Is stainless steel cookware safe for cooking? [Updated research]

There’s a lot of buzz about stainless steel cookware these days. They are a popular choice for many people because it is durable, affordable, and easy to maintain. But are you aware of the safety risks? This article will help you understand if stainless steel cookware is safe. 

What is stainless steel?

Before we delve deeper into the safety of your cookware, let’s first understand what stainless steel is. Stainless steel has been around since 1856 when James Nasmyth patented it in England for use in boats and beer breweries and was eventually popularized by stainless-steel cookware. It is classified under the family of iron-based alloy, which contains chromium, and, in some cases, Nickel and other metals. The main differentiator of stainless steel from other iron-based alloys or steel is it has at least 10.5% of chromium, which gives it its corrosion resistance property.

Is stainless steel cookware safe?

According to the National Science Foundation (NSF) guidelines, stainless steel is safe as long as it is in the AISI 200 – 400 series steel grades and has a minimum chromium content of 16%. However, depending on the quality and maintenance, the metal from the cookware could potentially leach into your food and constitutes a health risk. 

While stainless steel is more inert than cookware material like aluminum and copper, it’s still reactive with acidic food, which causes Chromium and Nickel contamination. According to a study done by J Agric Food Chem, stainless steel cookware is an under-recognized source that can potentially contribute to overall Nickel and chromium consumption. The study shows that the volume of leaching is dependent on the grade of stainless steel, cooking time, and previous usage or seasoning of the stainless steel.

For the majority of people, exposure to low levels of Nickel and chromium is not an issue. However, individuals with higher sensitivity or allergy to these materials can experience adverse reactions even at minimal concentrations. Over the last several decades, allergic contact dermatitis (ACD) has become much more common. Nickel and (to a smaller extent) chromium are both frequent causes of ACD in people who are genetically susceptible to their effects.

How to minimize leaching?

The severity of leaching is dependent on several factors:

  1. Quality – this translates to the grade of the stainless steel. Ideally, you should go for the 300 & 400 series stainless steel and stay away from the 200 series as they are more prone to corrosion.
  2. Nickel content – naturally, cookware that contains less Nickel content will reduce the volume of Nickel leaching. I recommend going for stainless steel grades like 18/8 or 18/0 (0% nickel) if Nickel leaching constitutes a health hazard for you.
  3. Cooking time – data from studies have shown a significant increase in Nickel and Chromium leaching with increased cooking time, most prominently when it exceeds 6 hours. Therefore, you might want to avoid slow-cooking with stainless steel cookware, especially acidic food like tomato sauce.
  4. Maintenance – seasoning the stainless steel cookware helps with the formation of protective oxides, like Chromium oxide, which can help to reduce the contact of the metal from food. You should also clean the surface carefully and gently to avoid compromising the integrity of the stainless steel.

Why use stainless steel cookware?

Stainless steel is excellent for sautéing, browning, and deep-frying. It can withstand high temperatures up to 500 degrees Fahrenheit and offers a similar experience to cast iron but without the hefty weight.

If you’re into aesthetics, stainless steel is the prettiest of all cookware. Its sleek design will make your kitchen look professional. It’s durable and won’t look burnt or rusted even after years of use; as long as you care for them well, they’ll always maintain their shine!

Is stainless steel nonstick?

Unfortunately, it’s a common misconception that stainless steel is nonstick. Food will stick to it if you don’t correctly control the temperature before adding your ingredients, but just like cast iron pans, stainless steel pans can be seasoned to prevent this from happening. It’s also a good idea to coat your pan with cooking spray before adding your ingredients.

Stainless steel cookware alternatives

  • Cast-iron cookware: Cast iron is a long-lasting, versatile cooking vessel that can withstand high heat. It also maintains its nonstick surface over time and cleans easily when you want to switch up your dishes!
  • Stoneware: For thousands of years, stoneware has been used for cooking and baking. It can be heated evenly without burning the food on its surface because it’s nonstick once properly seasoned and is immune to scratches and knife marks!
  • Anodized aluminum cookware: They are produced with aluminum that goes through an electrochemical process known as anodization, forming a layer of aluminum oxide. Due to its stable, non-reactive, and resistant properties, the resulting metal has twice as much strength as stainless steel.
  • Silicone cookware: Silicone is an excellent alternative to metal and wooden utensils because it’s heat-resistant and can withstand high temperatures. However, it doesn’t stand up well to direct heat, so it’s more commonly used in bakeware and utensils instead of pots and pans.
  • Ceramic cookware: Ceramic cookware has excellent nonstick properties, but the downside is it scratches pretty easily if you aren’t careful. It would be best to be more cautious when doing the cleaning because they are not as sturdy.

Final thoughts

Stainless steel cookware is an excellent choice for minimizing exposure to harmful chemicals in the cooking process compared to cookware with nonstick coating. It has many enticing benefits, including durability, minimal maintenance, and most are dishwasher safe. However, there are some risks associated with using stainless steel cookware if you don’t take precautionary steps before use. For example, leaching can occur when cooking acidic food, especially when it’s slow-cooked. Hopefully, our post has given you helpful insights into whether or not these pots are worth buying!

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