Since the earliest days of its existence, people have seen stainless steel’s potential to help make food preparation safer and easier.
From high-end consumer items to the largest commercial kitchens, stainless steel surfaces, equipment, utensils and more continue to serve as a cornerstone of the modern food service environment.
In this guide, we’ll look at why stainless steel is an excellent choice for food service use, how stainless steel is typically used, what types of stainless steel are prevalent in today’s kitchens, and best practices for safe, long-lasting performance from your stainless steel equipment and items.
Benefits of Stainless Steel in the Food Industry
Food preparation environments benefit from many of the same characteristics of stainless steel as other industries.
Stainless steel’s exceptional corrosion resistance means that kitchens don’t have to worry about damage due to spills, steam, food products, and the general mess caused by high-volume, fast-paced cooking.
But this resistance to acidic and alkaline substances also holds benefits outside the kitchen as well!
Stainless steel cookware is exceptionally neutral, so it will not interact with foods and alter the taste, appearance, or smell of ingredients like aluminum or cast iron might. This means cleaner, more appealing flavours and happier diners!
Most stainless steel components also have broad thermal tolerances. Stainless steel pots, pans, and storage containers can transfer from freezers to stovetops and everywhere in between with little worry of damage.
At the end of a busy shift, stainless is also simple to clean. In many cases, kitchen staff can wet mop, pressure wash, or steam clean the surfaces of stainless steel equipment for rapid, thorough cleaning of crowded kitchen environments.
Of course, you can also spot clean more stubborn areas. Stainless steel’s passivation layer makes cleaning up spills and splatters as simple as grabbing a soft cloth.
More to the point, stainless steel can handle years of regular cleaning and maintenance and still look as good as it did when the table, surface, or equipment arrived.
It can even handle the occasional drop, ding, or scuff without concern — though you should never intentionally attempt to mar the passivation layer on your stainless items.
It’s strong but not invincible!
The same facets that make stainless simple to clean and resistant to corrosion also discourage bacterial growth or the hiding of other harmful pathogens. Where plastics and softer metals might easily scratch or create grooves, the smooth surface of stainless means microorganisms have nowhere to hide.
When sanitation isn’t the highest priority, additional finishes also allow you to customize your stainless’ appearance to match your preferred presentation. Standard finishes include mirrored or polished stainless, brushed stainless, pounded or dimpled stainless, and engraving.
Finally, stainless offers an excellent balance of strength, weight, and temperature resistance. It’s not as light as aluminum but much more durable while providing a lighter weight than cast iron and none of the concerns about interacting with ingredients.
Typical Uses of Stainless Steel
As the list of benefits above might suggest, stainless steel has uses nearly anywhere you can think of in the modern food preparation environment. It truly is a comprehensive solution ranging from high-volume mass production food service environments, such as those in hospitals or schools, to the cutlery on the table at your favourite local small restaurant.
There’s a strong chance that you could stand anywhere in a modern restaurant or kitchen and find something made from stainless steel within view. It’s everywhere, including:
- Water lines
- Ice makers
- Food service tables
- Cooking equipment
- Hot and cold storage
- Shelving and containers
- Pots and pans
- Vending Machines
Most Common Stainless Steels Used in Food Service
While there are nearly as many types of food-grade stainless steel used today as there are ways to use stainless steel, three grades of stainless are the most common:
- 304/304L (also known as 18/8 or 18/10): This is the most popular grade of stainless steel found in restaurants, commercial kitchens, and food service environments today due to its balance of cost and performance. It has a high lustre thanks to the higher nickel content, which looks great to customers and diners. But it’s also durable and affordable — aspects kitchen staff and business owners will appreciate as well.
Common items made from 304/304L stainless steel include hollowware (pitchers, urns, gravy boats, etc.) and cookware pieces, sinks, stoves, refrigerators, containers, pipework, and other ‘contact’ equipment.
- 430: This stainless typically has a flatter, matte look and is used for items where a mirror finish or high reflectivity isn’t required, but the durability and easy cleaning of stainless is a must.
Common items made from 430 stainless steel include baffle filters, splashbacks, housings, panelling, tabletops, kitchen utensils, and low-cost sinks.
- 316/316L: This grade of steel provides exceptional corrosion resistance and durability. However, its increased cost means that it’s often only used in specialized cases involving highly acidic or saline foods and solutions.
Other types of stainless used include 201 and 420 grades for flatware and smaller hollowware items that are typically high turnover items.
Knifemakers and chefs alike also love 1.4021 and 1.4116 stainless steels (sometimes designated German stainless steel) for knife blades due to their ability to both hold a fine (and therefore sharp) edge and withstand the abuse of a fast-paced kitchen environment.
Caring for Stainless Steel in the Kitchen
In most cases, caring for stainless kitchen equipment is as simple as using a mild detergent, warm water, and a soft cloth. However, most stainless steel can withstand pressure washing, steam cleaning, harsher detergents, and more.
However, you should never use an abrasive surface to scour stainless steel — especially wire brushes or steel wool — as this can compromise the passivation layer on your steel and create scratches in which microorganisms can begin to multiply.
Electropolishing is a simple way to make stainless steel even easier to clean. If your stainless steel equipment is losing its resistance after long-term use, passivation treatments can restore things to like-new condition.
For additional cleaning tips, be sure to check our guide on the importance of stainless steel maintenance.
NOTE: Always consult local regulations for cleaning and sanitation requirements — including approved cleaning solutions, rinses, and methodologies — to ensure compliance with any food service requirements in your location or industry.
- Stainless steel’s combination of excellent corrosion resistance, high durability, broad temperature tolerances, and lightweight make it an exceptional choice for use in today’s cramped and fast-paced food service environments.
- Easy clean-up, minimal interaction with ingredients, and the ability to customize finishes make it popular both in the front and back of the house.
- Choosing different stainless steel grades provides added flexibility for both costs and appearance, allowing restaurants and kitchens to optimize performance and price.
- While following basic stainless steel maintenance routines is a simple way to extend the life of stainless steel kitchen components, consulting with local regulations is essential to ensuring compliance with any safety and sanitation requirements.
Unified Alloys is a leading provider of stainless steel components and materials throughout North America. With more than 40 years of experience serving the needs of industries across Canada, our team of expert sales analysts can help you find the ideal solution for your next project. Call us today to discuss how stainless steel can help you reach your goals.
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