How to Clean and Maintain a Stainless Steel BBQ Grill
Thanks to its remarkable durability and corrosion resistance — not to mention the sleek, shiny finish — stainless steel has earned quite the reputation in manufacturing industries, grilling included. This desirable material is a telltale sign of solid quality among BBQ grills, and high-grade stainless steel is a calling card of Premium and Luxury models. But as is the case with any other material, time and use can cause stainless steel to scratch, rust, collect grime, and, yes, even stain. (Classic marketing language.) The key to preserving its shine and strength? It’s a phrase you’ve probably been dreading since you clicked on this article: proper maintenance and cleaning.
For those of you who didn’t run screaming from this page, we’re pleased to tell you that maintaining stainless steel grills is incredibly easy! Fingerprints, grease splatters, scratches, discoloration, and even surface rust can be tackled with diligence and a little bit of know-how, the latter of which our experts are happy to share. The “diligence” bit is up to you — but it’s a no-brainer trade-off for keeping up your grill’s appearance and extending its lifespan for years of unforgettable BBQs.
What Is Stainless Steel?
The chemical composition of stainless steel has a huge influence on its properties, as well as best practices for cleaning and maintenance. No, we’re not asking you to dust off your high-school chemistry knowledge (that wasn’t the easiest course for us, either); just bear with us while we get through the technical talk.
In short, stainless steel is an alloy containing at least 10.5% chromium, less than 1.2% carbon, and a variety of other elements that alter the mechanical and corrosion-resistant properties of the resulting metals. That may sound confusing, but the American Iron and Steel Institute has assigned a 3-digit code to each of these varying alloys for easy identification. For instance, the nickel present in 304-grade stainless steel makes it extra tough against rust, while the lesser 430 and 443 grades lack that chemical . There’s also 316L, marine-grade stainless steel that features molybdenum for increased corrosion resistance, along with a lower carbon content to better protect the welded areas in harsh saltwater climates.
The main idea, though, is that all stainless steel is heat-resistant and less prone to rusting, obviously a pair of major boons for outdoor grills. Chromium is the real hero here: it’s critical in forming the microscopic chromium oxide layer on the metal’s surface, which is capable of regenerating to continually protect the appliance from rusting. Much of stainless steel maintenance, which we’ll cover in greater detail below, is naturally focused on keeping this chromium oxide layer intact.
What Is the Grain on Stainless Steel?
You might’ve heard of cleaning with the stainless steel grain — if you haven’t yet, then you will in a minute — so let’s take a moment to explain what we mean. Similar to what’s found on wood, stainless steel has a grain that runs (almost always horizontally) along the metal as a result of the brushed finish applied in manufacturing. These lines are essentially small notches in the material, and they can collect small particles and create further scratches if not cleaned carefully.
How to Clean a Stainless Steel Grill
Before you take a recommendation from us or anyone else, consult your owner’s manual for the manufacturer’s specific cleaning recommendations. Certain stainless finishes may require special cleaners and/or cleaning methods, and failure to follow those instructions is one of the fastest ways to permanently damage your grill — and void its warranty in the process.
After all this talk of chemical compositions and grades, you’ll be happy to hear that stainless steel is fairly easy to maintain. Simply use an oil-based cleaner and polish about once a week and as needed to handle messes as they happen, remembering to clean in the direction of the grain to avoid apparent scratches. (Full disclosure: you may still scratch the stainless, but nicks running perpendicular to the grain are far less noticeable.) If you live near saltwater, whether an ocean or a pool, we recommend cleaning the stainless steel slightly more often to combat the harsher corrosion brought on by such climates.
Tips for Cleaning Stainless Steel Grills
Goodbye streaks, hello shine! Though most of cleaning stainless steel comes down to elbow grease — a fittingly poetic way to deal with food grease, if we may say so — there are a few general tips that’ll make maintenance much more efficient. They’re as simple as everything you’ve read so far (well, aside from the chemistry), but the benefits for your stainless steel grill can’t be overstated.
- Use a soft cloth when cleaning and polishing stainless steel. Something like microfiber is a much better choice than a harsh scrubbing rag, which can not only scratch the steel by itself, but is also likelier to pick up small waste particles that can damage the surface as you scrub.
- Clean large messes as soon as they happen. Removing caked-on food debris requires you to scrub harder and with harsher cleaners, creating a greater potential for damaging the grain. Additionally, you don’t want to give grime time to wear away at the all-important, self-healing chromium oxide layer.
- When dealing with small rust spots, start with mild cleaners before working up to harsher methods if necessary. We’ll talk about the best stainless steel cleaners shortly, but sometimes a simple scrubbing with warm water and mild dish soap can get the job done. Stubborn spots, however, may call for spray-on solutions or specialty cleaners.
- If you’re building an outdoor kitchen island, install stainless steel components after the frame is finished. Brick and stone facades are usually cleaned with muriatic acid, a particularly harmful substance to stainless steel that’s not accounted for in any warranties.
- Keep your grill covered. While a grill cover is the best investment you can make for any grill, it’s especially useful for shielding the chromium oxide layer to ensure you get the most out of the stainless.
Things to Avoid When Cleaning Stainless Steel Grills
With any set of do’s comes a series of don’ts, and these have dire consequences for the appearance and lifespan of stainless steel. We’ve hinted at each so far, but something this important for the health of your grill should be clearly spelled out. (We think it should also be accompanied by sirens and strobe lights, but we didn’t have room in the budget.)
- Never use acid-based cleaners on stainless steel. This is the big one. Acids are the worst enemy of stainless steel’s chromium oxide layer, eating away at the regenerative material before accelerating corrosion at an alarming rate. Though surface-level rust spots can be conquered with time and effort, rust-through is extremely difficult to stop once it’s begun.
- Never use abrasive materials to clean stainless steel. That includes scrubbers such as steel and abrasive sponges, as well as cleaning agents like ammonia, bleach, and scouring powder. Using such cleaners will result in unsightly scratches and wreck the chromium oxide layer, exposing the metal underneath to corrosion.
- Never clean stainless steel against the grain. We’ve briefly explained this already, but it bears repeating: cleaning perpendicular to the metal’s grain will create more streaks and scratches than you started with, plus it’s a surefire way to ensure corroding grime builds up in the grain (no, that’s not a good thing). Always scrub parallel to the grain, and your grill will be better for it.
What Are the Best Stainless Steel Cleaners?
There are various home-remedy cleaning formulas featuring household ingredients, but we prefer to play it safe with cleaners concocted to work best on stainless steel. Barry’s Stainless Steel Rescue Spray is great for regular maintenance, with a solution that makes quick work of dust, food residue, smudges, and even pesky fingerprints. Stainless steel cleaners from Magic and Bar Keepers Friend also have strong reputations. And as we noted in our stainless steel cleaning tips, mild dish soap and warm water may be all you need for small cleanups. (And, hey, you’ll already have them nearby when you’re cleaning your grill.)
How Do I Get Rid of Rust on My Stainless Steel Grill?
It depends: is this new rust on the metal’s surface, or does it appear to be eating deeper into the grill? At first, rust will be cosmetic and can be removed with time, effort, and one of the cleaners listed above. Act fast, and remember to start with a mild cleaning solution before working your way to stronger ones if the rust spots persist. Stainless steel maintenance is all about clearing up rust spots, as well as preventing them from forming.
If you’ve been neglecting rust spots for a while, though, you may notice localized patches of severe rust. This is called “pitting,” and it’s a full breakdown of the protective chromium oxide layer that can’t be removed and generally spreads to other areas of the steel. Pitting is typically caused by acids, which is why you should never use them to clean stainless steel. The next step is usually full rust-through, at which point you’ll probably be in the market for another grill sooner than you’d hoped. If only there was some kind of online retailer where you could easily find your next grill by chatting with an expert or reading awesome content…
How Do I Fix Scratches on Stainless Steel?
As much as we hate to say it, scratching stainless steel is inevitable. Be it a wayward belt buckle, tongs wielded a bit too carelessly, or children who don’t understand the meaning of “don’t run around the grill,” odds are you’ll detect cuts in the metal soon after it arrives at your home. The good news is there are several repair kits — our favorite is Barry’s Scratch-B-Gone — that can at the very least lessen the number and severity of scratches.
How Do I Fix Discolored Stainless Steel?
Despite its name, stainless steel can stain or discolor over time. (It’s more like “stain less,” and not “stainless.”) This is usually a result of smoke and heat wearing away at the material, creating a dull patina that puts a damper on the shiny finish. Fortunately, Carbon Off will remove most discoloration caused by smoke and heat, though restoring the finish to 100% of its original state is highly unlikely. As with every remedy listed in this article, you’re better off addressing the situation sooner rather than later — your stainless steel grill will last much longer if you do.
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