Most households have a drawer or basket of flatware used for everyday meals. Sometimes it all matches, but often it is a jumble of gifts or bargain buys---sometimes even a piece or two that came home in the baby's infant seat. If you find a piece you like in that odd collection, learn to identify stainless steel flatware and complete your set at a replacement service or from the manufacturer.
Stainless steel flatware can be almost as expensive as silver-plated flatware and is often just as attractive. Companies that produce flatware occasionally even produce the same pattern in both finishes (silver plate is applied over stainless steel). Know what to look for in quality stainless before setting out to buy anything at all. Stainless steel is a combination of metal "alloys"--stainless steel flatware contains 18 percent chromium and between zero percent and 10 percent nickel. Since the amount of chromium is constant, the quality of flatware is determined by the amount of nickel, which is the metal that makes it shine. The best flatware has between 8 percent and 10 percent nickel. You'll need to track down your pattern in a book or manufacturer's listing to find out its composition but, as a general rule, good flatware has "heft" to it. It also feels "smooth" in the hand and mouth.
Read Your Flatware
Like any tableware, the place to start hunting for clues about your flatware is on its backside. Makers like Oneida, Rogers, Gorham and others stamp their names on the back of the "neck" of the handle or across the base of the knife blade. Some companies are now part of others (Community is part of Oneida, SRI Stainless Japan is a Stanley Roberts mark) and their name on the back helps date a piece. Occasionally a maker will include the grade of stainless steel as well. The country of origin (USA, Japan, Korea or China) may also be part of the information on the back. Country of origin is important because stainless does not have a year of production printed in its back; any year notations are generally part of a company or series name. Patterns are produced for many years, sometimes beginning with best quality stainless steel in one country, then moving to another country to produce less expensive, lesser quality pieces. Some makers will even produce two versions of the same pattern of flatware; one for direct trade and one of lesser quality in another country for discount stores or mail order.
Several manufacturing techniques help identify the quality if not the maker or pattern of flatware. Good pieces have no discernible seams where they have been cast in molds. Look for flatware with separate knife blades joined to hollow ware handles rather than forged as single pieces. Heavier stainless holds a sharp edge better; knives with higher carbon content in the steel do not need serrated edges to stay sharp. Carbon steel gives knife blades a slight bluish tinge as well as a more durable edge. Well-finished fork tines have smooth, rounded square ends and teaspoons with deeper bowls are more useful--and generally of better quality--than shallow ones.