Not all stainless steel flatware is created equally. Close inspection of flatware packaging for dinner knives, forks, and spoons will usually list a numerical identification that might initially puzzle you. The designations 18/10, 18/0, 18/0, or 13/0 actually just indicate the percentages of chromium and nickel included in the stainless steel alloy. These numbers also give you an accurate way to judge the quality of the flatware, as higher percentages of nickel are generally regarded as superior. Thus, 18/10 flatware is widely understood to be the best quality.
Understanding the stainless steel grade, then, is your way to determine the quality of the flatware you are buying.
The Composition of Stainless Steel
The stainless steel used in flatware is an alloy— a composite of various types of steel along with additional metals that lend improved appearance and performance. In the case of the stainless steel used in flatware, chromium is added to the blend to create an alloy with good rust resistance, while nickel is added to provide a silver-like shine along with some additional rust resistance. Typically, the higher the percentage of each additional metal, the higher the quality of the stainless steel alloy.
The numbers in the product specification indicate the percentages of each additional metal in the alloy: 18/10 stainless steel, for example, is comprised of 18 percent chromium, 10 percent nickel, with the remaining 72 percent comprised of steel. The alloy composition makes everyday stainless steel cutlery easy to care for and for the most part, it has some amount of resistance when it comes to pitting or rusting. These differences in specifications are sometimes denoted on the packaging but often are missing—especially when manufacturers want to downplay their use of an inferior alloy.
The differences between 18/10 and 18/8 stainless steel are less dramatic than you might imagine. That's because the Grade 304 stainless steel purchased by manufacturers typically has a nickel percentage of about 8.2 percent, which by law can be marketed as 18/10. Thus, 18/10 flatware typically has only about 8.2 or 8.3 percent nickel—barely more than 18/8 stainless steel. But 18/0 cutlery uses a Grade 400 stainless steel, which contains no nickel at all and is a decidedly inferior product. Thus, both 18/10 and 18/8 cutlery contain excellent stainless steel alloys, but flatware designated as 18/0 or 13/0 will not have the same longevity and shiny stain resistance.
Composition of the stainless steel is not the only criterion for judging the quality of flatware. Within each grade category, flatware is available in various weights:
- Forged: This flatware is the thickest and strongest, made from a single piece of metal with embossing forged into all sides, not just stamped on the surface. This flatware has maximum durability and is often the choice for high-end commercial restaurants. This flatware will be notably heavy in the hand.
- Extra heavyweight: This is a premium grade of flatware that is also often found in restaurants and hotels. Compared to lesser grades, it is quite hard to bend and feels very sturdy.
- Heavyweight: This flatware is also of fairly high quality and is a good choice for durable everyday home use. It is found in many mid-level restaurants.
- Medium weight: Also known as economy weight, this is a fairly lightweight class of flatware that is fairly easily flexed and bent. Institutional settings such as school cafeterias often use this weight. For the home, medium-weight flatware represents the bargain offerings at mass merchant retailers.
Thus, the very best cutlery is represented by forged 18/10 stainless steel, while the least expensive bargain flatware would be medium-weight 18/0 or 13/0 stainless steel.
Stainless Steel Flatware Costs
No matter what stainless steel composition is used, flatware costs can very widely depending on the metal weight used. Some forged 18/0 flatware is more expensive than heavy-weight cutlery using 18/10 stainless steel.
But assuming metal weights and style are comparable, 18/0 cutlery will be at least half the cost of fine 18/10 cutlery. One prominent manufacturer, for example, recently offered a 20-piece (four place settings) set of 18/10 cutlery in a simple unadorned style for about $140, while the same place setting in 18/0 stainless steel sold for $48. A similar cost range is found in other manufacturers offering the same styles in different grades.
- When shopping, take the time to open the flatware package and handle a utensil. An 18/10 spoon has a great "feel" in your hand—somewhat heavy but well-balanced—and the stainless is gleaming. It should look very elegant. Such quality flatware is definitely worth paying the higher price.
- Give some thought to how many flatware servings to buy so you will have a set that meets your immediate and future needs. Quality flatware is sometimes available in sets and also individually with open stock availability. This should be confirmed if you intend on growing your set over time.
- Signs of low-quality stainless are rough edges, lack of luster, lightweight, and lacking balance when handled. These would also probably have no stainless specifications to confirm metal details. You can still use such flatware and it might be ideal for starter cutlery; you can upgrade as your budget allows.
- Check the flatware packaging for other product information, especially international or national standards, to ensure this flatware product meets acceptable standards for your area.
It should be noted that even the best stainless steel flatware is subject to occasional pitting and corrosion if not properly cared for. Here are some tips for keeping your stainless steel flatware looking and performing its best:
- Dishwasher detergents tend to be harsh to stainless steel flatware and that can sometimes cause blemishes. These can often be removed with a stainless steel cleaner, but pitting, chipping, or rusting is sometimes permanent.
- Immediately after washing, polish your flatware immediately with a microfiber cloth to rid it of water spots or smudges.
- Presoaking for about 20 minutes before washing will help cutlery washed in the dishwasher get completely clean.
What's the Difference Between 18/10, 18/8, and 18/0 Flatware? The Silver Superstore.