Looking for non-toxic cookware? Does stainless steel really leach heavy metals into food? Here's what you need to know to find the best healthy cookware for your family: what the issues are, how to minimize them, and cleaning tips for stainless steel cookware so you can make the most of your investment!
I used to use nonstick cookware… until I learned that the nonstick coating is actually toxic and unhealthy.
Then I switched to cast iron and stainless steel.
However… what's this about stainless steel leaching aluminum into food?!
If you're thinking about making the switch to stainless steel cookware — or perhaps you already have stainless steel pots and pans but they're starting to look pitted and worn — here's what you need to know to make the best choice for you and your family!
Plus, how to clean your stainless steel cookware to maintain it!
Is Stainless Steel Cookware Safe?
Before we talk about how to clean stainless steel cookware, let's learn about how non-toxic and safe it really is.
What is stainless steel?
Stainless steel is a low carbon, iron-based steel with other metals mixed in to reduce corrosion and increase strength.
It always contains at least 10% chromium. Other metals can include nickel, manganese, aluminum, silicon, and sulfur.
The combination of metals determines the grade of the stainless steel.
Stainless steel does not conduct heat well, so cookware is usually made with an aluminum or copper core: essentially, a sheet of aluminum or copper sandwiched between layers of stainless steel to improve the pot’s heating ability.
The aluminum or copper core becomes an issue ONLY if the pot is scratched, grooved, or worn to expose it.
If your pot is rusting or if there are signs that the core is wearing through, it is time to replace the pot because it’s probably leaching those metals into your food.
What are those numbers on the bottom of your pots and pans?
Those numbers you see on the bottom of your pot refer to the grade of stainless steel. These numbers specifically refer to the amount of chromium and nickel blended into the stainless steel.
For example, the numbers 18/10 show that the pot is comprised of 18% chromium and 10% nickel.
The grade of stainless steel identifies how corrosive it is.
18/8 and 18/10 indicate that the pot is part of the 300 series of stainless steel. With a higher amount of nickel, the 300 series is more resistant to corrosion and rust.
A pot stamped 18/0 is part of the 400 series. With less nickel, these pots are more vulnerable to corrosion; they are also magnetic.
200 series stainless steel is considered low quality and made with manganese instead of nickel (source).
Does all stainless steel leach metals?
Through normal wear and tear, the metals in stainless steel will leach into food (source).
Cooking acidic foods will cause the pot to leach higher amounts.
In general, nickel leaches in higher amounts than the other metals. If you have a nickel allergy, you may need to avoid stainless steel entirely.
When shopping for stainless steel cookware, try to avoid the 200 series. It corrodes easily, is not durable, and contains manganese which can be extremely toxic.
The 300 series is the most common and considered the most durable. It is also highest in nickel.
Even though the 400 series is said to be less durable, its small amount of nickel makes it the safest choice.
Where was your cookware made?
As with anything else, it is best to check the country of origin of your cookware. Imported cookware will be made from metals sourced, heated, and poured under different regulations.
If you are purchasing cookware from a country outside of the U.S., it would be best to research the specific manufacturing guidelines of that country. An informed decision is always a safer one.
So, is stainless steel cookware really non-toxic and safe?
It's hard to find truly non-toxic cookware. In my opinion, stainless steel and cast iron cookware are still our best, most affordable options.
They both have issues, namely leaching of heavy metals (cast iron leaches iron, read more about here). However, the alternatives are Teflon (toxic nonstick coating) and enameled cookware (high levels of lead and cadmium).
How To Clean Stainless Steel Cookware
Cleaning stainless steel cookware is easier than you may think! Plus, natural and non-toxic cleaners work well.
This means from cooking to cleaning, your stainless steel pots and pans are a healthier choice for you and your family.
I used to use nonstick cookware years ago, until I learned the nonstick coating is actually toxic and unhealthy. That meant switching to cast iron and stainless steel for me.
However, as I was used to nonstick pans, I had to learn how to use and clean stainless steel cookware.
One of the best ways to ensure easy clean up after use is making sure you use the pan properly to keep food from sticking in the first place. Work smarter, not harder, right?
How To Keep Food From Sticking To Non-Toxic Cookware
This will make cleaning stainless cookware a breeze! Here are two simple tips so food doesn’t stick to the pan:
#1 — Gently heat the pan before adding fat.
Don’t be tempted to use high heat though! Your food may end up burning… which is even worse than sticking!
In addition, too high of a temperature can cause your healthy cooking fat to smoke. This means the oil is breaking down and becoming unhealthy.
How do you know if the pan is hot enough for adding oil? Do a water drop test.
Splash a few droplets of water into your pan. If the water forms balls that skitter around the pan, it’s ready for your healthy cooking fat.
#2 — Don’t add cold food to a hot pan, if possible.
This means allowing your meats to come to room temperature, if you can.
Steel expands with heat and contracts with the cold. So, when you put cold chicken onto your hot, oiled pan, the surface of the pan contracts and catches the food, causing it to stick.
Simply get your cold foods out of the refrigerator about 10 minutes or so before you begin to cook.
If cooking with frozen meats, add a small amount of water or broth (just enough to cover the bottom of the pan) to your pan first then add the frozen meat. If you're concerned about your dish turning out too soup, the extra liquid should evaporate off while you’re cooking the meats.
Daily Use Of Stainless Steel Cookware
You’re sure to get a lot of use out of your stainless cookware!
A big stock pot is wonderful for simmering rich, nourishing bone broths. A stainless steel frying pan can go from the stove top into the oven for easy one-pan meals or meats with a flavorful crust.
Cooking meats, vegetables, eggs, and soaked grains or beans are so easy once you understand how to cook in stainless cookware so it won’t stick.
Simply use your cookware and clean it once it cools. Hand washing and drying are best, especially if you want to keep your new cookware set shiny and beautiful.
For best results, use wood, bamboo, or silicone utensils instead of metal to avoid scratching.
Daily Care Of Stainless Steel Cookware
There are many commercial products available for cleaning stainless steel. However, many of these products may be toxic and unhealthy.
In addition to breathing in the fumes while using them, residue may stick to the pans and end up in your food. Yuck!
How to clean stainless steel without chemicals, you ask? It’s really very easy!
Stainless cookware doesn’t need anything complicated. You probably already have at least some of these items perfect for cleaning stainless steel in your home already:
- dish soap
- dish cloth
- baking soda
- gentle, non-abrasive brush or scrubber
- bamboo pan scraper
- and, of course, elbow grease!
How do you use these simple, natural products for cleaning your pots and pans?
First, allow your pan to cool to room temperature before cleaning. Do not add cold water to a hot pan as the temperature difference can cause warping. Also, putting a hot pan into water can also cause warping.
Then, simply clean your pot or pan with warm, soapy water. If needed, allow it to soak for a bit in the soapy water. Loosen any food particles with a non-metal spatula or pan scraper.
Alternatively, add water to the pan and bring to a boil. Use a non-metal spatula to loosen any food particles.
Use a dish cloth or non-abrasive sponge or scrubber to clean the pan inside and out.
Finally, rinse with clean water and dry immediately with a soft towel to avoid water spots from forming.
While some stainless steel pans are fine to clean in a dishwasher, most manufacturers recommend hand washing to preserve the beautiful finish of the pans.
Once the food has loosened after soaking it really is easy to clean the pans and not that much extra work!
Need some more healthy cleaning solutions for the rest of your home? Check out this article for simple and non-toxic ways to clean your whole house!
How To Remove Stains & Stuck Food
It happens to the best of us. Food sticks or the surface of the pan becomes discolored.
Or maybe you meant to get to the dishes right away and got distracted, meaning the food dried in the pan.
Don’t despair! There are easy and non-toxic ways to keep your cookware in tip-top shape.
#1 — Stuck or burnt-on food?
Removing burnt or heavily stuck-on food isn't as hard as it sounds.
First, fill the pan with warm water and sprinkle some baking soda into the pan. Let it soak for 15 minutes, then use non-metal spatula or spoon to loosen the food particles.
If that doesn't work, bring the water to a boil then turn off the heat. Then try to loosen the stuck food.
Alternatively, allow the water to cool down while you’re working on something else then wash and dry the pan as usual. A bamboo pan scraper is easy to use, too.
#2 — Chalky white spots?
Fill the pan with a solution of 1 part vinegar to 3 parts water. Bring to a boil then allow to cool. Wash the pan as usual.
#3 — Iridescent, rainbow-looking spots?
This discoloration is typically from overheating. Avoid this by not overheating (of course) but should it occur, try cooking something tomato-based in the pot or pan (chili, anyone?).
Also, you can boil a solution of water and vinegar in the pan.
#4 — Pitting or pockmarks?
This happens when you salt your water before bringing it to a boil, due to a reaction between the salt, oxygen in the water, and the chromium in the stainless steel itself.
Unfortunately, you cannot remove pitting that is already there. To prevent pitting in the future, however, add salt to water that is already boiling (there isn't enough oxygen in the water to complete the reaction at that point).
Best Tools To Use When Cleaning Stainless Pots & Pans
To keep the surface of the pan or pot smooth and in top condition, avoid using harsh tools such as wire scrub brushes, metal mesh scrubbers, abrasive cleaners, or even a heavy duty scouring pad.
The danger with scratching your pots is not only unsightly, unattractive damage, but scratched or pitted pots have greater leaching.
Generally, all you need to clean your stainless pots and pans is hot soapy water and a dish cloth.
For times when food has dried or stuck on while cooking, a bamboo pan scraper is great for getting bits removed from the surface of the pan.
Never underestimate the value of good, old-fashioned elbow grease, either. While it may not be fun, it’s a very non-toxic way to clean your cookware! Plus, you get some good exercise too.
Another tool to consider is an eco-friendly spaghetti scrub.
While it may sound odd, it’s fantastic for cleaning all kinds of surfaces, even stainless steel. It’s also effective without dish soap (but can be used with it if needed).
A spaghetti scrub is made from biodegradable materials. The scrubbing factor comes from finely ground peach pits.
I love my spaghetti scrub and use it on nearly everything, especially my pans — stainless and cast iron.
As you can see, cleaning stainless steel cookware is not difficult. It also doesn’t require toxic chemicals.
Just a few simple, healthy, natural cleaners and tools and some old fashioned elbow grease are all you need. And if you properly heat your pans first, you may not even need the elbow grease!
What non-toxic cookware do you recommend? How do you deal with cleaning stainless steel cookware?
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