My All-Clad stainless steel pots are some of the most expensive purchases I’ve made for my kitchen. Worth it, but not the type of stuff I can afford to buy frequently. So a few years ago when I was coveting a 10-inch lidded skillet that was on sale at a soon-to-be-shuttered department store near my parents’ house, I ultimately decided against the purchase (and regretted it).
My dad went back after I’d gone home and picked it up for me. I was thrilled.
I was equally thrilled later when my husband pulled out the skillet to make an Indian okra dish. This involved frying the vegetable in several skillets on the cook top. Something went awry and the bottom of the new pan went from pristine to black. We cleaned what little we could and off it went to languish for way too long in our cabinet. I assumed cooking more with it would only exacerbate the damage.
Finally, I bought some Bar Keepers Friend, which I always heard culinary folks recommend. But it, too, sat around unused, because I was sure nothing could fix the skillet. One day I finally decided to give it a shot and, BAM!, the skillet looked practically new. The same goes for the skillet you see pictured here, a very dirty specimen from our Food Lab.
I, along with many others, am now a believer in the power of this cheap, easy cleaning product. I got a can for less than $3 at my grocery store, so really, no cook should be without it.
Here’s what you should know about Bar Keepers Friend.
What is it?
Bar Keepers Friend comes in a powder, which I prefer for scrubbing tough messes, and a pre-mixed liquid that is better for fairly minor upkeep. “It’s not really complicated but just effective,” says Kevin Patterson, vice president of institutional sales for Bar Keepers Friend. The main components are oxalic acid, which occurs naturally in vegetables such as asparagus, spinach and rhubarb (the story goes that it was originally discovered by a chemist in 1882 after he boiled rhubarb and noticed how shiny his pot was); abrasives, which serve as little scrubbers (you can feel the grittiness as you’re washing dishes); and detergents, or non-bleach-containing cleaners. As far as cleaners go, it’s pretty mild, too — you don’t have to wear gloves, although I prefer to no matter what I’m cleaning or cleaning with because I have sensitive skin, which, along with open wounds, can be irritated by the acid.
The product was not named Bar Keepers Friend originally. When the rhubarb-boiling chemist began to distribute it, it had no name and was sold in brown paper bags. After he realized his discovery could clean brass and copper (this was before the days of stainless steel and many other modern materials), he started shopping it around to bars and saloons, where those metals were in heavy use.
How do you use it?
Basically water and elbow grease. Wet the surface of what you’re cleaning, apply the cleaner and scrub away. Don’t leave the cleaner on the surface for more than a minute or so before you start scrubbing, or else the acid might create spots or etch the surface. You can scrub with a sponge or cloth, but stay away from a very abrasive scrub pad, especially if you’re applying the product to your cook top, so as not to scratch it. (The brand also sells a dedicated cook top cleaner, among other formulations.)
What does it remove and on what surfaces?
We’re a food site here, so let’s focus on the kitchen. I’ve used Bar Keepers Friend to clean burned oil residue (see above!), baked-on food and unsightly brown stains from the inside of my enameled cast iron Dutch oven. You can also use it to shine up stainless steel — cookware, but also sinks (appliances are trickier, because it’s not recommended for brushed stainless steel or surfaces that have a protective layer intended to prevent fingerprints). Apparently it has a cult following among Instant Pot users in need of cleaning the stainless steel insert, according to Christina Roark, a controller and social media/digital marketing coordinator at Bar Keepers Friend. She says it’s effective on Pyrex, as well as items with coffee or tea stains. It’s recommended for such additional materials as copper, brass, tile, ceramic, fiberglass and chrome, meaning Bar Keepers Friend is also popular when it comes to cleaning bathrooms, yard tools and even parts of cars or motorcycles. The cleaner can remove rust, soap scum (it did wonders on my bathtub, which I thought was permanently discolored), hard water deposits and more.
What should you not use it on?
A big asterisk for kitchen messes: Bar Keepers Friend should not be applied to nonstick cookware, the coating for which can be scratched off by the cleaner. It’s also powerful enough to remove the seasoning from your cast-iron pans, so unless you are restoring a rusted piece and/or stripping it to re-season, stick to a little bit of dish soap if needed. Bar Keepers Friend can damage natural stone materials, such as granite or marble, and precious metals, such as pewter, silver and gold. It’s not ideal for more delicate surfaces (lacquered, painted or mirrored) or wood either.
What are you waiting for?
I don’t know. Don’t be like me. Spring the few dollars for a canister and get that deep clean you’ve been craving.
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