Buying Stainless Steel Cookware? Read This First.

Are you in the market for Stainless Steel Cookware?

Here’s something you probably didn’t know: Stainless steel was first discovered in 1913 by a metallurgist in.. get this.. a WEAPON EXPERIMENT.   He was trying to produce a stronger material for weapons.

Stainless steel is everywhere:  in cookware, flatware, appliances, building construction, implants, weapons…the list goes on.

But if you are in the market for a stainless steel set, or just wondering about the pans you already own, you might have questions about stainless steel.  Like:

Is it easy to use?

Is it easy to clean?

Why on earth does stainless steel cookware stick?

And most importantly: Is stainless steel cookware safe?

You’d be surprised to know that the answer to that last question is not as simple as it appears. Here’s an exhaustive guide to Stainless Steel Cookware.  Hopefully, it will answer ALL the questions you have.  Read on….

 

What is stainless steel?

Back when I didn’t know any better,  I used to think that steel was just another element – like oxygen, carbon, aluminum etc.   But obviously, I know better now, that it is not.  

Steel is an alloy (which means mixture) of mostly iron combined with up to 1.7% by weight of carbon.  

Steel is much stronger that plain iron but it can rust and corrode.  In order to make it resistant to rust and corrosion, it is combined with chromium and other elements to form stainless steel.  

Stainless steel, in it simplest form, is an alloy of steel with 10.5% or more of chromium by weight.  Chromium makes stainless steel ‘‘passive’ (i.e. non-reactive) by combining with oxygen and immediately forming a layer of chromium oxide which prevents the oxidation (i.e. rusting) of the iron present in the stainless steel.   The higher the chromium content, the higher the corrosion resistance of stainless steel.

The amount of chromium in stainless steel varies according to what it will be used for, e.g. cookware, pipework, industrial uses, medical equipment etc.  For food contact, it is mandated by the NSF International Standard for Food Equipment Material that stainless steel must contain at least 16% chromium by weight.

It is chromium that gives stainless steel its characteristic luster and mirror-like finish.

Stainless steel gets its name from the fact that it doesn’t stain, tarnish or rust like steel.  

Other elements are also added into stainless steel such as molybdenum, nickel and nitrogen.

Most food grade stainless steel contains nickel.  Nickel makes stainless steel stronger and improves its resistance to oxidization and corrosion, particularly in the presence of acidic materials.   It also adds a ‘silver-like’ shine to the metal.  

So, to sum it up:

Steel = (mostly) Iron + (a little bit of) Carbon
Stainless Steel = Steel + (at least 10.5%) Chromium + Other optional elements like Nickel, Molybdenum, Nitrogen, Titanium etc.

There are literally thousands of different formulations for stainless steel, but for our purposes, we will focus only on food grade stainless steel.

 

What is Food Grade Stainless Steel?

According to the NSF International Standard for Food Equipment Material, stainless steel used in food equipment has to be of a type in the (AISI) 200 series, 300 series, or 400 series.   

Let’s have a more detailed look at what these series mean.

300 series

304 stainless steel
By far the most common type of stainless steel used in cookware.  The two  most popular types of stainless steel are 18/10 and 18/8 which form part of the 304 series.  You might have seen these numbers stamped on stainless steel cookware and wondered what those are.  Let’s explain what these mean.

The first number refers to the amount of chromium present and the second represents the amount of nickel. For example, 18/10 stainless steel is made of 18% chromium and 10% nickel.  

Likewise, 18/8 stainless steel has 18% chromium and 8% nickel.  

In terms of performance, there is negligible difference between 18/10 and 18/8 and if a manufacturer claims otherwise, it is just a  marketing ploy.

304 stainless steel is known as an ‘austenitic’ type of stainless steel and is non-magnetic.  

316 stainless steel
Less common that 304 stainless steel, the 316 type of stainless steel is a high-end version of stainless steel that contains a small percentage of molybdenum.  The chemical composition is approximately 16–18% chromium, and 10–14% nickel and 2% molybdenum.  This grade of stainless steel is even more resistant to corrosion but is also more expensive.

316 is also called marine stainless steel since it is used in marine environments where a higher resistance to corrosion is needed due to high exposure to extreme salt water erosion. It is also called surgical stainless steel as it is in used in biomedical implants.  

So if you’re wondering about a Surgical Stainless Steel Cookware Set, now you know the difference: it contains molybdenum (or titanium), has a higher corrosion resistance and might cost you more.  

Is 316 surgical stainless steel superior to 304 stainless steel for cooking?

Concise answer: No.  In day to day cooking, you are likely NOT to notice any difference and for any thing you want to cook, a good quality 304 stainless steel set will do just fine.  But it does not hurt to be offered a choice, specially if it is a choice between two quality options.  

 

400 series

430 Stainless Steel
Now we come to 18/0, which, as we know by now, means 18% chromium and and 0% nickel.  

This is part of the ‘400 series’ and is used primarily for flatware, mixing bowls and cheaper stockpots.  

While some people with allergies are looking for nickel free flatware and cookware, keep in mind that flatware made with 18/0 stainless steel will not be as corrosion resistant or keep its shine over the years.  

It’s also important to know that while ‘legally’ nickel-free, it does contain a negligible 0.75% of nickel.   

400 series stainless steel is a ‘ferritic’ type of stainless steel and is magnetic.  

 

200 series

In the 200 series, manufacturers replace the nickel with manganese since it is much cheaper.  So the end result is a much cheaper stainless steel.  This series is also considered food grade and is safe, however it is not a high quality stainless steel and can corrode or rust.

Like 304, it is also non-magnetic.

 

Why use stainless steel?

For those who have visited this site before, you will know I am a great fan of stainless steel cookware and, in fact, personally, it is my #1 choice when it comes to cookware.   

But here’s the honest truth : Stainless steel is NOT a great conductor of heat.

In fact, if you compare the thermal conductivity of different cookware materials, stainless steel is right at the bottom of the list with a conductivity (ability to conduct heat) that is 16 times LESS than that of aluminum.    That means it will take 16 times as long for a stainless steel pan to heat up compared to an aluminum pan.  

Secondly, it is ‘stick’ cookware…. which means that unless you master the art of stainless steel cooking, most food will stick.  And eggs …don’t even think about it!  

So why even use it?   Because despite the above factors,  stainless steel comes with a long list of advantages.  Here are 9 that I can think of:

  1. It is durable.  You can bang it, scratch it and scrub it.  It still works.  It’s also much harder than aluminum or copper and has a much higher melting point than either. That makes it the most durable of all common cookware materials.
  2. It looks good.  The shiny, polished luster of a good stainless steel set is hard to beat.  
  3. Easy to maintain. Doesn’t need much special care and if your stainless steel cookware is looking a bit dull, all you need is a cup of vinegar and water to restore the shine and sparkle.  Or some Barkeepers Friend.  
  4. Non-reactive.  Unlike pure copper and aluminum which react with acidic food, stainless steel is relatively inert, i.e. it does not react with food.     
  5. Great for searing.  Withstands higher heat with no issues.  
  6. It is versatile.  Stainless steel is also great for frying,steaming, sauteing, boiling, braising, steaming, stewing and poaching.  Just about anything.  
  7. Excellent value for money.  Stainless steel sets are generally quite affordable but the real value lies in the durability.  You will get years and years out of one pan or set.  
  8. Can be combined with aluminum or copper core.  This way you can get the durability and non-reactive advantages of stainless steel, along with the conductivity of the other material.  
  9. Safe cookware option. With a few caveats, it is one of the safest cookware options in the market.  

 

What to look for when buying stainless steel cookware?

Or stated another way, what determines the quality of stainless steel cookware?

Say you’re in the market for a good stainless steel set. Now I don’t expect you to walk around with calipers to measure the thickness of the material or a weighing scale to check the weight. But here are some things to keep in mind:

1. The grade of stainless steel.

You want to make sure that the cookware is made with 18/8 or 18/10 as these are the standard used in good quality cookware. Most cookware will have one of these numbers stamped at the bottom or stated on the box.What to do if nothing is stamped on the bottom? Look at the other criteria below.

2. The weight of the pot.

Without getting technical about the thickness of the base or the sides and what the ‘right’ thickness should be, a good quality stainless steel pot will have a certain ‘heft’ which you can feel when you lift it.

A heavier pot means more material was used to make it, which means it was more costly for the manufacturer to make it and will therefore be pricier for you to buy.

It will also be more sturdy and be less likely to have hot spots. This means food will cook more evenly.

A heavier pan also means it is less susceptible to dents and dings.

Shopping online so can’t really lift a pan before buying? No problem. Check reviews to see if someone talks about the heaviness or sturdiness of the pots.

3. The material used in the core.

Stainless steel is a poor conductor of heat. You want to look for a set that has an aluminum or copper core or cladding so that you get the durability of stainless steel along with the superior heat conductivity of either of the other two metals.

Core means a disc at the bottom of the pan. Cladding, also known as ‘ply’ (e.g. tri-ply) means a complete layer along the base and sides.

Keep in mind that clad cookware will always be more expensive than cookware with just a metal core. And cookware with copper will always be more expensive than cookware with aluminum.

The performance of stainless steel cookware is mainly dependent on how efficiently the pan spreads heat, with no hot spots. This is dependent on the thickness of the copper or aluminum core. The thicker the core, the better the heat distribution.

One thing to note is that an aluminum core needs to be 3 times as thick as a copper core to get the same heat distribution. This means that a pan with an aluminum core will have a thicker base than one with copper. So if you are using weight to determine the quality of a pan and comparing two sets, make sure you are comparing the same kinds of pans, i.e. copper core against copper core and aluminum core against aluminum core. (source: meyercanada.ca)

Here are the common metal combinations and options within each:

4. Reputation of the company. Last, but not least, choose a brand that has a reputation for good quality. As you can see from the options above, you can find a decent set in almost any budget.

How to care for / maintain stainless steel cookware?

While stainless steel cookware needs much less effort to maintain vs. coated cookware, here are some guidelines that will help:

  • Cook on  medium heat.  This helps food stick less and also release more easily from the stainless steel surface.  
  • When done with cooking, allow your pan  to cool off before soaking.  Soaking a hot pan can cause warping.
  • Once cooled, soak the pan with warm soapy water.  When you are ready to clean it, food should wipe right off.  
  • If your pan shows stains or a white deposit, wash with vinegar and water.  Barkeepers friend also helps restore luster and remove stains.
  • Don’t let the pan soak for hours.  You can cause pitting.  
  • Don’t store food, specially acidic foods (e.g. tomato based), in your stainless steel pot.

 

How do I make a stainless steel pan non-stick?

4 words: hot pan, cold oil.  

Heat the pan till you can feel the heat rising when you place your hand above it.   Coat the base of the pan with a little bit of oil and let it get hot, almost to a smoking point.  At this point, food should not stick to the pan.  For a more detailed description, you can read my article 5 secrets to cooking with stainless steel.

 

Can you make eggs in a stainless steel skillet?

You can make anything you want in a stainless steel skillet, the real question is: can you make eggs in a stainless steel pan without sticking?   Many home cooks swear by it and I have to admit I’m NOT one of them.  

Anyhow, if making eggs in stainless steel is something you want to master, here’s a nice video that demonstrates how to do it.  The key to success is having enough heat (i.e. a hot enough pan) and having enough fat (butter or oil) when you fry the eggs.  

Personally, I always keep a good non-stick fry pan in use just for frying eggs.  I prefer the ease and the fail-proof convenience.  It’s no surprise that the Paula Deen Signature stainless steel set comes with 2 non-stick fry pans.  

 

Can stainless steel cookware be used on induction cook tops?

Depends on the particular brand.

Induction cook tops work by transferring magnetic energy from the cook top to the cookware.  For any cookware to work on an induction cook top, it has to be magnetic, and the easiest way to check is to stick a fridge magnet on the base.  

Most stainless steel cookware is made of 304 stainless steel, (18/10 or 18/8) which is not magnetic. In order to work on induction cook tops, SS cookware has to be made of magnetic stainless steel, which, as we now know, contains no nickel (18/0 or 400 series).  

In most cases, if a stainless steel set is induction compatible, it is made of  3 or 5 layers of metal – the non-magnetic, more corrosion resistant 18/10 stainless steel inside, the magnetic, nickel free 18/0 steel on the outside and a layer of aluminum or copper between the two layers for better heat conduction.  

So if a cookware is advertised as induction ready or made with magnetic stainless steel, it generally means that just the outer base layer that is made with magnetic (i.e. nickel-free) stainless steel.  The inside food contact surface is usually 18/10 stainless steel.  

Similarly, there is a myth floating around on the web that if you can stick a magnet to the base of a stainless steel pot, it is safe and high quality.  That is too simplistic as a measure and all it means is that the outer layer is nickel free.  The inner layer is almost certainly 18/10 stainless steel.

I say almost certainly because traditionally, you would be hard pressed to find a good quality stainless steel cookware that is made completely of nickel-free stainless steel (and is thereby magnetic i.e. induction friendly).  

However, I’ve recently been seeing nickel-free stainless steel cookware by the name of Homi Chef made with Japanese standard 21/0 stainless steel.  That is, 21% Chromium and no nickel.  The base has an aluminum core sandwiched between two layers of nickel-free stainless steel.  The higher amount of chromium vs 18/0 stainless steel would make it more resistant to rusting and corrosion.  While I would not expect it to have the same corrosion resistance of 18/10 SS, the reviews so far seem very promising and I think its a good option particularly for people who are allergic to nickel.   

Bottomline: If you are looking for induction ready stainless steel, look for quality cookware that prominently displays that information in their advertising or packaging.   

 

Why does stainless steel cookware stick?

According to scienceofcooking.com, food that is rich in protein (like meats and eggs) forms a bond with the metal which causes it to stick.   

 Another theory is that steel expands when it is hot and contracts when it comes in contact with cooler food, making the food stick to the surface.  It is for this reason that manufacturers recommend bringing the meat to room temperature before adding it to a hot pan.  Keep in mind that once the meat reaches a certain temperature, it will release from the pan.    

 Cooking on too high heat also causes food to stick more, which is why you will see recommendations for cooking on medium to low heat.  

Lastly, if your stainless steel cookware is not of good quality, it might have hot spots, causing food to stick.

 

Does stainless steel cookware rust?

By its nature, stainless steel is resistant to rust, corrosion and stains.  But just because it’s ‘stain-less’ doesn’t mean it’s ‘stain-never’.  Yes, it does stain and yes, sometimes it does rust.  In fact, we shortlisted the top 6 stains on stainless steel and possible remedies for each.  

If your pan is showing signs of rust then it could be one of three reasons:

  1.  The composition of the steel : Nickel free 18/0 stainless steel is more prone to rust than 304/316 stainless steel which is 18/10 (18% chromium, 10% nickel).  
  2. The quality of the steel : Chromium is the key element which makes stainless steel rust resistant.  By definition, stainless steel must have a minimum 10.5% by weight of chromium.  In the US, stainless steel that comes in contact with food must contain at least 16% chromium.  High quality 304/316  stainless steel contains anywhere from 18-20% chromium.    So a cheaper, unbranded set might have the low range of chromium, which means more of the basic rust-prone steel is exposed.  
  3. The usage of the pan or the environment it is used in.  Too much acidic food, too much harsh scouring or extremely salty conditions can also cause stainless steel to rust.  

 

What kind of utensils can I use with stainless steel cookware?

Just about any kind.  With stainless steel, you are not limited to any particular kind of utensils, be it wood, plastic or stainless steel.  My personal preference is always wood.

 

Which is better: hard anodized or stainless steel cookware?

There is no firm answer to that question.  

The choice of cookware depends on you, your budget, your cooking style and type of food you cook.  Check out my article The 7 Guidelines on How to Choose Cookware for help.

 

Is Stainless Steel Cookware Safe?

Yes.  And No.  

Confused?  So was I.  When I set out to answer this question, I realized there are two sides to this answer.  You will have to be the best judge of which side you will go for.  

So let’s break it down.  

First, the Yes:

Stainless steel cookware is generally recognized as a safe material for cookware.  

Any good quality stainless steel, be it 304 or 316 stainless steel, is a better choice than most of the other available materials.  For example, coated aluminum pans lose their non-stick over time. Teflon-type coatings disintegrate if overheated.  Glass and ceramic pans are poor conductors and break easily.  Copper reacts with food and has to be lined with another metal (quite often stainless steel!).  Cast iron needs to be seasoned otherwise it will rust.  

Given these choices, stainless steel stands out as a low maintenance, durable and relatively inert option for cookware.  

And now the No:   

Stainless steel, while relatively inert compared to other metals, can leach nickel and chromium into food in low quantities. The amount leached depends on the grade of the stainless steel, the cooking time and the cookware usage.

Nickel leaching

According to Health Canada, nickel, in small quantities, is not poisonous.  But for people who are allergic or have a sensitivity to nickel, it can cause a reaction, usually in the form of some skin irritation (aka dermatitis). According to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 10-20% of the population is allergic to nickel.  

The major source of nickel exposure for most people, according to the NCBI (National Center for Biotechnology Information ), is food.  Nickel is present in most foods and the average American consumes 69 to 162 μg of nickel per day.  The tolerable limit for daily consumption is 1,000 μg per day.  

Another organization, whfoods.org, says that the alloy in stainless steel cookware is much more stable than other cookware materials, which means you are less likely to have any leaching of any metal, including nickel.

So for most people, using corrosion-resistant nickel containing stainless steel cookware does not add significant amounts of nickel to the diet.  

The point to stress here is ‘most people’.  The 15-20% who DO have a nickel sensitivity are absolutely advised to avoid using Stainless Steel cookware and modify their diet to be low in nickel.

Chromium leaching

Health Canada states that small doses of chromium, like iron, are good for your health. Low levels of chromium are important for human health and metabolism of glucose, protein, and fat;  at higher amounts it can be harmful.  Most people consume 50 to 200 micrograms per day which is considered safe.  The amount added to the diet from one meal cooked in stainless steel is 45 micrograms of chromium which is not enough to cause concern.

What about pitted and scratched stainless steel pots?

One thing to keep in mind is that if stainless steel cookware has been scratched and pitted by abuse and by scouring with an abrasive material like steel wool, it is more likely to leach nickel and chromium into food.  It is still safe to use since the amounts are small.  But it’s important to take care of your stainless steel pots and keep the surface intact.  

How to minimize the reactivity of stainless steel?

Rebecca Wood at rebeccawood.com suggests 3 things to minimize the reactivity of stainless steel pots:

  1. Don’t use stainless steel to store food.  Remove from pan as soon as cooking is done.
  2. Don’t use stainless steel for highly acidic or salty food.  This will prevent corrosion.
  3. Never scour stainless steel pans with abrasive cleaners.  

Conclusion:

It seems that there is no cookware material that is not declared unsafe by someone or the other.  But if you are not sensitive to nickel or chromium, use a reputable brand, and use your cookware with the care prescribed above, then the consensus is that stainless steel is an excellent choice and is acceptable and safe for cookware and bakeware.

 

What is the best and healthiest stainless steel cookware?  

 

 

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