The Scoop on Stainless
By Lisa Readie Mayer
What to look for when buying
Sleek, stylish and polished to a mirror finish, stainless steel looks sensational, so it's no surprise that it has become the hottest material for barbecue grills today. But stainless is more than just a pretty face. Fortunately, it is extremely durable and won't rust, making it a particularly smart choice for anyone who lives where the weather can be harsh, cold and wet. There is no worry about paint chipping or oxidizing to an unsightly white bloom. Additionally, stainless steel is a neutral finish that coordinates with virtually any house exterior, decking or patio material and outdoor furniture. And, if a full-blown backyard kitchen is in the plans, a stainless steel grill will match the outdoor refrigerator, warming drawer, cocktail station and any other alfresco appliance you choose (all of which are typically available only in stainless steel).
"When buying a grill, your best option is to go with stainless steel," offers Shiva Noble, executive vice president of Cal Spas®, makers of Cal Flame grills and outdoor appliances. "A heavy-duty stainless steel grill is extremely durable and should last for years. Most stainless steel grills can handle the wear and tear of being outdoors, and they require very little maintenance."
"A stainless steel grill can last years longer than a painted grill," explains Sarah Billups, spokesperson for Bull Outdoor Products, manufacturers of a host of stainless steel barbecues and other outdoor living products. "It is more expensive initially, but it is a better investment in the long run because of how durable and long-lasting it is."
How does stainless steel remain rust-free? It contains iron, chromium, silicon, carbon, nickel and other elements. When these elements, particularly the chromium, react with oxygen in the environment, they produce a very thin, stable film that acts as a barrier to prevent oxygen and water from reaching the underlying metal surface. This microscopic layer of film keeps corrosion to very low levels. Although the steel is actually corroded at the atomic level, it appears stainless to the naked eye.
While it is true that stainless steel will not rust, unfortunately, the name is somewhat misleading. Stainless steel does not mean stain-free. It takes effort to keep that showroom shine, but there are steps you can follow to help keep it looking great for a long time.
The first tip is to make sure you purchase the right kind of material to begin with because not all stainless steel is created equal. Look for 304-grade stainless; inferior grades sometimes found on inexpensive stainless grills are much more prone to staining and corrosion, and they require extra maintenance. The manufacturer should specify the grade of stainless steel being used. Pete Barnhizer of Premier Outdoor Living, Athens, TN, and Las Vegas, NV, which offers grills and other backyard amenities, explains how you can test the grade of stainless: "If you are uncertain, touch a magnet to all parts of the grill; if it sticks, it is not 304-grade stainless and should be avoided."
In addition, some grills are not made entirely of stainless steel. Grills that are not welded together may have rivets, bolts and screws that are not 304-grade stainless, so they may rust or corrode. To help prevent this, experts suggest keeping the fasteners clean, dry and well-oiled to repel moisture.
"Another thing to insist on is a double-walled hood," adds Barnhizer, "which will provide an extra layer of insulation from the heat of the grill's burner and prevent the hood from discoloring."
Once the barbecue has been fired up for the first cookout, a little diligence is required to keep up its appearance. A good grill cover will limit exposure to the elements, but it is a smart move to wipe off the exterior of the unit before lighting each time.
"I recommend wiping the grill down whenever needed with just soapy water and a sponge first, then a wet cloth," Noble advises. "You should also scrub the cooking racks with a regular grill brush after each use."
The grill's exterior may also be cleaned with stainless steel cleaner, which is available in sprays, polish and disposable wipes. Store the cleaner in the grill cart or cabinet base to keep it handy for use. Whether you use soap and water or a stainless steel cleaner, be sure to use a soft, clean cloth and dry the areas thoroughly when finished, as the film left behind may discolor under intense heat and leave your grill looking worse.
"As you are cleaning, wipe with the grain of the stainless steel," advises Billups, "otherwise the surface will scratch. Usually this will be a horizontal motion rather than up and down. Then buff afterwards."
Avoid abrasive cleaners, steel wool and metal brushes as they will scratch the surface. Likewise, do not use a knife to scrape off any tough spills. Marinades and sauces made with acidic ingredients, like vinegar, citrus juice and tomato will, permanently discolor stainless steel if they remain on the finish, so be sure to wipe up spills immediately. You can easily buff off fingerprints and smudges using a soft cloth and stainless steel cleaner, but dust and dirt will bake on and cause discoloration if not completely removed.
To cleanse the interior of a stainless steel grill, be sure to refer to the manufacturer's specific instructions.
How often to tidy up your barbecue depends on how frequently it is used. Ideally, you should take a few minutes after every cookout to wipe the grill down so that grease, smoke and dirt will never get a chance to accumulate. Cleaning is recommended at least once a week if you cook out often.
As long as you keep up with the grill's maintenance and do not allow grime to build up, it is easy to keep a stainless steel barbecue looking new. With a little attention and elbow grease, your stainless steel grill will look gorgeous and eye-catching in its place on your patio for years to come.