Why Your Stainless Pans Discolor (And What To Do)

CRYSTAL H.  |   |   Updated
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If you’ve ever used and then cleaned stainless steel cookware, you’ll realise that sometimes you end up with a discolored or stained pan. Here I look at why this happens (when they’re said to be “stainless”) and what you can do about it to bring back the shine.

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What this covers: Stainless steel pan care — How to clean stainless steel pans when they discolor and why they discolor in the first place (if you’re thinking how do I avoid my stainless steel discoloring).

Why this topic? You have stainless steel pans and you want to keep them performing and looking their best. Removing discoloration restores your stainless steel pans to look like new.

If you’re looking for answers to why my stainless steel pan is stained, and what to do about it, this topic is for you.

How do you keep stainless steel pans from staining?

X Don’t use harsh chemicals to clean the pans, especially, stay away from chlorine type cleaning agents.

X Avoid putting stainless steel cookware in the dishwasher unless using a mild dishwasher detergent and a low heat setting. The dishwasher is a known culprit of causing certain stainless steel discoloration.

X Don’t leave stainless steel pots or pans on high heat while they are empty for too long. Heating can discolor the pans (as I explain below).

X Avoid overheating oil in them. This can leave a caramel-brown tarnish that’s hard to remove.

Make sure to clean them properly before their next use.

These might answer your ‘why did my stainless steel pan change color’. But if you’re wanting more and curious to know ‘is it normal for stainless steel pans to discolor?’ read on…

What else can stain stainless steel? What causes discoloration on stainless steel pans besides the above?

Stainless steel pans may discolor for a number of reasons. What can cause your stainless steel pan to discolor are foodstuffs with coloring, like turmeric.

Why call them stainless then?

Why is stainless steel ‘stainless’?

Stainless steel is called that because it doesn’t rust or discolor (ClearScience).

Hmm, doesn’t discolor? you mind be wondering. The meaning here is that quality stainless steel does not rust or discolor from rusting. It is an alloy with chromium, which inhibits iron oxidation (aka rusting). It also doesn’t tarnish.

What comes to mind for me is the silverware of old. Compared to it, stainless steel knives and forks do not stain, in that they do not tarnish. The darkening of the silverware meant extra upkeep with routine polishing to remove the discoloration from the silver reacting with chemicals in the environment and food.

Thank goodness for premium stainless steel!

See: My Stainless Steel Buyers Guide (inc. Nickel-Free Options)

Fun fact: Did you know that at one stage in history it was called “unstainable steel”.

But most of us know that stainless steel cookware does discolor, at least in the sense that it changes the look of the surface finish. So, what can stain stainless steel, and why? And how do we avoid discoloring and keep the pans looking like new? 

Just a side note: Stain, to me, suggests coloration that has soaked into (impregnated) the surface, whereas what you mostly see with stainless steel is superficial (no unsafe rusty pan concerns with these).

Here I use ‘stain’ and ‘discoloration’ interchangeably.

Types of stainless steel pan discoloration

There are many advantages of stainless steel cookware as I mention when I compared stainless steel to other types of cookware. The concerns with stainless steel staining and discoloring include:

  • Black residue
  • White residue on pots and pans of stainless steel
  • Tumeric stains
  • Caramel-brown stains – burnt sticky oil residue
  • Heat tint

How to remove stains from stainless steel pans

I wrote about how ceramic nonstick surfaces can stain. The following covers surface staining and how to remove discoloration from stainless steel pans.

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Why your stainless steel pans discolor plus what to do about it

Discoloration of stainless steel due to heat — use vinegar or lemon

What causes blue stains on stainless steel? Heat effects on stainless steel leave a bluish rainbow-like tint.

What causes the rainbow-like stainless steel discoloration? The chromium in the stainless steel alloy mixes with air to forms a protective layer on the pan. When affect by high heated, this oxidized layer thickens to produce a bluish rainbow coloration.

stainless steel pan with rainbow heat tint
Stainless steel discoloration – temperature cause – heat tint on stainless steel saucepan

It won’t affect your pan’s performance.

You can easily remove it using vinegar, lemon juice, or a commercial stainless steel cleaner.

How to clean stainless steel pans with vinegar

To remove heat discoloration from stainless steel, try using vinegar.

  1. Dilute some white vinegar and splash it into the pan.
  2. Rub it into and around the affected area of the pan with a non abrasive cloth or sponge to clean the pan.
  3. Rinse and dry the pan completely for a restored look.
stainless steel cookware restored after discoloration removal
Restored after cleaning with vinegar – Source: Made In

Lemon juice: A substitute for vinegar is lemon. Because it has a similar acidic cleaning power to vinegar, it’s useful also.

For how to clean stainless steel pans with a stainless steel cleaner, like Bar Keeper’s friend, see below.

White residue on pots and pans — use vinegar

I’ve had this white spots on stainless steel pan problem after I’ve used the dishwasher to clean the cookware.

It’s a fairly common problem with stainless steel. In most cases it’s caused by calcium deposits, which can come from ordinary tap water in some places or in my case, dishwasher tablets.

To remove these cloudy stains: Dilute vinegar, one part to three parts water and bring it to boil in the pan, then let it cool. Wash and dry as usual.

How to get sticky oil off pans — removing that caramel-brown discoloration

The caramel-brown effect is from overheating of oil or fat that get’s burned onto the pan. It can also form from cooking food without pre-heating and oiling the pan first. I wrote about this in my article on how to avoid food sticking to stainless steel.

You probably need a good non abrasive scourer if you want to know how to clean a stainless steel frying pan with sticky oil build-up. To remove the problem, try vinegar mixed with baking soda or salt – see the methods using baking soda below.

Here’s how to avoid it: Always add the oil or fat to an already-heated (but not overheated) stainless steel pan. Heat the pan over low-to-medium heat for a few minutes, then add your oil or fat, and then your food.

See also: How To Rescue A Burnt Pot

How do you remove turmeric stains from stainless steel?

For how to clean a stainless steel pan with turmeric stains — baking soda should do the trick to remove the yellow stains. Baking soda is ideal for absorbing stains and coloration.

Directions for using baking soda is simple:

Just sprinkle some on a sponge and rub the affected area. Let stand for a couple of hours before washing and then dry as usual. If the stain is stubborn you may need to repeat or leave the pan sit longer with the paste of baking soda applied.

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Black residue on stainless steel

What is that black stuff on stainless steel? The black residue could be what’s left after the manufacturing.

According to authoritative accounts, it is residue from the manufacturer’s “polishing” procedure. Give it a clean with baking soda or try Bar Keeper’s Friend, which is designed for cleaning stainless steel pans.

See also: Black Residue on Cast Iron Skillet…Is it Harmful?

How to clean the bottom of stainless steel pans

The bottom of stainless steel pans can get black with burnt on discoloration. The reason this happens is because when washing and drying them by hand the bases are often neglected and a film of oil accumulates so that the next time you use them for cooking it gets burnt on and the bottoms become grimey.

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Cleaning stainless steel pans

It can be tricky to remove. You can try scrubbing with baking soda or Bar Keepers Friend.

One product recommended for cleaning away the tough grime on the bottom of pans, is steel wool. You can get pre-soaped ones, which are convenient. Also, look for ones that don’t tend to rust. It’s the one thing I dislike about steel wool. However, I found, Brillo, which has this anti-rust formula

Brillo Red - 18 Count
Steel Wool Presoaped
Pads with anti-rust formula
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What is the best natural cleaner for stainless steel?

The best natural cleaning products for stainless steel include baking soda, vinegar, salt, and lemon. The best cleaner for stainless steel among the natural products is the one you can readily put your hands and that works. Here’s how to clean discolored stainless steel pots with baking soda and with salt.

How to clean discolored stainless steel pots with baking soda or salt

Bicarbonate soda (aka baking soda) will work in removing most discoloration and residue left on stainless steel pans. (It’s also a beaut deodorizer).

Using a soft cloth, dab it in baking soda and then rub with vigor on the affected area. Rinse and wipe dry to polish. If you don’t have baking soda, substitute salt, which is also a good universal cleaner.

For the sticky oil residue that’s hard to come off, try

  1. Add vinegar to the pan to cover the problem area
  2. Leave for a couple of hours (the residue should soften or appear lighter)
  3. Tip out the vinegar mixture
  4. Sprinkle baking soda or salt over the affected area and rub to loosen and remove the residue
  5. Wash as normal and dry properly before storing

Where to buy Proper cleaners For Stainless Steel

You can buy stainless steel cleaners from companies that sell stainless steel cookware.

And then there’s the online shops like Amazon where you can buy a commercial stainless steel cookware cleaner…

Recommended stainless steel cookware cleaners

how to clean crock pot base, cookware with bar keepers friend cleanser & polish
Bar Keepers Friend Cookware Cleanser

available at Amazon

All-Clad 00942 Cookware Cleaner and Polish, 12-Ounce
All-Clad Cookware Cleaner

available at Amazon

Bottom Line: How do I remove stains from stainless steel?

How do you restore discolored stainless steel cookware? Removing stains from your stainless steel frying pan (or what really is about restoring discolored stainless steel) is easily fixed. It just depends on the type of discoloration and the cause. Once you know the cause, it’s a matter of following the steps.

How to clean stainless steel frying pan? Most times you can just use a pantry product: for example, baking soda, salt, or vinegar (or a lemon). But, a commercial product such as Bar Keeper’s Friend will give you confidence in being able to remove discoloration as well as stubborn burned-on residue on stainless steel.


Info Sources

  1. Moneypenny, J. H. G. (1921). “Unstainable Steel”Mining and Scientific Press. Retrieved 17 February 2013.

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