A Buyers Guide to Stainless Steel Cookware

People frequently ask me what stainless steel cookware line I recommend. My first response is to think twice before buying a full line. If you own a 21-piece set of cookware, I’ll wager that two or three of those pots get regular use but that the other pieces are crammed in the back of an overfull cabinet. Purchase only the pieces you really need.

Neither do I recommend buying a celebrity endorsed line of cookware. Unless, that is, you want a percentage of your purchase price going into the celeb’s pocket.SETTING THE TABLE

Rather than recommending brands (unless it’s a one of a kind product) here I provide some basic information you can use to make an informed choice about the most health-supportive stainless steel cookware. Let’s look at some of the obvious features and then we’ll go into a little more detail about your choices. Lastly we’ll discuss how to use your pot to insure its long life and to reduce its reactivity.

Stainless pots and pans are often reasonably priced and have these advantages:

  • Durable—they will not peel, chip or vaporize (as do nonstick pans)
  • Longer-lasting than ceramics and earthenware
  • Rust-proof—unlike cast iron and carbon steel
  • Aluminum-free

However, unlike ceramic, enamel and earthenware pots, stainless steel is mildly reactive, which means that some of its nickel and chromium leaches into your food as it cooks. For non-reactive cookware options, see Healthy Cookware. For cookware to avoid, see: Toxic Cookware and Cutlery.

What you should consider when choosing stainless steel cookware:

How Does the Stainless Steel Pot Feel in Your Hand?

It’s helpful to visit a store to get a “hand feel” for the pots and pans. Are they well balanced and a good weight for you? Do the lids fit snugly and are the knobs and handles easy to grip, heat-resistant and sturdy? Although riveted (bolted) handles and knobs are more secure than welded ones, cleaning around bolts is more difficult. Very high-end cookware manufacturers use a rivetless construction resulting in a smooth interior surface.

How Many Layers Does a Stainless Steel Pot Contain?

As stainless is not a good heat conductor, a sheet of aluminum or copper is often sandwiched between the stainless steel to enhance its heat-conductivity. Or, alternatively, the bottom layer of the pot will be made of copper or aluminum. The number of these metal layers, termed “clad” or “ply,” is one consideration when purchasing stainless cookware. A layer-free pot containing only stainless steel will be lighter in weight and more prone to warp than a pot containing one or more additional layers of a more heat conductive metal.

Each extra layer increases the weight of the pan and desirable heat conductivity properties. For value and quality, most three-ply brands are perfectly acceptable. As the interior of any stainless steel pot contains only stainless steel, you need not be concerned about the underlying layers. Unless, that is, if your layered pot becomes pitted, grooved or worn to expose an interior layer, then aluminum or copper will leach into your food; and it’s time to replace that pot.

What Is It Made Of?

The actual stainless steel used in stainless steel cookware is an iron-based metal alloy that must contain 11% chromium and up to seven additional metals (but never lead or aluminum). Chromium provides durability and rust resistance. Although nickel is not required, it provides rust resistance, hardness and high polishing characteristics. (By comparison, both carbon steel and cast iron lack both chromium and nickel, and they are prone to rust.) The downside of stainless steel’s chromium and nickel composition is as these metals interact with food, they are mildly reactive. With proper care (as we’ll see in a future blog) you can keep their reactivity to a bare minimum so that, for most people, it will not be a health concern.

Is there a Warranty or Return Policy?

Quality cookware manufacturers offer a warranty; which, in some cases, may be a life-time warranty. Some also have a return policy.

Which Stainless Steel Cookware Series Is Best for Me?

300 Series
Look on the bottom of a stainless steel pot and you’ll see a grade stamped on it; this grade indicates its durability and resistance to rust and corrosion. Quality pots and pans are in the 300 series and designated as either 304 or 316. The 304 pot is stamped with either 18/8 or 18/10 which indicates how much chromium and nickel the alloy contains. Eighteen, the first number of the sequence, indicates the percentage of chromium; the second number indicates the nickel. Most stainless cookware is an 18/10 grade (18 percent chromium/10 percent nickel).

The material difference between a 304 and 316 pot is negligible. However, the less common 316 grade contains a small percentage of molybdenum ( Mo) and/or titanium (Ti). This makes it more pricy and more corrosion resistant. The 316 grade, also known as marine stainless steel, better resists erosion by salt water. Surgical steel is yet another term for this high-end grade as it is used in biomedical implants. Indeed, if a metal pin is holding a fractured bone together, you’d obviously opt for a corrosion-free pin.

400 Series
Stainless steel from the 400 series is more corrosive than that from the 300 series and therefore will rust with age. It is primarily used in mixing bowls, kitchen utensils and inexpensive stockpots. For a more long-lived pot, opt for one from the 300 series.

The 400 series includes the so-called nickel-free stainless steel cookware, 18/0, which still contains a negligible amount of nickel (0.75%); and therefore people with rare nickel sensitivities are cautioned against using all stainless steel cookware including that from the 400 series. As nickel is not magnetic, you can tell if the pot’s interior or exterior contains nickel by placing a magnet against it. Any nickel-free portion of the pot will hold a magnet. (To be compatible with induction stovetops, the bottom of a stainless pot must be nickel-free.)

Minimize Reactivity in Stainless Steel Pots

As stainless is mildly reactive, here are three tips to minimize its reactivity.

  1. Once a dish has cooked, remove the food from the pot. As possible, use ceramic for long cooked dishes.
  2. Acids and salt will corrode stainless. Ideally when using vinegar, wine, lemon or making a salt brine, use a ceramic pot. (My quality stainless pot corroded from making long-simmered broths of bone, salt and vinegar.)
  3. Never scour a stainless pot. If food has burned, cover the burn with baking soda and allow to soak for a day or so. Then remove the burned area using a non-scratch scouring pad.

A note on “vapor” or “waterless” cookware: Various lines of cookware labeled as such are designed to enable a type of steam cooking. A plus of stainless steel cookware is its versatility; it’s excellent for braising, frying, sautéing, steaming, simmering, boiling and parboiling, so to purchase a whole line of cookware that is designed for only one cooking style doesn’t make sense to me.

I hope this rundown helps you sort out your options, and may the one best suited to your needs and budget soon be getting plenty of action in your kitchen.

Coda: Cookware is only part of the story of cooking and healthy eating, albeit a very important part. Knowing what foods may cause intolerances in our body is the most overlooked yet simple way to influence our health. In my book, Read Your Face, I show how to identify obvious clues about diet and health – things you can easily change for happier and healthier eating. Learn more about Face Reading and Diet.

May you be well nourished,

Rebecca Wood

 

37 Responses to A Buyers Guide to Stainless Steel Cookware

      • Here is what I found on one website. What do you say to that?
        “The Vinegar Test
        I poured a couple tablespoons of plain white vinegar (which is of course, quite acidic) into two pots—my All-Clad saucepan, and another generic stainless steel pan I had lying around. I also put some of the vinegar into a glass cup as a control. After a few minutes, I taste-tested the vinegar from each.The All-Clad vinegar? Tasted exactly like the vinegar in the glass cup. But the vinegar in the cheap, generic stainless pan tasted like metal. Blech. The taste is still in my mouth”.

        • For this information to be applicable–and to be able to duplicate the test–one would have to know the grades of each tested pan.The grades are stamped on the pot bottoms. Please give it a try and let us know.

  1. I also am seeking healthier cookware. I looked at the ceramic cookware that you recommend and it did look promising until I saw that it is a product of China.

  2. There is a lot of misinformation out there on the various types of stainless steels. Here’s the real deal.

    Stainless steels come in a number of SAE grades, I will talk only about the 3xx series and the 4xx series. The 3xx is Austenitic, the 4xx series is Martensitic. What’s the major difference – nickel and carbon content and magnetic properties. 3xx steels have 8% or more nickel and little carbon, 4xx steels have very little nickel, often none, and carbon. When it comes to carbon, the low carbon steels have some of course – but very little – for example 0.08%, while the high carbon steels have quite a bit more – for example 0.6% to 1.2%.

    Nickel provides luster. Chromium provides corrosion resistance. Carbon provides hardness.

    High carbon is needed to hold sharp edges, so knives need carbon. But people like shiny things – which needs nickel.

    And as many things in life, you can’t have it all. Carbon and nickel don’t work so well together when making alloys, unless of course you wish to make exotic and thus expensive alloys. So the industry basically ends up with two major series of stainless steels. The 3xx series has high nickel and little carbon, and the 4xx series has non-existent or very low nickel, but with carbon.

    Shiny stainless mixing bowls are made of 3xx series stainless steels, while those high quality knives are made from 4xx series stainless steels.

    Stainless is often referred to by two numbers – the % of chromium and % of nickel. So a 304 or 316 stainless with 18% chrome and 8% nickel will be labeled 18/8. If it is 10% nickel it will be 18/10. The 18/10 is going to be a bit shinier – not enough that most people see, but that’s where marketers get involved – selling you stuff you don’t really need. A 440C stainless (like found in Wusthof or other high quality knives) would be an 18/0 stainless – virtually no nickel (perhaps 0.25%).

    And thus we come to cookware. If you prize shiny pots and pans – they are made from 18/8. Because nickel also kills magnetic properties, the 18/8 stainless won’t work on an induction cooktop. Induction compatible pots and pans are much less shiny – as they are made from 18/0.

    So why do some people say that low nickel stains more easily – that’s because some unscrupulous manufacturers make their pots and pans from lower quality stainless with less chrome in it – one example grade known in the industry is 409 or 10/0. 409 is still corrosion resistant, but it is less stain resistant – the primary intended purpose of 409 was automobile exhaust systems. Due to the low chromium content, this grade stains easily in the presence of acids (i.e. lemon, etc). This is not important in an exhaust system which you want to last for 20 years, yet don’t care if it has a few stains on it.

    But lower stain resistance in the kitchen is just what most people don’t want. All stainless can stain – leave it wet long enough and an unprotected crystal of iron will – ta da – rust. But an 18/0 stainless is as unlikely to stain as an 18/8 stainless.

    The 18/8 stainless 3xx series are known as Austenitic, and the 18/0 stainless 4xx series are known as Martensitic. 304 and 316 are common SAE grade numbers for the former, and 440A & 440 C are common SAE grade numbers for the latter. 440A is low carbon more suitable for cookware, and 440C is high carbon prized for high quality stainless knives, as the high carbon allows the steel to hold an edge longer.

    And there it is – pick what you want, because you can’t have it all … or can you?

    You can also find multi-layer cookware, which uses the 18/0 on the bottom, then a layer of copper, and finally 18/8 in the body – which is induction compatible but low gloss on the bottom, and high gloss on the top. Of course because of all the layers, it costs more. You can have it all – at a price.

  3. Hello, I have been doing alot of research my self and I find your article very informative, however I am confused on one thing. The leaching of acidic foods. U said buy 316 18/10 it is less corrosive. That is the same material that all clads two lines of stainless steel and the D5 are made from and They don’t say it’s less they just say nonreactive. So are they right can I cook a tomato sauce in their pot or simmer some meat in vinegar or wine?

    • Allclad is wrong. If you’ll look at the scientific study link in this article, stainless is corrosive and things that increase its corrosiveness include: long cooking, cooking with salt and acidic ingredients. That’s why non-reactive ceramic or clay is ideal. Ideally you might purchase one such pot to use for your long simmered dishes with an acid. Or prepare them in a casserole in the oven? Or continue using your stainless steel knowing that it’s not an ideal world but that stainless is probably better than an aluminum, cast iron or non-stick pan.

  4. Rebecca – Thank you for such a clear concise high quality explanation. I have been doing considerable research on Stainless Steel cookware and this is the best information by far that I have come across.

    I have a question though. I have seen many SS sets that have vent holes in the lids and they vent around 185 degrees (if I recall correctly). This seems to be ideal for preserving the nutrients in veggies but it also seems like this would prevent anything from ever coming to a boil. What is your opinion of these vent hole lids?

  5. Dear Rebecca, you say: “If your budget allows, favor a 316-grade pot for its enhanced resistance to erosion and leaching of chromium and nickel”. Could you tell me where I can get one pan like that? I can’t find one. Thank you very much for your help. Mary Rose

      • 18/10 and 18/8 are both grades of 304 not 316 If it is 316L or 316Ti it will be stamped 316TI or 316L No one who sells in the store uses 316 because of the cost and because of hardness, its hard to draw into the shape of a pan. Check out Nutraease.com

      • Are we sure about this? My understanding is that the real difference between 316 and 304 stainless is 316 has molybdenum added (making it marine grade).

        304 stainless can still be 18/10 but won’t have molybdenum (apparently 304 can be 17.5-19.5 Cr and 8-10.5 Ni: http://www.aalco.co.uk/datasheets/Stainless-Steel-14301-Bar-and-Section_34.ashx).

        As a matter of fact, apparently a lot of manufacturers like to play games advertising the use of 18/10 SS when in reality the stainless is more like 18/8.3 since this is apparently a little legal loophole (https://www.centurylife.org/stainless-steel-inox/)

        Also, in my research I found this study which seems to indicate the grade of SS didn’t seem to predict the amount of leaching of Cr and Ni: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4284091/

        I stumbled across this blog while doing research for myself as I am trying to be more health conscious and have found trying to get the straight facts about what we cook our food on/in to be totally convoluted! Thanks for attempting to make sense of it.

  6. Hi Rebecca,

    Can you please recommend a safe waffle iron and pancake skillet? as most are nonstick and i know unsafe. We have young children and cook a bunch of these. thank you very much!

    • Regrets, I know of no nonstick waffle irons. A heavy skillet is best for pancakes and so cast iron is ideal here. While you don’t cook acidic or watery items in cast iron, pancake batter isn’t on the griddle long enough to be reactive.

  7. Thank you for providing very important information. Please help me decide on buying a stove top kettle, what’s the optimal material?
    Also which kettle brand do you have?

    Thank-you,
    Shar

    • You’re welcome, Shar. While it’s largely a matter of preference, favor non-reactive. I love the shape, feel and function of my all ceramic Xtrema tea pot.

  8. Rebecca,
    Thank you for the time and care you have taken to create this website and share your knowledge. My question has to do with the All Clad Stainless pots I just bought because they weren’t supposed to have a non stick surface. Apparently they have something called a “starburst finishing” layer on the inside surface which is invisible but which they advertise as “commercial strong non stick”. There is no information out there about what this is. I have written to the company but am not confident of receiving anything but platitudes. How do we find out what was put on the inside of these pans?
    I very much hope you can help!

    • Monique,
      You’re welcome. We want everyone to be using good cookware. I don’t trust the so-called “commercial strong non-stick” for a minute. I’ve always found that a reputable manufacturer is proud to fully disclose relevant details about quality to customers and All Clad’s page gives no clue whatsoever. I’d pass on them.

      • I emailed All Clad about this as I had the same concerns. Here is the response I received regarding the “starburst” finish:

        “The process for the starburst finish is achieved by mechanical means and is in essence a sanding operation.

        There is no chemical involved to create this finish.”

  9. A have bougth a Silit pan, they say it is free of nikel.
    Silit is a healthy pan?
    I also use Vision, is Vision healthy?
    Thanks for the great articles!!

  10. Hi – We have a question.
    Our pans are stainless steel uppers for the food and aluminum bottoms for quick heating (and likely cost saving). Are we filling our home with toxic fumes every time the heat from the stove flames onto the aluminum?
    Thank you for your advise on this. Ann

  11. Hello, Just came across your site today and love the way you explain things.
    Just bought a Cuisinart ‘MultiClad pro tri-ply stainless steel’cooking set. Please tell me how to prevent leaching of metals into my food.

  12. I have been reading your information about the problem with chemicals leeching into food from pots. I have a nickel allergy and didn’t realize that my stainless steel could be a problem. I used a magnet and the only place it sticks to is the outer rim of pots. Can you please recommend a set of pots for me and my 14 year old daughter who is asthmatic. I am a single mom without the ability to buy really expensive pots. I would like to replace what I have have which is premium chefmate cookware stainless steel. It says 514 on the handles. It is difficult to clean as you have mentioned because of the screws or whatever you want to call them. I use at least 5 of these pots. I really need help with this as you are knowledgeable as to which exact pots. There are too many out there to choose from and I don’t have the money to waste. I swear I an not from any company looking for an endorsement. I just want to be healthier. My daughter gets sick a lot. Oh forgot to mention that she has a lot of allergies too but they are not to nickel like me. Thank you.

    • Stainless steel is problematic for people with a nickel allergy. You best options are ceramic or enamel. Replace your pots one at a time and as your budget allows. See my other cookware blogs for options.

      • It really is so confusing to try and figure this out. There seems to be so many pots and pans that say non stick ceramic or enamel. The only real ones seem to be with cast iron and are so very heavy, expensive and cumbersone. uggggggg. I can’t really afford pots that are really expensive. i use 2 different sauce pans and a stock pot and of course a frying pan. I also use a small frying pan for scrambled eggs. Can’t really afford xtrema etc. I don’t have a lot of room for storage so my pots gets banged around and I would be afraid to damage expensive pots.

        • See my other cookware blogs for your options. Not to worry. Perhaps start with one enamel on steel (not as heavy as enamel cast-iron) saucepan and a good stainless fry pan.