Sorry, you're ruining your pots and pans—here's how to make them last
Everything you need to know to keep your cookware as good as new
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Let’s be real—who thinks about their pots and pans? If you're like most people, you have a few favorites you use all the time, and the rest stay hanging on the pot rack or piled in the cupboard. But whether you prefer your go-tos because they're the perfect size or they’re well-seasoned or just flat-out pretty, they won't last you forever if you don't take care of them.
While (most) cookware is a lot more durable than, say, that cashmere sweater you got for Christmas, kitchen essentials still need some love and care to keep them functioning and looking great for years to come. Even the best cookware, best Dutch ovens, and best cast-iron pans we’ve tested need maintenance.
Here are some simple steps to take to help your pots and pans last:
1. Treat burned-on stains as soon as they happen
We've all been there: you’re in the middle of making dinner and you step away from the stove for a moment. When you return, something very ugly has happened—your food is all scorched up, and with it your pan.
While this might send you into a panic, don’t just dump your food and start cooking again in a different vessel. Instead, focus on treating your cookware then and there.
No matter the type of cookware, soap, water, and the scrubbing side of a sponge should be your first line of defense—yes, even on cast-iron. But if that isn’t enough to remove caked-on food or burnt spots, you need to move onto other solutions.
Stainless steel, copper, and enamelware: Try filling the pan with a solution of one part vinegar and three parts water, and bring it all to a boil. This should go a long way toward removing stains, and if you’re satisfied you can let the pan cool and then wash it with soap and water. If things still look pretty rough in there, you can remove the pan from the heat and add a tablespoon or two of baking soda. Then, pour out the solution and wash the pan as usual.
Still seeing dark spots? You should break out a container of Bar Keepers Friend. This non-bleach chemical cleanser can be a godsend when you just want your pots and pans to shine like new. Make a paste with a small amount of water and some of the powder in the bottom of your pan, and the scrub vigorously until stains are gone. If you prefer an all-natural product, try Bon Ami.
Bar Keepers Friend works great for when you’ve scorched the exterior of your cookware, too. It’s brought my Dutch oven back to life multiple times—and those bad boys are too expensive to not treat properly.
Cast-iron and nonstick: While it’s harder to really burn these pans because of their non-stick properties, you need to be gentle when treating any stuck-on food that happens. Rather than a chemical abrasive, use any coarse salt and a paper towel—or baking soda and a sponge—to gently scrub the inside and remove any debris. Make sure to re-season your pan after any real scrubbing.
If you don’t treat your cookware as soon as burns happen, the stains will be harder to get out—but you can use the same methods above (with a little more elbow-grease) to treat old stains, too.
2. Season your cast-iron—and your nonstick
You heard me—you probably already know that you need to re-season your cast-iron pans to prevent rusting and preserve its non-stick properties, but seasoning your nonstick cookware can go a long way in maintaining its nonstick finish. It even says so on the label.
If your nonstick cookware is ceramic, you can skip this step. Otherwise, try pouring a small amount of oil on a paper towel and rubbing the inside of the pan after each use. Unlike cast iron, nonstick coating can’t withstand extremely high heat, so don't heat the pan after oiling it. Simply rubbing it in will do enough, combined regular use and careful cleaning.
Confused about how to take care of your cast-iron? The cast-iron guide over at Serious Eats will tell you all you need to know. Essentially, wash and dry thoroughly, season regularly, and keep a look-out for any rust spots. If you’re in the market for a new pan, check out our ranking of the best cast-iron pans.
3. Use the right utensils
While you can use metal tongs, spoons, and spatulas on cast-iron and stainless steel all you want, you shouldn’t be using them with nonstick surfaces. If you want your nonstick cookware to last, you should be careful not to damage the surface with these kinds of tools.
We recommend using wooden spoons or soft silicone spatulas with nonstick cookware to avoid scratching or gouging the surface. And you may find that spatulas and other tools aren't even that necessary: since nonstick cookware has such a slick surface, you can simply tip the pan to plate your food.
4. Wash, dry, and store with care
I regularly argue with my boyfriend about putting pots and pans and the dishwasher, but here’s what the science says—handwashing is always best for longevity. While you can put your stainless steel cookware in the dishwasher if you’re really feeling lazy, NEVER put cast-iron or nonstick in there, because the washer’s high heat and pressure will damage the cooking surface.
We recommend that enamelware should be hand-washed, too, because it’s susceptible to chipping—and a heavy Dutch oven is likely to rattle around and break delicate things like plates and glasses. That being said, manufacturers like Le Creuset have their own guidelines about dishwasher use—and, if you're looking for permission to load everything in your dishwasher, you may like their answers.
When your pots and pans are clean and ready to go back where they belong, make sure they’re completely dry (water can rust a cast-iron easily) before stacking or hanging them up. If you do stack your cookware, try to stack them by type so that heavier pans, like cast-iron and stainless steel, don’t scratch your more delicate nonstick pans.
It’s best to layer pans with cloth or paper towel to prevent scratches and thunderous clanging that will wake your kids, roommates, or spouse. Another tip? Use a pot lid organizer, like this best-selling organizer from Amazon, if you don’t already. It will really keep your cupboard a lot neater.
5. Don’t treat every pan the same
Every type of cookware is different, with special quirks and rules and advantages and disadvantages. To take care of each properly, make sure you know what you’re working with! We’ve already assembled handy guides on how to care for stainless steel, how to care for nonstick, and how to care for cast-iron, so be sure to reference those if you still have questions.
Unfortunately, not every old pot and pan can be salvaged from ruin. If your cookware's non-stick coating is peeling away, enamel is chipping, or its base is warped or cracked or permanently blackened, it's time to replace them. And if you invest in some good cookware and take good care of it, your returns will be delicious for years to come.