What’s The Deal On Stainless Steel? A Short History & The Best Type For Your Kitchen

What’s The Deal On Stainless Steel? A Short History & The Best Type For Your Kitchen

6 minute read

When it comes to cooking, stainless steel is where it's at. Not only is it the most practical material for kitchenware for its durability, stainless steel is also the number one choice for its appearance. It's clean, polished, and sexy, and it casts a striking edge to any style kitchen.

In this article, we're going to dig deep into stainless steel. We'll look at where it comes from, its infinite applications in a variety of industries, and the best grade of stainless steel kitchenware and cookware. 

What Makes Stainless Steel Stainless?

Steel is an alloy consisting of iron and carbon. Stainless steel has the addition of 10.5% chromium, as may also contain nickel, molybdenum, titanium, niobium, and manganese. These additional elements are what give stainless steel its "stainless" stamp. It's highly resistant to corrosion and rusting, making it an extremely long-lasting material with many practical uses.

Of course, we're concerned with kitchenware, so anything "stainless" gets our nod of approval, especially when it's also hygienic, easy to maintain, and has striking countertop appeal.

Stainless steel is also highly versatile and environmentally sustainable. It has an unlimited and complete recycling capacity and it's also environmentally inert, meaning it's not chemically or biologically reactive. Stainless steel doesn't leach compounds and poses no threat to the health of the natural environment, animals, people, or water quality. It's a more sustainable material too, given its durability and longevity, so it contributes to reducing carbon emissions. 

Whether it's saucepans, frying pans, griddles, woks, spatulas, mixing bowls, cooling racks, or appliances, stainless steel kitchenware is the way to go.

And it has a fascinating history. Let's take a look...

The History of Stainless Steel

You may be surprised to discover that your grandparents are older than stainless steel! Compared to iron, which has been around for about 1000 years, stainless steel is an infant at only 100 years old. But what a life it has had!

Revolutionizing nearly every industry from transportation to healthcare, stainless steel made its first significant appearance in 1913. An English metallurgist named Harry Brearley added 12.8% chromium to iron and produced an alloy that was highly resistant to rust and corrosion. It eradicated the problem that motivated his research: a solution to the problem of corroded gun barrels in the British army. This "rustless steel" is what we now know as stainless steel.

When such a discovery is made, news travels fast, and stainless steel was quickly put to the test in a wide range of applications. Scientists experimented with different quantities and formulations of nickel and chromium and recorded each one's corrosion resistance, malleability, and other qualities. We now have approximately 100 grades of commercial stainless steel. 

Types of Stainless Steel

There are four general categories of stainless steel: martensitic, austenitic, duplex, and ferritic. Assuming such terms are not in your everyday vocabulary, here's a brief definition of each. 

Martensitic: Stainless steel containing 11.5-18% chromium and 1.2% carbon and nickel. It's less resistant to corrosion compared to other types but the high percentage of carbon produces a robust molecular structure (source). Applications include fasteners, springs, pins, cutlery, hardware, gun clips, turbine blades, nuts, bolts, ball bearings, pistons, valves, and more.

Austenitic: Stainless steel that consists mainly of austenite, an alloy containing 16-26% chromium and up to 35% nickel (source). It has a variety of medical, industrial, automotive, and aerospace applications. 

Duplex: Stainless steel with a microstructure consisting of both ferritic and austenitic stainless steels. Duplex typically has a higher chromium content. Applications include chemical processing, transport, and storage, oil and gas pipes, pollution control equipment, and more (source).

Ferritic: Stainless steel with a chromium content ranging from 10.5% to 30%, and less than 0.2% carbon. Applications include automotive parts, industrial equipment, and kitchenware.

What's Your Stainless Steel Kitchenware Made Of?

stainless steel kitchenware

To be considered food grade stainless steel, it must contain 16% chromium by weight, and it typically contains nickel for its corrosion-resistance properties. Chromium gives it its luster while nickel gives it its shine. There are three series of food grade stainless steel: 200, 300, and 400.

200 Series Stainless Steel

This type belongs to your budget grade food safe cookware. It's made with manganese, which is less expensive than nickel, though also less resistant to corrosion. It's an upgrade from aluminum and an acceptable choice for kitchenware.

300 Series Stainless Steel

This is the most popular type of stainless steel cookware with 304 being the most common type, followed close behind by 316. 

Which Is Better 18/8 or 18/10 Stainless Steel?

The 304 types are 18/8 and 18/10. There is little difference between these two types of stainless steel other than variations in chromium and nickel content. The 316 series contain more molybdenum, making it slightly more corrosion resistant than the 304 series. 

400 Series Stainless Steel

This nickel-free type of stainless steel is most commonly used for flatware and mixing bowls. It's an excellent alternative for those with an allergy to nickel, but it doesn't have the same integrity as the 300 series with regards to durability and aesthetics.

How to Check The Grade Of Your Stainless Steel Kitchenware

There are a few different methods to identify the grade of your stainless steel.

You may have heard of the magnetic test. The problem is that all stainless steel is magnetic. The one exception is austenitic stainless steel, which is both 304 and 316 grades. However, this grade is only non-magnetic when it's freshly formed. It's almost guaranteed to become magnetic through processing, which means by the time it gets to your kitchen, it's magnetic. Bear in mind this is not 100% and your 300 grade stainless steel may have maintained its non-magnetic properties. Both 200 and 400 series are magnetic.

A spark test involves applying a scrap piece of steel to a grinding wheel to observe the quality sparks emitted. We don't recommend using this method on your stainless steel kitchenware!

If you can't rely on the magnet test or run a spark test, how do you know? An electrolyte solution for detection of molybdenum may distinguish between 200 and 300 grades. Apply a drop of the solution to the surface, then, using a 9V battery, apply the negative charge to the liquid drop and the positive charge to the bare steel. If the area beneath the drop turns black, the steel is 200 grade. If it turns red, it's 300 grade. However, we don't recommend this method for its potential to stain your kitchenware. 

The takeaway here is that there isn't a 100% reliable method for determining the grade. That's why we recommend choosing a well-known brand, like Priority Chef.

Before You Buy...

It's a good idea to do your research before investing in new stainless steel kitchenware or cookware. Ensure you're buying from a reputable brand that has a host of good reviews, a quality guarantee, and responsive customer service. No matter what grade you settle on, ensure those pots and pan, stainless steel mixing bowls, or baking sheets are certified food grade stainless steel and that the brand you buy from guarantees their products. 

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From our kitchen to yours, happy cooking!

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