Stainless steel was discovered, or created, in 1913 when Harry Brearley, an English metallurgist was attempting to find a metal to improve rifle barrels. Instead, he accidentally discovered that upon addition of chromium to low-carbon steel, the alloy (the mix of metals) became stain resistant. Today stainless steel has developed into a more complicated mix of metals, often containing nickel, titanium, and other elements which may enhance the corrosion resistance of the stainless steel. Stainless steel’s properties make it convenient for many uses in commercial and home kitchens, but it must be maintained and cared for in order to last.
Stainless steel is used for pots, pans, chafers, utensils, and even sinks. The metal is mostly appreciated for its durability and stain-resistance. Stainless steel pots and pans tend to be heavy-bottomed, retaining and transferring heat efficiently. Utensils made with stainless steel go beyond the typical flatware, and include professional chef knives, and provide a clear advantage over alternative materials due to their toughness and stain-resistance. In addition to being stain-resistant and relatively wear-resistant, stainless steel products are typically easy to clean.
When choosing stainless steel products for your purposes, you should take note of the numbers which are used to describe the composition of the metal. The typical numbers include 18/10, 18/8, 18/0. The first number represents the percentage of chromium metal in the metal mixture, while the second number indicates the percentage of nickel in the mixture. Most of the remaining composition, not indicated in the numbers, is steel. Chromium adds toughness and stain resistance to the stainless steel, while nickel, which is not always added to the mixture, presents a non-corrosive and stain resistance element that adds shine to the stainless steel. Chafers, for example, tend to contain some nickel, yielding an aesthetic product fit for buffet presentation. The composition of the stainless steel will determine the purposes which it is best for. However, the many mixtures that exist have led to the use of stainless steel in a wide range of kitchen items.
Why is stainless steel stainless? The chromium which Harry Brearley added to the steel, back in the day, can combine with oxygen at the surface of the stainless steel item to form a thin layer which protects the surface of the metal. Because this layer is what gives the metal its stain resistance, and oxygen is important to the development of this protective layer, in areas with low oxygen or low air circulation, stainless steel products may wear down relatively quickly. High concentrations of salt or acids, as found in some of the heavy duty commercial kitchen cleaning products, can also damage stainless steel, and should therefore be avoided when cleaning and handling stainless steel items. Dirt and deposit on stainless steel can have a similar effect over time.
Almost all stainless steel items can be cleaned with soap and warm water to get rid of any deposits. However, some types of dirt and wear are harder to remove and may require some more complex cleaning strategies:
Hard water deposits can be removed by soaking the stainless steel item in a mixture of one part vinegar, to three parts water.
Organic solvents such as alcohol and acetone can be a fix for grease and oil stains.
Rust stains can be removed by soaking the stainless steel in 10% nitric acid in water for up about 30 to 60 minutes.
Minor scratches can be fixed with impregnated nylon pads, while deeper scratches can be fixed with iron-free abrasives.
It is very important to use gloves when employing any of the solutions mentioned above, besides the typical soap and water cleaning and the vinegar solution for hard water deposits. The chemicals mentioned above can be abrasive and dangerous to skin. When using any chemical, don’t forget to read the instructions and warnings carefully. Some of the chemicals listed above may require the use of safety goggles as well as gloves. After using the preliminary fixes mentioned above, the stainless steel item should be rinsed thoroughly with water and washed very well with soap and water.
Aside from the environmental conditions and cleanliness required to maintain stainless steel, the metal is very durable. Therefore, stainless steel kitchen tools can last indefinitely, theoretically, giving them a huge advantage over kitchen tools made of most other materials. Though stainless steel products can be relatively expensive, their durability and easy maintenance often make them a smart investment which pays off in the long run.