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A Guide to Stainless Steel Cookware

If you’re looking at for a durable set of cookware that allows you freedom for your cooking utensil materials, increases heat tolerance, and helps hold in heat for longer cooking times and even temperatures.

Stainless steel has its own little quirks, but once you’ve invested in stainless, you may not go back to more delicate cookware even for more temperature response. Stainless steel can be complicated, so let’s take a look at what you’ll need to keep in mind when deciding on stainless steel cookware.

What is Stainless Steel?

That seems like a strange question, but do you really know what’s in your cookware? Steel is actually an alloy metal, a mixture in laymen’s terms. It uses iron and a small percentage of carbon to create a highly durable metal that’s warp, scratch, and chip resistant. Steel alone isn’t much better than iron at resisting corrosion.

To help steel be more durable and resist natural corrosion, manufacturers then mix chromium with the steel to form stainless steel. Chromium reacts with oxygen to create a tough outer layer that’s corrosion-resistant, or nonreactive. The higher the chromium content, the more corrosion-resistant stainless steel is, but the minimum would be 10.5% by weight to be considered stainless steel at all.

 

What is Food Grade Stainless Steel?

Food grade stainless steel requires 16% chromium by weight. Food grade also contains nickel, which further improves corrosion resistance. It adds a silver-like shine while chromium adds to the luster. While there are many types of stainless, including things like construction material grade, it’s food-grade that this article will highlight.

The NSF international standard requires food-grade stainless to belong to one of three series, 200, 300, or 400 series. Here’s what you need to know.

300 Series

By far the most famous type of stainless in cookware, the 300 series includes 304 and 316. The 304 series uses 18/10 or 18/8 stainless series, which means the percentage of chromium and nickel, respectively. As far as performance goes, there’s little difference between the two despite what marketers like to say.

304 steel is nonmagnetic and nonreactive. It’s known as an austenitic metal, meaning it contains lower levels of carbon and higher chromium and nickel levels. These are easily the most common types of food-grade stainless.

316 stainless steel is less common and contains higher amounts of molybdenum. This compound makes it even more corrosion resistant than the 304 series, so much so that it’s used in marine environments and biomedical implants.

In everyday cooking, you won’t notice any difference between 304 and 316 stainless. The main difference is corrosion resistance, but for most standard kitchens, you don’t encounter enough humidity or saltwater to make a difference.

400 Series

The 400 series is 18/0 or nickel free. It’s used mostly for flatware and mixing bowls and can be cheaper than 300 series. Some people need an alternative to the 300 series because of nickel allergies, but in reality, this isn’t going to be as durable or as corrosion resistant. It’s also not going to keep its shine over the years the way 300 series will.

As a legal aside, even though the series is functionally nickel-free, there will be negligible amounts of nickel in it at .75%. If you have severe nickel allergies, you may be better off with a different type of metal. It’s a ferritic, magnetic type of stainless.

200 Series

The 200 series is the lowest quality stainless option and is often used in budget cookware. It uses manganese instead of nickel because it’s more affordable, but it’s not as corrosion resistant. However, it is food safe, so if you’re on a strict budget but don’t want standard aluminum, this could be a good option for you. It’s also nonmagnetic.

 

Why Invest in Stainless Steel?

In reality, stainless steel isn’t as great of a heat conductor as copper or aluminum, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. While you will have to take some time to preheat the pan properly, it offers an even, long-lasting heat that makes it easier to simmer or do things like sear meats without warping your pan.

Stainless steel also has a reputation for causing food sticking, but you must rethink the way you prep your pan to get the best use out of the pan. Before you ever put food in the pan, you must first gently preheat the pan for ten or so minutes to allow it to heat thoroughly. Add in your oil and make sure it covers the pan by rocking the pan around.

Once you’ve added oil, you can add food. This method allows you to take full advantage of your pan’s cooking abilities. It will offer a broader range of capabilities if you work with steel instead of against it.

Stainless is nonreactive with food, meaning it won’t leach metals into your meals as you cook, and it shouldn’t develop odd stains and marks with acidic foods. If it does develop a mark, simply put a bit of Barkeeper’s Friend, and you’ve brought your pans back to life. That’s a huge reason people invest in stainless. It’s going to look great for years, especially if you invest in the 300 series.

Stainless is also easier to maintain than other types of cooking materials. It’s suitable for the dishwasher and can go in the oven without issues. While it’s always recommended that you wash your pots and pans by hand, you don’t have to worry about ruining the finish if you’re just too tired to hand wash everything.

Stainless is also an excellent value. Not only are some of them highly affordable for the first investment, but their durability means that once you invest, you won’t have to replace your pots and pans for quite a long time.

Many types of stainless are induction capable and can be combined with aluminum or copper cores (or both) to help speed up the heating process while taking full advantage of stainless steel’s durable qualities. That makes it one of the safest cookware materials on the market.

 

How to Purchase Stainless

So how do you decide the quality and build of your stainless? There are a few things you’ll have to consider.

Grade

The grade of stainless is really important. There’s a reason most stainless steel cookware is designed with the 300 series. It’s going to last a lot longer and resists corrosion. It’s important to remember that you’ll have your stainless for a long time, so a more significant upfront investment could help you get the cookware you’ll need for a long time.

Ensure that the cookware is 18/10 or 18/8 stainless for the biggest corrosion resistance and the most durable cookware on the market. Also, it will keep its shape and finish for the longest time.

Weight

Stainless is heavier than aluminum, and while you don’t want to get a pot that’s so heavy you can’t move it, stainless should have a nice weight to it. Even if you’ve got an aluminum or copper core, your stainless should have heft.

Heavier pans are suitable for a variety of reasons. The weight of the pot can withstand heat better, making it less likely to warp or change shape. It also is less likely to get hot spots or scorch food because the manufacturer used more layers and material.

Core Material

You’d probably not want all stainless because it would take forever to cook with. Instead, multi clad pots offer different layers of material to improve heat conductivity while ensuring that you keep all the benefits of stainless.

Aluminum is a common core material for its fast heating times, but you could also get copper or a combination of both. This cuts down on the weight, and the preheat times so that your cooking is a lot more efficient.

The “core” means the layers on the bottom of the pan. More affordable sets use layers only across the bottom, meaning you’ll have to wait a little longer for the heat to travel up the sides of the pan. “Cladding” means that the layers are consistent through the sides, giving you more temperature control.

Clad cookware is going to be a bigger upfront investment, but it will definitely improve the performance. The thicker the layers of aluminum or copper, the better the pan will perform, but you may have to expand your budget to accommodate it.

If you decide that you want a core or cladding made of copper, you’ll have even more cost. Again, the thicker your cladding, and the more expensive your materials are, the bigger your investment.

Keep in mind that your aluminum core will need to be thicker than your copper core in order to be as effective. An aluminum blended pan will be heavier.

Caring for Stainless

Stainless is a much more manageable set of cookware to care for, but you’ll still have to take some precautions to ensure you’re getting the most you can get out of your cookware.

  • Cook on medium heat. Stainless steel holds in heat really well, so you don’t need to crank the heat up too high to get the job done. All you’ll do is encourage food to stick and wear down the interior layer more quickly.
  • Cool your pan down. Even stainless steel can warp if you thrust a hot pan under cold water. Avoid this by allowing your pan to cool down before attempting to wash it.
  • Soak the pan. While it may be the oldest trick in the book to avoid washing your dishes, soaking your stainless pans can help remove stuck-on food with less effort. Food should wash right off after a good soak.
  • Don’t let it soak forever. On the other hand, make sure you don’t leave your pans soaking overnight. Twenty minutes or less should be sufficient to help remove food without causing pitting from water damage.
  • Don’t store food in your stainless pans because reactive foods can also cause pitting over time. It’s always better to use your stainless pots for cooking and your plastic or glassware to store.
  • Clean stains carefully. Using vinegar and water can help remove white deposits and stains. Barkeeper’s Friend also helps restore stainless steel to its former glory.

 

Stainless Steel and Nonstick

Stainless steel doesn’t have a great reputation for food sticking. In fact, of all the metals, it’s probably the worst. However, most people don’t understand how to mitigate those effects through the cooking method itself.

You need a hot pan and cold oil to get the best results. The best process is to gently preheat your pan to low or medium heat and then add oil to coat the bottom of the pan. Add your food only after you’ve followed these steps to ensure you’ve gotten the best results.

If you don’t allow your oil to heat and the pan to get to the right temperature, adding in food and allowing the temperature to grow while the food is in, it only encourages sticking.

Things like eggs or fish are much tricker. While it can be done with plenty of oil or butter and the steps outlined above, you may want to invest in one nonstick frying pan just for these two things. There are even nonstick coatings bonded to stainless steel if you want consistency.

Stainless steel tends to stick more with foods that are higher in protein. That bond forms strongly between the proteins and steel making it harder to get foods like eggs off the bottom of your pan.

It’s also possible that heat causes steel to expand, so when you throw cold food onto the pan, it contracts causing more sticking. Some experts recommend bringing food to room temperature before cooking to help combat this action.

The higher the heat you use, the more likely your food is to stick. Keeping to a low to medium temperature can combat that. Also, lower quality stainless steel could have hot spots. When food scorches, it’s more likely to stick.

 

Induction Top Cooking

Stainless is induction capable, but only if it’s magnetic. Magnetic stainless steel comes from the 400 series because it contains no nickel. For induction cooktops, they transfer energy to the pan through magnetics, so the easiest way to check is to see if a magnet sticks to the pan.

Since 304 stainless is the most durable material, most sets utilize this grade. Induction capable sets also have a bonded 400 series across the bottom to make it induction compatible. The interior surface is typically the 300 series, corrosion-resistant material.

A big internet myth is that if you do try the magnet method, that’s a sign that it’s a high-quality pan. This isn’t true. It merely means that the pan is induction ready. You probably won’t find many options with solely 400 series metal because they’d be too corrosive.

The best option for you is to purchase cookware that’s clearly labeled with the types of materials contained in the pots and pans. If you are clear on what you’re getting, you can make the best decisions about your induction cookware.

 

Stainless and Rust

Stainless is durable, but rust or corrosion can ruin your pan. If you notice rusting on your pans, there are a few reasons that could be happening. First, if you chose nickel-free pans, you’re already more likely to see rust.

If your pans have been scratched with scouring, that can also cause rust to form in the scratches and divets on the surface. If you allow reactive foods to sit in the pan or soak your pans for hours at a time, you can also encourage rust.

Last, if you have a saltwater environment, such as a boat kitchen, you may also see more corrosion. The salt in the environment can cause issues with the surface of your stainless steel, and if you don’t have 316 series stainless, it can cause a lot of problems.

 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is Stainless Steel Safe? – Yes and no. Stainless is highly safe because it’s so durable and heat resistant. A good quality stainless steel is going to be one of the most reliable materials on the planet and doesn’t put out fumes with heat the way Teflon or aluminum will.

It’s also noncorrosive with most foods, so you’re less likely to destroy the surface of your pan. Aluminum, for example, is highly corrosive and causes metal to leach into your foods.

On the other hand, nickel leaching is a thing. The lower quality pans can cause both nickel and chromium leaching to your food. If you’re hard on your pans and cause corrosion to the surface, it’s more likely you’ll end up with things you don’t want in your food.

    • Nickel leaching: According to the Centers for Disease Control, up to 20% of the population is actually allergic to nickel. However, the corrosion resistance of most modern stainless steel cookware ensures you probably won’t have problems, leaching, or otherwise.

To minimize reactivity, ensure you’re taking care of your pots and pans well to ensure you’re not causing issues for the surface. Use a reputable brand, and be sure you know what your pans are made of.

  • How do I choose the right stainless steel set? – As long as you know what materials you’re getting, you have a wide variety of stainless steel cookware to choose from. Most 300 series pots and pans are highly durable and cause little scratching or staining.

If you need something induction capable, you can choose pans with 400 series steel bonded to stronger, more nonreactive metals on the interior. Then, make sure you understand your core metals and your layers. Balance with the budget you need, and you should be good to go.

  • Can I use metal utensils with my stainless steel? – You can use metal utensils, but as with anything, it’s not recommended. Using a gentle material for your cooking utensils can help ensure that you don’t accidentally damage the surface.

Wooden or nylon utensils have a better chance of preserving your cookware surface so that you don’t invite staining or corrosion. While you may have better luck with the occasional metal utensil with stainless steel, long term use still isn’t recommended.

  • My stainless is stained. How do I clean it? – Reactive foods may still cause stains or white deposits. The easiest thing to do to handle these stains is to use a blend of water and vinegar to clean the pot or pan. You can also invest in something called Barkeepers Friend to help restore shine and buff out small scratches.

  • What’s the difference between polished and brushed stainless? – The finish is purely an aesthetic preference and doesn’t affect the cooking at all. If you like the high drama shine of polished stainless, there are plenty of cookware sets that use that finish. Brushed stainless can hide small scratches and stains that develop over time.

 

Building Your Stainless Collection

Stainless steel is a beautiful and durable option for cooks that do a lot of cooking and have a variety of cooking needs. Stainless can go from the stovetop to the oven to the table without blinking and look great the entire time. It doesn’t warp with heat and has few hot spots when prepped correctly.

The material of stainless is a safe material and can hold heat well. Although stainless is sometimes challenging to keep from sticking, once you’ve gotten the hang of cooking with it properly, it can be a great way to cook a variety of foods.

If you can’t handle the pots before you buy them, be sure to check reviews for things like weight and balance. The best option you have, though, is to handle the pots and read about the exact materials used in their construction so that you know what you’re getting. And with a variety of options across budget types, you’ll come out a winner.

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