The Greenest Cleaning Product — Elbow Grease

by Katy on August 12, 2016 · 33 comments

The following is a reprint of a previously published post. Enjoy!

Do a web search for green cleaning products, and you’ll find a bajillion results, ranging from expensive store bought products to a myriad of feel good homemade concoctions. Heck, I’ve even been known to post a recipe or two on this very blog. But really, the greenest cleaning methods have always been and will always be elbow grease. That’s right, fellow non-consumers, put your back in it, work up a sweat and git scrubbin’. The scientists behind toxic automatic shower cleaning sprayers and toilet cleaning tabs are selling you on the idea of a clean house without actual muscular effort. But unless you have physical limitations that bar your scrubbing power, chemicals that melt soap scum and water spots do you (and your, ahem . . . planet) a disservice.

I have a vintage bun warmer pan that I bought at Goodwill in 1990 or 91. It is the perfect pan for cooking pasta, because it weighs next to nothing and has a swivel top that allows for a small amount of steam to escape, thus avoiding the inevitable boil-over. I think I payed a buck or two. However, I recently burned the crap out of this pan, and was considering it a complete loss. I was even keeping an eye out at Goodwill for a replacement, when I remembered that my sister Jessica had given me a box of soapy steel wool pads for Christmas. (She knows me so well.)

So I rolled up my sleeves up and got my scrub on.

The burnt crud came off pretty easily. Not so easily that there was no satisfaction in the job, (what fun would that be?) and I was suddenly filled with childhood memories of my father scrubbing pots and pans to their very shiniest and showing them off to my sister and I, who were about as interested as toddlers at a meditation retreat. Luckily, my father swung by yesterday afternoon, and was appropriately impressed with my scrubbing prowess.

And yeah, my elbows are buttery soft. Thanks for asking.





Katy Wolk-Stanley

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”

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{ 33 comments… read them below or add one }

chris August 12, 2016 at 3:35 am

That is probably the most charming pan I have ever seen!


Lucy August 12, 2016 at 4:42 am

My hubby is the pot and pan scrubber here.

Years ago in the dead of the Minnesota winter we had a man come look at a horse we had for sale. After inspecting the horse one of his questions was how we got the horse so clean and shiny, since our barn was too cold to bathe the horse. When I replied “elbow grease”, he asked where to buy it! My then 12 year old son just could not stop laughing.


Mrs. Picky Pincher August 12, 2016 at 5:33 am

I’ve also had a lot of success using vinegar to soak and then cleaning up with hydrogen peroxide. I guess that’s not quite as cheap as pure elbow grease, but it’s not as bad as commercial cleaners, so it works for me!


JD August 12, 2016 at 5:58 am

Yes, sometimes it just takes effort. The 12″ cast iron skillet I recently mentioned as having found it at a yard sale, was sold because it had some burned on food and rust. The sellers said it “wasn’t worth the time to get it clean.” It was worth it to me, and I love it.
My brother-in-law said when he used to go camping as a teen, his mom would send her cast iron skillet for him to use over his campfire because the fire would pop any tough food particles off of the pan and she didn’t have to scrub. I know people who put their cast iron in the oven when it is self-cleaning for the same reason.
That is a really cute pan in the picture; I agree with Chris.


tonya parham August 12, 2016 at 6:35 am

My grandmother used to have a fire in the back yard to burn limbs and whatnot and she’d put her cast iron skillets on the embers to get them clean too!


Denise August 13, 2016 at 12:45 am



Jennifer August 13, 2016 at 4:49 am

Tree limbs, very southern word for tree branches. Love that!


Tracy August 13, 2016 at 6:52 am

Ha! I was confused that you asked what limbs are! I did not realize that was a Southern word. Guess that’s cause I am –

tonya parham August 13, 2016 at 3:03 pm

Yes, HA! Tree limbs. I didn’t realize that was a southern-ism!

Chrissy August 17, 2016 at 3:42 am

I am from Indiana, as is my family on both sides since the early 1800’s and we say limbs, too. I had no idea it was a regional term. And yes, people in Indiana say a lot of things that are otherwise thought of as “Southern-isms”. Perhaps they are more “country”? Language is fascinating.

Vickie August 12, 2016 at 6:20 am

Nice pot!

I’m into the elbow grease too. I have a hard time giving up on anything, hence things that really do need to be thrown away end up hanging around too long sometimes.
I do this with my pans though. I have a few tricks and steel wool pads are one of them, they are awesome. My MIL gave me two heavy baking sheets that belonged to hubby’s grandmother and all they needed was a good scrub. I’ve had them for years and they still look great. They’ll probably still be around when my great grandkids are born. I love to pass stuff on to family!


tonya parham August 12, 2016 at 6:33 am

I had a pan– it was my wife’s mother’s pan. It came from my SIL’s first wedding to a Greek man and Cindy (my SIL ) gave it to MIL and it became “The Greek Pan” because (I think) not only did Cindy marry a Greek man, she may or may not have made Greek potatoes and Greek Roast in it.

In any case, when my MIL died, we got the pan. Well, I’ve had the pan for at least 18 years and it was black when I got it. I use it to roast potatoes, broccoli, heat bread in the oven, make pizza on. I just thought it was black. Until early this year, I accidentally left it in the self cleaning oven while it cleaned….ummmmm you should have seen the stuff that burnt off this pan! It was actually a silver pan!!! I think both myself and my missus were a little distraught at what I had done to the pan. It’s so shiny and clean now! I had no idea it was so dirty!

I imagine it’s probably aluminum and I worry I should get rid of it, but you know, nostalgia…


Kathleen in KS August 12, 2016 at 11:35 am

My MIL scolded me for scrubbing all the black off her favorite baking pan. Said it was like the seasoning on cast iron, and she’d worked for years to get it that way. Who knew? I just figured she was slap-dash about washing it, like she did her glass pans. When I was there I always scrubbed the corners and handles and the like. Now I have her Foley roasting pan with the adjustable rack – best thing ever for turkeys! – and a smallish glass baking dish with lid. I miss her.


tonya parham August 12, 2016 at 4:10 pm

Yeah, and you know, the pan doesn’t brown near as well now!


Vickey August 16, 2016 at 3:55 pm

When I was a too-helpful lass of 10, I diligently scrubbed my favorite aunt’s favorite cookie sheet, and got *all* that brown stuff off. When I proudly showed her my handiwork, she smiled weakly and sighed “It was Teflon.” That episode put me off volunteer scrubbing for decades….


Beth August 12, 2016 at 8:21 am

Buttery soft elbows. Ha!

I have baking sheets that have a bunch of brown gunky stains on them (oil or grease maybe?). I might try some steel wool on them to see if I can’t get them a little cleaner. Thanks for the inspiration, Katy!


Katy August 12, 2016 at 8:15 pm

Good luck!


Denise August 13, 2016 at 12:49 am

Don’t know if this is available in the US, but when elbow grease is struggling , I use Bar Keeper’s Friend. It does have chemicals in it, but a little goes a long way.


Jennifer August 13, 2016 at 4:53 am

We have that here and you are right it works get for really tough stuff!


Su Mama August 13, 2016 at 11:10 am

We have All-Clad pots and pans, and Barkeeper’s Friend is what the company says to use on them.


Denise August 14, 2016 at 12:57 am

I bought All-Clad because my (now-ex) husband insisted. Wowser, those were expenseeevo pans, because of their rarity in England. Plus the import duties (trade deal with the U.K. Post -Brexit, anyone? Anyone??). I grew to hate them, truly hate them. I didn’t realise till now that they needed seasoning (not sure even now what that would entail). The frying pan was caked in stuck-on food all the time and got scrubbed to shiny clean every time husband used them (scrubbed by me, I hasten to add!). I went back to the store and bought a teeny-tiny non-stick AllClad frying pan. Guess which one got used all the time? When I left him, I treated myself to two non-stick Le Creuset items (frying and milk pans) which get used all the time. But I have now inherited from my mother some 38 year old stainless steel RenaWare pans. So how do I season that frying pan?

Beth August 15, 2016 at 1:17 pm

Good to know, and I have seen Barkeeper’s Friend in the cleaning aisle. Thanks!


Marcia August 12, 2016 at 9:14 am

If I have a really nasty cooking accident, my husband takes the pan to the barn and attacks it lightly with the metal brush attachment on his drill. When that is done, I can finish it with hand scrubbing more easily. We have resurrected many a burnt on pan with that. Several pans of mine are second generation.


Denise August 14, 2016 at 12:59 am

I use enzyme based clothes washing powder and leave them to soak overnight, then attack them.


Carol August 12, 2016 at 12:46 pm

That is some serious elbow grease! I’m not sure I could put all that effort in…my cookie sheets have black marks all over them.


LisaC August 13, 2016 at 6:56 am

My husband has saved many burnt pans. I have old Revere Ware with the copper bottoms. Usually its when I’m on the internet for “just a minute” while I’m cooking something…then I smell burning. He has gotten used to seeing a burnt pan waiting for him on the back porch.
His elbows are stronger than mine. 🙂 Plus he is retired, gives him something to do haha.
Now I try to use a timer so I don’t burn pans.


A. Marie August 13, 2016 at 9:59 am

(1) Katy’s pan looks a lot like what my mom used for a dinner roll/biscuit warmer back in the day. (For you UK/Commonwealth folks, that’s “biscuit” as in U.S. Southern-style biscuits, not “biscuit” as in UK biscuits. I’m from Tennessee originally.)

(2) Thanks to JD and tonya parham for their tips on getting exterior crud off cast iron over campfires. Might try that sometime.

(3) Here’s my latest elbow grease story: I mentioned in a comment on an earlier FFT that I recently acquired a pair of black Sanita clogs at a local thrift for 6.99. The only flaws were a scuff on one toe and a really sticky label from the thrift inside the right clog. I just spent a total of about 45 minutes (on a rained-out-block-party afternoon) getting the label off the insole with peanut butter, and then touching up the scuff with a fine-point Sharpie. Voila!


Katy August 14, 2016 at 11:25 am

Yes, it’s originally a bun warmer.


Terry August 13, 2016 at 5:03 pm

For those incredibly dirty, greasy crusted on food dishes, bakeware or pots and pans–simply soak it in Dawn dishwashing liquid and immerse a fabric softener sheet or two in the hot soapy water for a few hours. The crud usually comes right off!


Megan August 14, 2016 at 5:16 pm

Katy- you inspired me recently at a Goodwill stop. This is the perfect post to mention it. I spotted an adorably sized tiny cooler that was $1.25 (75% off!) but it was super dirty with dried mud on it! But I could tell it had hardly ever been used. So with a little elbow grease, I cleaned it up and it looks brand new! Thanks for taking time to write your blog! I look so forward to your new posts!


Katy August 14, 2016 at 11:05 pm

Yay, great find! Thanks for the kind words.


Bonnie The Part Time Smallholder August 15, 2016 at 12:51 am

Quite agree. I do cheat and use the steamer I was given as a present, which softens dirt first so you can scrub it off, but still means no nasty chemicals down the drain, killing off little frogs (so I hear!).


TootsNYC August 20, 2016 at 8:38 pm

The other powerful cleaner that’s absolutely free?


Don Aslett pointed out once that the cleaning pros spread the soapy water over the floor and let it sit so the water can soften the desert and the detergent can bind to it.

In the industry, they call it “dwell time.”

Oh, and once I baked some rice onto a pan, and it WOULD not come off. It was about 1-inch thick of black, lava-like gunk. I tried everything (including the dryer sheet, dishwasher liquid, etc.).

I figured it was toast, but I couldn’t bear to throw it out (it was Calphalon!).
Later, it was time to clean the oven, so I put the pan in, and turned on the self-clean cycle.

Bingo! The “lava” was all ash. The handle got a little discolored, and it did warp the tiniest bit–but the pot was GREAT!


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