Is Stainless Steel Cookware Safe? An In-Depth Look - ushfc

Is Stainless Steel Cookware Safe? An In-Depth Look

While we wouldn’t normally take advice from, or pay undue attention to, politicians, Tricky Dicky was right about steel.

The best steel has to be able to cope with the hottest fire, which is one of the reasons why stainless steel pots and pans have become the sought-after culinary weapons of choice for chefs around the world. 

Stainless steel cookware is strong, built to last, and can take the heat of any kitchen, but how safe is it?

After the DuPont scandal about C8 (a man-made chemical known as PFOA or Perfluorooctanoic Acid), its inclusion in Teflon and its harmful side effects and the danger it posed to human health became public knowledge at the dawn of the millennium, we’ve all become acutely aware of the potential threat to our wellbeing that cookware can pose.

Why? Because for decades, Teflon was the most popular non-stick coating for cookware, and as it contained both PFOA (the aforementioned C8) and PTFE (Polytetrafluoroethylene) which are carcinogenic (which means that they can cause cancer) it was partially responsible for creating a home cookware revolution, as consumers abandoned their Teflon coated pans and began to search for a less harmful, but just as efficient and effective alternative.

Even though DuPont (now known as DowDuPont) has phased PFOA out of the production of Teflon, the damage was already done, people already knew the risks that it posed, and as aluminum cookware has been linked to the onset of early Alzheimer’s disease and Copper pans have are thought to play a role in heart disease, the safe cookware playing field has become increasingly narrow.

Of course, you could put your faith in either glass or cast iron cookware, but if your pockets were deep enough to be able to comfortably afford either of those options, you’d probably have already employed someone to do your cooking for you. If we had that sort of financial clout, we would have done.

That brings us to stainless steel, the middle ground option, and the question about whether or not it’s actually safe to use in your kitchen and whether or not it poses any immediate, or not so immediate threat to the health and wellbeing of you and your nearest and dearest.

After all, it’s better to be safe than sorry and to arm yourself with all the knowledge that you’ll need in order to decide whether or not you should place your culinary faith and future in stainless steel. That’s where we come in, as we’re here to tell you everything that you’ll ever need, or want to know about stainless steel cookware.

The Quick Guide To Stainless Steel

Stainless steel isn’t a metal, it’s an alloy which, in its strictest chemical definition means that it’s a metallic substance created by combining two or more different elements.

What makes stainless steel different from other steels (which are all iron and carbon composites) is the inclusion of chromium, and more often than not nickel. 

It’s the latter elements, the chromium, and nickel that make it corrosion resistant and rust-proof, which is where the stainless part of its name comes from.

So far so good right? Surely there can’t be much to know about stainless steel, other than it’s an alloy, it’s strong, it won’t corrode and it looks good in the kitchen while you’re using it to cook with.

We wish it was that simple, as stainless steel, especially when it’s used to make cookware is a veritable minefield, and trying to successfully navigate it if you don’t know what to look for, and don’t have the pertinent facts that you need to hand, can be a nightmare of epic proportions.

But don’t worry, take a deep breath and relax as we’re here to guide you through stainless steel 101, and by the time you’ve reached the end of this feature, you’ll know as much about the alloy and the cookware made from it as we do.

First things first, let’s start at the beginning. There are one hundred and fifty different grades of stainless steel, which are classified according to the percentage of chromium and nickel that they contain.

But in order for steel to make the stainless grade, it needs to include no less than ten and a half percent chromium. It doesn’t need nickel, but it does need chromium.

Even though there is an eye-watering number of stainless steel grades, as we’re focusing on cookware, we only need to worry about the three food-safe grades, 200, 300, and 400.

200 Series Stainless Steel

Two hundred series stainless steel is at the lower end of the cookware spectrum and has a low percentage of nickel which is bolstered by the cheaper manganese.

It’s fine as entry-level cookware, but the lower nickel content makes it more prone to scoring, corrosion, and surface damage than three hundred and four hundred series stainless steel.

300 Series Stainless Steel

Strictly speaking, the 300 series is divided into two distinct categories, 304 and 316.

The former is also known as both 18/10 and 18/8, where the first number refers to the percentage of chromium in the alloy while the second number refers to the percentage of nickel - so 18/10 would be made of eighteen percent chromium and ten percent nickel, with the rest of the alloy being made of iron, carbon and trace amounts of other elements. 

While it’s a strong, dependable alloy, long-term exposure to salt can result in corrosion and surface damage, which is why pans fashioned from 18/10 and 18/8 need to be cleaned almost immediately after they’ve been used.

The latter, 316 is surgical grade stainless steel, and because it includes a small amount of molybdenum, doesn’t react to salt the same way that 304 does, and won’t rust or corrode if it’s exposed to it.

The alloy’s molybdenum content does ensure that it is reassuringly expensive though, and even though it won’t rust if you use cookware made from it to create a high salt content menu, you will feel the financial sting of the molybdenum.

It isn’t cheap, but then the best things in life never are, are they?

400 Series Stainless Steel

If numbers were any indicator of price, you’d automatically (and rightly) assume that four hundred series would be the cookware price point that was forged to break almost every bank balance, but you’d be wrong.

Four hundred, also known as 18/0 because it contains eighteen percent chromium and a negligible amount of nickel, is a magnetic variation of the alloy.

It’s the almost total absence of nickel that makes four hundred series stainless steel magnetic and the perfect alloy to make induction cookware from.

However, the absence of nickel also makes this grade of stainless steel far more susceptible to corrosion and rust damage than two hundred and three hundred series.

Stainless Steel Cookware - Is It Safe?

As it’s inert for the most part, stainless steel cookware is completely safe.

And the thing that makes it inert is the relatively high percentage of chromium that it contains.

Any stainless steel that contains more than sixteen percent chromium is considered safe to be used in and for food preparation by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration), but like a lot of alloys, stainless steel can be affected by leaching, which is where you might run into a few problems if you use cookware forged from the alloy

What Is Leaching?

In the simplest terms, leaching occurs when a compound or alloy is subjected to chemical processes that can cause one or more of its components to dissolve into a liquid medium.

In other words, if your cookware is repeatedly subject to intense acidity or scoured and scrubbed too hard when it’s cleaned, some of the chromium, nickel, and iron might turn to liquid, which might then be absorbed by the food that you’re preparing, and anyone who is dining with you could be at risk of consuming more than they bargained for - after all, you’re hardly going to add an aperitif cooked in chromium, nickel or iron to your menu, are you?

Despite the word sounding a little ominous, leaching, at least as far as stainless steel is concerned, isn't inherently dangerous, as the three elements that you, your family, and your guests are most likely to be exposed to if the absolute worst does happen, are all naturally occurring compounds.

But, in order to reassure you, we’ll run through the possible effects that they might have if, as we said, the worst does happen.

Nickel Leaching

Nickel is the one that you have to worry about, as it’s the only member of the stainless steel leaching trio that’s of any concern to the ATSDR (Agency For Toxic Substance and Disease Registry), who classify it as a substance of concern.

That doesn’t mean that you should begin to panic or even think about throwing your stainless steel cookware out or abandoning the thought of outfitting your kitchen with it, as the levels of nickel that you’d need to be exposed over time in order for it be dangerous are far higher than the leachable content of a single, or even multiple saucepans.

Why is nickel worrying? Well, if you’re exposed to high concentrations of the element over time, it could cause prolonged skin irritation, respiratory disease, and cancer.

The keyword in that last sentence though is could and the chances of suffering any ill-effects from nickel toxicity because you chose to cook a steak in an old stainless steel frying pan are less than being struck by lightning three times in a row.

Yes, it could be harmful, but the amount that you’d need to ingest for it to do you any damage would mean that you’d be cooking, and eating twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week for a long, long time.

Chromium Leaching

There’s good news and there’s bad news, and because we always like to leave our friends smiling, we’ll hit you with the bad news first.

A decade ago, the US National Laboratory of Medicine conducted a study to discover whether or not stainless steel cookware did leach chromium and nickel during the everyday culinary rigors that most people subject their pots and pans to.

The bad news that we just mentioned? 

That’s the fact that the study found that most stainless steel cookware did leach chromium and nickel while it was being used.

The good news though, is that you don’t have to worry about being exposed to any amount of chromium as there is no “upper limit” that you need to worry about, and your body will be able to handle any chromium that your cookware throws at you. How can we be so certain?

We’re absolutely certain because we know that you, and everyone you know, ingests chromium every single day through the vegetables and fruit that you eat, and as you’ve been eating them for longer than you care to remember and their chromium content hasn’t done you any harm yet, it’s a pretty safe bet that leaching is going to harm or hurt you. 

In fact, it’s a bet that we’d happily take.

Stainless Steel Cookware Risk Reduction

We know, the heading makes it sound like we’d conducting some sort of FDA approved survey, but we wanted to make it clear that if you were worried about the infinitesimal threat that leaching poses, there are a number of preventative measures that you can implement and use to reduce and eliminate the risks.

Nickel Free

As nickel is the key element that poses a threat to your health and well-being, the easiest way to deal with it is by choosing a nickel-free alloy or four hundred series stainless steel cookware.

How do you know if a pan doesn’t contain any nickel? If you can use that pan on an induction stove, then the chances are it doesn’t contain any nickel.

But if you’re not sure whether or not a pan was made to be induction friendly, try using a magnet on it.

If the magnet sticks, the stainless steel is nickel-free, and if it doesn’t, then it’s nickel rich, and if you’re worried about leaching, you should put it down and walk away.

Three Hundred Series

We know that we said that all three hundred series stainless steel containing nickel, but the content in 18/10 and 18/8 is so low, that even if it does leach out of the pan during the years of the service that it’ll give you, the level of nickel that you’ll be exposed to will be so low that you really don’t need to worry, or even think about it.

Less Elbow Grease. More Patience

Scouring pads and abrasive cleaning products might get rid of the hard to shift and baked on leftovers off whatever you were cooking far more quickly than leaving pan to soak in hot soapy water will, but they’ll also damage the surface of a pan, and when the surface gets damaged, that’s when a pan starts leaching.

If you can’t clean the pan with a cloth, leave it to soak in a bowl of warm, soapy water and clean it later. No damage, no leaching. It’s that simple. 

Acid Avoidance

If you can, try to avoid cooking anything that has a high acidic content. That means curries, tomato sauces, and the majority of spicy dishes. 

We know, it’s a big ask and in all likelihood, you won’t be able to avoid doing it, but the more acidic a dish is, the more likely it is to chemically react with the stainless steel which can lead to chromium and nickel leaching into whatever it is you’re cooking.

If you can’t, and won’t (and we don’t blame you, because we won’t either) avoid cooking acid-rich dishes, then clean the pan as soon as you can after you’ve finished preparing your meal.

The faster you clean it, the less time that the surface of your pan will be exposed to the things that can kick leaching into high gear.

The Two Hundred No-No

The simplest and most straightforward way to avoid leaching? Don’t buy cheap steel. Stick with three and four hundred series stainless steel and try not to use any two hundred series steel cookware.

Our grandmother used to tell us that you get what you pay for, and as far as stainless steel cookware is concerned, that’s absolutely true.

If you want a surefire, absolutely guaranteed method of reducing the risks or threat to your wellbeing that leaching might pose (not that it actually does present any real danger), then don’t invest in, or use any two hundred series stainless steel cookware. 

Making The Right Stainless Steel Cookware Choice

We know, it’s a lot to take in, and think about and to try and make it easier for you to make the right stainless steel cookware choice, we’ve done all of the groundwork for you.

We’ve found five of the best, most efficient, and safest sets of stainless steel cookware that will fit right into any kitchen schedule, no matter how busy or crazy it is.

Do you trust us? Of course, you do, so let us help you to make the right cookware decision. 

OUR TOP PICK

We thought the best thing to do was start small and gradually work our way up to larger cookware sets, which is why our first choice is a simple frying pan duo from All-Clad.

The brand of choice of professional chefs, if you’re looking to push the stainless steel boat out as far as you possibly can, then look no further than All-Clad.

The numerical part of the pan sets name is the clue to the grade of stainless steel that they’re fashioned from, as their three-play construction alternates two layers of 18/10 with a single layer of aluminum.

That means that the D3 is strong, light, and leach resistant, so you’ll be able to devote all of your energy to cooking instead of worrying about what might have happened if you’d chosen to cook with an inferior grade of stainless steel.

And you don’t have to get your hands dirty when it comes to cleaning the frying pan partners at the end of a long evening in front of the stove, as these stainless steel workhorses were made to be dishwasher safe.

Just put them in, press go and they’ll be ready to cook up another storm as soon as the dishwasher reaches the end of its cycle.

Pros

  • Three Layers, No Leaching - As the aluminum layer is surrounded by two layers of 18/10, you don’t need to worry about it leaching. And as the pans are made from 18/10, you don’t need to worry about chromium or nickel leaching either.
  • Stay Cool Handles - It doesn’t matter how hot the pan gets, the handles were made to stay cool. So you won’t have to worry about burning your hands on them when it’s time to lift the pans off the stove.
  • American Made - They were designed and made in America to last a lifetime, which is why All-Clad is the choice of professionals. They’re strong and durable, and what’s more, they look good too.

Cons

  • It’s An 18/10 Issue - As they’re made from 18/10, they suffer from the same problem that all 18/10 cookware does. They’re prone to salt corrosion, and will eventually succumb to the rigors of sodium damage. 
  • Price Point - We know that a name goes a long way, but the D3 series is eye wateringly expensive, and given the bank balance busting price, we’d have expected the pans to be made from 316 rather than 304. 

EDITORS CHOICE

We know what we said about aluminum cookware at the beginning and the fact that Homi Chef’s cookware set is made from three-ply stainless steel and aluminum might be cause for concern, but don’t worry and don’t panic.

The aluminum core guarantees that all of the pans in the set have uniform heat distribution, and as it’s surrounded by four hundred series stainless steel, you don’t have to think about aluminum leaching as the steel keeps the core locked in and prevents it from happening.

And as Homi Chef’s cookware set is made from four hundred series stainless steel, or as bladesmiths and metal workers like to call it 18/0, it’s also nickel-free, so you don’t have to worry about nickel leaching either.

There’s no Teflon coating or anti-stick surfaces, which means that the Homi Chef cookware set is completely toxin-free.

The only thing that you have to concern yourself with when you’re cooking with these pans, is how the human part of the culinary equation is going to compare to the near-faultless mechanical one. 

In a battle of chef versus pans, we know who we’d put our money on, and we’re sorry to say, it wouldn’t be you.

Homi Chef is so sure that their cookware set will live up to all of your wildest expectations and hopes, that it comes with a six-year warranty and a lifetime of free, customer support.

All of that and four hundred series stainless steel? How can you go wrong?

Pros

  • Nickel Free - The Homi Chef cookware set is made from nickel-free four hundred series stainless steel, so you don’t have to worry about nickel leaching while you’re cooking with it. No nickel, no leaching. It’s that simple.
  • Induction Friendly - It’s made from four hundred series steel, so you can use the cookware on an induction, gas, or electric stove. Whatever stove your kitchen is equipped with, this cookware set will work with.
  • Price Point - It’s a fourteen-piece, complete cookware set that’s been designed to fit any, and all budgets. How Homi Chef can sell it at the price they do and still stay in business is beyond our understanding, but we’re not about to argue about it with them. Our advice? Keep quiet and pay them what they want before they realize their mistake and double the price.
  • Warranty - And the set comes with a six-year warranty too? It just keeps getting better and better.

Cons

  • They’re Not Non-Stick, They’re All Stick - Cleaning the pans can be a little traumatic and problematic, as everything sticks to them and you’re going to need to leave them to soak for a couple of hours after every use if you want to make them shine before you use them again.

BEST VALUE

Our grandmother used to tell us that names weren’t important, what really mattered was what you used yours for, and what you did with it.

We didn’t really understand what she meant until we stumbled across this seventeen-piece stainless steel cookware set from Maxam, a brand who we’d never heard of, but who used their name to unleash this incredible set of culinary tools on the world.

Everything in this cookware set is made from three hundred series surgical grade stainless steel, which means that it won’t succumb to salt corrosion and won’t fall prey to the nickel and chromium leaching that are the bane of lesser grade steels.

And the five-ply bases that adorn each and every pan in the set are guaranteed to transmit heat efficiently and equally and eliminate any possibility of hot spots and an uneven cook.

Then there’s the warranty that Maxam uses to ensure that you’re as happy with your cookware set as they are proud of it. It lasts a lifetime.

No, you didn’t misread that last sentence, and no we didn’t make a mistake, we did say that the warranty this cookware set comes with lasts a lifetime. We know, we couldn’t believe it either. But it’s true.

Pros

  • Steam Control Valves - Every pan in the set comes with a steam control valve on its lid, which means that should the mood take you, you can indulge your more extravagant and experimental culinary side and engage in a little waterless cooking.
  • Surgical Grade Steel - The cookware set is made from three hundred series surgical grade stainless steel, so it won’t rust, corrode, and won’t back down when it comes face to face with the nemesis of three hundred series steel, salt.
  • Lifetime Warranty - This seventeen (that’s right, we said SEVENTEEN) piece cookware set comes with a lifetime warranty. These stainless steel pans are guaranteed to almost last forever. What’s not to like about that? 

Cons

  • They’re Kind Of Pricey - It’s true, the Maxam cookware set isn’t cheap, but then, as we’ve said before you get what you pay for, which in this case is a seventeen-piece cookware set that’s forged from five-ply, surgical grade stainless steel and comes with a lifetime guarantee. Whatever you end up paying for it, we think the Maxam cookware is worth every last cent that you’ll end up forking over.

RUNNER UP

There isn’t an American chef, amateur cook, or home baker alive who hasn’t heard of or used a Cuisinart product in their lifetime.

They’re an American institution that has helped define and shape the art of cooking for the last half-century, and their stainless steel cookware set carries on their proud and noble tradition in fine fettle.

Made from highly polished three hundred series 18/10, every pan in the set has cold-to-the-touch handles and is oven proof (yes, you can use them in your oven too) at temperatures of up to five hundred and fifty degrees Fahrenheit.

The three-ply base that every pan uses has been designed to ensure that they distribute the heat that you’ll subject them to evenly and wipes out the possibility of hot spots ever being a problem,

Both dishwasher safe and induction capable, this stainless steel cookware set from Cuisinart combines beauty, elegance, functionality, and efficiency with a name that you, and everyone else in America can trust implicitly.

We were raised with Cuisinart products and even though they’re made from 18/10 which means that salt corrosion might be a problem that you need to watch out for, there’s something special about this cookware set that makes our hearts skip a beat every single time we see it.

Pros

  • Triple Ply - Made from triple-ply stainless steel and aluminum, as the 18/10 coats the core top and bottom, you won’t need to worry about aluminum leaching and the three hundred series stainless steel that its made from all but eliminates the need to think, or worry about nickel and chromium leaching too.
  • Oven Safe - They’re built to withstand temperatures of up to five hundred and fifty degrees from all sides, so you can use them on top of your stove and in your oven And they’re induction-ready too. Which is a nice bonus.
  • What’s In A Name? - As far as Cuisinart is concerned, and even though it flies in the face of everything that our Grandma said, their name is everything. It’s as American as apple pie and they’re a brand that you can trust to always do the right thing. 

Cons

  • The 18 / 10 Thing Rears Its Head Again - As much as we love this stainless steel cookware set, we can’t ignore the fact that it’s made from 18/10, which means that as soon as it even sees or sniffs a little too much salt, there’s a pretty good chance that it's going to start to corrode. 

RUNNER UP

In our eyes, a little ingenuity always goes a long way, and Duxtop’s three-ply stainless steel cookware set isn’t just inventive, it’s also kind of brilliant.

It uses a combination of 18/10 three hundred series and 18/0 four hundred series stainless steel to coat an aluminum core which ensures even heat distribution while making sure that the set is induction ready within pushing the price bar through the ceiling. 

Yeah, we think it’s fairly safe to say that we’re big fans of the Duxtop way of doing stainless steel things.

Dishwasher and oven safe, this American-made cookware set was designed to do one thing, and do it well.

And that was to deliver a ten-piece full functional and efficient stainless steel brace of pans at a price that every American household could easily afford. 

Seriously, take another look at that price again, it’s enough to make you smile and believe that our best days are still ahead of us.

It isn’t just made to make you cook with a spring in your step and a song in your heart either, as Duxtop’s cookware set comes with a limited lifetime warranty.

That means that if it fails because of something they’ve done, like a manufacturing error or design fault, they’ll either replace your cookware set or give you your money back.

Pros

  • Three And Four Hundred Stainless Steel - This cookware set uses three and four hundred series stainless steel, making it the only best of both stainless steel cookware sets on our list.
  • Dishwasher And Oven Safe - It’s dishwasher safe so you’ll never need to plunge your hands into tepid soapy water to clean it, and it’s oven-safe too so you can keep whatever you’ve cooked warm in the over without having to worry about burning it, or your pans. Oh, and it’s also induction friendly as well.
  • Limited Lifetime Warranty - As long as you have, and use this cookware set if it breaks because of a manufacturing error or design problem, Duxtop will step in and replace it or refund you.

Cons

  • A Little Too Sticky - It’s a good job that the cookware is dishwasher safe, as whatever you cook in these pans has a tendency to stick to them like glue, which makes them incredibly difficult to clean. 

Buyer's Guide

The Pros And Cons Of Stainless Steel Cookware

So, we’ve nearly reached the end of our be all and end all guide to stainless steel cookware, and to draw everything to close, and wrap a neat little ribbon around this package of facts, we thought we’d better finish with some of the pros and cons of stainless steel, as a way to evenly balance everything there is to know about it and let you make your own mind up about whether or not you want to cook with stainless steel.

Is Stainless Steel Cookware Safe

Pros

  • An Easily Affordable, Professional Alternative - That just about says it all. The professionals use stainless steel to cook with and they all seem to be more than happy with it so you probably will be too. Oh, and you’ll be able to cook like a Master Chef contestant with stainless steel at a price point that you’ll be happy with.
  • Built To Last - Every pot and pan in a stainless steel cookware set has been made to last for a lifetime and provided you look after your culinary weapons properly, you’ll only ever need one set of stainless steel pans. 
  • Goodbye Teflon - Stainless steel pans don’t use Teflon, so you’ll never have to be worried about being poisoned by non-stick coatings and the long-chain, carcinogenic chemicals that they’re made from ever again. 
  • Lightweight And Easy To Use - Stainless steel was made to be light, so you’ll never have to worry that you need to go to the gym to build up your core strength in order to lift any size of stainless steel pan. A three-year-old could lift them. Obviously, you wouldn’t let them lift a stainless steel pan, but if they wanted to pick one up they could
  • High-Grade Health - As long as you choose three hundred or four hundred series stainless steel pans, you’ll never have to worry about being poisoned by your cookware ever again. Which is one less thing to worry about while you’re cooking.

Cons

  • Leaching - And there it is, the stainless steel elephant in the room, leaching. Yes, there’s a danger of nickel and chromium leaching, but as long as you elect to use either three or four hundred series stainless steel, you’ll never have to think about, let alone worry about leaching ever again.

The Final Word On Stainless Steel Cookware 

As we promised in the beginning, you now know as much about stainless steel cookware as we do, and armed with the information and knowledge that you’ve just absorbed, you can make your own mind up about whether or not you want to use it or not.

At the end of the day that’s what is most important, isn’t it? The culinary freedom to make that decision for yourself. 

Brandon White