6 Common Stains on Stainless Steel Explained

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Our Guide to Stains on Stainless Steel

Confused about the stains on your stainless steel? You’re not alone! Contrary to what its name suggests, stainless steel does in fact stain. Some stains are easy to remove, while others might mean the death of your cookware is near.

In this guide, we’ll explain what the 6 common stains on stainless steel are and how to remove them.

Burnt Food Stains On Stainless Steel

Have you ever walked away from the stove for just a minute, only to return to a burned pan? I have, and it’s no fun. Burnt food on stainless steel cookware is frustrating, but don’t throw out that pan yet. It’s easy to remove these stains with the right tools and a little elbow grease.

How do you remove burnt food from stainless steel?

Fill the pot or pan with 2-3 inches of water. Then, add 1/4 cup of baking soda and bring it to a boil. Allow the pan to simmer for 15 minutes, then remove it from heat and let it cool for 30 minutes. After the pan has cooled wash it by hand using warm water. The burnt food should come right off. Is there still stubborn residue on the pan? Simply repeat the process until it’s gone. We also like the cleaning product Bar Keeper’s Friend.

Our tips to avoid burnt food:

Thankfully you can avoid most burnt food stains using good cooking practices and common sense.
  • Always preheat and oil your pans.
  • Avoid getting distracted while you cook.
  • Don’t cook at a higher temperature than you need to.
If you’re still struggling with burnt food, check out our guide, “How To Cook With Stainless Steel Without Food Sticking.

Water Spots aka White Spots aka Calcium Stains On Stainless Steel

Worried about the white spots on your pan that won’t wipe away? Don’t be, it’s just calcium.

What causes calcium stains?

Hard water is often to blame, but all tap water contains small amounts of calcium and other minerals. When that water sits in your cookware it leaves calcium deposits behind.

Calcium doesn’t dissolve easily in water. Meaning you can’t just get rid of it by washing the pan. You might even make it worse.

Furthermore, it’s not soluble in oil, which is why it stays stuck on the pan after cooking.

Are calcium deposits dangerous?

No. They’re a normal and harmless buildup on your pans. The only thing they do is make your pan look ugly.

How do I remove calcium stains from my pan?

Removing calcium stains from a stainless steel pan is easy!

You can use Bar Keeper’s Friend. Or, you can use vinegar and water. To remove the stains:

  • First, add 3:1 parts water and vinegar to the pan. Any type of vinegar is fine.
  • Then, warm up the mixture on your stove until it’s close to boiling.
  • Remove the pan from heat and let it dissolve the mineral buildup.
  • Finally, discard the mixture, rinse your pan with cool water and wipe it dry.

You should be left with a shiny new pan.

Our tips to prevent calcium stains:

  • Wipe your pan dry after every use. While this won’t stop the stains entirely, it will reduce them.
  • If you have hard water consider a water softening system. Otherwise, you’ll always struggle with calcium buildup.

Heat Tint Stains on Stainless Steel

Does your stainless steel pan suddenly have a rainbow-colored stain on it? Don’t panic, those colorful swirls are just heat tint.

What causes heat tint?

Stainless steel is a mix of metals, including iron and chromium. When chromium and air mix, a protective layer forms in the pan. You can’t see this layer, but it protects your cookware from rust and corrosion.

When stainless steel reaches high temperatures this layer thickens, changing how light reflects and causing rainbow colors.

Is heat tint dangerous?

No, heat tint isn’t dangerous, and it has no impact on how your cookware performs.

It has nothing to do with the quality of your cookware, either.

How do you remove heat tint from a pan?

If rainbow cookware isn’t your thing, you’re in luck, because heat tint is easy to remove. First, pour a small amount of diluted white vinegar into the pan. Next, use a non-abrasive sponge to clean the area. Finally, rinse and dry the pan.

You can also use Bar Keeper’s Friend to remove heat tint.

Our tips to avoid heat tint:

All stainless steel cookware gets heat tint at some point. It’s really not a big deal. However, we have two tips to help you avoid it.
 
  • Don’t overheat your pans.
  • Don’t preheat your pans too quickly.

Pitting in Stainless Steel

Is the surface of your pan covered in small dots that won’t come off? If so, you probably have a pitted pan.

What is pitting?

Pitting isn’t a stain. Rather, it’s an erosion of the metal that occurs in the presence of chlorine and chloride salts.

What causes pitting?

You may remember from earlier in this article that stainless steel contains chromium. Chromium reacts with oxygen and creates a protective layer in the pan, which prevents corrosion.

However, chlorine and undissolved chloride salts cause this barrier to break down. As a result, pitting occurs.

Can you fix a pitted pan?

Maybe, but we don’t think you should. Some tutorials suggest that you can fix a pitted pan by grinding out the damaged section. I know I’m not willing to grind a pan, so I say no. Once your pan is pitted, it’s pitted.

Is it safe to use a pitted pan?

According to most sources, yes, a pitted pan is still safe to use. It won’t deposit metal into your food or impact your cooking unless it’s severely pitted.

Our tips to prevent pitting:

You can’t get rid of pitting, so the best strategy is to avoid it in the first place. Thankfully you just need to do two things:

  • Always bring water to a boil before adding salt.
  • Never use cleaners containing bleach in your pans.
If your cookware is already pitted the best thing you can do is treat it with care until you purchase a replacement.

Rust Stains on Stainless Steel

I’ll give you the good news first. Stainless steel is rust resistant. However, it’s not rust proof. And rust on your stainless steel is a bad sign.

What is rust?

Rust is a form of corrosion. Exposing iron to oxygen and moisture causes oxidization. As a result, rust forms. Most rust appears as reddish-brown flakes, but it can also be orange or purple in color.

Is using a rusty pan safe?

According to the experts at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a little bit of rust won’t hurt you. Rust is simply oxidized iron, which is considered non-toxic. It’s only a problem if your body can’t remove iron effectively.

That said, you don’t want to eat large amounts of it. So, you’ll need to clean your rusty pan.

However, once a pan shows signs of rusting it’s always going to be more likely to rust. Also, eating rust is just kind of gross. So in our opinion, you should replace rusty cookware.

How do I clean a rusty pan?

If you ask the internet how to clean a rusty pan you’re going to get bad advice. Unless you ended up here, of course. Most articles say that you should reach for steel wool to scrub away the rust.

Don’t do it! Using steel wool to scrub a rusty pan is just going to make it more prone to corrosion. Instead, we suggest:

  • Make a thick paste from baking soda and water.
  • Cover the rusty parts of the pan with the paste.
  • Gently scrub away the rust with a toothbrush or soft brush.
  • Hand wash and rinse the pan like you normally would.
  • Dry the pan on your stovetop using medium heat.

If that’s too much work you can use Bar Keeper’s Friend instead.

Our tips to avoid rusting:

You can be proactive in the fight against rust by keeping your pans dry. It’s really that easy!

  • Don’t allow pans to air dry. Instead, use a towel to dry them.
  • Always store pans in a dry environment.

Gray Residue Stains in Stainless Steel

Did you purchase brand new stainless steel cookware only to find a gray residue on the inside? Worse, have you washed the cookware and it’s still there? This unsightly residue is the result of how your cookware is manufactured.

What is the gray residue on my new cookware?

Before it’s packaged, your cookware is polished, making it nice and shiny. Sometimes this leaves behind a residue from buffing the steel.

This residue can’t always be removed by hand or the dishwasher. Worse, it can persist after multiple washes.

How do I remove the gray residue on my cookware?

There are several things you can try to get rid of gray residue.

First, here’s KitchenAid’s recommendation:

  • Put a small amount of olive oil in the cookware and spread it around.
  • After removing the oil, wash the cookware in hot water using a good dish detergent.
If that didn’t work you can also try the following:
 
  • Gently scrub the cookware using a mixture of lemon juice and salt before washing.
  • Clean it using Bar Keeper’s Friend.

Still dealing with residue after trying the above? Honestly, I’d exchange the cookware for a different brand or set. While there’s no evidence the gray residue is harmful, it’s still really gross.

Final Thoughts

Stains on your stainless steel can be alarming. However, most are harmless and easy to remove. Others will ruin your cookware over time. The best way to avoid stains on your stainless steel is to prevent them. Properly using, caring for, and storing your stainless steel cookware will prevent most stains. For the rest of them, there’s always Bar Keeper’s Friend.

Sources

  1. Dr. Eric Roy, What’s Causing White Chalky Residue On My Stainless Steel Cookware?, Hydroviv, December 1, 2016
  2. Lisa Dingman, How to Remove Dark Spots on Stainless Steel, Hunker, May 24, 2020
  3. Sarah Aguirre, 4 Easy Ways to Remove Burned-on Food From Pots and Pans, The Spruce, September 17, 2020
  4. Chris Deziel, How to Remove Pitting Stains From Stainless Steel Cookware, Hunker, January 23, 2020

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