How to Restore Stainless Steel: A Step by Step Guide

One of the great ironies of life is that stainless steel actually can, and does, stain. In fact, left unattended, stainless steel can get quite nasty. Thankfully, stainless steel can almost always be restored. With some simple steps, it’s not hard to reverse the years on your favorite stainless steel pot or skillet. 

I recently picked up a piece of vintage Revere Ware, or at least, I was pretty sure it was Revere Ware - the condition it was in was literally that poor. As I worked on my new pan, it was so satisfying to watch the old stainless steel transform before my eyes. Sure enough, it was Revere Ware!

The method that I use, detailed below - one that uses baking soda, an abrasive sponge and paper towels - is extremely easy, safe and straight forward. While it’s certainly not the only method out there for restoring stainless steel (more on that below), it’s one that I trust and feel good about.

Stainless Steel Before and After

Other methods for restoring stainless steel

There are a few different methods for restoring stainless steel. That’s the first thing you’ll notice if you do a quick search for tips. There are actually a lot of methods, and this can be slightly overwhelming. 

Some restoration methods employ harsh oven cleaners, while others are a bit more moderate, and use Bar Keepers Friend. In fact, after I restored the Revere Ware pan featured in this guide I was feeling pretty good, and thought I was entitled to a little humble brag. 

So I posted a few pictures to Facebook. Sure enough, along with the compliments, I got loads of people chimed in with their own preferred methods for cleaning stainless steel. 

I’m not knocking these other methods, but I will say this: none are as safe, or as simple, as the methods that I advocate here. All you need to clean even the worst stainless steel is an abrasive sponge, baking soda, and water. 

Does Barkeepers Friend work on stainless steel?  

Yes, Barkeepers Friend works extremely well on stainless steel. If you don’t have the time or patience to go through my methods for restoring stainless steel, then Bar Keepers Friend is a solid alternative. In fact, there are those who swear by Bar Keepers Friend. 

I’ll admit it, this stuff works great. The truth is - and this is cards on the table here - Bar Keepers Friend will probably work faster than the method I advocate below. 

The reason why I’m proposing this alternative is simply in an effort to move away from potentially harmful chemicals, especially when it comes to working on kitchen items that come into contact with my food. 

So while Bar Keepers Friend will certainly get the job done, I’m willing to invest a few extra minutes into the process in the interest of health and safety. 

The best part? You probably already have everything that you need for a full restoration, right in your kitchen or pantry. 

Getting started, everything you need to restore stainless steel

For a full stainless steel restoration, all you’ll need is the following: 

  • A scouring pad or equally abrasive sponge

  • Baking soda

  • A large stock pot

  • Plenty of water

This is a restoration method that you can do at home. You probably even have most of the supplies in your pantry. It’s in my opinion easier, and a lot safer than messing around with harsh chemicals. 

Arm & Hammer Baking Soda

Arm & Hammer Baking Soda

Scotch-Brite Extreme Scrub

Scrub

Now, you don’t have to use the scouring pads that I’ve listed above, but you will need some sort of abrasive pad. You can use fine stainless steel pads, but you’ll want to go easy with this stuff. Stainless steel is way easier to scratch than something like cast iron, for example. 

The only thing that won’t really work is a normal yellow sponge, like the ones you get at Trader Joes. You’ll need, at the very least, that abrasive green side of the sponge to scrub effectively. I mean, check out how nasty this pan was:

Dirty Stainless Steel

Restoring stainless steel 

So I’ve got this old stainless steel pan, and it looks absolutely awful. There is plenty of buildup and black stains in the interior of the pan, and the bottom is a total mess. You can’t even see the logo at the bottom, or the copper patina. In fact, I wasn’t even sure that the bottom of this pan was copper until I started scrubbing.

Back of Stainless Steel Pan

When you get down to it, restoring stainless steel is simply a matter of removing anything that’s caked on to the steel surface over the years. That’s it - there’s no refinishing required, and certainly no seasoning. Once you’ve stripped the pan clean, the steel underneath should shine like new. That’s really what makes stainless steel great, the utter simplicity. 

Simple enough, right? Now, here is that process broken down into manageable steps, along with a few items that I like to use that make the job easier.

Pan Handle

Again, this isn’t by any means the only method for restoring stainless steel, but it is among the easiest. And in my opinion, it is also the most practical stainless steel restoration method for most of us. 

As I’ve already covered, there are plenty of methods out there, but I’ve always found those processes just a bit too intimidating, not to mention potentially dangerous. Instead, this is what works for me and plenty of others:

STEP ONE: Remove the handle (if you can and if necessary).

Since we’re doing a full restoration on this Revere Ware, I’m going to be removing the plastic handle. That will allow me to clean absolutely every inch of this pan, and give me better access to the handle itself, which is also quite dirty. 

These handles are screwed on, sandwiching a stainless steel tang. Simply unscrew the pieces, and place the screws carefully to the side. You’ll want to be careful at this stage, especially if there’s rust.

Removed Handle

This handle ended up being in fine shape, but old plastic can dry out and crack easily, and screws can break. Be gentle, and if it’s just not budging, leave it.

STEP TWO: Set a large stock pot of water to boil

We’re going to be submerging the entire pan in boiling water, which means you’ll need a rather large pot. I was fine with the stockpot that I use for pasta, but if you have one, a pot for crab boils also works great.

Crab Boil Pot

STEP THREE: Pour in plenty of baking soda

Once the water is boiling, you’ll want to pour in several heaping cups worth of baking soda. There’s no exact measurement for this, so feel free to wing it. I probably added in about three cups of baking soda over the course of this restoration. 

It’s also perfectly fine to add baking soda as you go. When you first add the baking soda, you’ll see it bubble up before re-settling. Be careful that you don’t add too much, too quickly, and that you haven’t overfilled your pot. 

Filling Pot

STEP FOUR: Place your stainless steel in the pot

Next, you’ll want to carefully lower your stainless steel into the boiling water. The water will be piping hot, so I’d recommend handling everything at this stage with a towel or pot holders. You can see below that I wasn’t so careful at this stage, but luckily my fingers came out of the experience unscathed. 

The pan should be entirely submerged in water, and feel free to add more baking soda if need be. You should start to see bits previously caked on to the stainless steel melt away almost instantly.

Cleaning Pan

The length of time to leave your pan submerged will vary, but I left mine in there for about 15 minutes. This pan was in pretty poor condition, and it really needed a good soaking. I wanted to let the baking soda attack the grime for as long as I could.

Cleaning Stainless Steel

STEP FIVE: While the pan boils, clean the handle 

My handle was made from bakelite, a kind of synthetic plastic (also known as polyoxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride, which happens to be the longest single word I’ve ever seen). Bakelite can get pretty cruddy, but it’s also remarkably easy to clean. 

I submerged my handle in warm, soapy water for a few minutes, and then simply hit it with a normal sponge. There was a layer of grease that I had to work at, but I eventually got it looking good as new.

Set your clean handle to the side until the pan is ready for it to be reattached.

STEP SIX: Remove the pan from the water, and start scrubbing!

After about 15 or so minutes, you can turn off the water and carefully remove your pan. Again, you’ll probably want to use a towel or some kind of pot holder here, because the metal is going to be piping hot. 

At this point, I like to apply some dish soap to an abrasive sponge and start scrubbing. You’ll see the pan start to clean up quickly, but be forewarned, you may need to scrub for a while. 

Scrubbing Stainless Steel 9

I started with a normal green scouring pad, but this didn’t really work that well. You need a serious sponge at this point in the restoration and my old green scouring pad wasn’t cutting it. 

I’ve tested different sponges at this stage, and found that the Scotch Brite Advanced Extreme Scour Pads are by far the best. Whatever you’re using needs to be abrasive enough to tackle some serious stains, but not so rough that it damages the stainless steel. 

I’ve also experimented with steel wool, but it creates too many scratches in the stainless steel polish. These scour pads are the next best thing. It’s enough to get the job done without damaging the stainless steel. 

STEP SEVEN: Wash the pan with a gentle dish soap 

At this stage, the pan should be clean of stains and grime, but it might not be ready to cook on. Not just yet. 

Rinse any remaining grime from your pan with warm water, and hit it with a new, fresh sponge and normal dish soap, washing it as you normally would. After you’ve rinsed the pan of soap, wipe it dry with a clean dish towel.

STEP EIGHT: Reattach your handle

Carefully reattach your handle, using the same screws that you put aside earlier. Be careful here. As I’ve mentioned, old bakelite can be quite delicate, and you don’t want to over tighten. 

Stainless Steel Handle

Once your handle is back on, give the pan a good shake to make sure everything is secure. If it feels good, then that’s it! 

Stand back and admire your new, restored stainless steel pan!

Check out this final product! Check out that copper sheen!

Clean Stainless Steel
Copper Bottom Stainless Steel

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