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The cool, sleek look of stainless steel remains a hot item for today's kitchens.

You've probably eaten with stainless steel utensils, cooked in a stainless steel pot, or washed dishes in a stainless steel sink. Today, you can find stainless steel popping up throughout the kitchen from major appliances, counter tops and cabinet fronts to drawer pulls and wall tiles. Kitchens.com calls stainless steel "the new neutral," and that's a pretty accurate description. Homebuyers striving for the popular "industrial" look can outfit their kitchen in stainless steel from top from bottom. Others find stainless steel appliances strike a nice contrast with warmer, more traditional finishes, such as maple or cherry cabinets. You can use a little or a lot, depending on your personal taste.

Appliance makers such as General Electric and Whirlpool offer a complete line of stainless steel appliances for the kitchen -- refrigerators, dishwashers, ranges, ovens, trash compactors, and microwaves. Specialty outlets, such as Stainless Steel Kitchens, offer a host of extras -- sinks, backsplashes, shelves, tables, carts, hardware, art door panels, tiles and even a stainless steel flag. Serious cooks might want to take a look at restaurant supply stores for heavy-duty stainless steel items.

From a safety perspective, stainless steel sinks get a boost from University of Georgia researcher Joe Frank. The microbiologist tested a variety of sink surface materials to "see how they stand up to food pathogens that can be found in your home kitchen."

Frank exposed both new and used sinks made of stainless steel, mineral resin and polycarbonate plastic to staphylococcus aureus -- a common household pathogen. The surfaces were then cleaned with chlorine, ammonia, bleach and liquid sanitizers. According to Frank, the new stainless steel sink was the easiest to clean. He says, "once a surface is abraded, it's just harder to clean. A new stainless steel surface is rougher initially, but it doesn't abrade easily, either."

From an aesthetic point of view, DoItYourself.com says "stainless steel resists stains but occasionally dulls or will show oily fingerprints." It explains that if the hard oxide coating on the surface is taken off through corrosion or wear, stainless steel can rust like regular steel.

DoItYourself.com says that when it comes to cleaning stainless, stay away from harsh abrasives like steel wool. Instead, use olive oil, vinegar or club soda to clean and shine. For really tough cooked-on food or grease, use a fine abrasive cleaning powder or a paste of baking soda and water. You can also buy commercial stainless steel cleaners.

For those with kids, you might want to consider how much time you want to spend cleaning that stainless steel before you buy something that little hands will be touching. A member of a recent online forum posted a question asking for input on whether she should jump on the stainless steel bandwagon. The overwhelming response from moms was that stainless shows a lot of fingerprints and streaks. One online participant suggested going appliance shopping late in the day -- after the floor models had been handled a bit -- to see what she meant.

If you still like the look but are worried about stainless steel becoming outdated, trend-watchers say metallic finishes should hold their popularity for a while. In fact, the folks at Kitchens.com say "a quest for what comes after stainless steel led to more stainless steel, copper and aluminum on the horizon."

Carol Ochs is a Washington-based reporter who covers new home trends.

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