There's a decent amount to know about the right way to clean a rust-prone piece of cast iron cookware, but stainless steel pots and pans are, thankfully, a lot easier to deal with. That doesn't mean they don't get funky sometimes, though. Burnt-on crud and patches of polymerized oil can take the shine off a pan and, in the worst cases, interfere with cooking.
The good news is that stainless steel is pretty darn indestructible. You can scrub it, you can scour it, and sometimes, when you're feeling lazy, you can toss it in the dishwasher. Very little will do it harm.
Here are our best tips for getting your stainless steel cookware back in shape.
Basic Daily Cleaning: Use a Scrubber Sponge and Hot, Soapy Water
Most of the time, stainless steel cookware needs little more than a good wash in the sink. Hot, soapy water and working at it with a "non-scratch" scrubber sponge will usually do the trick. I don't think you need me to explain this in detail—just get in there and wash the pan. (If you're at all worried that the scrubber might scratch up the shiny finish of a polished exterior, do a little test spot on the bottom of the pan before scrubbing the whole thing.)
For Really Bad Burnt-On Crud: The Dishwasher-Detergent Trick
Sometimes—when you're, say, distracted by the latest episode of Billions—you forget to stir the pot on your stove for, oh, I don't know, an hour. By the time you've smelled the problem, it's too late: A thick layer of burnt-on crud has glued itself to the pot. Scrubbing through that much char could take another hour—an hour that could be better spent reading recaps of the latest episode of Billions.
The solution here is to use a trick I learned from the folks in the test kitchen at Food & Wine, where I used to work. When a pot was really badly scorched, they'd fill it with water and add a generous sprinkling of powdered dishwasher detergent (liquid, they said, doesn't work as well). Then they'd leave it overnight. By the next morning, almost everything would have lifted away, just through the power of the detergent itself. Anything that's left after this process should come off with a scrubber sponge and very little effort.
To Restore a Pan's Shiny Luster: Bust Out the Bar Keepers Friend
Even if you maintain good cleaning habits, a pan can lose its like-new appearance over time. Small spills that run down the outside of a piece of cookware can burn on, oil can polymerize, and eventually that shiny, silvery metal will have splotches tinged yellow and thin stains of carbonized black. If you're really careless, stainless steel can even rust.
The best method I've found to fix this is scouring with the powdered version of Bar Keepers Friend, which contains oxalic acid, among other ingredients. Together, the oxalic acid and the powder's abrasive properties will clean away much of those stubborn stains, though it does take a lot of elbow grease to return an abused pan to tip-top condition.
If all else fails, an oven cleaner, like Easy-Off, can eat away carbonized bits; just spray it on and let it stand for a while before washing and scrubbing it off. Be careful, though, since oven cleaner is nothing more than aerosolized lye: This stuff will cause burns if it gets on your skin.