I've had enough of the homemaker advice of baking soda or barkeeper's friend products - their advice isn't working. I need a chemist!

Please see the two photos below. This pan isn't quite as clean as I could possibly get them if I scrubbed and scrubbed with a Brillo pad, but it's close - and as clean as I can get it would only last for about one use before it needed more intense scrubbing.

The brand of this pan is Cuisinart which is relevant only for the particular variant of stainless steel they might be known to use, but I don't think my experience with this brand is much different than I've had with, say, Calphalon stainless steel pans.

I refer to these blackened areas as stains because they have no significant dimension to them, as opposed to "baked-on-crud" which has a dimension and is more expected/accepted by me than the stains. The stains are rougher than the shiny parts though, impacting use.

Wide Close

1) Why am I getting these stains? Am I doing something wrong (heating technique or kinds of food chemicals that adhere to SS)? Are these pans inferior and really I need to buy very high-end/expensive pans (for a different grade of stainless steel) for them to be indestructible?

2) With knowledge of the chemistry involved that leads to this visual effect on the stainless steel, is there an industrial chemical (like those in carburetor cleaner or something) that could clean this stuff off without damaging the pan and which I could completely remove (to avoid toxicity in my food)?

  • $\begingroup$ These might be products of the Maillard reaction. Can steel wool remove it? $\endgroup$ – aventurin Mar 6 '16 at 20:40
  • $\begingroup$ Steel wool cannot get all of it off $\endgroup$ – Jason Kleban Mar 6 '16 at 20:43
  • $\begingroup$ What were you cooking in the pan? $\endgroup$ – MaxW Mar 6 '16 at 20:50
  • $\begingroup$ This is over time. Bacon, eggs, other meats in some kind of oil or butter or cooking spray. And each is single-use. I can't use the pans twice without scrubbing the gunk off the bottom every time. Food never just slides out and I can't flip the eggs over like I used to be able to do. Only time it doesn't do that is if I'm, like, simmering a water-based broth. Makes me sound like a terrible cook, but really I don't think I'm that bad :-) $\endgroup$ – Jason Kleban Mar 6 '16 at 20:56
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    $\begingroup$ What is ratio (Diameter of burner) / (Diameter of pan) ? It looks to me that you have a small pan on a large burner. The bottom of the pan should have a thick Al layer to distribute heat. But the sidewalls of the pan will be the thin stainless steel. So it seems that then stainless steel pan sides are getting too hot and burning whatever splatters up on them. $\endgroup$ – MaxW Mar 7 '16 at 6:53

It could be that metals in your tap water are plating out; i.e. the more active iron in stainless steel is being replaced by a less active metal such as copper. Manganese also tends to precipitate, leaving stain, and these, in particular, are dark colored, but can be removed.

Have your tap water tested, either at a nearby school or with a commercial kit(s) that include copper, manganese and lead tests. If there is a high concentration of anions, you might want to install an ion-exchange water softener.

  • $\begingroup$ Interesting. This is Washington DC tap water, in case that makes it unlikely. Also, my sink disposal collar looks like stainless steel but it doesn't have any discoloration (though it never gets the kind of heat that a pan does). $\endgroup$ – Jason Kleban Mar 6 '16 at 20:32
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    $\begingroup$ Washington, DC may have manganese in the water, particularly where there are older pipes: dcwater.com/waterquality/faqs.cfm, dcwater.com/waterquality/household_water_quality.pdf $\endgroup$ – DrMoishe Pippik Mar 6 '16 at 20:42
  • $\begingroup$ (I re-piped the whole house with copper - used to be galvanized. Water quality seems much better since then.) $\endgroup$ – Jason Kleban Mar 6 '16 at 20:58
  • $\begingroup$ Your "but can be removed" link contains a suggestion of "A mixture of white vinegar and baking soda" which I find suspect - is this a special case? $\endgroup$ – Jason Kleban Mar 6 '16 at 21:01
  • $\begingroup$ Also, these stains seems to me to appear during cooking, not during cleaning. $\endgroup$ – Jason Kleban Mar 6 '16 at 21:04

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