Why shouldn't I scratch up my stainless steel cooking pot?
April 14, 2014 3:17 PM   Subscribe

I've got a cheap Farberware cooking pot that I've been using heavily for several years. I clean it after using it, usually, and its inner surface still looks pretty good. I use one of those tough green scouring pads (nylon I guess?), with a bit of ordinary liquid dish soap, to clean it. This scratches it up and often seems to actually remove enough material from its surface to turn the cleaning water grayish. I figure steel can take this much abuse. But when I look up cleaning tips for stainless steel cookware, I see some complicated stuff about using baking soda or vinegar or Bar Keepers Friend, plus various sorts of soaking, boiling, etc., to carefully remove burnt stuff and stains without scratching your cooking surface. And sometimes I see the instruction not to use tough scouring pads at all because they'll scratch. My method is simpler, and it has never failed me, so I like it better. But am I hurting my pot? Am I very slightly poisoning myself with metal powder somehow? Will I eventually grind through the steel and reach non-food-safe aluminum or whatever, or would that take like a century? I'm more curious here than worried, mind you. Maybe all I'm reading about trying not to scratch your stuff is just for keeping the surface looking super-pretty and new-looking?
posted by Koray to Home & Garden (28 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I'm really curious about this. I do the same thing, using Scotch-brite scouring pads. It wrecks the mirrored finish, and I don't care, because it's scrubbed clean.

I know that part of it is that a smooth surface is more sticky because some of food sticking is mechanical grip, but I don't count on those pots to be non-stick, and don't cook with them in that fashion. And so the easiest way to feel like they're clean is scouring them.
posted by fatbird at 3:24 PM on April 14, 2014

I use stainless steel wool on the inside of my pans, and barkeepers friend on the outside. I don't care about the inside.

Then I stop using anything nice on the outside, too, because I stop caring. It is a cosmetic thing, which my pans are not.

Scratches on non-non-stick cookware should matter. Oil fills in the gaps, so they aren't any stickier. You just have a minute bit more surface area.
posted by bensherman at 3:41 PM on April 14, 2014

According to this, there's a small bit of metal that can come off and get into your food, but unless you have an allergy, you'd be just fine with the scratched cookware.
posted by xingcat at 3:42 PM on April 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

You are not poisoning yourself. Aluminum hydroxide is used as an antacid and one such tablet contains more ionized aluminum than you'll get off your pan in 50 years.

Also, there's no evidence that aluminum is toxic.

As to iron, iron is good for you.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 3:43 PM on April 14, 2014 [3 favorites]

You're fine, but I always use copper scouring pads on my stainless steel. Copper is softer, so it can't scratch it (even the polished faces), but it's tough enough to remove baked-on oil stains, etc.
posted by supercres at 3:56 PM on April 14, 2014

I use barkeepers friend on the inside of my pans when I need to, the stuff is magic. Just be sure you rinse it well. If you need something else I recommend copper scouring pads. They're cheap, like 3 for a dollar at a dollar store, and not hard enough to hurt the steal while being great for getting through gunk on your pan.

I use this combo and my stainless steel skillet, which sees really hard use, looks practically brand new after 3 years.
posted by bswinburn at 3:58 PM on April 14, 2014

Response by poster: Copper is softer than the green pads??
posted by Koray at 4:31 PM on April 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: > According to this, there's a small bit of metal that can come off and get into your food, but unless you have an allergy, you'd be just fine with the scratched cookware.

Well that page also says "To preserve the interiors of stainless steel pans, avoid using knives to cut foods inside the cookware, and do not poke carving forks into the bottoms of the pots." It does not explain what the purpose of this preservation is, and so leads back to my original question.

> You are not poisoning yourself [with iron or aluminum].

I think there's more in my pot than those two materials. But I guess if this just boils down to a generic "is stainless steel safe" query then I can look that up myself. I thought maybe there could be something special about a cheap, possibly crappy "stainless steel" pot that would make a difference here, for one thing. Or conversely, maybe if I'd gotten a really nice expensive one, I'd have to take BETTER care of it to protect its delicate high-quality surface somehow. Probably not though I guess.
posted by Koray at 4:43 PM on April 14, 2014

I have read in many places that aliminium is an environmental factor that can speed up the onset of Alzheimer's. My dad specifically threw out my aliminium pots and replaced them with iron ones for this reason (a lot of Alzheimer's in the family) as seemingly iron is a better trace metal to have in your diet.
posted by stevedawg at 4:55 PM on April 14, 2014

Barkeeper's Friend is now available in liquid form---put it on the pan, leave it for a minute or so, and---voila!---the stuff cleans amazingly well. I have a huge set of vintage, stainless steel Revere ware with copper bottoms, and I've always relied on Barkeeper's. Now it's even easier to use.

Also, for burnt on stains, put an inch or so of water into the pan to cover the stains, and bring it to boil. Let it boil several minutes, and the stains will much be easier to remove. This is easier on the hands (and arms!) than scrubbing.
posted by ragtimepiano at 4:56 PM on April 14, 2014

I have read in many places that aliminium is an environmental factor that can speed up the onset of Alzheimer's.

That was an urban legend that went around in the 1970's. The CDC investigated and found no linkage.
In the 1960s and 1970s it was speculated that aluminium was related to various neurological disorders including Alzheimer's disease. Since then, multiple epidemiological studies have found no connection between exposure to aluminum and neurological disorders.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 5:03 PM on April 14, 2014 [6 favorites]

Will I eventually grind through the steel and reach non-food-safe aluminum or whatever, or would that take like a century?
Stainless steel, while having many other great features, is actually nowhere near as good a conductor of heat as many metals, and a solid steel pan would get scorchy-hot in the center of the burner and not distribute the heat out to the edges as well as a copper pan would; but copper is expensive and soft. Often stainless steel saucepans have much thicker bottom than sidewalls, because there's a big copper disk (~1/4" thick) sandwiched between layers of steel. The chance that you would wear through the steel enough to expose that copper is really minimal; if you jabbed and sliced with a knife, you could maybe get a deep enough scratch to expose a little, but I kind of doubt it. And besides, copper isn't bad for you, they make pots out of that, too.

The reason that I try not to scratch my pots up is that the parts that are scratched up are harder to get clean. Food tends to stick into the little crevices, and burn on there even more than before, and to get it out, I scrub even more and make more scratches. The manufacturer is trying to steer you out of this vicious cycle by saying never to scratch it in the first place, which is futile - it will scratch at some point no matter what.

Basically, my skillets are teflon or cast iron, my thick-chunky sauces pan is teflon (for wet stuff that might stick), and my stainless steel saucepans are for pasta, boiling water, soups, deep fry (if a half inch of oil is "deep"), sugar-based stuff that rinses right off, etc - things that would never stick. I used to have a stainless skillet, but I gave it up as a lost cause.
posted by aimedwander at 5:17 PM on April 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have read in many places that aliminium is an environmental factor that can speed up the onset of Alzheimer's.

The OP's pan is stainless steel, not aluminum. Stainless is basically non-reactive, that is why they use it for, e.g., surgical tools.

I'm pretty sure the reasons for all the special cleaning instructions are (a) to help you keep your pan Shiny New and (b) perhaps, just perhaps, a scratched-up pan will stick to food a little bit more. I wouldn't worry much.
posted by mr vino at 5:50 PM on April 14, 2014

Its largely a cosmetic issue, but, as aimedwander mentions, the more roughed up the surface, the more opportunity there is for adhesion. Still, that't not likely to be a major issue, and if it is, you can always use more elbowgrease to get it off.

Unless you are very obsessive, I think the chances of wearing or (cutting) through the stainless steel into a heat diffusion layer in your lifetime are pretty low.

As for aluminum and Alzheimers, nonsense. The only evidence was a study that found increaced levels of altzheimers in brain tissue, only later did we learn that was a result of aluminum introduced during preparation of the samples.
posted by Good Brain at 5:56 PM on April 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

The reason not to scratch it is that the smoother it is, the better it is at keeping food from sticking to it.
posted by RustyBrooks at 6:01 PM on April 14, 2014

My mother bought her Revere Ware pans when she left her mother's home 50 years ago and has been using steel wool (SOS pads) on them ever since. She has not managed to scrub through them. They work fine.
posted by clone boulevard at 6:43 PM on April 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

Copper is softer than stainless steel. If the green pads scratch stainless, they must be harder, or have steel fibers embedded or something.
posted by supercres at 6:47 PM on April 14, 2014

The green scrubby pads have embedded alumina (aluminum oxide) particles to make them abrasive. Or at least they did when I put one in the X-ray diffractometer in grad school to see if it was a possible contamination source.
Alumina is very hard. The particles are small (invisible to the naked eye) but definitely mechanically abrasive.

So you'll see the scrubbing marks. I am pretty confident they are proscribed for cosmetic reasons.
posted by janell at 7:09 PM on April 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I just looked up the 3M ones (Scotch-Brite is the brand) and 3M's site says they have "abrasive minerals" in them. I'm using some other brand at the moment, but they all seem fairly similar, and I've probably used Scotch-Brite in the past. I had no idea they weren't just plastic!

(I mean yeah there's the "this thing can only scratch the other thing at all because it's harder" rule but I never studied that one in any physics class and it does sound a bit simplistic to me... so I tend not to apply it myself.)
posted by Koray at 7:13 PM on April 14, 2014

Try using a "Dobie" pad. Those are intended for non-stick finishes, which are much softer than any metal, so they definitely don't contain abrasive minerals.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 8:05 PM on April 14, 2014

Response by poster: I might. I'm also tempted by the copper ones, now that I know that my old method worked so well because I've basically been applying sandpaper to my cookware.

On the other hand, the old method really does work well. So maybe I'll just stick with it. I particularly like that the pads are very cheap and can be cut into small pieces to make them not only FAR cheaper than they already are, but also fully disposable. I don't want some pad/sponge/cloth that's gonna get all gross, when I can so trivially avoid it! And the destructive power of the secret minerals in these things is apparently great enough that a single square inch of pad can still easily grind off a few meals' worth of crud. ...Along with a portion of my pot.

Regardless, I have learned some valuable information here.
posted by Koray at 11:45 PM on April 14, 2014

'This scratches it up and often seems to actually remove enough material from its surface to turn the cleaning water grayish.'
Maybe this is a very stupid comment, but I find it pretty easy to do this with a green scratchy pad on aluminium, and never on stainless. Are you absolutely certain what your pan is made of?
posted by Lebannen at 12:33 AM on April 15, 2014

Response by poster: No, but I've always understood it to be stainless steel, and it says "DURABLE STAINLESS STEEL" on the bottom.
posted by Koray at 1:02 AM on April 15, 2014

If you're taking away LARGE gouges in the steel it would need to be passivated, but then again just keeping it in a nice oxygen rich environment (like a kitchen) would passivate it quickly. I don't think you're taking off enough metal to even remotely require passivation to regenerate the protective oxide layer, but you might be removing a small amount of the oxide layer, which would also then be regenerated.
posted by koolkat at 3:42 AM on April 15, 2014

Copper pads are great, but even better are brass scouring pads. Harder than copper, so they don't fall apart like copper ones can, but still softer than stainless steel. The also don't oxidize and leave stains on your sink and counter like copper pads can if you leave them too long when they are wet. Hard to find though.
posted by fimbulvetr at 6:52 AM on April 15, 2014

Koray: I think there's more in my pot than those two materials.

There certainly is: stainless steel, by legal definition, contains at least a certain amount of chromium, and may also contain manganese or nickel.

The first two are actually essential parts of your diet; nickel is mostly harmless, although it has been linked to exzema and dermitis. However, you are likely to get more nickel out of your foods than from the pots you cook them in.
posted by IAmBroom at 9:18 AM on April 15, 2014

When I used to wash dishes in a restaurant many many moons ago we used two different kinds of steel scouring pads to remove stuck/burnt on things from the pots and pans - that and a bit of soaking and elbow grease as required. Then they went through the industrial dishwasher. I found that:

- most stuff is quite easy to get off with a steel scouring pad
- these pots were used in the kitchen so nobody cared if they got scratched or not, they had to be clean, not pretty
- scouring pads do scratch things over time
- cold water is much more effective than hot water for soaking
- scrubbing actually needs light and steady pressure, no need to exert yourself but you do need a hard surface to place the to be scoured surface on - doing sides of pots with pots in their normal upright position does not work, they need to be on the side as well and rotated as required
- in my own kitchen, I have never had to use steel pads, simple plastic ones, no products, work just fine. And as I generally prefer non stick pots and pans I get away with using a plastic brush these days.
posted by koahiatamadl at 9:38 AM on April 15, 2014

The way to do stainless steel is with the nylon pads. Easy, peasy. Wipes right off.
posted by klangklangston at 8:14 PM on April 15, 2014

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