If you’re looking to buy new or replacement pans, but not sure which option to choose, stainless or nonstick, check out this article. I cover the differences between these types and their pros and cons to help you weigh up which way to go. Plus, rather than all stainless steel vs nonstick, I dive into how you could combine them to get the best option for your home cooking.
Stainless steel and nonstick cookware are both popular options for the home kitchen and widely available.
Stainless steel and nonstick compared
What are the differences between stainless steel and nonstick? The most obvious difference between stainless steel and nonstick cookware is their material composition and construction. Of the two, stainless steel wins in durability and robustness. Nonstick leads in the ease of cleanup and affordability.
Construction and composition
- Stainless steel is constructed of multiple layers of metals with chromium and nickel as the main components but may include iron, carbon, and smaller percentages of others like copper. Stainless steel comprises the cooking surface in contact with the food.
- Nonstick cookware has an metal base, with a nonstick coating, typically Teflon or ceramic, acting as the surface in contact with the food. Aluminum underlies the nonstick coating but some designs use stainless steel.
You’ll find a comparison chart below summarizing how these cookware types compare in practical terms but first, let’s have a look at durability and robustness.
How long do stainless steel pans last?
Quality stainless steel pots and pans will last you forever. They are certainly more durable than nonstick pans and will resist scratches and dents and wearing of the cooking surface. The handles will fail before anything else – but only in poor quality designs.
With stainless steel fry pan vs nonstick regarding robustness, stainless steel is ahead in that the cookware can withstand heavy-duty use, stacking, and fairly rough storage without suffering too much, if any damage.
How long do non stick pans last?
Let’s face it, nonstick coatings are not as durable as stainless steel. But with care, the nonstick component will last you a number of years before wearing away. The base, usually of aluminum, will last forever.
To get the best longevity from your nonstick cookware, check out my full guide to using, caring for, and storing nonstick pans.
What about stains or getting marked or scratched?
Stainless steel won’t stain with repeated use. It’s also resistant to scratches. It may however show discoloring, which can be removed. This is a topic I cover – why your stainless steel pans discolor (and what to do).
In contrast, some nonstick cookware can stain… permanently. It depends on how well you treat the pans and what you cook in them. They are also susceptible to scratches and you need to use the non abrasive types of utensils when cooking.
Ingredients such as turmeric and tomato sauces can stain a nonstick coating that has been compromised by harsh cleaning or high temperature use. Just using high heat alone can tarnish and deteriorate some nonstick coatings, though the latest designs, with added titanium, for example, are tougher than previous constructs.
Like ceramic nonstick, stainless steel is considered nonreactive. This is something that can occur when cooking acidic foods, such as tomatoes or citrus in copper or aluminum ware, for example.
Quality is important in both types of cookware. Lower quality stainless steel won’t perform as well as multi-ply cookware made of high-quality stainless steel. Look for the grade, which is the fraction stamped on the bottom of the cookware.
As I wrote in my article about choosing the healthiest cookware: “For stainless steel cookware, 18/8 and 18/10 are best, as they are the least likely grades to leach into food. The first number (18) indicates the chromium amount and the other the nickel portion.”
Premium 5-ply stainless is high quality. This stainless clad skillet is from Made In Cookware. To find out more, click image.
Which is easiest to clean?
In terms of stainless steel vs nonstick pan, I’d much rather clean a nonstick. With non stick pans, the clean up is a simple rinse at the sink or gentle rub with a soft cloth and dish soap. You can even get away with a simple wipe with a paper towel.
Food will adhere to stainless steel but virtually slide off nonstick. Thus, cleanup can take more effort with stainless steel cookware compared to cleaning nonstick cookware.
Nonstick is super easy to clean by hand while stainless steel may need soaking and scrubbing, depending on what you cooked in it last. Avoid scratchy scourers or cleaners and look for non-abrasive types to keep the finish looking its best in both cases.
However, if you prefer to use a dishwasher, you will have less worry of damage with stainless steel pan vs nonstick pan. Manufacturers rate nonstick cookware as dishwasher-safe, but hand washing is recommended in the likelihood of knocks and harsh detergents from the dishwasher compromising the coating.
Can I recycle them: nonstick or stainless steel?
Both stainless steel and nonstick pots and pan can be recycled. How you do this will depend on the facilities available where you live. Metal recyclers are the places that accept used cookware – I cover this in my article on how to discard old cookware.
Which is more affordable?
Because of the lengthy manufacturing process in its creation, stainless steel is typically more expensive than nonstick cookware. But it is an investment that should last you for years and years.
Nonstick cookware typically has an aluminum or other base metal and pricewise, aluminum nonstick pans are quite cheap. However, the newer induction cookware in the nonstick range can be up there in price with the stainless steel sets.
Quick glance comparison chart – Nonstick vs stainless steel
The following is a summary of stainless steel vs. nonstick – the difference in practical terms, at a quick glance…
Pros and cons of nonstick and stainless steel
The above might have you thinking about the pros and cons of each. Let’s look at these in more detail.
Nonstick Cookware Pros and cons
Why use nonstick cookware? The non stick coating in cookware works to provide a slippery smooth cooking surface that stops food from adhering to the pan. This non stick attribute reduces the dietary intake of oil and fat via the cooking process, and along with the convenience of super easy and simple cleanup is why people choose to use nonstick cookware.
- A quality nonstick pan is definitely a kitchen essential.
Benefits of a nonstick coating:
- Only a smidgen of oil or fat, if any, is needed in cooking process
- Requiring much less oil or fat to keep food from sticking means healthier cooking and eating habits, which is what my Cookware Hub is about.
- As well as these obvious benefits of nonstick cookware, they are also well priced and lightweight to use.
- With a nonstick pan you’ll get similar results each time, and the best thing, it makes cleanup a breeze. It’s probably one step up from the microwave for convenience. But what are the disadvantages of nonstick cookware?
The downsides of most designs of nonstick, as manufacturers advise, include the cookware not being suitable for high heat use, as it will affect the longevity of the nonstick coating. And, with Teflon nonstick, high-heat use raises concerns around potential health issues (see Nonstick Safe below). Also, once the coating wears away, you are then cooking on an aluminum base.
In a nutshell…
Non stick cookware pros:
✔ Less oil or fat used in the cooking
✔ Super easy to clean
✔ Food doesn’t stick – especially good for delicate food like flaky fish and eggs
✔ Well priced
Non stick cookware cons:
✗ Not for high heat use
✗ Not the best option for browning or searing food, or deglazing
✗ Nonstick coating will wear with use over time
✗ Potential health concerns with v. high heat & compromised coating
stainless steel Pros And Cons
Why use stainless steel pans? The best advantages of stainless steel cookware include its versatility and usefulness in an array of cooking methods, including high heat cooking. This includes browning meats and vegetables in a Maillard reaction (where proteins react with reducing sugars) to add flavor and appeal or to make sauces and gravies.
- The bits left from browning food in a stainless steel pan can make flavorsome pan sauces by deglazing with wine, water, or broth.
- Unlike nonstick cookware, you can cook with stainless steel at high temperatures and this means you can use it for almost any kind of cooking.
- A benefit of stainless steel is that it can be recycled. It also won’t chip, crack, stain, or rust and is durable, lasting you years and years.
- You can also use metal utensils with stainless steel without too much concern. However, I recommend sticking to the non-metal type mentioned earlier as metal on metal can scrape the surface and increase residues of nickel and chromium in your food.
- Stainless steel cookware with metal handles and lids can go in a very hot oven, as I note in “can put stovetop pans in the oven“.
Stainless steel pans can take a little bit of effort to clean, compared to nonstick.
From fying an egg to cooking a meal in the oven in stainless steel, you can get a burnt crust on the pan. With a bit of soaking and scrubbing after cooking, the crusted on food will come off for a completely clean pan ready for storage the next time.
Most stains will come off your stainless steel pans. But for those that are stubborn, Bar Keeper’s Friend is useful in cleaning and polishing stainless steel.
S/Steel cookware pros:
✔ Safe for high heat use
✔ Can brown and sear food, and deglaze for pan-sauces
S/Steel cookware cons:
✗ Foodstuffs will stick to the pan
✗ Need oil or fat for meals that don’t involve liquid
✗ Less useful for sautéing and heating food gently
✗ Not as easy to clean
Best healthy option & Safety: Stainless steel vs Nonstick
As I wrote In What Is The Healthiest Cookware Material, stainless steel and ceramic are considered two of the least toxic types of cookware on the market.
Is Stainless Steel Cookware Safe?
There is little concern with stainless steel cookware releasing toxic fumes. Though in the cooking process, traces of nickel and chromium may leach into the food. However, the levels are considered too low to be harmful to human health.
Still, it’s best to avoid low-grade stainless steel cookware and use premium grade to limit any potential leaching of these metals into your food. I cover the different grades and the concerns in more depth in my article on premium stainless steel cookware and its safety.
Is nonstick cookware safe?
Safety concerns with nonstick health-wise arise in regard to the additives used in the nonstick coating, especially with the Teflon type, which is one of the two basic types of non stick coating on the market today, the other one being ceramic.
- Safety concerns with nonstick health-wise arise because of the compounds used in making the slippery coating of the early nonstick pans of Teflon.
- Scientists, environmentalists, and consumer advocacy groups alike expressed concerns about the potential health risks associated with compounds used in the making of the Teflon coating. One is polytetrafluoroethylene (PFTE), but the compound of most concern is perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA).
At the request of authorities such as the Environmental Protection Agency, major chemical manufacturers phased out incorporating PFOA in the end product, with Teflon nonstick pans now PFOA-free, from 2013 onwards.
Now, according to the American Cancer Society: “Other than the possible risk of flu-like symptoms from breathing in fumes from an overheated Teflon-coated pan, there are no proven risks to humans from using cookware coated with Teflon (or other non-stick surfaces).”
Still, it is thought high heat use with Teflon pans results in dangerous ‘off-gassing’ of fumes, which are especially deadly to caged birds.
Recent research suggests that even “at normal cooking temperatures, PTFE-coated cookware releases various gases and chemicals that present mild to severe toxicity” (Sajid & Ilyas, 2017). This is commonly referred to as the ‘Teflon® flu’. The same paper (and other outlets) raises concerns about GenX and similar alternatives, which replace the PFOA in Teflon pans, but of which less is known.
This uncertainty makes the odor of an overheated nonstick pan, even more, a turn-off.
Tip when using nonstick: Never heat an empty pan on a burner, use it in a hot oven, and stick to medium or low heat on the stovetop.
Teflon & nonstick ceramic versus stainless steel
Nonstick pans are designed specifically for low-fat cooking and if you’re wanting to reduce dietary fat for health reasons you may want to consider nonstick cookware.
Teflon non stick vs ceramic nonstick health wise
Teflon contains PFTE and in the past, PFOA. Authoritative sites list these elements as causing health concerns.
Note: You might be concerned about the possibility of Teflon flaking and chipping off into food and getting consumed. However, the authorities, EPA and FDA, claim Teflon particulates do not harm human health. It’s the fumes that are the concern.
Ceramic nonstick can’t be sold in the US with a list of known worrisome compounds such as PFOA and ceramic (made of silica) replaces the PFTE as the basis of the slippery attribute (see my article on Teflon vs ceramic).
Wrapping up nonstick ceramic vs stainless steel Health wise
Both are rated safe for use in home kitchens.
Stainless steel used in cooking releases no fumes and leaches minuscule amounts of traces of metals, considered too low to harm human health and so is considered a good choice health wise.
The nonstick cookware that uses Teflon raises some concerns when heated at high temperatures due to the risks to human health (and caged birds) associated with the release of gases from compounds used in its design.
If you’re concerned about worrisome chemicals in the nonstick coatings, choose ceramic nonstick cookware. The coating is considered more environmentally friendly and is free of worrying chemicals, based on current understanding.
Cooking with stainless steel compared to nonstick
Here are my tips:
- Think of your lifestyle as well as your cooking style
- Match the cookware with how you cook and eat
- Complement stainless steel cookware with a nonstick skillet or vice versa
Do you prefer quick meals, a simple rinse of the pan, and then out the door to experience life? Or are you wanting a bit more elaborate cooking and versatility in the kitchen and would like to sear, brown, and deglaze in preparing culinary delights? Or a bit of both?
Type of cooktops
When to use stainless steel cookware
When would you use stainless steel? I use my large stainless steel pot for boiling pasta and potatoes, the most. The smaller pots I use with an insert for steaming vegetables. The large stainless steel frying pan I use for crisping food, searing meats, and making gravy by deglazing with water.
- Stainless steel cookware is great for sautéing, browning, deep-frying, stewing, braising, and boiling.
- Stainless steel is best for mains, e.g., cooking steaks and gravies.
- Stainless steel performs better at higher temperatures than nonstick pans. Searing or browning proteins adds the perfect crisp texture to the outside of your meats and other proteins. This cooking method requires high heat and the food to adhere to the pan. Something you are not going to get with most non stick frying pans.
- Though stainless steel cookware doesn’t demand the seasoning regime of cast iron, it does need the addition of oil or fat in the cooking process (except when using liquids). This is something to consider if you are looking to reduce dietary fat intake.
Stainless steel pan uses
- Cooking with high temperatures
How to cook with stainless steel without the food sticking…
How To Use Stainless Steel to avoid food sticking: 5 simple steps
- Always start with a clean pan.
- Heat the pan before adding the food.
- Test to see if it is ready.
- Allow cold food to reach room temperature before adding.
- Moist foods may stick and some food will always stick.
Why do eggs stick to stainless steel pan?
Why do eggs stick? Eggs can stick if you have the heat too high. You need to warm the pan to a level much lower than what you’d use when cooking meat or bacon. Also, try to use eggs that are at room temperature.
While, the first thing that might come to mind is the amount of lubricant in the pan – oil or fat – it may not be the case. Consider the level of heat.
Another cause could be that the pan was not completely clean; it had some remaining residue from the last time it was used.
Experiment with these tips and see what works for you.
Why would you do eggs in a stainless steel pan? For one, it may be the only type of cookware one has and some people just love using stainless steel cookware over other cookware types.
When to use nonstick cookware
When should you use nonstick? Nonstick pans are best for cooking delicate items, and this is when you should use nonstick. I use mine almost exclusively for eggs, in particular fried eggs. I’m not alone in this department. Many reserve nonstick pans for cooking egg dishes that include scrambled eggs, omelets, and frittatas.
- Use it when you’re wanting to reduce dietary intake of fat. Nonstick requires little to no greasing and suits reduced fat cooking.
- Nonstick cookware is best for frying food without having to use much oil or fat, but it can be used for all foods that you’d cook in stainless steel. It’s just not useful for some cooking methods, for instance, searing and browning of meats.
- Use it when you want convenience. A nonstick pan works best for breakfast meals, e.g. eggs, for easy clean up.
- Items people like using a nonstick pan for is in making pancakes or crepes, and in cooking low-fat or nonfat or without oil.
- You can use nonstick cookware for everything, if “everything” means simple food that doesn’t need high heat or tricky techniques.
Some high-end nonstick frying pans are oven-safe, but I don’t recommend putting your standard non stick pot and pans in the oven.
Modern designs of nonstick are branded as metal utensil compatible. You’ll see those types here in my article covering modern Greenpan ceramic nonstick cookware.
Nonstick pan uses
- Delicate (flaky) fish
Here are my tips on how to use nonstick cookware…
How to use nonstick: My tips on cooking with nonstick
- Steer away from high heat settings on the stovetop and the oven.
- Match your pot base to the burner size to avoid heat tarnishing the sides or handle.
- A small amount of oil or butter is fine but avoid excessive heat. See my article on using oil with nonstick ceramic cookware.
- Avoid non-stick sprays (and GreenPan advise against extra virgin olive oil — This is more of a concern when using high heat.)
- Do not stack your pans or pots without pan protectors.
With nonstick cookware, delicate food is more ‘compliant’ during the cooking process. It doesn’t stick to the pan.
One thing…Avoid using abrasive or sharp utensils on the nonstick cookware surface. Never use knives, especially sharp ones.
When cooking with nonstick cookware, use only non-metal spoons and spatulas with materials such as bamboo, wood, or silicone. Plastic won’t scratch but it will melt if left in the heated pan.
Is stainless steel good to cook with?
Stainless steel pans offer a great surface to cook on. Compared to nonstick, stainless steel pans are more versatile in that they can withstand higher heat and allow food to form a crust, which adds flavor as well as tasty bits left on the pan for deglazing to create sauces and gravies. For these reasons, many people regard stainless steel as the go-to for cooking anything and everything.
How do you keep food from sticking to stainless steel pans?
Do stainless steel pans stick? Yes, food will stick to stainless steel pans and so the clean-up can be messier than with nonstick. Here’s how to use stainless steel to minimize this: preheat the pan and add the ingredients only after the oil or fat has heated but not overheated – not beyond its smoking point.
I cover smoking points in my article on using oil in nonstick cookware. It’s a good idea to avoid exceeding the smoking point.
Also…Never preheat on high as this could warp your pan and risk burning the oil or fat.
Finally, which cookware is best: stainless steel or nonstick
Is stainless steel cookware better than nonstick? In many ways, stainless steel cookware, particularly the premium quality, is much better than nonstick. It’s robust, durable, and versatile. But, nonstick stands out in other areas such as convenience in cleanup as I show in my quick-reference comparison chart.
Stainless steel will last you longer than nonstick.
But then again, I think every home cook would benefit from at least one nonstick pan.
For those times when you’re wanting to cook eggs or light food without all that oil or mess, it will serve you well. Whereas stainless steel works for searing meat, adding a golden color to fried food, or making a gravy or pan sauce from deglazing the pan, nonsticks are great for things like eggs, pancakes, delicate fish, or risotto cakes.
Stainless steel vs. nonstick cookware: Which should I get?
What should you get? It depends.
Many home cooks will often have a set of stainless steel pots and pans as well as a nonstick set or at least one or two nonstick pans to complement them. Each serves different uses.
Why not combine nonstick and stainless steel in your kitchen? Both stainless steel and nonstick cookware offer advantages in the home kitchen.
You could have one or two nonstick skillets for cooking eggs, pancakes, crepes, or delicate foods like flaky fish that are known to stick to a pan.
But have high-quality uncoated stainless steel for the rest of your cooking. Where you’re cooking with liquids, a nonstick coating is not that important.
Ideas on how to add nonstick to your collection: An 8″ skillet will give you the size for an omelet for one or two persons, and a 10″ skillet for two to three persons, or for doing pancakes, etc. If you’re cooking for more, a 12″ skillet would serve you well.
Why you wouldn’t use nonstick cookware (most of the time)
There are lingering questions about the effect of the chemicals used in nonstick cookware coating on human health and that of the environment.
To be honest, from a culinary perspective, some people just don’t like the way food comes out when cooked in a nonstick pan. Some like that crusty brown finish that comes with food sticking to the pan and food that sticks just enough is a good thing to them. They also might not mind the extra oil or fat that goes into making that end result.
In summing up on stainless steel vs nonstick cookware
Many kitchens have at least one nonstick frying pan. The reasons are that these pans are easily affordable, an entry-level item, and more convenient to clean.
Regarding stainless steel and nonstick cookware, you can consider them as one versus the other but how about looking at what they can offer your kitchen together.
My take is that stainless steel cookware vs non stick cookware is not so much an either-or but rather a plus-plus when you combine them in your kitchen.
Use non stick for low-fat and delicate foods and stainless steel for all else. It doesn’t have to be stainless steel cookware vs nonstick cookware.
You can expand your collection and use each to best suit what works best for you and take advantage of the different cooking styles.
What’s the Difference Between Nonstick and Stainless Steel Cookware?
In summing up, there is a big difference between nonstick and stainless steel pans that means having both in your kitchen is useful.
What to look for in stainless steel
What to look for – a few things: the metal composition of the steel and its weight. A heavy pot will distribute heat evenly so your food is cooked evenly. You won’t have those hot spots that are a problem with lighter pans.
Composition wise, premium stainless steel cookware is now more affordable. These stainless steel pans can last forever. The main advantages of quality stainless steel cookware are its durability, robustness, resistance to rust and most stainless steel sets are induction-ready.
For a premium quality stainless steel pan, check out the sets from the Made-In company.
You can find out more about premium stainless steel in my article on Made-In’s premium 5-ply stainless steel cookware.
American Cancer Association on Teflon
Sajid, M., Ilyas, M. (2017) PTFE-coated non-stick cookware and toxicity concerns: a perspective. Environ Sci Pollut Res 24, 23436–23440 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11356-017-0095-y