Why Your Stainless Pans Discolor (And What To Do)

Xtrema ceramic cookware
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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.

What this covers: Stainless steel pan care.

Why this topic? You want pans that look good and perform at their best. Stainless steel discoloration removal restores your stainless steel pans so that they look and perform like new.

Why is stainless steel ‘stainless’?

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

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 stainless steel!

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

It’s true that quality stainless steel does not rust or discolor from rusting, because it is an alloy with chromium that inhibits iron oxidation (aka rusting). Nor does it tarnish like the silverware of old.

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.

Here I use ‘stain’ and ‘discoloration’ interchangeable as both are commonly used in this context.

So what can stain stainless steel? What causes discoloration on stainless steel pans?

So ‘why did my stainless steel pan change color?’ and ‘is it normal for stainless steel pans to discolor?’ Yes to both. Stainless steel pans may discolor with ordinary use, for a number of reasons. Let’s look at these…

Examples of what causes your stainless steel pan to discolor:

  • Harsh cleaners, e.g. those with chlorine, will stain stainless steel
  • Heat effects can discolor the pans
  • Dishwasher use is a known culprit
  • Certain foodstuffs can leave coloration

Types of stainless steel pan discoloration

The types of stains/discolorations affecting stainless steel cookware:

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

Discoloration of stainless steel due to heat

Stainless steel discoloration temperature wise is that bluish rainbow-like tint.

stainless steel pan with rainbow heat tint
Heat tint on stainless steel saucepan

What causes the rainbow-like stainless steel discoloration? It’s the chromium in the stainless steel alloy that causes this. When the chromium mixes with air it forms a protective layer on the pan. Then, heated on high, this oxidized layer thickens and causes that rainbow tint.

It won’t affect your pan’s performance.

You can easily remove it using vinegar or a stainless steel cleaner, such as Bar Keeper’s friend. I have the instructions a little further down.

White residue on pots and pans

I’ve had this happen to me after using the dishwasher to clean the stainless steel pot.

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

You probably need a good non abrasive scourer for sticky oil build up. To remove the problem, vinegar mixed with baking soda or salt is useful – see the methods using baking soda below. This same method can be used for the caramel-brown effect described below.

Caramel brown discoloration

The caramel-brown effect is from overheating of oil or fat that get’s burned onto the pan or from cooking food without properly heating and oiling it first so that it sticks and gets burned on. It can also occur where the pan has not been cleaned properly before use. 

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 Clean A Burnt Pot: My #1 Go To

How do you remove turmeric stains from stainless steel?

Baking soda should do the trick to remove the yellow stains left from turmeric. 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.

Black residue on stainless steel

What is 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. Otherwise, try Bar Keeper’s Friend, where you can’t go wrong with cleaning stainless steel.

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

How do I remove stains from stainless steel?

How do you restore discolored stainless steel cookware? Removing stains from stainless steel (or what really is about restoring discolored stainless steel) depends on the type of discoloration and this can vary. Once you know the cause, it’s a matter of following the steps for removing it. Most times you can use a pantry product: for example, baking soda, salt, or vinegar (or a lemon). But, you can’t go past Bar Keeper’s Friend for removing stubborn residue on stainless steel.

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

What is the best natural cleaner for stainless steel?

The best natural cleaning products for stainless steel include baking soda, vinegar, salt, and lemon. But, knowing what is the best cleaner for stainless steel among the natural products depends not only on the type of discoloration but probably more so what you can access at the time.

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

How to clean stainless steel pans with vinegar

Soak a soft cloth in vinegar and rub the stained area, then wipe and polish.

Here’s a step by step approach:

  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

Use the above instructions will work to remove the heat tint.

A substitute for vinegar is lemon, which also has acidic cleaning power.

How do you keep stainless steel pans from staining?

Here are five tips to keep stainless steel pans from staining (discoloring):

  1. Don’t use harsh chemicals to clean the pans
  2. Don’t put them in the dishwasher unless you use mild detergent
  3. Don’t heat them while empty for too long on high temperatures
  4. Don’t overheat oil in them
  5. Make sure to clean them properly before their next use


Is discolored stainless steel safe?

Discolored stainless steel is typically safe to use. The problem of stains and discoloration of stainless steel concerns the look of the product or its performance more than anything else.

Does vinegar damage stainless steel?

This is a good question. Vinegar is acidic so can affect metal products. But, as long as you’re using good quality food grade stainless steel cookware, vinegar should not react with the material to damage the stainless steel.

What should you not use on stainless steel?

Don’t use abrasive cleaners or scourers or you risk leaving fine scratches in the surface. With cooking vessels or other food containers of stainless steel always avoid using toxic cleaners. 

It’s not recommended to use bleach.

Where to buy Proper cleaners For Stainless Steel

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

For instance, the Made In Cookware company has this top rated product for US$10 (price at time of writing) that will save you the elbow grease… 

Made In Cookware product: Make it like new cleaner
Make It Like New Cleaner

from: Made In Cookware

And then there’s the online shops like Amazon where you can buy proper stainless steel cleaners…

Amazon has a range of products for a similar price to that mentioned above, which are suitable for stainless steel, including the popular Bar Keepers Friend (which is one of my favorite cleaning products)…

Bar Keepers Friend
Available at: Amazon

Info Sources

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