Are you thinking about buying some new cookware - and have settled on stainless steel? Good choice. Theres a reason (well, several reasons) why stainless steel cookware has been so popular over so long. Let's look at a few of the key characteristics that make stainless so great - and think about which ones are more important.
“Clad” or “Tri-ply”
In general stainless steel is not a great conductor of heat. They may not heat uniformly, resulting n some “hot spots” here and there. But add a core of aluminum or copper (like the higher-end stainless does) and Boom! you have fast, uniform heating. These cores add great heat conductivity. Look for stainless steel “clad” - which tells you that you have that core sandwiched between the stainless. You’ll also see them called “tri-ply” (Get it? Three-ply?). And now they have added more layers - 5, 7, 9 - which may just be a lot of overkill.
There is less-expensive cookware that has a disk of aluminum on the bottom. That helps to distribute the heat evenly. It’s a good alternative if you want to save a little money. The nice thing about the fully-clad cookware is that it transfers the heat all the way up the walls (not just from a disk on the bottom), but the bottom disk works well to distribute the heat across the bottom of the pan. This cladding is a little more important on higher-walled pieces like stock-pots.
What's the Finish?
Generally you'll see two types of finishes on stainless steel cookware - a brushed steel look or a shiny steel. The shiny steel is by far more prevalent. But, really, it's just a matter of preference. This one comes down to looks.
Made to Last
Stainless will seemingly last forever. And it will look great while it’s doing it. It’s a very durable metal - which won’t scratch, chip, or break. OK, it might scratch a little. But the chromium oxide film (stainless is 10-11% chromium which becomes a surface film when exposed to air) will re-form around the scratch.
The surface resists sticking for the most part (although you can get a nice fond when you cook meat in it). But it’s very easy to clean!
One of the greatest benefits of cooking with stainless steel is that you can cook any kind of food in it - including acidic foods like tomatoes.
And because it’s stainless, it’s magnetic. So you can even use it on induction cooktops.
Stainless can stand up to high temperatures just fine. It can even be used in your oven or under the broiler. Just watch the handle - it may not be able to handle (no pun intended!) the heat (or may at least need to be covered/protected).
Now, I personally don’t usually put cookware in the dishwasher. But I know people who do. And they come out just fine.
Balance and Handling
One thing that I think is too often overlooked in choosing cookware is weight/balance and the handles. And in ongoing use, these can make a huge difference in how much you like the cookware. Pick it up. A piece of cookware should feel comfortable and balanced in your hand. Imagine it weighed down with food in it. Will it still be comfortable? Will to get too heavy to one side? Will the handles start to cut into your hands? Trust me, unless you plan on cooking with an empty pan (!) you need to take these things into account.
Just as an aside, there are two basic type of handles you'll see - cast stainless steel handles and tubular stainless steel handles. The tubular handles allow some airflow inside the handle which helps keep it cool a little longer. The cast handles are a solid piece of steel and will still allow heat to transfer up the handle slowly. Both are good in their own way. But both will get hot at some point. The main factor is the length of the handle. The longer the handle, the further it is from the heat source, so it stays cooler. But, if it's too long, it can also make the pan too unbalanced and hard to control. Think about this tradeoff when you're looking at different designs. Usually we use a dish towel or potholder around the handle or a handle sheath as we move the pan around.
Sum it All Up
So, here are the main things I would look for when choosing stainless steel cookware:
- Cladding (or at least the bottom disk)
- Look for the finish you want - shiny or brushed.
- Balance and handling. Look for the right balance and the right handle length.
Oh, and by the way, sometimes you'll see a marking that says “10/18”. That's actually a really good thing. It means that 10% of the material is nickel and 18% is chromium. As for nickel, it's what makes stainless shiny. So, the higher, the better. And I've already talked about chromium - which helps prevent corrosion and rusting.
Simply put, we use stainless steel in the kitchen because it's one of the most durable, versatile, and worry-free metals available.
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