As a designer and avid cook, I'm often asked what material I recommend for kitchen countertops. My answer: honed marble (statuary or Carrara are my favorites) or soapstone because I like their mellow look juxtaposed with my kitchen's polished-nickel fixtures and semigloss-painted cabinets.
But I always add the caveat that such materials can stain and chip easily. My countertops have nicks along their edges where I've accidentally banged a heavy pot, and their share of stains, particularly under the coffeemaker. But neither scrape nor spot bother me; they are evidence of time well spent, food made and enjoyed.
For years, many architects and kitchen designers steered their clients away from natural-stone countertops such as marble, limestone and soapstone because of their porous, fragile nature, but people have eased up in their attitudes about having a perfect kitchen. Jennifer Gilmer, founder of Jennifer Gilmer Kitchen & Bath in Chevy Chase and co-author of "The Kitchen Bible," has designed more than a thousand kitchens during her 30-year career, and although she says it is "safer" to use man-made stone — such as Corian or Caeserstone — she advises clients to focus on the look that they want and what best suits the project as opposed to whether the material stains. "The most popular stone these days is quartzite, which is a natural stone. It has more of a marble pattern to it, plus the durability of granite," Gilmer says.
When it comes to natural stone's finish, Gilmer, like me, prefers honed. Not only does honed stone look more interesting than super-sleek polished stone, but it's also more user-friendly. "If the client is going with marble, it has to be honed; otherwise it will show every scratch and etching," she says. That's not to say that honed stones are blemish-free; some honed stones will show oil from fingerprints, and dark polished stones will show everything: fingerprints, spills, crumbs. Gilmer suggests getting a sample of the counter you are considering and using it at home for a while to see whether you like the way it performs.
Most natural-stone countertops should be sealed using a clear liquid silicone that can be bought at a hardware store. My fabricator recommended StoneTech countertop sealer, which works on almost all natural stones ($22.39 for a 24-ounce spray bottle, amazon.com). Sealing does not make the stone stain-proof, but it makes it more stain-resistant. Your fabricator typically seals the stone before it is delivered and installed, and then it's sealed again after installation. Gilmer recommends that you reseal your countertops about once or twice a year depending on how much you use your kitchen. Soapstone and slate should be oiled with mineral oil several times a year, which will help them resist staining. (I oil my soapstone four times a year; this makes it one of the more high-maintenance stones.) You will know your countertops are sealed and/or oiled properly when water beads on the surface.
The key to keeping your natural-stone countertops looking their best is simple: Clean up spills as soon as you see them. The longer you let red wine, coffee, lemon juice, cranberry juice or salad dressing sit on your counter, the more it will penetrate and leave a stain. If you do end up with a stain (like my coffee-stained marble), chances are it can be removed. The Natural Stone Institute (marble-institute.com) lists solutions to many common stains. (It turns out you can get rid of coffee stains by mixing a small amount of hydrogen peroxide in water with a few drops of ammonia and then applying it to the stain with a clean white rag.) Sometimes, however, a stain is bad enough that you need to call in the professionals. Gilmer once had a client go on vacation and leave a basket of tomatoes on her counter. The tomatoes ripened, dissolved into the countertop and stained it. Gilmer immediately contacted the countertop installer, who was able to get the stains out. In some cases, Gilmer adds, stains may not come out totally, but you can usually make them less noticeable.
Mayhew, a "Today" show style expert and former magazine editor, is the author of "Flip! for Decorating."