April 4

Best Cleaning Agents for Burned-on Grease – Start to Finish

Written by: Michael

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Getting off burnt on grease is no small cleaning feat. It is probably one of the most resilient stains out there. The trouble really comes when you let the grease cool. The cooling process causes the grease to contract and form a vacuum underneath it, making it stick to surfaces very effectively. 

There are a few different ways to confront burnt-on grease. I always recommend you invest in a good degreaser. Not because I think it will clean everything perfectly, but it can always be your first option before trying some of the more strenuous cleaning processes. 

Here are a few products we consider to be the best agents for burnt-on grease:

* If you do, however, prefer home remedies, I've also included some household cleaning steps below that have continued to work wonders in my life. 

What Creates Burnt-on Grease?


Burned on grease is a mixture of both food and fats, exposed to temperatures that cause it to create a matrix that becomes extremely cohesive and adhesive. (sticks to each other as well as the cooking surface). While most of us try and confront the issue as quickly as possible, it's easy to let the grease get ahead of us. Thankfully there are some cleaning methods that can usually tackle the issue pretty effectively. 

Methods To Try First


Some of the more serious cleaning procedures take time and multiple steps. You can give these techniques a shot before moving onto the more time-consuming methods. Sometimes more natural cleaning can get the job done. 

Hot Water and Soap

Pour some dish soap on the grease scum and mix it in thoroughly. Add scolding hot water and let sit for at least 2 hours. Rinse and Repeat. (You can usually tell after the first cleaning whether this will be effective)

Vinegar and a Scrub Brush

Spray a healthy amount of white distilled vinegar on the stain and let sit for 15 minutes. Scrub with a scrub brush. Rinse with water and Repeat. 

Baking Soda and a Scrub Brush

Apply a thin layer of baking soda on the grease spots. Pour a small amount of hot water to help mix. Scrub with a scrub brush. Rinse with water and Repeat. 

The Ultimate Home Remedy


Arriving at this page, I'm assuming the typical cleaning protocols (soap and water) have failed you. Don't worry, all hope isn't lost.

This method would be my next course of action. It relies on 4 different properties of thorough cleaning that rarely ever fail. All 4 will contribute to breaking and lifting the grease off the pan.

  Materials Needed: 

1)  Baking Soda
2)  Vinegar
3)  Spray Bottle
4)  Scrub Brush
5)  Hot Water
6)  Time

 Procedure:

*** This all depends on what type of surface the grease is on. Do not put vinegar on your granite / marble / stone countertops. Acids / bases can easily strip off the sealer on the stone.


1) Fill the area with scolding hot water and let sit for 15 minutes

For something like a stove pan, this is simple. Fill the pan with water, put it on the stove, and turn on the heat until boiled. For non stove pans, just boil some water in a pot and, once boiled, fill the pan with the scolding hot water almost to the brim. For those cleaning a countertop, carefully pour a small puddle of hot water over the grease (be careful)!

- Heat will help loosen up the grease for the baking soda to penetrate.

- Let sit for 15 minutes, then dump the water down the sink. Do not dry! A thin layer of water makes the cleaning products more effective. 


2) Apply a thin layer of baking soda 

- Sprinkle a layer of baking soda all over the area. No need to overdo it. Just make sure there's at least a small layer covering every part of the grease surface. 


3) Scrub the baking soda in with a scrub brush or steel wool

- Make sure your scrub brush is abrasive enough to agitate, but not so abrasive that it scratches the material of the surface. Usually best to use a non-wire scrub brush if you're unsure. 

Lightly start brushing small circles with your scrub brush to help distribute the baking soda throughout the grease.

- After evenly distributed, put a little elbow grease into it. Really take your time in areas with large amount of grime. Your work here will determine the end result. 


4) Let it sit, but don't let it dry

Let the baking soda do its work for approximately half an hour. If cleaning outside, make sure the surface doesn't dry out. The baking soda is most effective when submerged in water.


5) Spray the pan with vinegar thoroughly and scrub again

- Take your white distilled vinegar and spray it throughout the surface. Use the mist setting on your sprayer, not the "drench one area" setting. 

- Scrub the pan again (same technique used with the baking soda). You should begin to see small bubbles forming. This is carbon dioxide and is the result of the neutralization reaction between the weak acid (vinegar) and weak base (baking soda).  

- Let the mixture sit (even if the bubbles cease!) for 10-15 minutes. This allows the acid to continue to seep into the grease so it can meet its dear old friend baking soda to let the CO2 bubble release and break up the grime.


6) Rinse with hot water and scrub

- As you start to rinse the solution off the surface with hot water, scrub to help some of that last resisting material come off. Rinse thoroughly.

- This technique rarely fails me and is always my go-to when basic scrubbing can't get the job done.  


The Job of Each Step

1) Hot water to loosen grease
2) Baking soda (base) to break down larger fat molecules into smaller, more cleanable ones. 
3) Abrasive brush to distribute baking soda
4) Ample time for basic solution to do its job
5) Vinegar to react with baking soda to cause CO2 bubbles to break grease loose.
6) Final scrub and rinse to get rid of resistant grease spots
7) Hopefully a very clean surface. 

Methods Of Attacking Grease


While it may seem unnecessary to understand the chemistry behind each cleaning method, it's critical to coming up with a logical plan of action. If you know what's happening in the molecular world, you can come up with a logical resolution in the physical one. Detergents, solvents, acids/bases all have different mechanisms for removing grease that will prove beneficial in specific situations.  

Don't be intimidated by the chemistry. The basics are more than enough to get you on the right track. Each cleaning technique is using a different property of the dirt/grease/grime/dust against itself. Let me explain...


1) Detergents

Detergents are a mixture of what are called surfactants, or amphiphilic, molecules (yes, I know gibberish, bare with me). 

There's a reason grease doesn't usually budge with water. Water and the constituents of grease (fats, oil, organic material) are extremely unalike, chemically. When compounds are unalike, they tend to naturally stay away from each other. If water and fats naturally stay away from each other, water cannot penetrate and dissolve the grease to be removed. 

A surfactant is a molecule that has parts that are both water-like and fat-like. These compounds bridge the unattractive nature between water and fats, and allow the cleaning solution to penetrate the grease. The Grease molecules can now attach to the surfactant and the water can help wash it away. The surfactant is essentially the mediator between grease and water.

Course of action: Penetrate grease with compounds that have both water and fat-liking properties. Allow the mixture of water and surfactant to wash grease away. 

Best With: Thin layers of dirt and grease, fabrics, countertops (surfaces that are sensitive and can be broken down by acid/bases).  


2) Acid and Base Cleaners:

Ever been the victim of an acid/base skin burn? These pesky molecules are so damaging because they can break down the natural structure of organic material. The way they attack grease is similar. 

Acids and bases are useful because they can break down food material by encouraging breakdown reactions. This results in the breakdown of food compounds into smaller, more manageable molecules. 

Bases are especially good at breaking down fats and oils through a process called saponification. This turns larger fat molecules into smaller, more water-liking salts. These can easily be washed away by water. 

Acids specialize more in mineral and rust deposits, but can also be useful in fats. Acids are highly reactive chemicals and, depending on their structure, can turn solid compounds into water soluble ones.

(Think pennies and that weird green oxide layer that forms around them over time. Acid takes that copper oxide, which is a solid, and breaks it down into hydrogen gas and a soluble copper compound)

Course of Action: Acids/bases break up organic material by taking part in chemical reactions that turn the compounds into easier to clean ones.  

Best With: Metal pots and pans, or surfaces that are more resistant to damage. 


3) Solvents: 

Solvents are designed to dissolve specific compounds of interest. Solvents are typically specialty products and are not as universal as detergents or acid/base cleaners.

Similar to detergents, solvents work by the "like-dissolves-like" phenomenon. Compounds of similar chemical structure will dissolve one another. But instead of having both a polar(water-liking) and non-polar(fat-liking) side, they just have one "liking" that reflects the closest chemically to the compounds of interest.

Salt, for example, is very polar like water. Therefore it dissolves readily into it. 

Nail polish, however, is not like water. Therefore it does not dissolve in it. That's why your nail polish stays intact when its raining outside or you wash your hands. Acetone however, is very similar to the chemical structure of nail polish, and so it dissolves into the acetone. 

This includes household items like nail polish remover, alcohols, paint thinners, etc.

Course of Action: Dissolve difficult compounds by expressing character similar to that of the compound of interest.

Best with: Each solvent has a very job specific. Research should be conducted before using a solvent on any surface. 

In Conclusion


Burnt on grease can be a huge pain in the neck. It's rarely as straightforward as throwing one cleaning agent at it, but sometimes we get lucky. My cleaning process usually starts logical, and when all else fails, I end up just throwing everything at it. 

Creating a true, all-purpose cleaner is such a difficult task because what works on one stain, rarely works on another. Having a general understanding of how these cleaning agents work is your best offense in tackling them in the most effective way.

Cheers,

Michael

Founder of Robust Kitchen


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About the author

Michael spends his days eating, drinking and studying the fascinating world of food. He received his Bachelors Degree in Food Science and Technology at the University of California, Davis and spent much of his time at the school brewery. While school proved to be an invaluable experience, his true passion lies in exposing the hidden crannies of food for the cooking laymen.

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