Stainless Steel Countertops: The Ideal Restaurant Kitchen Surface
The equipment used in a commercial kitchen has to withstand both the test of time and the demands of constant, daily use. This is true for cookware and smallwares, such as pots, pans, and knives; and heavy equipment, such as range tops, ovens, and refrigerators; but, in particular, it is especially true of restaurant food preparation surfaces. Prep tables, counters, and cutting surfaces are essential to any commercial kitchen, and when it comes to making this vital purchase for your kitchen, the experts recommend eschewing the beauty of granite and the timelessness of butcher block. Instead, for no-fail results and long-term satisfaction, choose food preparation surfaces made of stainless steel.
What is Stainless Steel?
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In 1915, The New York Times wrote that a firm in Sheffield, England, had introduced a new form of steel, which was “non-rusting, unstainable, and non-tarnishing.” The steel was said to be especially adaptable for table cutlery, as the original polish was maintained after use, “even when brought into contact with the most acidic foods,” and it required only ordinary washing to clean. Fast forward more than a century and you will find that countless commercial kitchens have adopted stainless steel for most of their equipment – and not just for cutlery.
Stainless steel is a steel alloy that includes at least 10.5% chromium, which makes it resistant to corrosion. Stainless steel countertops are usually made from 14- or 16-gauge material, which is then glued to a sublayer of plywood, or medium-density fiberboard, to form a rigid surface. The most commonly used kind of stainless steel – type 304 – can be welded without affecting its durability or strength. The most widely used finish is a brushed finish, but stainless steel countertops come in a variety of alternative finishes, such as satin, mirror polish, and antique matte.
Stainless Steel: the Restaurant Workhorse
Stainless steel will stand up to corrosion, will resist the deleterious effects of food stains and meat juices, and will withstand the harsh cleaning products used in commercial kitchens. The classic stainless steel commercial kitchen countertop is the perfect combination of professional-grade strength and shining beauty. This chef-worthy surface stands up to intense work and abuse, yet “cleans up” nicely to a glamorous, eye-popping shine.
Unlike other countertop materials such as wood and stone, stainless steel resists both heat and rust: Pans and pots can be placed directly on the surface without concern for damage. The countertop will heat up in the area where the pot is placed, but the heat won’t travel along the length of the counter. You can place a hot pot on the surface and, when you lift it later, you’ll find no scorch marks. As an added bonus, it will stay cool during the hot summer months. And, although water does leave a temporary ring if it’s left to dry, the special composition of the metal prevents permanent damage.
Stainless steel is also environmentally friendly. As much as 50 percent of all stainless steel manufactured in the United States is made from recycled scrap metal. Stainless steel has a life expectancy of about 100 years and, given today’s environmentally conscious world, this advantage makes stainless steel a welcome choice in restaurants and other professional kitchens.
Hygiene is a Major Advantage of Stainless Steel
In a commercial kitchen, sanitation and hygiene are of vital importance to prevent foodborne illnesses and to prevent food from being cross-contaminated by other substances. Stainless steel is ideal in this regard due to its non-porous surface, which means that no type of liquid or substance can penetrate into the material. You don’t have to fear oils, beets, cranberries, acids, wine, grape juice, or food coloring. Stainless steel does not have pores, making it virtually impossible for dirt, bacteria, fungi, or viruses to gain traction. This quality is often referred to as “cleanability.” The cleanability of stainless steel is roughly equivalent to that of glass and fine china, and it is far superior to materials such as plastic or earthenware.
Easy, Breezy Maintenance
Restaurants and commercial kitchens have been using stainless steel countertops, tables, and sinks for decades due to its ability to take a beating and keep on looking beautiful. In addition to its long life span, stainless steel is easy to maintain, and is among the easiest materials to clean.
To clean your stainless steel countertop, use a damp cloth and wipe in the direction of the finish. Use water and baking soda when cleaning baked-on grease or other difficult stains. If possible, wipe up spills right away in order to have an easier time cleaning the surface later on, since the food won’t be baked on or dried out.
Stainless steel is susceptible to fingerprints, which can be removed with a glass cleaner. A stainless steel finish can also be damaged by water spots from particularly hard water, so always try to dry the surface properly after cleaning it. Avoid harsh abrasives and don’t use the scrubbing side of a sponge because these can do more harm than good by leaving scratches behind. Using chlorine (bleach) is also not recommended, as it will cause damage to the stainless steel surface by breaking down the chromium layer.
Drawbacks of Stainless Steel Counters
Dents and dings are the arch nemeses of restaurant owners and caterers who have outfitted their kitchens with stainless steel countertops. When your countertop is first installed in your restaurant kitchen, it will be shiny and free of any scratches. After initial wear, your first scratch will appear. It may break your heart, but eventually, you’ll realize that other scratches have joined it, and that they do nothing to reduce the functionality – or even the beauty – of your stainless steel countertop.
In addition, you can expect your countertops to acquire a few dents over the years. However, if the counter is professionally installed – with the metal placed snugly over the wood – the denting and dinging will be minimal. Tight installation means less risk of dents, and a lower-gauge metal can also reduce the number of dings.
Protect Your Countertops
It is preferable not to do the heavy prep work – slicing, cutting, chopping, etc. – directly on your stainless steel food preparation surface. Therefore, using cutting boards is vital for food preparation. Not only do cutting boards protect countertops from cuts and slices, but they also provide a stable prep surface. Whether you’re chopping vegetables for salads, slicing bread for sandwiches, or mincing garlic for sauces, look for cutting boards that will make these routine tasks safer and more convenient.
Plastic cutting boards are versatile and inexpensive. Another benefit to plastic is that it can be doused with boiling water for disinfecting without causing any harm to the actual board. On the other hand, knives and other sharp instruments will cause deep grooves in the plastic that are hard to clean and can harbor bacteria. A wooden cutting board, on the other hand, is water absorbent, so it will dry more quickly than plastic, thereby giving bacteria less time to survive. End-grain wood cutting boards (where the grain is facing upward) actually have self-healing properties; cut marks on the wood tend to reseal, becoming much less noticeable than on plastic cutting boards. Fewer scars on the surface of ANY cutting board makes it less likely that bacteria will accumulate and makes the board easier to clean.
Beauty and Brawn – Stainless Steel
A commercial kitchen should be aesthetically pleasing and, of course, always clean. Stainless steel – shiny, stain-resistant, sleek, and hygienic – has all the attributes needed for the ultimate food-preparation surface. Don’t be sucked in by the lure of granite or marble, or the appeal of butcher-block surfaces. Yes, they’re great to look at and they have their fair share of advantages, but in the long run, nothing compares to stainless steel countertops as the professional chef’s work surface of choice.