Getting seriously carbonized milk out off of a pan?
February 19, 2010 2:02 PM   Subscribe

My wife burned -- and I do mean burned -- some breastmilk she was scalding in a saucepan for long-term storage. What's the easiest way to the science experiment out of the bottom of the pan?

She set it on the stove, went to go clean up a mess, and promptly forgot she'd left it going. When she discovered it, it had become a solid black smoking mortar-like substance, spot-welded on the bottom of the pan. It's a thick layer, and it's solid stuff.

I poured some water in there and boiled it for a good twenty minutes, but it's not loosening up at all. Hacking at it with a metal spatula has made some headway, but it's taking a lot of elbow grease and I don't think I'll be able to get down in the corners well enough. I'm leery of using serious chemicals like oven cleaners for health reasons (I make my morning oatmeal in that pan), and I briefly considered putting the thing in the oven and running it through a self-cleaning cycle, but I'm worried it will damage the pan.

Anyone encounter a seriously burned-on mess like this? Is there a good way that won't require harsh chemicals or an orbital sander? Or will I be safe with oven cleaner?
posted by middleclasstool to Home & Garden (24 answers total)
Response by poster: Please ignore the "how is babby formed" phrasing of the title. Yeesh.
posted by middleclasstool at 2:03 PM on February 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

One important detail that's missing: what is the pan made of and surfaced with on the inside?
posted by Halloween Jack at 2:06 PM on February 19, 2010

Check here - I've successfully used the baking soda method to get a puck of cheese soup out of a pan.
posted by pupdog at 2:07 PM on February 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Gah, sorry. Stainless steel pan, not clad, nothing fancy. Not non-stick.
posted by middleclasstool at 2:10 PM on February 19, 2010

Response by poster: I will best answer anyone who points me to a severely marked-down set of All Clad as well.
posted by middleclasstool at 2:11 PM on February 19, 2010

Spray with oven cleaner and let sit. Use SOS pad if needed
posted by luvmywife at 2:17 PM on February 19, 2010

You can find some good deals on cookware here (but you have to scroll until you find them). Link is to Deal of the Day, which aggregates discounted items from Amazon.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 2:17 PM on February 19, 2010

Stainless steel isn't really that porous; I'm not sure why you would be wary of "harsh cleaners" as they are specifically for situations like this.

I would recommend getting some "all natural" SOS pads or something; I've had super good luck with stainless steel + SOS for multiple time burned on grossness of all varietals. I was really, really surprised what a single SOS pad did for what i thought was a ruined pan.
posted by shownomercy at 2:22 PM on February 19, 2010

Oven Cleaner is basically very alkaline. (It has a very high pH) Fatty stuff gets made into soapy stuff and can be cleaned off. Other stuff eventually succumbs to it, too.
But the sad truth is that really heavily carbonized matter is not easily gotten rid off chemically, it's very inert. But you can try if you want to. Chemical residues can be cleaned off stainless steel with no problem.
The self cleaning cycle of your oven will only help you to carbonize the residue even more. Self cleaning ovens are coated with a catalytically active substance that helps with the breakdown of the carbonized matter.
The best way to get clean off carbonized residues is elbow grease and the help of abrasives. You need steel wool, maybe even a steel brush. Hey, go wild and use a rotary steel brush that can be attached to a power drill. You can later polish the bottom of your pan with finer steel wool though I seriously doubt that you will scratch it too much with a steel brush.
You could experiment with lye and the heat of the self cleaning cycle of your oven but I seriously advise against it because of the dangers involved. (Hot bases are ver, very, very dangerous when you get them on your skin, you'll turn into two-face or the joker if you survive.)
posted by mmkhd at 2:26 PM on February 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Seconding the baking soda plan. Just fill it up with some water, dump in a bunch of baking soda and simmer. A thick layer should come off. Give it a scrub with a SOS pad or nail brush, then repeat. If you can stand the smell, doing the last round with vinegar will make your pan nice and shiny.

*says the girl who forgot the macaroni on the stove for 3 hours...
posted by valoius at 2:33 PM on February 19, 2010

"Always add the acid to the water" is a chemistry lab rule that applies to adventures with bases, too. As for the vinegar, just don't lean over the pan and breathe in while the nasty smells are going on. A good range hood would be handy for that situation.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 2:40 PM on February 19, 2010

Depending on the material of the pan, I've also had success running things like this through the oven's clean cycle (probably put it face down in the oven). Bonus: clean oven!
posted by rossination at 2:42 PM on February 19, 2010

Thirding baking soda in water to just above the damage line, simmering and letting it sit overnight, as described in pupdog's link. It's cheap, easy, works on practically everything and teaches you patience.

If it doesn't work after two rounds, sure, try a more alkaline commercial cleaner. But it is astounding at what you can remove with just a solution of baking soda and water. Seriously, a pan I thought I had ruined for good wiped clean with NO effort except for a little green scrubby work on a couple of small stubborn spots. (Get the 3M brand: they are awesome and I no longer waste money on the cheap, thin ones.)
posted by maudlin at 2:43 PM on February 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

> Hey, go wild and use a rotary steel brush that can be attached to a power drill. You can later polish the bottom of your pan with finer steel wool though I seriously doubt that you will scratch it too much with a steel brush.
I would give this a try. As a shop guy, I love stainless steel for this very reason: you can get real tough with it and it can take it. Break out the air compressor, die grinder, and steel wire brush and grind that mess off. Or, lacking those tools, you can use a drill motor and steel wire brush. Wear safety glasses. Steel wire brush wheels are available at any hardware stores for around $5/ea., sometimes less. Smaller bristles are generally stiffer than longer ones, so getting a couple in different lengths might be a good idea.
posted by mosk at 3:02 PM on February 19, 2010

I've had success with a long soak of hot water with a generous squirt of dishwasher liquid. You might even do a few cycles of it, rinsing out as much of the residue that's been loosened.

Then scrub with Bar Keepers Friend. Someone recommended this to me when I'd burned tea bags into the bottom of one of my All-Clad saucepans, and it works like nothing else I've ever tried.
posted by Lulu's Pink Converse at 3:55 PM on February 19, 2010

Bar Keeper's Friend is excellent.
posted by wabbittwax at 4:25 PM on February 19, 2010

The only thing that gets out burnt breast milk is more breast milk.

Or...Bar Keepers Friend. That stuff will get it. Just keep scrubbing.
posted by ian1977 at 4:27 PM on February 19, 2010

I did THIS EXACT SAME THING (overnight, no less-- yeah, that kitchen smelled delightful in the morning) and, after much tedious experimentation, solved the problem by alternating intense scrubbing (Brillo/other metal pad if you've got one) with boiling a strong solution of lemon juice and water in the pot. Burnt breastmilk is actually quite brittle, so before that I'd taken a standard screwdriver to the bottom of the pan to chisel out the majority of the gunk. Easy Off oven cleaner, dishwashing liquid, and Comet had been tried beforehand with zero effect. Good luck!
posted by Bardolph at 4:33 PM on February 19, 2010

MEK is my top favorite for stainless but acetone can work okay as well. Won't hurt the stainless and, in fact, the stainless will be sparkling clean. With MEK, always use gloves but use butyl rubber gloves and NOT nitrile or nitrile rubber gloves and never latex gloves, please.
posted by bz at 4:44 PM on February 19, 2010

For cleaning up the really beautiful experiments, baking soda doesn't do the trick.
Stainless steel is quite forgiving: I once had to take care of blue-black-fused brown rice (unfortunately, that is not brittle); took a solid-handle manual paint scraper and used some force and patience to pry the worst out of the pan. Then I took a new conical stainless steel brush for my power drill and brushed until everything gleamed again. Goggles and work gloves, please, and not too fast, of course.
posted by Namlit at 5:32 PM on February 19, 2010

I use my skillet as a mini-oven to heat up pizza slices. I once left a slice of pizza in there and it burnt so badly that I thought I'd have to get rid of the skillet. An All-Clad! Barkeeper's Friend, Cameo, steel wool, spatula, elbow grease, nothing would get it off.

What did work? Clorox Bleach. Bought a fresh bottle (important!), poured enough in to cover all the burnt stains and ten minutes later I wiped it clean.
posted by RevF^2 at 7:00 PM on February 19, 2010

A putty knife is good on these kinds of stainless steel pans. Find an old one, or one in the store that has slightly rounded corners - less chance of gouging the pan, cosmetic though that may be.

Scrape the dry pan starting on any open areas at an angle as close to zero as possible, followed by a little steel wool scouring and soaking; dry and repeat as necessary.

Just had to do this myself (different kind of milk) - and this process was the least effort I've had to expend (plenty of past experience with scalding buildups). Still a pain though; just less than before.
posted by Hardcore Poser at 7:22 PM on February 19, 2010

I've used a baking soda/water slurry to good effect (let it sit overnight). you can also try boiling coca-cola - very acidic stuff, as it turns out.
posted by killy willy at 11:18 PM on February 19, 2010

Response by poster: So here's the final solution. I'm not going to best answer any one answer here, because the combo solution saved the day.

Baking soda and water did surprisingly well. Boilage plus overnight soakage plus a little vigorous scraping with the spatula got most of it. But there was still the perimeter of the pan, which could not be cracked easily.

So I broke down and got a can of oven cleaner, hosed the inside of the pan down, slapped a lid on, and let it soak for twelve hours. That plus scrubbing with a Brillo pad got the rest of it. There remain two tiny black flecks that nothing, not caustic oven cleaner, not Barkeeper's friend, not a Brillo pad, not nothing can get rid of.

I fear those flecks will drive me mad. But the pan is usable.
posted by middleclasstool at 10:26 PM on February 23, 2010

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