10 Things You Should Never Do with Your Stainless Steel Pans

updated Feb 25, 2021
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Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman/Kitchn; Food Stylist: CC Buckley/Kitchn

Stainless steel cookware seems indestructible, and it practically is. It can take high heat, won’t rust or chip, and won’t break if you drop it. But it’s definitely possible to inadvertently cause some serious damage — or at least turn your once-shiny premium cookware into a sticky, discolored, pitted, warped, or unbalanced mess. And then you feel like your money wasn’t well spent. And I don’t want that! You don’t want that. Nobody wants that!

Here are 10 things you definitely do not want to do to your stainless steel pans.

1. Don’t let the pan sit empty on the burner for too long.

Let’s be clear: Yes, you want to preheat your pan for a bit before sautéing or searing (if you’re just reheating soup or steaming veggies that’s a different story). And you don’t want to add your cooking fat until the pan is good and hot. As food scientist Harold McGee says, “The longer the oil spends in contact with the hot surface, especially metal, the more time it has to be broken down by the extreme conditions and exposure to oxygen. Broken-down oil gets viscous and gummy, and even a slight degree of this can contribute to sticking and residues on the food.”

But don’t let that empty pan preheat for too long, or let it boil dry, because the prolonged high heat can cause stubborn discoloration. You might end up with yellow, brown, bluish, or rainbow tints on the surface that are hard to get off. 

2. Don’t use it on a grill (or in a microwave).

Most stainless-steel pots and pans are meant to be used at moderate heat and technically can withstand up to 500 or 600 degrees Fahrenheit. A grill has the potential to get much hotter, which can damage and warp the metal. “High, unnecessary heat is the enemy of cookware,” says Pamela Stafford, the Director at Hestan Culinary who has been in the industry for 28 years — 20 of which were spent at All-Clad.

And you don’t want to nuke it either. The microwaves can cause electrical currents in the metal, and if there’s a jagged edge or kink, it could cause sparks.  

3. Don’t use cooking sprays.

The problem with cooking sprays is that they don’t just contain oil, they also have things like emulsifiers, propellants, and anti-foaming agents. The emulsifiers, in particular, have a tendency to build up into a sticky, cooked-on coating. “Cooking sprays are very gummy and virtually impossible to get off the pan,” says Stafford. Use butter or oil instead!

Credit: Leela Cyd

4. Don’t let fats heat past their smoke point.

According to Cook’s Illustrated, when cooking fats get heated past their smoke point, “their triglycerides break down into free fatty acids, which then polymerize to a resin that is insoluble in water.” Basically, this is how cast iron pans get seasoned, but it’s not a good thing for your shiny stainless steel. If you’ve ever deep-fried in a stainless steel pot, you’ve probably seen the yellow, slightly sticky after-effects of this process. It’s kind of impossible to prevent this from happening all of the time, but you’ll want to keep it to a minimum unless you like to do a lot of scrubbing. 

Credit: Joe Lingeman

5. Don’t add salt when the water is cold.

All chefs agree, you need to generously season your cooking water, whether you’re boiling pasta or vegetables, so that the food is properly flavored. The directive is usually to salt it so much it tastes like the sea. “But you don’t want to add salt too soon because it drops to the bottom of the pan,” says Stafford. “You get these little white dots, called salt pitting. When added to water once it’s boiling, the salt dissolves right away.”

6. Don’t use a knife to cut something in the pan.

Maybe you just want to make a teensy cut to see if the meat is done, or maybe you realized some of your pieces are too big and you want to cut them in half. It’s so tempting to skip the cutting board and just reach for your chef’s knife and do it in the pan. But that’s a big no-no, says Stafford: “That’s the worst thing you can do for your pan and your knife. You’re going to put a permanent mark in the pan.” Aside from just not looking pretty, deep scratches can be hard to clean. Plus, that’s a good way to bend or chip your knife blade.

Credit: Cambria Bold

7. Don’t use bleach, oven cleaner or other caustic cleansers.

“I would never use bleach,” says Stafford. “First of all, you can get it on your clothes, your floor, the counter.” But most important, caustic cleaners like chlorine bleach and oven cleaner can ruin coatings and cause etching, says Wirecutter, and lead to more pitting and crevices that will be even harder to clean out later. Sure, a capful diluted in a gallon of water likely won’t cause a problem, but Stafford says it’s better to stick with dish soap. For really stuck-on stains, try a mildly abrasive cleanser like Bar Keepers Friend and a good scrubber. 

8. Don’t use overly abrasive scrubbers.

Speaking of scrubbers, don’t reach for steel wool unless you want to give your shiny stainless steel a brushed finish, Stafford says. “A scrubby sponge and Bar Keepers Friend is a much more gentle exfoliant cleaner that will produce minimal damage.”

9. Don’t put it in the dishwasher.

Sure, the manufacturer says your cookware can go in the dishwasher, and that’s usually how pots and pans are cleaned in restaurants, but over time harsh dishwasher detergents can take a toll. “Most dishwasher detergents are caustic,” Stafford warns, “so they keep eating away at the material. And the rim is unprotected, exposing where the aluminum core meets the layers. The detergents leach into the aluminum and degrades it and it erodes and you get these sharp edges over time, and the beautiful shine will get dull.”

Credit: Joe Lingeman

10. Don’t put a hot pan in a sink of cold water.

This just might be one of the most important things to remember. When a super-hot pan is tossed in cold water, the thermal shock can warp the metal. This is especially true if the pan got overheated. “I’ve seen pans where I can feel the layers have gotten separated, and it’s no longer flat, it’s convex,” says Stafford. She recommends letting the pan cool down first and using warm water instead of cold. “I let it sit in warm soapy water while I have dinner. You’ll be amazed how quickly everything comes off.”

Got anything else to add to this list? Leave your tips in the comments below!