If you're like most, all silverware looks more-or-less "the same" to you. After you've read THIS article, you'll be amazed how quickly you can tell the difference between steel quality and design at a glance. Just walk through a department store after you've read it. You'll be very surprised.
For the most part, demitasse spoons are "silverware" (a.k.a., tableware) just like all of the other silverware that you likely have in your kitchen drawer - forks, teaspoons, table knives, etc. And just like that other tableware (silverware), demitasse spoons are made in 4 levels of "quality" (not quite the right word, as you'll see):
Very inexpensive "picnic-ware" (our term) demitasse spoons, just like the other inexpensive tableware (forks, spoons, and knives) is available - usually at Party Supply stores. Granted, people don't tend to serve espresso at picnics. But inexpensive demitasse spoons are made to be used at more upscale events (office parties, weddings, family reunions, etc.) when many spoons are needed for a single occasion. These demitasse spoons tend to be colored like they are metal - many are actually a low-cost steel, so that they "look like" real demitasse spoons. But they are not likely to be used more than on rare occasions. Many of these actually seem like real tableware if you don't inspect them too closely. Many of these are $1 or $2 for a dozen. Some are disposable. They're not meant to be put in your dishwasher.
Low Cost "Party Spoons" for Large Informal Occasions
Very expensive "asset-ware" (our term) that tends to stay in families, and be handed down from generation to generation. These demitasse spoons (and sometimes other tableware - but more often, just demitasse spoons) are made like jewelry. Yes, these are made of gold and silver, and maybe porcelain china, and sometimes have crystal accoutrements and/or pearls embedded in them. These can cost hundreds of dollars. You probably shouldn't actually use these - unless you're very rich. They're made to be handed down. Like the inexpensive picnic-ware, these aren't meant to be put in your dishwasher either. But for a different reason.
Valuable Demitasse Spoons that are Family Heirlooms (Not for Real Use)
Steel tableware that is nickel-free, which is usually designated "18/0." In case you haven't already guessed, the "0" is the amount of nickel in the steel alloy. There is also 13/0 tableware, but it's rare. The first number, "18," refers to the amount of chrome. Remember that steel is an alloy. More on this later...
18/0 Demitasse Spoons (Stainless Steel) for Personal & Professional Use
Steel tableware that contains nickel, which tends to be marked "18/8" or "18/10." These are alloys containing both chrome and nickel.
18/10 Demitasse Spoons (Stainless Steel) for Personal & Professional Use
Without a doubt, you'd easily recognize spoons in the first two categories. But can you tell the difference between the last two categories? The purpose of this article is to discuss these last two categories: 18/0 and 18/10. BOTH of these are what we'd consider real tableware, and if you're buying demitasse spoons or other tableware for real use, you'll be interested in either of these.
What is Steel?
Steel is a metal alloy (a mixture of metal elements) that's based on iron. Steel is made by combining iron with other metals. Carbon is a principal element in steel, but various kinds of steel are made for different uses that may also contain nickel, manganese, chromium, vanadium, and/or tungsten. These elements will give the resulting steel different properties. The way in which the steel is made (its thermal processing) will also give it different properties.
We had said that carbon is almost always used. The carbon content in any steel alloy is between 0.2% and 2% relative to the iron based on weight. Note that 0.2%-2% is an entire order of magnitude (a factor of 10)! Metal elements can have very different densities, so their weights for a fixed volume can be very different. This is why the content of a metal alloy is always specified as a percentage in weight, and not in volume.
This is also counterintuitive to those of us that use weights and volumes interchangeably in our kitchens where liquids (broth, water, milk, juice, coffee) all have the same weight for the same volume: a pound per pint! This isn't true for many metals.
Carbon is usually the principal hardening element in the iron alloy - it prevents the natural dislocations in the iron from moving around under pressure and/or heat, so it makes the metal more stable, and thus harder.
Because steel is an alloy that is usually made by combining several elements - more than just iron and carbon, each of these elements is included in different amounts and for different reasons, depending on how the steel is to be used. In addition to these other elements being added in various quantities by weight, the processes by which they are added will cause different effects in the resulting steel.
Typically, when making a steel alloy, the element is added to the steel as a solute element. A solute element is an element that's dissolved in a solution that's combined with the (usually molten) alloy. That solution is then precipitated out as the alloy is allowed to cool. The cooling process is a tightly controlled process which allows the added element to combine with the alloy in a relatively uniform way - forming crystallite grains of a similar size so that the resulting metal is stable.
Exactly how this is done will result in steels with different hardnesses (resistance to shape change as it's placed under mechanical stress), ductilities (the ability to permanently shape the element by bending it - without breaking it), and tensile strengths (resistance to being pulled apart). Obviously, differences in these properties are useful for different applications. For example, high ductility allows the metal to be drawn out into wire - not what you'd want in your tableware.
Adding carbon to iron makes it much harder and stronger, and much less ductile. (Recall "the Iron Age" in our history, when man first learned to make weapons that were pretty substantial.) Adding more carbon gives steel a lower melting point, and makes it amenable to casting (i.e., cast iron). Historically, while steel had been produced long before the Renaissance, steel did not become pervasive until afterwards - a few hundred years ago, when better production methods were devised.
But steel didn't become massively produced until the mid-19th century. This is when the Bessemer process was refined, and this made steel much less expensive to make. The Bessemer process is the blowing of compressed air through the molten iron to remove impurities: specifically, silicon, manganese, and phosphorous. This allows better control of the carbon content, and leads to a more uniform crystallization of the resulting steel. This improves strength, ductility, AND hardness. And it leads to many standards.
As you know, today we use steel in all kinds of applications, with current estimates (2012) of world steel production being at over 1,500 megatonnes per year (1 megatonne is 1 billion kilograms). By country, the People's Republic of China produces nearly half of this (720 megatonnes), with the European Union being the next largest producer at a mere 170 megatonnes - this is less than 25% of China's production. Japan is third, with 105 megatonnes, and the US is fourth with only 85 megatonnes - less than half of the EU.
Steel is a Huge Industry Having Many Different Applications
While we, at The Coffee Brewers, are primarily interested in demitasse spoons, steel is a major component in buildings, in tools, in ships, in cars and trucks, machines, toys, appliances, sports gear, weapons, etc. Obviously, demitasse spoons are an itsy-bitsy, teeny-tiny piece of this. But what should be clear is that these uses are all very different, so steel is many different things - many different alloys and processes that are optimized for different usages.
Therefore, what's called steel is generally identified by various grades and standards defined by many different organizations, depending on its intended use. As we'll see, some of the numbers used in tableware are hardly exact. But what should be clear is that steel is not a single thing. It's a large family of manufactured metals.
What's the Stainless Steel That's Used in demitasse spoons and Other Silverware?
In metallurgy, stainless steel, is defined as a steel alloy that contains at least 13% chromium. Remember (from above) that metals have different densities, so 13% refers to the percentage of chromium in the steel alloy by mass. Stainless steel is also sometimes called "inox steel," or even just "inox." This is simply an abbreviation for the French word for stainless steel, which is "inoxydable."
Stainless steel does not corrode or rust from normal contact with water, as does ordinary steel, but it isn't actually "stain-proof" in the general sense. It's rust proof. Sometimes stainless steel is more correctly called "Corrosion REesistant Steel" (a.k.a, CRES) when the specific alloy content isn't given. But there are different grades of stainless steel, and different surface finishes used to suit the environment (e.g., in the kitchen, versus on the ocean, versus on an airplane at 30,000 feet elevation). In short, stainless steel is used where resistance to corrosion is required.
As we said, stainless steel is distinct from carbon steel because of the amount of chromium in the alloy. Without sufficient chromium, regular carbon steel rusts very quickly when exposed to air and/or moisture. As you likely know, rust is the common term used for iron oxide, which is simply oxidized iron. And there are numerous iron oxides: FeO, Fe3O4, Fe2O3, Fe(OH)2, Fe(OH)3, FeOOH, and so on. Because there are so many iron oxides, rust is said to be "active" in that its presence accelerates corrosion by readily forming new oxides, since many of these oxides are not particularly stable.
What chromium does, in sufficient quantity, is to form a passive film (as opposed to the active rust that we just discussed) of chromium oxide that protects the steel. Note that chromium oxide is also an oxide, but unlike rust - which is active, chromium oxide forms a passive protective coating on the steel that prevents iron oxides from penetrating it.
But passivation will only occur - to make a protective layer, if the amount of chromium in the steel is high enough. As we pointed out before, a high resistance to the oxidation of steel (rust) is normally achieved at 13% chromium content. But this is under normal conditions. In very harsh environments (e.g., at sea), steel can be made with up to 26% chromium. In demitasse spoons, and other steel silverware, the chromium content is usually set at 18%. Thus, the "18" in 18/0, 18/8, and 18/10, which are the common designations for silverware, refers to the chromium content. All of these steels have 18% chromium, and they should not rust.
Note that chromium oxide, Cr2O3, will form an extremely thin coating on the steel, and as a passive oxide, it will then stop growing. This oxide layer is too thin to be seen, so the basic metallurgy of the steel will remain as lustrous as it was made originally. In addition to this being a passive oxide, it quickly reforms to protect itself if it's scratched. So your demitasse spoons and other silverware will last if it's stainless steel.
While stainless steel has become a pervasive material in the kitchen - and especially in commercial kitchens, its resistance to corrosion, its relatively low cost of maintenance, and its familiar and clean appearance makes it an ideal metal to be used in many more applications. In fact, the stainless steel industry has grown the types of stainless steel to over 150 different grades.
These different grades (various steel alloys having different characteristics) have been used to make coils, sheets, plates, bars, tubing, wire, cutlery, hardware, surgical instruments, large and small appliances, industrial equipment, automotive and aerospace equipment, and large structural pieces in many large buildings. In addition, industrial storage tanks, and tankers used to transport orange juice and other food are often made of stainless steel because of its corrosion resistance, its antibacterial properties, and its ease in cleaning. Its use in commercial kitchens and food processing plants has become standard, since it can be steam-cleaned and sterilized, and it doesn't need paint or other surface finishes to protect it.
While all this new and pervasive usage is good, it has made the familiar steel grades that we use for silverware a little obsolete. This will become clear as we discuss the second piece of 18/0, 18/8, and 18/10, although these designations are still the standard ones used in commercial flatware (silverware) sales.
What's the Difference between 18/0, 18/8, and 18/10 Silverware?
We've explained that the "18" refers to the percent of chromium in the alloy. While these are all 18% for most silverware - including demitasse spoons, you will occasionally find 13/0 silverware as well. Recall that stainless steel is defined as steel having at least 13% chromium in it. This is the lowest amount that will reliably form a fully protective oxide layer on the steel to prevent rusting, although harsher conditions of usage may require more than this.
The second number (0, 8, or 10) used to refer to the amount of nickel in the alloy. Remember that these numbers are percentage numbers by weight. Thus, "18/10 Stainless Steel" is supposed to be steel that contains 18% chromium and 10% nickel. This is 28% of the steel, by weight.
Why is there nickel, and what's the difference? Nickel gives your silverware that silvery shine - what you think of as "silver." Nickel makes your demitasse spoons look like new, expensive "silverware." Without nickel, like 18/0 silverware, your demitasse spoons will have a dull grayish color. And there's nothing wrong with a dull grayish color; it's the silverware used in almost all cafeterias, most households, and many restaurants.
Same Pattern: Can You Tell Which is 18/0 and Which is 18/10?
But keep in mind that physically ornate patterns in the silverware (scrolls & curves & indentations) will tend to get lost, and be hard to see in a grayish pattern (except when it's new). That's why most 18/0 silverware is very plain. If you're keeping the metal simple by eliminating nickel, you should keep the pattern simple too. Otherwise it will tend to look fake - too ornate for the metal.
So why would you NOT use nickel? Very simple: nickel, contrary to its name, can be very expensive, and its price tends to be quite volatile. In 2007, nickel went up to nearly $24 per pound, which is about a $0.05 (a nickel) per gram. In 2011, it had dropped to about half that much ($12 per pound), with a significant dip in between ($4 per pound at the beginning of 2009). To give you a better idea what that means, copper stayed between $3 and $3.70 per pound in those same years - much less expensive, and not nearly as volatile. And aluminum stayed between $0.75 and $0.95 per pound - you get the idea.
Commodity Price of Nickel from 2007 to 2012
Keep in mind that 18/8 and 18/10 are not better than 18/0, they're just more silvery, which matters for ornate patterns, but not for plain silverware. But they cost more because of the relative pricing and volatility of nickel.
So if you want demitasse spoons (or other silverware) that has a high polished finish with a glimmering silvery look, and you're willing to spend a little more to get it, get demitasse spoons and other silverware that is 18/8 or 18/10. But if you're buying demitasse spoons in large quantities (as many restaurants might do when they're opening), and you need to keep your costs as low as you can, get 18/0 silverware.
Note also, that if you are buying tableware for a restaurant or cafeteria, and you'll be cycling it through the dishwasher several times a day, it will get dinged and scratched quite a bit. These dings will be harder to see if the metal is grayish and dull, so you might actually prefer 18/0. But if you will be getting 18/0, keep the pattern simple. It should NOT be both 18/0 and ornate - this looks phony.
The Molecular Structures of Steel
While steel is an alloy (a mixture of metals), it's a little more complicated than just molten mixtures done by pure percentages. In fact, in addition to the metals used, the structure of 18/10 stainless steel is slightly different than that of 18/0 stainless steel, and the latter may be slightly magnetic. Which metals are used, and how those mixtures are processed will change the characteristics of the resulting steel product. (Feel free to skip this section!)
While the elements used to make steel are very important, different processing steps result in different microstructures within the steel, which are the ways in which the atoms in steel are conjoined. Steel can be made having any of three somewhat crystaline structures, and there are two additional structures that are hybrids (called duplex steel, and precipitate-hardened steel). The three basic crystalline structures of steel are called austenitic steel, ferritic steel, and martensitic steel.
While all of these crystalline structures are physically orthorhombic (meaning that the dimensional proportions of the crystal in the x, y, and z dimensions are all different), "cubes" has become part of the language used in describing their geometries (go figure!). The austenitic ctystal structure is face centered, so it's called a Face-Centered Cube (commonly, just abbreviated: FCC). The ferritic structure is a Body-Centered Cubic (BCC), and the martensitic structure is a Body-Centered Tetragon (BCT). So that the meanings of "face centered" and "body centered" are clear, these structures are shown in the figure below.
Molecular structures of Austenitic (FCC), Ferritic (BCC), and Martensitic (FCT) Steels
Of these three structures, both the ferritic and martensitic structures are magnetic, but the austenitic structure is not. The austenitic structure has a very high resistance to corrosion, and is structurally the strongest, so most steel products use austenitic stainless steel. The other steels are also produced for other applications.
It's no surprise, but the way, that to make an austenitic steel structure, chromium and nickel are needed in the alloy. The most commonly used stainless steel is Type 304, which has 18-20% chromium and 8-10% nickel. Sound familiar? This is exactly the 18/10 stainless steel used in high-quality silverware. In addition to being structurally strong, austenitic steels are used in many other applications because they're easily weldable.
Austenitic steels are divided (by usage) into three groups: 1) the 300 Series (based on chromium and nickel, e.g., silverware); 2) the 200 Series (using chromium and nickel together with manganese and nitrogen), and 3) other specially-made alloys including lamellar (layered) structures like pearlite and cementite (not described, but you may have heard of them).
Ferritic stainless steel comprises iron-chromium alloys without nickel. A prime example is 18/0 silverware. Ferritic steel is less expensive to use in products both because it doesn't use nickel, and because it's more ductile, and more easily formable than austenitic steel. In addition to 18/0 silverware, ferritic steel is used to make mufflers, metal sinks, and many other consumer items. While somewhat magnetic (be careful around those demitasse spoons!), it's the least expensive of the stainless steels. And finally, martensitic steels, like the austenitic steels, use chromium and nickel, but also use carbon and a small amount of molybdenum.
What is austenitic at very high temperature can become martensitic when cooled under certain conditions by a process called MSIT (Martensitic Stress-Induced Transformation). At room temperature, pure iron (also called ferrite iron, and alpha-iron) has a BCC structure. At very high temperatures (900-1400 degrees Centigrade), it transitions to a FCC structure. FCC iron (a.k.a, "gamma iron") can absorb lots of carbon (up to 2%, by mass) to make harder, higher quality stainless steels that will hold much sharper edges. The graph below shows steel structures as a function of carbon context (x axis) and temperature (y axis). Our main interest here is room temperature (the x-axis itself).
Steel Structures as a Function of Temperature and Carbon Content
The "eutectic point" (see graph) for steel is the lowest melting point as a function of its carbon content. This is at 0.83% carbon and 1333 Degrees Fahrenheit. Hypo-eutectoids are steels with lower carbon contents, and hyper-eutectoids are steels with higher carbon contents than this. Both have higher melting points than the eutectic point. Hyper-eutectoids are harder, and will hold much sharper angles. As we've shown on the graph, silverware is made with a relatively mild steel, and cutlery (carving knives), which need to be reasonably sharp is made with a slightly harder steel, albeit still hypo-eutectic.
The graph separates the austenites (up to 2% carbon) in into four regions: mild, medium, hard, and very hard. Cast-iron has a higher carbon content. We've shown where silverware and cutlery fall on this graph. To make surgical instruments and razors - which need to have and hold even sharper edges than cutlery, a hyper-eutectoid (about 1% carbon) is used. The very-hard steel (the fourth region) is used for very high precision scientific equipment.
But How Are 18/8 and 18/10 Different?
In the silverware business, there is no difference between 18/8 and 18/10. As we had said, this labeling is somewhat antiquated - at least for demitasse spoons. Steel is a BIG business, and steel (the metal) is used in many kinds of products. Some of those products are very particular about the metallurgy, because the use requires it. While 18/8 and 18/10 are real labels, and the distinction between 8% and 10% is really needed in some applications, whether there's 8% nickel or 10% nickel makes no difference in silverware.
So in fact, there is a new label used by steelmakers to indicate that their steel is to be used for silverware. The steel manufacturers call this steel "Grade 304." Grade 304 should contain at least 18% chromium, with a nickel content between 8% and 10%. Real Grade 304 steel will have nickel content closer to 8% (typically, 8.3%). Since this is a newer designation, the silverware market that historically used the 18/8 and 18/10 designations continue to do so. How would they advertise "Grade 304 demitasse spoons" without confusing everyone?
Well aren't the old designations obsolete? In silverware, like for demitasse spoons, yes. But for other applications like pots and pans, no. Because of the shaping process used for pots and pans, and some machine parts, the metal is mechanically stressed to shape it, and requires a higher nickel content (specifically, at least 10%) to retain its quality. This steel - the steel used in some cookware (which actually is 18/10 steel) is called "Grade 305."
High quality professional pots and pans are very expensive because they use Grade 305 steel. Tableware, like a demitasse spoon, doesn't need to be Grade 305. So it's almost certainly made with Grade 304 steel, except that the flatware industry still calls it 18/10. As we pointed out, Grade 304 is most probably 18/8.3. So don't bother to choose 18/10 silverware over 18/8 silverware. These are fake labels. They are probably both Grade 304.
In fact, Grade 304 stainless steel is specified as having between 18% and 20% chromium, and between 8% and 10.5% nickel. And the real 18/10 stainless steel (not the stainless steel used in tableware) is now called "Grade 316." Grade 316 has between 16% and 18% chromium (less than Grade 304), between 10% and 14% nickel (more than Grade 304), and unlike Grade 304, it also has between 2% and 3% molybdenum.
The purpose of molybdenum is to prevent corrosion and pitting caused by salt (e.g., seawater) and by some acids. For example, the acids in tomato sauce would cause pitting in Grade 304 stainless steel, so cookware should be Grade 316.
Interestingly, while we had pointed out that the metal elements might have very different densities, so that the percent designations in an alloy are all by weight, the densities of iron, chromium, and nickel are all (roughly) the same. So there should be no perceptible difference in feel to a demitasse spoon that is 18/0 versus 18/10. Any difference in the feeling of weight is purely based on the total amount of metal used in the design of the spoon.
We should also mention that unlike 18/8 and 18/10 stainless steel (which are the same Grade 304 steel), nickel-free stainless steel (18/0) is a "Grade 400" steel. So don't be confused if you don't see "Grade 304" if you're buying 18/0 demitasse spoons for your restaurant.
Do Our Stainless Steel demitasse spoons Require Any Special Care?
Not really. But there are two big caveats with this. We've already mentioned the first one: If you are going to be cycling your spoons through the dishwasher several times a day (like a professional cafeteria), you should probably get 18/0 stainless steel, and keep the pattern of your demitasse spoon simple. The dings from rigorous usage will eventually show up on the silvery surface of an 18/10 spoon.
The second one is even more important: Do NOT keep your stainless steel demitasse spoons in contact with plain (non-stainless) steel. If you have steel surfaces in your silverware drawers (as do some commercial kitchens), or steel racks on which you place kitchen items, you should get plastic trays to store the stainless steel flatware in.
These trays are not merely for organizing your silverware, although that's essential too. These trays are to make sure that the stainless steel doesn't rest on top of regular carbon-steel. If you leave these in contact, you'll develop rust spots on your stainless steel. Why? Because steel particles from the carbon steel will bond to the chromium oxide on the surface of your stainless steel, and those particles will rust.
You will have to scrub the rust off your stainless steel constantly if you store it in contact with carbon steel. Buy some non-steel (or stainless steel) trays. And aside from the demitasse spoons, you shouldn't use stainless steel tools on cast-iron pots and pans for the same reason. And for the same reason, don't use steel wool pads to scrub stainless steel cookware.
What Else Determines the Quality of a demitasse spoon?
We've learned that 18/0 versus 18/10 isn't a statement about "Quality." They can both be the same high-quality flatware, but the 18/10 will cost more because of the raw cost of the metals. And 18/10 will have a more silvery appearance. This is purely a matter of appearance. There are functional reasons why 18/0 might make more sense for your usage, but if you're looking at fancy designs, you might want to pay a little more for the 18/10. And again, this is purely a matter of appearance.
But when it comes to appearance (and this also affects the cost), the specific care taken during the final steps of manufacturing a demitasse spoon is one of the top determinations of why some patterns look nicer and cost more. It always costs more to do careful processing of a manufactured item. There are several things that are critical in demitasse spoons.
A Detailed Design May Look Very Different at Different Cost Points
First, look at the edges on the demitasse spoon. If there are squared edges, you should be able to tell something about how the manufacturing was done. Squared edges are usually (and simply) stamped out quickly by a machine. In lower cost items, these edges are quick-polished as simply as possible, just to remove burrs and anything that is actually sharp. In higher cost tableware, the edges are smoothed more gracefully, and none of them will be sharp.
And second, look at the roundness and flow of any of the ornate patterns on your demitasse spoon. Higher quality spoons will feature a crisper articulation of any pattern (leaves, lines, etc.). And the spoon - as a tool - will have a more rounded look to it. It will have been shaped by a more sophisticated process than mere stamping.
If you're buying stainless steel, and you want to maintain its lovely appearance (if you bought it for that purpose), you should pick up some stainless steel cleaner. Even the very best stainless steel may get (very occasional) corrosion and discoloration. A little cleaner every so often will make them look brand new.
You should enjoy your demitasse spoons, and love your espresso. We’ve another interesting article about the evolution of demitasse spoons (click HERE). In that, we explain how the demitasse spoon has not been around that long, and how it actually evolved from the Chinese Tea spoon. Using stainless steel to make them only started in the 1950s, after World War 2, so their styling and appearance is a relatively new thing.
Stainless steel has made the current plethora of spoon stylings feasible at moderate prices. So much so, that the modern approach to choosing demitasses spoons is to get designs that are very different than your standard tableware, and to own several different patterns. This allows you to accessorize any dinner or get-together appropriately.
While we stock many patterns, you might want to explore sets of very different designs so that you have spoons that accessorize different kinds of occasions. Here is a list of some of them. Click on any of the names to see the spoon and read about its design.
Dimpled Handled Spoons
Gold Fleur de Lis
Golden Edged Spoons