Every kitchen is equipped with cookware. Your cooking pots and pans are something you likely use everyday. There are so many types of cookware available, made from various materials and at different prices. Stainless steel seems to be the most widely available and one of the most popular. But, is stainless steel cookware safe to cook with?
The short answer is: YES. Since stainless steel cookware is made of a solid material and isn’t coated, it is a safe option for your everyday cooking.
Nonstick cookware has received a bad reputation in recent years because its coating can flake off and particles can end up in your food. This isn’t the case with stainless steel cookware, because there’s no coating. The pans can get scratched, but nothing will flake off.
Even with heavy use, everyday cooking and sticky foods, stainless steel pots and pans offer a functional, easy and safe cooking surface. Because of the overall makeup of the metal, the way it is constructed into pots and pans and the resulting performance there’s no wonder it’s one of the most common types of cookware.
Since it’s a popular material for pots and pans, there are many manufacturers in the marketplace with their own distinct construction and design. Deciding which one is best for you depends on several factors.
Composition of Stainless Steel Cookware
One key factor in the decision to buy one brand of stainless steel cookware over another is the overall makeup of the metal. Stainless steel can vary greatly in its composition.
Steel is an alloy. This means that it is made up of different types of metals combined to make a stronger metal. Most stainless steel cookware contains primarily iron, with added lesser amounts of chromium and nickel. The actual metallurgical breakdown, or the mixture and making of the metal, varies based on the company that creates the cookware.
Once the ratio of metals is determined, they are melted down together and formed into one mass which is then molded into pots and pans. The parts of which this mix consists are:
Now, let’s take a look at each of those individually…
Iron, the primary metal of stainless steel, when combined with the other metals used to make stainless steel is thought to leach minimally if at all from your cookware to your food.
Chromium, the second most common metal in stainless steel, is a chemical that is found in the body and is naturally found in several different foods. It is thought to be safe in small doses and also tends not to transfer to food when cooking with stainless steel.
The one component in the stainless steel molten mix that makes people question the safety of stainless steel cookware is nickel. Too much nickel can lead to one type of heavy metal poisoning. However, as with the other metals the chance that you’ll ingest it from your stainless steel cookware is minimal.
Some stainless steel cookware is actually aluminium with a stainless steel coating. The steel used in this type of pan is generally a combination of iron, chromium and some nickel, as described above. In this case though, stainless steel is just the exterior around an aluminium core. The same nickel concerns apply with these pans and knowing the grade of the stainless steel is important.
So, knowing the composition of your stainless steel is the key factor you should consider in purchasing such cookware. Often that is more than enough information to decide. The composition is also referred to as the grade of stainless steel. It is almost always stated on a label for new pots or pans. The higher the grade the higher the quality. The higher the quality the safer the pan.
The Grade Of Your Stainless Steel Set
The proportions of different metals in stainless steel varies. It’s these proportions that determine its grade. Higher grade stainless steel is higher quality, is more durable and is more temperature resistant, meaning it will heat more evenly.
There are many different grades of stainless steel pots and pans on the market. In general, the higher the quality, the less nickel the stainless steel will contain. The amount of nickel in a pot or pan is a makers decision and is based on cost. Nickel is cheap and, as such, is often used as a filler.
Since nickel is the most worrisome heavy metal used to make cookware, the less of this ingredient the better, especially over time and use.
It’s hard telling the exact quantities of each metal in a piece of cookware. It’s a proprietary alloy for each manufacturer. Since you shouldn’t be expected to ask the salespeople at the store, nor should they be expected to know about the metal content of a particular pot or pan, you can check the quality in several different ways. You can make generalizations from the information you are given on the packaging.
Here’s a quick breakdown that will help you determine the quality of a particular brand:
- Look for ratios. Most good cookware will have a ratio that tells you the makeup of the stainless steel. This ratio demarks the amount of chromium to nickel. Look for numbers that resemble this: 18/8 or 18/10. The first number refers to the chromium content, the second for the nickel content. Either are safe proportions for cookware.
- Know your manufacturers. Some only make high-quality stainless steel cookware. You will have to do a bit of research in order to determine which ones will work best for you and your budget, but some of the best are Williams Sonoma, Viking, Sur La Table, All-Clad, and Cuisinart. These are just examples though, there are others who make high-quality cookware.
- Look for professional sets. Some manufacturers only make cookware for restaurants. These sets are generally designed to take a beating and survive without imparting taste or metals into the food being cooked. You can also look into what cookware professional chefs use at home.
- Check the cost. It’s safe to say that the very inexpensive sets that consist of flimsy feeling pots and pans may not be the best ones. They more likely contain metallic compounds that you don’t want in your cookware at all. In addition, they will likely have less of a barrier between the pan’s material and the food you prepare in it. They last the least amount of time and their safety is less certain the longer they are used.
Do your research with these things in mind before buying and you’ll know what brands to steer towards, what types of cookware you want and what quality fits your budget.
Are the pots and pans I have at home stainless steel and are they safe?
There are several ways to tell if the cookware you currently own is something you can feel good about cooking with. Do your own assessment of your pots and pans following the guidelines above. The bottoms of your pots and pans will give you some key information. Most often, if it is stainless steel it says so on the bottom of the pan. Look to see what the ratios of metal are that make up your cookware. Remember to stick with 18/8 or 18/10.
What To Look For
If those clues are missing, you can check your cookware quality and makeup by looking up the brand. As discussed above, some brands are known for higher quality cookware than others.
If a brand name is not obvious you might be able to guess what your cookware is made of. Stainless steel will be heavier than aluminium, but lighter than cast iron. Coated cast iron will be heavy but have a nice paint-like coating. Glass is usually obvious, as is copper. Stainless steel will often feel smooth and look shiny.
With some accuracy, you can test whether a particular stainless steel pot or pan is still okay to use. A pan is generally safe to use if it looks in good condition, with no marks or scratches on the interior of the surface. A pan that looks like this is both effective to cook with and, most importantly, not leaching dangerous heavy metals that can slowly build up in your body.
Testing The Set
You can test your current stainless steel cookware for relative safety by using the vinegar taste test. Pour a tiny amount of vinegar into a glass measuring cup (around a quarter cup will work) and then put the same amount in one of your pans. After five minutes, taste the vinegars. Both should taste the same. If the vinegar from the pan has a metallic taste, then your pans are not high quality, or worn too much to ensure your food will not take on any metal flavor or metal components that could affect your health over time.
If your current cookware has a good name brand, with identifiable quality and not too old or scratched than it should last a long time. As long as you use and care for your cookware properly, leaching of their individual component parts is unlikely. If your cookware is damaged, worn or old, it may be time to consider buying new pots and pans. In the meantime, take care of what you have.
If you want to try out a different sort of material for your kitchen, check out some of the copper cookware sets I have reviewed. One of the best sets on my site is the Mauviel M’heritage M250B Copper Cookware Set.
Caring For Your Pots and Pans
In order to ensure that your stainless steel pots and pans stay safe to use, you must care for them properly. The better you care for your cookware, the longer they will remain intact, effective and safe to cook with.
If you do scratch the surface of your stainless steel pans, you won’t ingest metals from the pan, unlike with nonstick pans where scratching the bottom of the pans can easily release the coating. However, a moderate to heavily scratched stainless steel pan may result in leaching a small amount of chromium or nickel into your food. While these amounts are extremely tiny, it’s always better to be safe and remember to treat your cookware with care.
Things like metal utensils can scratch the surface, so perhaps opt for silicone, plastic, or even wooden utensils as much as possible. Use these more gentle types of utensils both when cooking and when removing food from the pan.
When you wash your cookware, always use a soft sponge, not steel wool. If you end up with a crust or stain that is hard to remove, rather than scrub it with an abrasive cleaner or tool, use the soaking method. Since stainless steel cookware doesn’t have a coating, you can soak it in soapy water without worrying about damaging it or soap creeping into your pan’s surface. You can also soak with water only. Just add hot water to the pan above the level of any stuck on foods and let is sit for a while. When the food bits are soft or wipe away easier, use a soft sponge or a wooden spatula to clean the pan. For tough stuck on bits, an overnight soak is sometimes necessary.
Cleaning Your Set
As for soap, you should use standard dish soap, not anything that is extremely strong or astringent. Astringent cleaner can be abrasive to the pans surface and, over time, can wear it down quicker. It is always better to wash and dry your stainless steel cookware by hand, avoid the dishwasher as much as possible. Hand washing ensures that you are properly caring for you pans and allows you to notice when they start to look overly used or scratched.
Following these basic care and cleaning methods will keep your stainless steel pots and pans safe to use for a long time to come.
There are a lot of types of materials used for cooking. This is why I have compiled this article going into deeper detail about each and every kind of material that you can encounter when browsing for your next cookware set.
Foods That Can Damage Your Cookware
Properly cleaning your stainless steel cookware is one of the most important things you can do to keep harmful metals from leaching from your pans into your food. Not only is how you clean them important, but what you cook in them should be considered as well. You need to keep in mind that certain types of food can further damage worn, marked or scratched cookware. While the damage is nothing in comparison to what happens to nonstick cookware (which can render it useless), you must be conscious and careful about what foods are not well suited for stainless steel cookware.
Pitting And Acidic Foods
Your stainless steel cookware can pit, or form small dimples over time, thanks to exposure to acidic foods like tomato sauce. This pitting is actually the metal getting eaten away by the acid in the food. It weakens the metal, impacting the lifespan of the cookware and its safety.
Pits, marks and scratches in the surface of a pot are exposed areas that can make acidic foods more likely to worsen the surface more. Even though it is only trace amounts of worrisome heavy metals used to make up stainless steel, once damaged, acid, among other things, can be more damaging to the pan. This doesn’t mean you can’t cook things like tomato sauce in a stainless steel pan. Overall, it’s a safe choice for most foods, even those high in acid like tomatoes. This warning just means to watch the pot or pan. If it’s well worn, very scratched or has lots of pit marks, it might be time to get a new stainless steel pan, especially if your go-to meal is pasta and tomato sauce.
Extremely salty foods can damage your cookware as well. They can lead to small white deposits that build up on the surface of the pan. Similar to acidic foods, salty foods can be safely prepared in stainless steel. Salt residue can make your pots and pans look rather ugly, and over time the salt can further reduce the safety of a well worn or scratched pan.
Finally, it’s not a good idea to store food in your cookware. Many people are in the habit of leaving the food in the pan, putting a lid on top, and placing it in the refrigerator once it’s cooled. Don’t do this. Instead, you should invest in some high-quality glass containers for your leftovers. Once packed away in glass, the pan can be properly cleaned and cared for and will remain safe longer.
Properly Season Your Cookware
While gentle cleaning and proper care works well to maintain a high quality stainless steel pan, seasoning your pans can add an additional layer of protection. Seasoning can also make yours pots and pans safer to cook with. Cookware that has been properly seasoned is easier to use and food will stick less. Stainless steel cookware is not nonstick, but a well seasoned pan can help keep more types of food from sticking to the surface.
Some foods may not stick if you add enough oil or fat, but then you are frying and you don’t always want to fry. If you are conscious about your health enough to care for your pans properly than you probably aren’t doing a lot of frying. A seasoned pan can help you cut down on the amount of oil you need to cook with. Proper seasoning can make the pan a natural non-stick surface.
Seasoning your pans also offers a layer of protection against oxidation, which is harmless but makes your pans a faint yellow or gold and usually occurs from cooking over high heat for more than a few minutes.
You can season your cookware very easily. Start by washing it, and then dry it thoroughly. Once your cookware is clean, place the pan on the stove and pour a small amount of neutral flavored, high-heat oil, like grapeseed, vegetable, or canola oil into it until the entire bottom is just covered. Turn the burner to medium heat and watch the oil until it begins to get hot and wisps of smoke begin to appear. Turn the heat off, move the pan, and allow it to cool. Once it’s cool, wipe out the excess oil with a soft cloth or paper towel. Your pan is now ready to store, seasoned and prepared for use.
Leave this fine layer of oil on for easy, safe cooking and repeat if the pan starts to get dry between uses.
Stainless steel cookware is widely available, great performing and a safe material for your everyday cooking. Just remember to look for high quality stainless steel cookware that is not coated and avoid heavy scratching and harsh cleansers. If you do that your stainless steel pots and pans will be safe and dependable workhorses in your kitchen for a long time to come.