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They say that washing your hands with a piece of stainless steel can help remove the smell of garlic and onions from your hands. There are even a number of stainless steel "soap" products on the market that are just chunks of metal meant to be used for this purpose. Opinions about whether this actually works or not seem to be mixed (see How do you remove garlic smells from your fingers?).

If there's any truth to this idea, that would suggest that using stainless steel pans, bowls, utensils, and serving dishes could also diminish or otherwise affect the flavor of foods containing garlic or onions. Is there any evidence of this? Stainless steel is generally considered to be non-reactive, but should one consider using materials other than stainless steel when cooking with garlic?

Personally, I use stainless pans all the time and haven't noticed any impact. Then again, maybe that's just because I use stainless all the time.

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    Wow, I had never thought of it like that. I've never put much stock into the "soap", but +1 for making me think. – Jolenealaska Jul 10 '14 at 14:40
  • These claims seem mostly nonsense to me. Scattered reports say that they work OK if the odour is still on the surface of your skin and not in the pores, which is consistent with it being dissolved or suspended in the natural oils on your skin - easily washed off with soap, or rubbed on to any other smooth surface (like glass). If there really was any chemical reaction, these stainless steel "soaps" would corrode after a few months or years. – Aaronut Jul 10 '14 at 15:16
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    It sounds like a good Mythbusters subject to me. My instincts say it's complete BS though. – GdD Jul 10 '14 at 16:15
  • There has been scientific research on how different metal spoons change the flavours of food. But I doubt if metals provide any cleaning action? – TFD Jul 10 '14 at 21:35
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    Maybe not BS. Try this. Chop some garlic. Smell your fingers. Chop some garlic, rinse your stainless knife under running water and CAREFULLY wipe your fingers on the side of the blade as you do...smell your fingers. – moscafj Jul 11 '14 at 12:47
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Drawing from some of the linked resources, it seems that one of the main theories about how those stainless steel "soaps" work is by interacting with sulfur compounds present in onions and garlic (together part of the genus allium) which are responsible for their strong pungency and odor. There appears to be little actual evidence for these claims, and I wasn't able to find much better either.

That said, I'm going to surmise that this effect really wouldn't apply with stainless steel cookware, precisely because you're cooking. Those sulfur compounds are volatile, and they tend to break down pretty quickly as you cook. This is why the flavor profile of alliums changes so drastically even after a very brief sweat - they become much sweeter and much less sharp - because those sulfur compounds are being broken down and driven off. Heck, onions will lose a lot of their harsh pungency just after being chopped. Dice an onion and you'll likely tear up (due to the action of syn-propanethial-S-oxide gas) but come back to that same onion 3-4 minutes later and you'll experience much less irritation. The compounds are generally unstable, especially when exposed to enzymes present in the onion.

So, cooking alliums in general removes or destroys the same pungency that causes the unpleasant odors. Even if stainless steel interacts with the compounds responsible for that pungency in some special way, it's only doing what heat does anyway, and using stainless cookware is unlikely to cause any sort of perceivable difference.

The only time this might be a factor in the flavor of a finished dish is if you want to retain a very strong, pungent flavor, for example with raw spring onions in a salad or something. In that case, it may be possible (though again, evidence is mixed) that a stainless steel bowl attracts some of those sulfur compounds in a way that a plastic or wood bowl does not. But that's only a concern where you have contact between the alliums and the bowl, and many people find that pungent "bite" a bit overwhelming in any more than tiny concentrations, so you may actually be doing yourself a favor and providing some minute safeguard against over-pungency by using stainless. In my opinion, this isn't likely to be a major concern for anyone.

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This is a great question and I also gave a plus one for it.

Using stainless cookware exclusively I've not had any problems with flavor, especially garlic, being affected. I also use my stainless steel table knives to remove the odor from my hands and that method works perfectly.

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