Kitchen & Cooking

You're probably ruining your pots and pans—here's why

Hint: It's all about how you wash them.

Pan Credit: Stephen Kirsh/Getty Images

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The first thing most people do when they're finished cooking is toss their hot pan in the sink. After all, not only do you want to cool it down but you also want to rinse off some of the leftover food so it doesn't get crusted on the sides. It makes sense—but it could also be damaging your cookware.

According to experts, washing hot pots and pans in cold water is the wrong way to clean your cookware. Here's the science behind why it's such a major dishwashing faux pas, plus how to wash your steaming pots and pans the right way instead.

Why you should never wash a hot pan

Pot
Credit: Skynesher/Getty Images

The hotter the pot, the more likely it is to get damaged in the sink.

When you run a hot pot or pan under cold water, it experiences something known as thermal shock. That's because metal expands when it's heated and contracts when it's cooled—so when you take it from one extreme temperature to another, the expansion and contraction is forced at an unnatural speed, which can warp or even break your cookware."Thermal shock can definitely pose a problem to the continued usability of cookware," our senior scientist, Julia MacDougall, explains. "Even if it doesn't crack the pan in half, it can slowly reduce the integrity of that pan over time."

By that, she means that thermal shock can lead to spots on your cookware that affect how effective it is. Essentially, when your pots and pans get those spots, they don't conduct heat as evenly so your food won't cook as evenly, either.

Does it matter if the cookware is stainless steel, glass, or cast iron?

The short answer is no. While stainless steel is most likely to warp under thermal shock (a.k.a it won't sit flat on the stove anymore), cast iron can as well. And glass—like your favorite Pyrex—is highly susceptible to shattering when exposed to rapid temperature changes. However, the thickness of your cookware can make a difference. A thin non-stick pan is a lot more vulnerable to warping or cracks than a super thick cast iron skillet, for example.

The right way to wash hot pots and pans

Pan
Credit: Max Grpo/Getty Images

Clean your dirty dishes carefully.

The secret to making your pots and pans last longer? Let them cool completely to room temperature before you wash them, Julia says. When you allow your cookware to cool down in its own time, you prevent the risk of warping or breaking.

If you're worried about letting your spaghetti sauce-covered pot sit out for an hour before you rinse it (think of how hard it will be to clean!), fear not. Julia tested different food stains to see how long you really need to soak pots and pans—and she found that 3 to 4 hours is sufficient. In fact, leaving dishes to soak longer, like overnight, made no difference in removing burnt-on bits.

For tougher-to-remove food, Julia recommends scrubbing your pots and pans with a water and vinegar mixture or, if you have stainless steel cookware, with a non-bleach cleaner like the highly-rated (and highly effective!) Bar Keeper's Friend.

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