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Somebody please explain to me the obsession with stains on cookware

I don't get it.

I'm not suggesting that you should store soiled pots and pans or not properly care for your investment.

But why do so many people get upset about stains in the bottom of a dutch oven or minor discoloration on copper? It's cookware for crying out loud. Signs of use are inevitable if - GASP! - you actually cook with it.

Take a deep breath, folks. It's just a stain. Your friends and family still love you.

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  1. I agree that signs of use equate to a well loved piece of cookware. As far as I can tell it's just preference, like the person that spends all day sunday detailing their car to make it look like it just rolled off the showroom floor. It's all how people want to present themselves and their things.

    1. NJC: You know the reason: The marketeers and fearmongers have our culture pretty well-trained to become upset at the least sign or whiff of uncleanliness or imperfection. Unless everything looks completely new, it's taken to be unwholesome/unhealthy, and that reflects on our sense of self worth. It's so pervasive we're often judged on it, and judging about it in others. You might as well ask why many of us wash our hands with anti-bacterial soap 6x/day or give our kids antibiotics whenever they get a sniffle--basically the same questions. The same real answer, too: Consumerism.

      How's that?

      BTW, I probably polish my copper every 3 months, or when I'm entertaining (rarely these days). I polish because I prefer the glow, but there's no real need to do it. I CHERISH the dings and imperfections, and wonder at who--100 years before--knocked that skimmer down too hard on the rim.

      8 Replies
      1. re: kaleokahu

        Actually anti-bacterial soap can be unhealthy for you (agreeing with you).

        1. re: Chemicalkinetics

          Chem: Yes, that was my point. So can be tripping over the 24/7 Roomba!

        2. re: kaleokahu


          I know where you're coming from, but I wash my hands because I don't want to get sick. And I wash my pots because I want to take care of them and also, for hygiene reasons.

          But I don't POLISH them or buff them to a shine everytime I use them, you know? And I wouldn't use the color of the interior or the work involved in keeping the exterior clean as the basis for not purchasing cookware.

          But to each his own.

          1. re: NotJuliaChild

            NJC: You asked, and I gave you my take on the truth.

            It's a slippery slope, isn't it? No one wants to get sick, but where do you draw the line with hygiene? I'm all for hand- washing. But many times a day, with strong anti-bacterial soaps, and methanol-based gels? Do we really need 10 color-coded cutting boards? I believe this obsession with disinfecting everything, as with reflexive resort to antibiotics, will ultimately do more damage to more people (by breeding superbugs and killing off beneficial microbes) than not washing AT ALL. I think soap and hot water is enough unless you work in caring for sick or immunosuppressed people, or handle biohazardous materials. [Footnote: I have a friend who LOST A LEG to MRSA, one of these bred superbugs].

            There are many people in this world who would rather suffer a beating than even use soap to clean their wok or cast iron skillet. Just a scrub with a grungy brush (culture THAT!) under hot water and dry with a week-old dishtowel. Is that hygenic?

            Let me bore you with another example. I'm a winemaker. I used to obsess with having my glass and transfer stuff perfectly sterile at bottling. Vastly more experienced makers laughed at me (they still laugh, but for other reasons). Over time I learned that, if spoilage and health were the measures, a far lower level of "hygiene" is necessary. Clean, but not sterile, is good enough.

            End of rant.

            1. re: kaleokahu

              Oh man! I am soooo with you on this point!

              1. re: kaleokahu

                I'm in total agreement with you on the anti-bacterial soap issue. We don't use it here, for both the reasons you site, and because we have a septic system and it kills the bacteria that are needed to maintain the system.

                1. re: kaleokahu

                  "There are many people in this world who would rather suffer a beating than even use soap to clean their wok or cast iron skillet."

                  That is the funniest thing I read for a long while. I guess I must have missed that part the last time I read it.

            2. Well, it is a preference thing. I know a lot of people want bright white kitchen cloth too. Same for shiny flatware.

              1 Reply
              1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                I like things to be clean. My nearly 30 y.o. stainless cookware is spotless, because I got all the crud off of it each time I used it. I season cast iron, I allow a bit of staining on the bottom of my dutch oven, but accumulated grease collected from use and incomplete cleaning skeeves me out, what can I say? I like clean, shiny, bright things, unless they're cast iron pans.

              2. Thank goodness, I thought it was just me. I love the dents and stains on my kitchen things, they're not just for show you know. I've had people tell me, time to replace that, and I tell them you don't know what you're saying.

                2 Replies
                1. re: coll

                  "time to replace that" seriously people tell you this? If I knew anyone like that, I would tell them that I know of a special recycling facility that handles cookware and that if that person ever had anything needing "recycling" to bring it to me and I would take care of the cookware piece for them, so they can be "green" and all that. ;)

                  1. re: cannibal

                    And of course you would actually be doing something very green: taking something that was on its way to a landfill and giving it some love and time in your kitchen. : )

                2. I understand the appeal of shiny, attractive stuff. Particularly if you store it within view. Still, it is, as NotJuliaChild suggests, tools and indications that it gets used should be a mark of honor.

                  The trick is to think of all those battle scars as "patina". Then you get both your utility and an aesthetic quality as well. ;>

                  1. Cookware can be a challenge for some because they can't discern between discoloration and buildup. While I'm not afraid of discoloration or stains I try to maintain them as best I can so that others in my household don't get the idea that buildup is acceptable. I have on occasion asked some people which side of the pan they were cooking on.

                    1. I'm actually sort of proud of the patina that's developed on some of my cookware...

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: jzerocsk


                        that's what I'm talkin' about... battle scars, baby

                      2. Hi all,

                        Well, if I were to spend a lot of money on a beautiful piece of cookware I'd want to keep it looking nice-as-new as much as I possibly could.

                        I see on these boards where people have bought lots and lots of Le Creuset. That's a big investment. Of course they want to keep it looking good.

                        A couple of decades ago I had a big, gorgeous Spring Culinox skillet. It was beautiful and I kept it that way. I no longer have it. Kinda wish I did...


                        2 Replies
                        1. re: I used to know how to cook...

                          But sometime I wonder if "keeping the cookware spotless" is not always the same as "keeping them in top conditions". Prime examples are the Le Cresuet one, where people use many aggressive solutions to the stains on the cookware which can be harmful.

                          1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                            where people use many aggressive solutions to the stains on the cookware which can be harmful.
                            This made me laugh, we recently got my wifes grandmothers corning wear pots, all of the older pieces the glasing was worn off the bottom inside of the pot, with what? an SOS pad, this made me remember that my grannies and my moms corning wear all look the same, grey etched into the white. So maybe it's not something new,

                        2. I wonder if some of the desire to have cookware etc look like new is that I can't think of one FN show that uses pots that do not look brand new. I point to Giada's white LC cast iron enamel pan (I want to call it a braiser). White!! Inside and out.
                          No TV cooking personality has a scratch, dent or stain. It's unrealistic.
                          Now, if you watch Julia's old shows, she had a wide assortment of equipment and ill-fitting lids, which is of course, more like my kitchen!

                          4 Replies
                          1. re: monavano

                            Agree. It follows that cookware quickly becomes aspirational decor, particularly for many who can't/won't cook but who still want an expensively appointed kitchen. God forbid if any sort of food preparation actually takes place there. Have a friend who blew a large stack of cash on an AGA four oven cooker--like a bank safe with burners--who never uses it for more than boiling water or heating a kettle. There's also a whole slew of OCD issues in play, too. Just check out the knife and cookware threads hereabouts.

                            1. re: monavano

                              I obviously have no insider information, but if I had to hazzard a guess, it would be that the FN shows get new cookware from sponsors or companies that pay for product placement on a regular basis. That's how it works in sports, don't know why cooking would be any different. Don't you just wait for the day some celeberty chef has a big LC logo on the front of his/her cooking smock? Or the "Twins" and Hinckles running down the sleve, and a big All-Clad logo on the back? I'm sure if they could figure out a way to paint the cookware with their logo we would see pots that look like NASCAR flagships. If you see new, pristine pots and pans, and associate that with professional high quality cooking, then you too will want those same pristine pots and pans. It's marketing and it works. We, hapen to have 40 year old pots and pans, and those are the newer ones, except for the enameled cast iron, with a lot of patina.

                              1. re: mikie

                                I remember reading something when I was re-doing my kitchen a while back.

                                Many Europeans like marble counters, because they are soft and get chipped over time and take on a well-worn look.

                                Most Americans like granite, because it is polished and doesn't stain and looks new for a long time.

                                So , to each its own.

                              2. re: monavano

                                Yeah, but this is just more evidence that what you see on food TV (short of PBS) is more indicative of what food's NOT about than what it is.

                                It's tragic. In the beginning I could learn something nearly every day -- valuable practical things -- even tho I'd already been cooking for 40 years...

                              3. I think the question is one of personal choice. We wash our windows for example, and we don't wait until we can't see out of them to do that. There is nothing wrong with wanting things to look good - and my cookware can be both useful, well used and attractive. I have no issue with that at all. I have more trouble understanding why we feel so compelled to convince other people that they are wrong and we are right!!
                                Also I think it's important to distinguish between buildup or residue - and a stain. If its residue, you need to clean it. No matter which side of the debate you are on, residue means it is not clean.

                                1. I like to keep my pots and pans as clean as I can. I love Barkeeper's Friend to get the goop off of my All-Clad Masterchef pans. They don't look new, but they do look well cared for. My DH recently did some frying in a light colored Le Creuset pot, and it was covered with grease stains. Cooking with the pot would have just made those oily stains even harder to get off, so he used some oven cleaner, and the pot looks great again.

                                  I wouldn't want my pots to be dirty on the outside even though it doesn't affect the way it cooks. I pay a lot for the good things I buy, and I like to keep them looking good.

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: roxlet

                                    I just cleaned some of the carbon-based crud from my ceramic braisers and casseroles.

                                    I stack them in a trash bag with half a cup or so of ammonia and tie the bag up for 24 hrs. or so. The fumes are sufficient to loosen the fired on accumulation. When I open the bag up again a modest scrub with a nylon scrubbie takes off the carbon.

                                    In the case of my ceramic, I have to repeat the milk boil. That's why I just do this once or twice a year. In the case of metal pans you'd need to know more chemistry or metalurgy than I do. Chrome is up to it -- i've used this process to clean oven and BBQ racks. My guess is stainless would be too. Dunno about carbon steel or enamel. Doubtful about aluminum. So experiment with some judgment about your favorite things.

                                    Also, not saying this will eliminate all discoloration and signs of wear but it will cut through the burned on carbon.

                                  2. I remember being pretty surprised when I read this passage in Anthony Bourdain's "The Soul of a Chef". He is speaking of the kitchen in the French Laundry restaurant.
                                    "Incredibly every pan looked brand new. The pans weren't, but the dishwashers scrubbed them so hard that
                                    even their bottoms were a clean brushed silver, not that greasy carbon black that I'd seen everywhere else.
                                    Eventually the cooks have to throw out what look like brand new saute' pans because the pot washers have scrubbed off so much metal from the pan itself that it won't rest flat."
                                    I remember thinking that was a big (daily) waste of time and work!
                                    I'm just now trying to sell/toss/de-clutter my kitchen/tableware accumulations--it's very easy to tell what gets used! I suspect I'm like most people--new is new for about a month, then a gradual comfortable mellowing begins.

                                    1. I went to culinary school in Japan, where we almost exclusively used Aluminum cookware (extremely rust-prone). They forced us to scrub the pots almost every week with Brillo pads until they were bright and shiny. The reasons they used to gave us (aside from the prettiness) was:

                                      1.) Tarnish causes rust which causes pitting.
                                      2.) The tarnish is aluminum oxide that is less conductive than the aluminum -- a highly conductive metal, which is why it is used in Japanese cooking.

                                      I think the teachers also believed the tarnish would affect the color and taste the food itself. But then again, they were like super-perfectionists.

                                      1 Reply
                                      1. re: Kansai

                                        Er... I'm no metal expert but as far as I know only ferrous metals such as iron and some steels rust. It may though oxidize or corrode.

                                      2. Yeah - aluminum does not rust - it corrodes and pits. It is a soft metal, so it won 't last as long. And it does leach into food, so it is not a surface to cook on everyday (a bit of aluminum is good for you, too much will kill you).

                                        Stains / wear is ok, grime is not. I fry in antique cast iron with olive oil and butter - eggs never stick. "Cleaning" consists of wiping out the excess oil with a paper towel and storing the pan in the oven (don't leave an oiled pan out - it will collect dust that is a real pain to remove). Every once in a while if grime starts to build up (bumpy surface) I heat the pan and pour boiling water and salt into it, let it boil a bit and scrape it out with a metal spatula, pour out the water, dry it thoroughly and heat it up with olive oil in it, rub the hot oil around until re-seasoned and then it's good to go for a good while.

                                        Honestly, my old stainless steel pots look like crap. They work, but they are ugly! They are American-made, so I refuse to replace them until I can afford new American-made ones. When I do I will definitely be sure to take extra care of them. That is why I LOVE cast iron - non-stick and the least amount of daily cleanup (and a good source of iron, to boot!).

                                        As for germs, I agree that too "clean" is worse than not clean enough. I don't use any "antibacterial" cleansers, and my house would seem toxic to most people ;) However, I do LOVE bleach in certain circumstances - to kill MOLD! Bleach is bad to use on an everyday basis as a cleaner (vinegar / baking soda works), but we had an addition put on the house and the lumber was all moldy and I knew that covering it with insulation and drywall would be truly toxic and kill us, so I went through a few gallons of bleach (and many migraines) to kill it.

                                        I actually had a really bad Staph infection in my foot / leg that I contracted in the hospital. My foot was supposed to heal in 8 weeks, but instead my entire leg blew up, turned purple and was too hot to touch. The surgery incisions didn't even start to heal for 4 months and I couldn't wear any type of shoes for more than 6 months; I still cannot wear normal shoes, only boots.

                                        After that I learned not to trust hospitals (and many doctors), or most prescription drugs. I only use antibiotics when TRULY sick. I rarely get sick and I spend most of my time in the dirt gardening.

                                        Obsessive cleanliness is bad, but actual food bits and grime are bad because they are a hotbed for toxic mold spores and fungus that cause food-bourne illnesses. Copper is a natural anti-microbial though, so copper pots are good for that reason alone (polished or not). Actually, dented / scratched copper is attractive (in my opinion), whereas dented stainless steel looks really bad. So maybe I'll just skip the stainless and invest in copper exterior / stainless interior instead and forgo trying to keep the exterior all shiny and nice. I would never buy a light-colored interior enameled pan though.

                                        1 Reply
                                        1. re: natschultz

                                          Many of us (not all, I realize) mimic what we observed in our Mothers's housekeeping habits without even realizing it. You know, like when you're shocked to hear yourself saying something your parent would have said. I will say, however, that I don't sprinkle water on dress shirts, wrap them in plastic and store in the 'fridge to be ironed later.
                                          She also made hospital corners with bed sheets, & that one I did for years without even putting to mind that it could be done otherwise. Washing & drying dishes was a specific process. As a kid, I didn't know anyone else did it differently. The copper underside of her Paul Revere Pots were cleaned after every use. It brought me to be grossed out when I observed cookware in other kitchens, that we intended to eat from, didn't LOOK clean. I'm sure that in most cases it was clean, but sure gave me pause. I don't consider myself obsessive, but a refreshing pick-me up is nice to accomplish now & then.

                                        2. I had a metal pizza pan that had a wonderful dark patina and created a great crust--this was before pizza stones. My father came to visit and was so proud to show me, when I came home from work, that he had gotten that pizza pan clean and shiny. Tossed it when he went home.

                                          1. This discussion reminds me that recently, my sister offered me her expensive set of pots and pans because she wanted to "upgrade" (whatever that means in her world). While her offer was extremely generous, I turned her down. I knew that the next time she came to our home and saw that we had not kept them as shiny bright as she had that she would be very, very unhappy with us and would let us know. I told her honestly why I didn't want them (though in gentle terms) - she was flabbergasted.

                                            1. Looks like this old thread has been given a second life. Afterall these months, I still agree that there is no strong reason for polishing pots and pans except maybe for special occasions. I know why people do it, but I think it is unnecessary and waste of time. I used to do that for my enameled cast iron Dutch Oven. Looking back, that was stupid. If you have time, then use that time to sharpen your knives, man, which will make a lot more difference. :) If not, go out and run half a mile. I don't know, just do something else.

                                              I also don't believe that we need to keep using anti-bacterial solutions and be super sanitize about everything. It is actually a good idea for our bodies to experience some bacteria and viruses. It is actually a very bad thing if a person has very little contact with virus and germs because when he does (which he will soon or later), his immune system will be too weak. Think how historically most Native Americans (both Northern and Southern America) were really wiped out by germs more so than guns and steels. Now, it is a bit different if you have a newborn or if you are a very old man, but for vast majority of the people -- don't get obsessed about creating a zero germ environment.

                                              3 Replies
                                              1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                                I'm with on on this, though technically Native Americans were wiped out by diseases not always germs--or are they one and the same?

                                                1. re: escondido123

                                                  :) Yeah, I guess you are correct to say that it is the diseases and not the germs (viruses and bacterias) which killed significant population of Native Americans.

                                                  When viruses and bacterias manifest themselves in our bodies, then we are sick and we are in a disease state. This is the same distinction between HIV virus and the disease state AIDS, or the difference between hepatitis B virus and hepatitis B disease.

                                                  "or are they one and the same"

                                                  No, you are right, they are not the same.

                                                2. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                                  I have two le creuset grill pans that are, let's just say, very very well seasoned. They aren't very pretty to look at - but they work great. I'm sure there are lots of people who would be appalled by the visual appearance of these pans - but hey, what do they know?

                                                3. Never cared about that but I'm old and now there's a freakish fear of bacteria that I don't get. But, I rode a bike without a helmet and roller skated without knee pads.