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Mar 20, 2011 03:02 PM

Stainless steel chef's pan begins to allow burning/sticking after 3 years-- WHY?????

Ok, I am only a home cook -- and not a chef by any means so please excuse me if my question is in any way dumb.

I have a humble, unpedigreed, stainless steel chef's pan that I have used for app 3.5 years. I use it to make curries and stews mostly. I always use wood or plastic utensils. I always oil the pan thinly and heat slowly, then either saute my onions + spices or brown meats, then add liquids and and allow everything to simmer for 1-2 hours depending on dish. It has always heated seemingly evenly and allowed me to leave it unattended for at least 30-40 mins if I add enough liquid and low heat. Also, the food release was very good -- even after making rendang (beef simmered for 3 hours in grated coconut will fairly dry) the pan would be clean without my ever having to scrub it. Nothing stuck to the bottom if there was at least a couple millimeters of liquid there.

I was very happy with pan till a couple months ago -- food began catching/sticking on the bottom of the pan -- I would have to check and stir more often etc. I gave the pan a rest for about a month (lol to use fancy new Calphalon), but began using it yesterday. Now I find it's worse -- food was sticking within a few minutes. I sauteed a curry paste of onions/garlic/ginger/grated coconut in some oil and it was sticking constantly. Then I added liquids to simmer and found food sticking every 10 mins. For the first time in 3+ years, I had to soak the pan because there were little brown bits that didn't release when I washed it.

My question: why is this happening? What has changed this pan? Is it something I have done gradually? I did sometimes let my housekeeper wash the pot the morning after -- should I have made sure to watch what she did? It was so easy to clean....

It was only a 25$ pan at best -- but I am curious to know what kinds of things might possibly change a pan so that I can avoid this in the future.

Thanks in advance, to anyone who reads this and answers,

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  1. So many possibilities.

    Do you know if your stainless steel pan is cladded? Many (not all) stainless steel cookware are only stainless on the surfaces and have aluminum at the core. All Clad is a good example. See this picture:

    The aluminum is used to spread the heat and creating an even temperature cooking surface -- therefore minimize the heat spots and burning. However, the cladding between these different metals may separate under heavy uses. When they start to separate, the heating surface will no longer be even and heat spots will appear... etc. So this is one possibility.

    The other possibility is that the cooking surface has not been clean thoroughly. This cause foods to stick to some areas but not others. Needless to say, the foods which get stuck will not get to move around and they will get burn faster than the rest. You can try using Bar Keeper's Friend and baking soda to alternatingly clean the cooking surface.

    1 Reply
    1. re: Chemicalkinetics

      I agree; de-lamination of the bottom of the pan is the most likely cause of the sticking problem. Stainless steel is a poor heat conductor. It is 1/3 less thermally conductive than steel. If the pan has a delamination there will be hot spots.

    2. Is there any polymerized fat on the interior of the pan? I.e. any brownish spots? I'm definitely not an expert but I wonder if there might be a residue on the surface of the pan.

      I'd probably give it a good cleaning with barkeeper's friend. I've never tried it but some have recommended using oven cleaner inside of a sealed plastic bag for really tough jobs.

      Good luck and let us know how it goes!

      1. Just making sure with this reply (I think Chem is on the right track, however)... is have you moved recently? Still using the same stove and heat settings? Just curious.

        1 Reply
        1. re: mateo21

          I was wondering the same thing. I've blamed my friends' cookware for burning, brought my own cookware to their houses, then realized it was the different stove that was to blame (just not used to it).

          Similarly, is your stove functioning properly?

        2. Hi, sharmilad:

          Not a silly question at all.

          This is somewhat odd. Have you changed anything--stove, hob setting, attitude? Looking back, was there any high heat incident and/or was the pan left a long time under water? Are you sure you're not A-B comparing the inexpensive SS-clad with Calphalon?

          There may be some delamination. *Look closely.* Is there any discernible deformation/pitting in either the bottom or the inside of the pan? Are other pans of the same set suffering the same sticking problem?

          IMO, go easy on the housekeeper. If it is delamination, it is highly unlikely the HK had anything to do with it.

          We should file this post away somewhere for folks who insist there are no delam problems with clad.

          Enjoy your Calphalon.


          5 Replies
          1. re: kaleokahu

            Thank you all for the replies.

            To clarify: the pan in question is a "Tools of the Trade" chef's pan and about 3 years old. It's not part of a set. I do own a calphalon and an all-clad chef's pan, only 1-2 years old, but I realize those are differently made entirely. It's just that the inexpensive pan surprised me by being so good -- and now, the recent and sudden decline in performance has me wondering what happened.

            I have not moved -- still use the same stove and two front burners only. Our old floor is tilted -- so there is the tiniest slope to the stove :) -- but this is same as usual -- I always rotate my pans to compensate. I've never had to soak the pan much -- so not much water immersion at all.

            I am yet to find some barkeepers friend to clean it .... will post when I do...

            As for marks/pits: there is now (only since last 4-5 uses) lots of brown flecks on the inside of the pan. On the bottom of pan: lots of brown marks, 1 pit (pinhead size) and 4-5 tinier pinprick ones, hard to discern...

            boo ---- I enjoyed this pan -- it was so nice and light compared to the all-clad.

            1. re: sharmilad

              If you really can't find BKF, try boiling some vinegar in it and scrub.

              1. re: sharmilad

                Hi, sharmilad:

                Thanks for the clarification. I think it is delamination caused by pitting through the inside layer.

                JSYN, not all "SS" is created equal. There are several common alloys used in cookware. They stay "stainless" because they form a passivation layer that quickly reforms even if you scour through it. *However*, if the surface is pitted, sometimes the passivation layer cannot reform, and you get corrosion. Not red rust, but still corrosion. The linings in many clad pans are very thin (about 2, 20-lb sheets of copy paper thick), so it wouldn't take much pitting/corrosion to make it through the lining.

                One thing that can cause this pitting is salt. It is never a good idea to put salt into a SS pan without making sure it quickly dissolves, and large-crystal salt tends to sink to the bottom and stay intact for a long time. I have read that there is one top manufacturer who claims to be able to tell whether its SS-lined pans have been salted to death, and will not honor its "lifetime" warranty.


                PS: Your stove has leveling feet, right?

                1. re: sharmilad

                  WRT BKF: SoftScrub works equally well on stainless.

                  1. re: sharmilad

                    These marks: are they pits in the steel, or raised marks? I would run my finger nail over them, trying to distinguish. If raised, the scraping, or scrubbing them off with BKF, may restore this finish.

                    You can't do anything about pits, except to think of unusual circumstances that might have produced them. Did you cook something unusual in the pan? Boil it dry? Wash it differently? Salt in some circumstances may extra corrosive.

                2. Maybe it's just time to buy a new pan.

                  The useful lifespan of pans, esp. SS ones, is not infinite.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: ipsedixit


                    I have bought 2 other chef's/allpurpose pans -- a calphalon and an all-clad.
                    I just wanted to know why, the older pan (my first stainless one) performed well for a couple years, but has recently, suddenly declined.