Understanding Stainless Steel

Here is an interesting article that we found on one of our favorite websites AmazingRibs.com.

Understanding Stainless Steel

By Max Good

Stainless Steel is a popular choice for grills and smokers. Two types of stainless are used in the manufacture of BBQ cookers: Austenitic and ferritic.

Austenitic basic grade 304 and ferritic basic grade 430 are similar, with 304 being higher quality and higher cost. Because it contains much more nickel and less steel in the alloy, 304 is non-magnetic. 430 is magnetic. But don’t bother bringing magnets to a big box store on your next shopping trip. Except for components like burners and maybe some grates, you won’t find many grills made of 304 stainless in the big chains. Even Weber has stopped using it. Only high end high priced grills use it anymore.

The most significant problem with cheap grills is they often use very thin 430 stainless. These lightweight machines are pretty and shiny on the showroom floor but vulnerable to the demands of grilling. They can quickly develop minute stress fractures that lead to corrosion and reduced performance. They also lose their shine quickly and need polishing to maintain their sexy showroom look.

According to our science advisor, Dr. Greg Blonder, 430 is not as durable as 304 and it is harder to weld properly. “The welding heat remixes the steel microstructure away from optimum, so the weld often rusts or cracks. But very few grills at the low end are welded. Almost all bent and screwed.”

Don’t be afraid of 430, it does not deserve the derision common on the internet, but do look for heavy gauge construction throughout. Look at the screws, because sometimes they are not stainless and they will rust. Be advised that some manufacturers use heavier gauge steel on the lid and only the lid. They know it is one of the first things you will touch and a heavy lid creates a good first impression. They may even use 304 on the lid and 430 on the cart.

If you are chosing between stainless and other materials, select in favor of thickness. Thick powder coated steel or enameled steel will retain heat better than thin stainless and if properly coated, they will not rust. And coated steel is cheaper than stainless.

The invention of stainless steel

In preparing this article, our science advisor, Dr. Greg Blonder, pointed out that the history of stainless steel is fascination. Click here to read about how stainless steel was invented.

Stainless steel is so popular because it looks good. Alas, all stainless shows dirt, dust, grease, and rainspots and maintaining that beautiful shine is an ongoing task that many, including Yours Truly, cannot bear. Manufacturers recommend cleaning your grill after each use! Right. I don’t know anyone who does this.

Warm soapy water with a clean water rinse works well. Do not burnish stainless steel with a circular motion. Rub, wipe and polish in the direction of the grain. Do not use abrasive pads or steel wool. Covering your grill will keep it cleaner and extend its life.

There are a variety of cleaning products available from branded and generic stainless steel polish to disposable grill wipes. Read the labels. Some can damage your deck and furniture. If you’re so inclined to clean your grill, roll it onto your driveway, wash with warm soapy water, rinse with your hose, dry it off, then polish. But beware that these chemicals then find their way into the water table.

Blonder says “I pay more attention to cleaning the inside than the outside. On the outside, beware of kitchen cleaning products- they can erase the printed lettering around the knobs!”

I asked Meathead what he thinks and he said “I have a well-worn Char-Broil made with 430 and it is holding up fine after many years of heavy use. It looks like crap because I don’t cover it. If you are a neat freak you’ll go crazy polishing your smoker. But it’s a barbecue for cryin’ out loud. Who cares if it’s dirty on the outside?”

I’ve found that beer applied to the cook improves the appearance of my grill. Particularly when I know a load of tasty meat is sizzling under the lid!

This page was revised 4/28/2012

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One Comment
  1. Great post about the differences in stainless steel!

    We face the same issue explaining why 300 series stainless steel is so important in outdoor refrigeration. 400 series stainless models may look good at the store, but left outside they requires more cleaning and polishing, and will rust and pit when exposed to moisture, salt air and chlorine gas (pools and spas). Although quality stainless steel products initially cost more, they last much longer and are easier to maintain.

    Performance is the other BIG issue with outdoor refrigeration. All of our True outdoor refrigeration units use oversized/balanced forced air cooling systems that offer rapid cooling (down to 33 degrees). The “Me Too” and “Good Enough” models on the market don’t perform and won’t last, leaving their owners disappointed.

    “It’s easier to explain price once than to apologize for quality forever.” ~ Zig Ziglar

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