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.
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
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?
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.
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.
- Once a dish has cooked, remove the food from the pot. As possible, use ceramic for long cooked dishes.
- 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.)
- 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,