Jack Nicholson's character in "The Witches of Eastwick," according to movie critic Rita Kempley in the June 12 editions of this newspaper, has a "vocabulary that can scrub the crud off pots."
This is the news we have all been waiting for. For a long time we waited for some crud-scrubbing angel who, it seems, is not going to show. Better it be Jack Nicholson and his vocabulary than some pallid, low-energy angel.
But wait a minute. Some of us have already tried vocabulary. That and a little elbow grease, as one of my more puritanical relatives used to say, will get you somewhere.
As it turns out, my relative was right. Extensive interviews with those who could have been expected to be harboring any existing secret remedies for crud -- we're talking about the blackened mountain range that appears when the fire outlasts the food -- reveal that there are no secrets.
As Elaine Clifton of Kitchen Bazaar puts it -- rather starkly -- "There's nothing that will do it for you." In other words, forget the vocabulary. You have to get in there and scrub like a demon.
Before we get into how to go about this scrubbing, however, we need to define the hierarchy of pot disasters. One cook's definition of disaster is another's definition of nothing to worry about.
First, there is the natural accumulation of spots, haziness and darkening that occurs whenever you use pots for cooking. Aluminum pots darken just sitting around in the kitchen. The outside of copper pots does the same.
Then there is the inevitable accumulation of dark spots -- actually, carbonized grease -- that forms on roasting pans, frying pans and saucepans, especially if they're used over a gas burner.
Then there is the disaster that happens to all of us, maybe not today and maybe not tomorrow but some day. And these disasters can remain, emblems of human sloth or forgetfulness, forever. Sometimes you've just plain ruined the pot.
How you deal with these various problems depends on the material you've chosen for your pots. In turn, the kind of pot you choose will depend partly on your attitude toward neatness and shine. Stainless steel pots don't cook very well -- they conduct heat badly, warp and develop hot spots -- but they are the easiest to keep clean and to get clean after a disaster.
When you've really burned something into a pot -- the charred hills and craters have formed -- there are two separate problems to consider. One is the flavor that the charred stuff imparts to food you cook in the pot later, and the other is how the pot looks.
If you're working with stainless steel or plain aluminum, soak the pot overnight in soapy water, or in a solution of baking soda and water. This probably won't budge anything, but you've tried. Next, try a non-abrasive metal cleaner such as Bon Ami, but don't expect miracles. Abrasion may be just what you need.
Then go at the char with steel wool (soapy pads are fine) and lots of elbow grease. You'll have to repeat this process over and over because what you're doing is removing the carbonized food layer by layer, and it's fighting you every step of the way.
After you've scrubbed and scrubbed, there may remain a few dark spots. Forever. But most of the time you can remove enough of the char so that ugly flavors from it won't transfer to food you cook in the pot later.
Stainless steel will react to this traumatic treatment by losing its shiny finish, but you will only have affected its looks. If you're working with plain aluminum you can scrub away with impunity. All you will have done, if you ever reach the bottom of the char, is remove a microscopically thin layer of the metal, which will have no effect at all on how the pot cooks.
If you have seriously burned food in an enamelled steel, tin-lined copper or anodized aluminum pot (Calphalon or All-Clad, for example) you will need to be gentler, since removing the top layer of the finish is more serious in these cases.
The company that makes Calphalon puts out its own cleaning product, called Domond. It comes with its own nylon scrubbing pad, and it seems to work even with burned-on grease. It can be used on the inside and the outside of the pot. Its disadvantage is that it's relatively expensive to buy -- $10 -- but the jar should last for years.
If you've got anodized aluminum and don't want to buy the special cleaner, go at burned-on food with a paste made of cleanser such as Ajax and water. The manufacturers of these anodized-aluminum products like to think that the surface is "easy-release" -- that is, it gives up cooked-on food easily -- but that's not necessarily the case. My impression is that the surface collects cooked-on food just as easily as any other.
If your problem is with enamelled cast iron such as Le Creuset, you can't use abrasive cleaners. Your best bet is to soak the pot in a solution of baking soda and water. You can use plastic scrubbers on these pots, but steel or abrasive cleansers will remove the glaze. Darkening that sometimes occurs on the light interiors of these pots can be reversed by applying a solution of vinegar or lemon juice, and water.
The old-fashioned remedy for a darkened aluminum pot (it will darken even from boiling water and actually needs no remedy) is to cook tomatoes in it. The idea -- to put the aluminum in contact with an acid -- is sound, but it makes more sense to simply rub the darkened surfaces with a little vinegar or the cut surface of a lemon.
Vinegar, rubbed into a paste with a little salt, is a home remedy for tarnished copper, too. Commercial copper cleaners, however, produce a deeper, more burnished finish -- copper polished with vinegar and salt often takes on a pinkish cast. Commercial cleaners are more efficient at getting off the burned-on grease, as well.