Stainless steel pans are a popular choice for cooking due to their durability, easy maintenance, non-reactivity with food, versatility, and safety benefits.
However, one potential issue that arises is the likelihood of burning the pan when it’s left on the heat source for too long or overheated, which can result in a stubborn blackened residue that’s challenging to remove.
This article aims to address the question of whether it’s safe to use a burnt stainless steel pan and the potential toxicity concerns that arise when overheated.
Is it safe to use a burnt stainless steel pan?
As long as the blackened residue layer is cleaned off, it is safe to use a burnt stainless steel pan. When used within the normal cooking temperature range, a stainless steel pan will not release toxic fumes, and the amount of chromium and nickel that leaches into food is considered low, making it unlikely to cause harm.
What is stainless steel?
Before that let’s get to know what stainless steel is?
Stainless steel is a steel alloy (alloy of iron with carbon) containing at least 10.5% chromium by mass.
Besides chromium, stainless steel may contain other metals such as nickel, manganese, molybdenum, silicone, phosphorus, and sulfur, which are able to enhance its strength, durability, and other properties, depending on desired characteristics for a particular application.
The most popular food grade stainless steel are 304 (18% chromium and 8% nickel) and 316 (16% chromium, 10% nickel, and 2% molybdenum) which are commonly used in kitchen cookware like pan and pot.
Food grade stainless steel normally made with high composition of chromium and nickel, both elements make stainless steel highly resistant to corrosion, enhancing its strength, durability and other properties.
It is ok to use a burnt stainless steel pan but make sure the blackened residue layer is removed.
One issue with stainless steel pans is that they can burn easily when left on the heat source for too long or overheated, creating a layer of blackened residue that is difficult to remove.
This residue contains harmful substances such as carbon, acrolein, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and heterocyclic amines (HCAs), which can cause respiratory problems and other health issues if released into the air when heated again.
Additionally, the burnt layer affects the taste and quality of the food, making it important to clean the burnt layer on a stainless steel pan before using it again for cooking.
It is safe to use a burnt stainless steel pan as long as the blackened residue layer is clean off.
Potential risks of chromium and nickel.
Some people have concerns about the toxicity of chromium and nickel released into the air when a stainless steel pan is burnt or leached into food during cooking.
Both elements can cause toxicity by ingestion, inhalation, and skin contact.
Nickel can cause skin allergies, dermatitis, and asthma in the long term, while high levels of exposure can cause respiratory distress, lung inflammation, and lung cancer.
Chromium can cause toxicity as hexavalent chromium, leading to health effects such as lung cancer, asthma, dermatitis, and damage to the liver, kidneys, and circulatory system.
Would stainless steel pan release toxic fumes when overheated?
A stainless steel pan heated within normal cooking temperature ranges (between 300-500°F) will not release toxic fumes.
The chromium oxide layer that forms on the surface of the pan reacts with oxygen to create a barrier that prevents other compounds or metals in the pan from being released into the surrounding area.
Stainless steel only releases toxic fumes containing potentially harmful metals like chromium and nickel when it reaches its melting point or during the welding process, which is only a concern in industrial settings.
Would chromium & nickel leach into food when cooking with a stainless steel pan?
When cooking acidic foods like tomato sauce in a stainless steel pan, the chromium and nickel in the pan material could potentially leach into the food (1).
A study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found that the longer the cooking time, the higher the amount of chromium and nickel leached into the tomato sauce.
After 20 hours of cooking, the concentration of chromium and nickel in the sauce cooked with a stainless steel pan was about 90 times higher compared to tomato sauce cooked without a stainless steel pan.
However, repeated use of the same pan decreased the amount of leaching after the first six cooking cycles, as the protective effect of chromium oxide layer on stainless steel pan is maximized.
However, it’s important to note that the study used extreme cooking conditions (20 hours of cooking time) and acidic food (tomato sauce) to simulate worst-case scenarios.
In normal cooking conditions, the amount of chromium (2) and nickel (3) leached into food is generally considered safe and within the tolerable limits set by regulatory agencies such as the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
To reduce the risk of chromium and nickel leaching, it’s recommended to avoid cooking acidic foods for prolonged periods in stainless steel cookware and to use cookware with a higher grade of stainless steel, such as 316, which has a lower risk of leaching.
In summary, stainless steel pans are a popular choice for cookware due to their durability, easy maintenance, and non-reactive properties.
However, overheating and burning the pan can result in harmful substances being released, and prolonged exposure to high levels of chromium and nickel can cause health problems.
When used within normal cooking temperature ranges, stainless steel pans are safe and do not release toxic fumes.
To reduce the risk of leaching, avoid cooking acidic foods for prolonged periods and use higher grade stainless steel cookware.