, then watch as it continues boiling.

If it doesn’t happen within a reasonable amount of time, chances are it’s never going to happen because the pan was scorched beyond salvation. Sorry!

◆ If you really love the pan and are willing to try anything to save it, fill it with mud—from your yard or a garden-supply store—and keep it that way overnight. The next day, use the mud to scrub the pan (look out for rocks and small stones!). This remedy may not work, so you should go in knowing that it is very iffy. Iffy it works, though, you’ll be glad you tried it.

Burn-Stopping Secret

Before you fill a double-boiler with water, put a few glass marbles in the bottom half. Then set it up as usual. If the water level gets too low, the marbles will start to make noise. Their clatter will be a loud and clear warning for you to add more water, which will prevent the pan from burning.

Caring for Aluminum Pots

◆ To remove stains…fill the pot with enough water to cover all of the stains. Then gently boil the peel of an apple or some rhubarb stalks… or slices of grapefruit, lemon or orange…or slices of tomato. After about five minutes, take the pot off the fire, spill out the water, dispose of the food, wash the pot with a little liquid dish detergent, rinse and dry.

◆ To clean up a blackened pot…put one teaspoon of cream of tartar (available at the supermarket’s spice or baking section) and two cups of water in the pot. Boil the mixture for about three or four minutes. Then wash and dry as usual. That should get rid of the blackened area.

Caring for Stainless Steel Pots

While rainbows are beautiful, you don’t necessarily want them on your pots. Rainbows on stainless steel pots will disappear if you rub them with a drop of olive oil.

Caring for Cast-Iron Cookware

◆ Even though cast-iron cookware is an excellent source of dietary iron, you don’t want food that tastes like cast iron. And it won’t if you season the pot or pan before you cook with it for the first time. Seasoning it will also help prevent food from sticking to the pan.

Season it by rubbing on a thin layer of vegetable or mineral oil with a soft cloth or piece of paper towel. Then put the pan in a 250ºF oven for two hours, until it’s smoky and blackened.

◆ To remove rust from your cast-iron cookware, mix sand (available at hardware stores, nurseries, pet shops…and the beach) with enough vegetable oil to form a thick, gritty paste. Smear the paste on the rusty portions of the cast-iron pan. Then scour it with steel wool. When the rust is gone, wash the pan thoroughly and re-season.

Rust-Free Cast Iron

Moisture causes rust. To absorb moisture when any piece of cast-iron cookware is not being used, let it sit on a coffee filter.

For additional food tips and other advice for your home, purchase Household Magic from Bottomlineinc.com.

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