Is Stainless Steel Cookware Safe? What You Need to Know
We hear you, wary modern consumer. We know that many “trusted” products, such as Teflon and talcum powder, have been shown to be toxic after hundreds of thousands of people have used them for years.
So, now you question whether anything is safe. But you also need to equip your kitchen. Naturally, you wonder which type of cookware should you choose.
Stainless steel is one of the most popular types of cookware, both in private homes and professional kitchens. The fact that most restaurants choose this type certainly speaks to its durability and efficiency, but is it safe?
Stainless Steel’s Properties
Stainless steel is an alloy of several types of metals. The exact proportions of each metal can differ between products, but the basic recipe includes iron, carbon, chromium, and nickel.
Iron is the main component, with carbon added to it. Carbon increases the hardness and strength of pure iron and produces what we know as “steel.”
Chromium is added because of its anti-oxidative properties. Nickel also reduces corrosion and increases heat resistance.
Together, these elements react with oxygen to form a thin, stable film. This film acts as a protective barrier to prevent oxygen and water from reaching the stainless steel surfacing and causing rust.
Risks of Using Stainless Steel
Now that we know that the best stainless steel cookware is comprised of a variety of metals, the natural next question is, “Are these metals safe?” The short answer is, “Mostly yes, with a few caveats.”
Many people have concerns over the potential health effects of particular metals used to create stainless steel cookware. Here are the most common concerns:
Nickel is the component most frequently singled out for suspicion. We only require trace amounts of this metal in our bodies, and our diets provide that.
Between 10 and 20 percent of the US population has a sensitivity to nickel, most commonly manifesting in contact rashes and breathing problems. Anyone without this sensitivity would have to ingest “very large amounts of nickel” in order to suffer adverse health consequences.
Chromium is the second mostly commonly-mentioned potential poisoner. Experts don’t know exactly how much of this metal people need on a daily basis, but they agree that we do need some.
Unfortunately, while some negative interactions have been established between chromium and certain medications, we don’t currently know how large amounts affect the body.
Aluminum, although not technically a component of stainless steel, is often added to such cookware to improve heat conductivity. Aluminum provides no benefit to the human body and can be toxic if inhaled.
Luckily, the body orally absorbs this metal poorly, meaning that the chances of it posing a danger to anyone is very low.
Iron is a supplement that we need and that many people don’t receive enough of. While it is not ideal to get your daily iron intake from a pot or pan, there is little danger from it.
That is, unless you have certain rare conditions, such as iron overload. The primary concern here would be when cooking for children, as they are more sensitive to high iron levels than adults.
Now that we have outlined the possible dangers of stainless steel’s components, the question becomes, “How do these metals enter my food?” The answer is leaching.
Simply put, “leaching” refers to the natural process by which water-soluble substances (such as metals) are pulled from a base or carrier. Because it is a natural process, there is no way to completely avoid leaching when using stainless steel. There are ways to reduce it, though.
Ways to Minimize Risks
There are various ways to minimize the risk of leaching when you cook with stainless steel. Here are the most common methods:
Limit Cookware’s Exposure to Acidic Foods
Acidic foods are defined as anything with a pH level below 7. If that definition brings back too many bad memories of high school chemistry class, here’s a shortlist of the most common leaching offenders:
- Soy Sauce
Don’t Store Food in Stainless Steel
Even foods that are only mildly acidic will eventually react with your pots if you leave them in contact long enough. For that reason, it’s best to remove your prepared food from your stainless steel pan as soon as possible.
Glass storage containers are the best option because they are non-reactive (and easy to clean).
Use Appropriate Utensils and Cleaners
The way you treat your stainless steel cookware sets matters. The safest utensils for stainless steel are wood or silicone. Anything else is too hard and has the potential to scratch your kitchen equipment.
Similarly, what you use to clean your pans matters. Abrasive sponges and cleaners will scratch the surface of your pans, creating the opportunity for bacteria to grow or for metals to leach out.
Even though stainless steel is more durable than other types of cookware, you can still overheat it and cause damage. Aside from warping the design so that the product no longer sits flat on the stove, you could be releasing toxic fumes into the air.
Discard Damaged Pans
One of the best ways to ensure that your cookware will leach into your food is to use damaged pans. Therefore, once you notice that your pans have become damaged in any significant way, you need to discard them.
But don’t just toss them in the trash bin; many places allow you to recycle your old metal cookware. Go online to find out which places accept stainless steel scrap metal.
Buy Nickel-Free Cookware
This special type of stainless steel is an option on the market, although it is rarer and more expensive than regular stainless steel. Unless you or someone you cook for has a specific sensitivity to nickel, we don’t suggest going this route because nickel-free products are less resistant to corrosion.
They also aren’t necessarily completely nickel-free. Regulations allow manufacturers to label products as “nickel-free” as long as they contain less than 1% nickel.
Safest Stainless Steel Cookware
What is the point of buying organic and crafting healthy meals if the cookware we use is going to leach toxic metals, such as aluminum, and cause us harm?
Stainless steel is one of the most popular choices of cookware material in the US for both professional chefs and home cooks. But how safe is it? And what are the most reliable options on the market?
Read on to find out everything you need to know to select the best and safest stainless steel cookware without aluminum for you and your family.
|3.||Maxam Waterless||17 (really 12)||
|4.||Chantal Induction 21 Steel||9||
|5.||Swiss Inox Si-7000||18||
Stainless steel is an alloy compiled of several metals. Different combinations of metals produce different types of stainless steel.
Food-grade stainless steel is usually made up of iron, carbon, nickel, and at least 10.5% chromium.
Food-grade stainless steel can be further broken down into specific “series.” The 304 and 316 series are the most common.
These series include pieces labeled with their relative percentages of chromium and nickel, such as 18/10 and 18/8.
You will often see these numbers stamped on your cookware to indicate their composition.
Stainless steel cookware is also differentiated by “plys.” Plys tell you how many layers of metals were used to construct the item.
For example, a “tri-ply” pan is made with three layers of metal. Generally, the more layers a piece has, the more evenly it heats.
Our Picks for the Safest Stainless Steel Cookware
Chantal SLIN-9 Induction 21 Steel 9-Piece Cookware Set
Not only is it aluminum-free, it’s nickel-free, too.
Each piece has copper melted into the steel, which effortlessly conducts heat quickly and evenly.
Titanium is also added for strength and durability to hold up against daily use.
Customers are thrilled with these pans’ performance and health-conscious design. The two-handle pan is a particular favorite as this design is not usually offered in sets.
It is the perfect size for one-pot meals and is easy to maneuver.
- Tempered glass lids to easily observe cooking
- Dripless rims facilitate pouring
- 21% chromium provides extreme corrosion resistance
- Limited lifetime warranty
- Offers fewer pieces than other sets
HOMI CHEF 14-Piece Nickel Free Stainless Steel Cookware Set
For those of you who react to nickel, HOMI CHEF has created an entire line of ecological nickel-free cookware.
This product may not be aluminum-free, but the part that contains aluminum is restricted to the base and sandwiched between two layers of stainless steel.
This makes the chances of you or your food ever coming into contact with the aluminum nearly impossible.
Customers love the price point and how quickly and evenly these pieces heat up. They are also a big fan of the included utensils that won’t harm the cookware.
Some did take issue with the thinness and cooking surface size, though.
- All pieces are constructed out of 430 grade AISI stainless steel
- The 3-ply construction base includes an inner layer of aluminum for optimal heat distribution
- Flared edges provide drip-free pouring
- Also available in a 10-piece set
- More prone to corrosion than other products that contain nickel
- Only includes one frying pan
- Hard to find information about the company
Chef's Star Premium Pots And Pans Set
The bottoms are encapsulated with impact-bonded aluminum to produce even heating and resist warping.
The fact that aluminum is only present on the bottom of the pan to help spread heat means that it will never come into contact with your food, even if you scratch the pans.
Customers rave about how nice these pans look.
Their shine and sturdiness give them the appearance of professional kitchen equipment.
- Aluminum only present at the bottom of the base
- Comes with more pieces than other options at similar price points
- Manufactured with less nickel to reduce chances of leaching
- The ergonomically-designed handles have an anti-slip satin finish
- Pieces are not fully encapsulated
- Less nickel means that products are more prone to corrosion over time
Maxam 9-Element Waterless 17-Piece Cookware Set
Maxam crafted these pieces out of incredibly durable, corrosive-resistant T304 surgical stainless steel.
The only aluminum present in this cookware is in the “9-element” bottom layer, which includes a combination of chrome, nickel, manganese, silicon, aluminum, iron, copper, molybdenum, and vanadium.
With this cookware, you only need to use enough water to create steam and no oil at all to cook! The 5-ply base heats quickly and evenly.
The steam-control valves located in the lids control the temperature to ensure perfect cooking every time.
- Waterless, oil-free cooking is extra healthy
- Designed with very little aluminum
- The unique steam-controlled valve makes cooking a breeze
- Surgical steel is the most corrosion-resistant material on the market
- The mirror-finished exteriors resist the damaging effects of detergents
- Includes a limited lifetime warranty
- Each piece of the 5-piece egg rack is counted separately, giving a false perception of the true quantity of items
- The plastic handles don’t hold up well
- The stickers on the lids lose their adhesiveness easily
Swiss Inox Si-7000 18-Piece Stainless Steel Set
This full-kitchen 18-piece set is made out of 18/10 T304 heavy duty surgical stainless steel.
The fully-polished 9-ply encapsulated bottoms are so well-constructed that you couldn’t get to one of the inner aluminum layers without some serious metalsmithing equipment.
The European design combined with world-renowned Swiss quality control means that you can feel comfortable knowing that these pots will last for a long time.
Customers overall are delighted with this set. They love its weight and the variety of pieces it comes with, especially for the price.
Quite a few took issue with how easily the handles melted or unscrewed, though.
- The bottoms are stamped for optimal efficiency on induction stovetops
- Volume indicators are etched onto the inside of each piece
- Each lid comes with a built-in thermometer in the knob to inform you of what’s happening inside your pots
- Pots are stackable to reduce cabinet space usage
- Handles have plastic on the underside to protect hands
- Excellent value
- Handles are of poor quality
- Knobs can come off
Factors to Consider
Health risks of leaching
Much has been written about metals leaching into food.
And while scientific studies have confirmed that this phenomenon does indeed occur, it remains unclear exactly what effects this has on the body.
How quickly and evenly cookware heats directly affects most people’s happiness with it. Aluminum is a superb conductor of heat.
Sets produced with other materials might heat nearly as well, but they have their own drawbacks.
Corrosion is a concern for poor-quality stainless steel products and those made completely without nickel.
If you do decide to purchase cookware that falls into either of these categories, be extra vigilant about how you clean and use your pieces.
Few people are willing to admit just how important aesthetics are to their cookware purchasing decisions.
But looks do matter.
So make sure that whatever items you are considering match with your personal style, as well as that of your kitchen.
Types of Pieces
Most sets contain roughly the same types of pieces, but variations do exist.
Whether it’s an extra piece or a difference in cooking surface, be sure to examine all the specifications for each piece in a set to ensure it meets your needs.
Stainless steel has many great features that make it a versatile, cost-effective choice for outfitting your kitchen.
Compatible with all cooktops
The vast majority of this type of cookware works well with whichever kind of cooktop you have.
Just keep in mind that some models can have plastic parts that might be more prone to damage when exposed to certain heat sources, such as gas flames.
Oven and freezer-safe
Similarly, most pieces can be used in the oven and freezer, although those with plastic handles should avoid the oven.
Stainless steel is generally considered dishwasher safe, a fact loudly proclaimed by manufacturers.
While this is technically accurate, we want to point out that using a dishwasher has the potential to discolor or leave spots on your items.
This is one of stainless steel’s biggest selling points, in our opinion. Well-made items can last you years or even decades if you use and care for them properly.
Best Ways to Keep Cooking with Stainless Steel Safe
How to safely clean
One of the best ways to prevent leaching is to clean your pans correctly.
When you use rough sponges, abrasive detergents, or hard utensils, these can scratch your pans.
Scratches expose the metal, which then makes it more likely to interact with your food and leach its chemicals.
Plus, those scratches and divots are perfect places for bacteria to hide.
You can prevent these things by first allowing your pots to cool completely after cooking. Then soak them in warm water to soften any stuck-on food.
When cleaning, use only soft sponges, gentle detergents, and wooden or silicone utensils.
How to avoid food sticking
This is one of the most common problems that people have with stainless steel.
There are three main steps that you need to take to ensure a smooth cooking experience with stainless steel.
The first is to use the best oil to season stainless steel pans. You must do this before first use and then regularly thereafter.
Seasoning creates a thin film that acts as a protective barrier between your food and the metal of the pans. But it disappears with time, which is why re-seasoning is critical.
The second is to allow your pans enough time to heat up before adding anything to them.
This video shows you how to ensure that your pan is at optimum temperature every time you cook.
The third step is to use an appropriate heat level to cook your food.
Many people are accustomed to cranking up the heat in order to shorten cooking time or to try to brown the outside of their meat.
You can’t do that with stainless steel. This material excels at low to medium heat levels and withers at high levels.
All of the items that we have reviewed in this article are made by quality brands.
We chose them specifically because they offer something special that we felt goes above and beyond in terms of safety at reasonable prices.
There are many other great brands on the market, though. All-Clad and Farberware are two of the most popular.
All-Clad is a high-end brand that has been making American-made stainless steel cookware for nearly 50 years.
Its pieces are more expensive and require an investment to outfit an entire kitchen, but the company’s workmanship is exquisite, and their items will last safely for decades, if not longer.
Farberware offers more affordable kitchen products but is just as committed to cooking safety and quality.
The company has been in business since the 1930s and produced its first stainless steel product in 1954.
They have been a reliable source for wallet-friendly cookware ever since.
Q: What foods should I avoid cooking for safety?
A: The foods most likely to leach stainless steel are tomatoes, vinegars, and citrus.
Q: How can I avoid corrosion?
A: The two best ways to avoid corrosion are to thoroughly dry your cookware after cleaning and to only salt your pans after your water has started to boil. Water can find its way into any cracks and crevices in your products and begin to rust if not dried off. Salt is one of the most common causes of pitting corrosion in stainless steel and should always be used with caution.
Q: Is it safe to store food in my cookware?
A: Ideally, no. While storing for a short time may be fine, longer periods allow the food to react with the surface and potentially leach into your food. Glass storage ware is your safest option for storing food.
As you can see, there is no stainless steel cookware that is 100% safe. But certain types and brands do offer better protection against aluminum contamination.
Despite these concerns, stainless steel is still widely considered to be one of the safest types of cookware that you can choose. Much depends on how you use and care for these products, though.
So, don’t fear the pots and pans, friends. As with anything in life, every rose has its thorn. But with our helpful information and guidelines, you can safely enjoy healthy, delicious meals from any of these best stainless steel cookware sets without aluminum for years to come!
Dangers of Other Types of Cookware
Despite what you’ve just read above, stainless steel is still considered to be one of the safer types of cookware on the market. Here’s a short overview of the risks associated with other common materials used to make your pots and pans:
This is by far the most potentially dangerous type of cookware on the market. Teflon -- the marketing name given to the special coating that prevents food from sticking -- is made from a plastic polymer known as PTFE (polytetrafluoroethylene).
This polymer is sensitive to high temperatures and starts leaching toxins when heated above 572 degrees. These toxins can also become airborne and lead to flu-like systems in sufficient concentrations.
Learn the truth on whether stainless steel is non-stick or not to understand how stainless steel cookware fits into this discussion.
Despite being a ubiquitous and popular choice for affordable cookware, aluminum is highly reactive and known to be a neurotoxic metal. Studies have linked exposure to several nervous system diseases, including ALS and Alzheimer’s.
Aluminum cookware almost always comes with a protective coating, but that coating is prone to chipping.
Metals pans (usually made of anodized aluminum can be coated with ceramic in order to create a non-toxic non-stick surface. While the ceramic itself is completely harmless, it is not a tough as other materials and thus is prone to chipping.
Once chipped, toxic metals from whatever the base material is made of can enter your food.
This type of cookware isn’t dangerous for most of the general population. While it is true that cast iron does leach small amounts of iron into food, most people could use a little extra iron in their diets.
The only subgroups that could potentially experience negative effects from this leaching are those who suffer from hemochromatosis, post-menopausal women, and those who already eat very iron-rich diets.
As you can see from reading this article, no type of cookware is 100% safe. Each one has its own particular drawbacks and potential dangers.
Stainless steel is not perfect, either, but it is incredibly durable and useful in the kitchen. Plus, if you purchase quality products and use them correctly, there is very little chance that leaching will occur.
Despite its safer nature, many people struggle to cook successfully with stainless steel and thus continue to be drawn to non-stick alternatives. Companies also continue to develop new non-stick chemicals that they claim are safe.
The problem with these new non-stick alternatives is that there is little to no research on their long-term health effects. Therefore, it’s possible that they that are safer, but we don’t know yet.
And, considering all that we didn’t know about Teflon when it first appeared in our cookware, that is concerning. The moral of the story is that stainless steel is one of your best options when trying to avoid toxic leaching from your cookware.
So, is stainless steel cookware safe for you? Be assured and go forth, wary modern consumer, and purchase that shiny set of stainless steel cookware…
Because you are more likely to get hit by a car on your way to the store than you are to experience adverse health effects from your new pots and pans.