If you’re looking to buy new or replacement pans if you’re better sticking to stainless or nonstick, check out this article. I cover their differences 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.
Why choose nonstick cookware? Nonstick cookware has a slippery smooth cooking surface that eases the release of food from the pan. This means less oil or fat for cooking and less stress as you get to enjoy the convenience of super easy cleanup.
Why choose stainless steel pans? Cooks choose stainless steel cookware because it’s robust and versatile for an array of cooking styles. This means high heat use for the browning of meats and vegetables, which adds flavor and appeal and a base for sauces and gravies.
Is stainless steel cookware better than nonstick? Stainless steel cookware is more robust, durable and versatile than nonstick. It will last you a lifetime but won’t give you the same convenience of easy cleanup and benefits of low-fat cooking offered by nonstick.
Stainless steel and nonstick cookware are both popular options for the home kitchen and widely available. The following compares them further.
Quick Comparision: Stainless steel vs nonstick
The following is a summary of these cookware types compared – the differences in practical terms, at a quick glance…
The most obvious difference between stainless steel and nonstick is their material composition. Of the two, stainless steel wins in durability and robustness. Nonstick leads in the ease of cleanup and affordability.
- Stainless steel comprises chromium and nickel but also smaller amounts of iron, carbon, and sometimes other metals such as copper.
- Nonstick cookware have an aluminum base, with a nonstick cooking surface, typically Teflon or ceramic.
Induction compatible designs have a magnetic base.
Quality stainless steel pots and pans will last you forever, as I said. The handles will likely fail before anything else. With a stainless steel fry pan vs nonstick, you’ll enjoy heavy-duty use, stacking, and fairly rough storage without too much worry.
While the cooking surface of a stainless steel pan will resist scratches and dents, a nonstick one will deteriorate over time. Some more than others. With proper care, they will last you a number of years before you might consider them no better than those rusty old pans.
To get the best longevity from your nonstick cookware, see the tips covered in my complete guide to using, caring for, and storing nonstick pans.
Like ceramic nonstick, quality stainless steel is considered nonreactive. So both are fine for cooking acidic foods, e.g., tomatoes or citrus in copper or aluminum ware, for example.
You might find white or rainbow staining with your stainless steel — I wrote about why this happens and how it’s easily fixed. With nonstick surfaces you can get staining from foods such as turmeric or tomato sauce if the surface is compromised and porous.
High heat use on stove top
High heat can tarnish and deteriorate nonstick coatings, though the latest designs, with added titanium, for example, are tougher than previous constructs. Stainless will handle higher heat than nonstick.
Both can be used in the oven, handles permitting. Metal handles are better for high temperature oven use than the Bakelite type or wooden ones. See my article on oven use of stove top cookware for a more in depth coverage.
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.
Stainless steel cookware in the 18/8 and 18/10 grade are food safe and resistant to leaching.
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 can adhere to stainless steel. If you’re not taking steps to avoid food sticking, 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?
Both 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.
The above might have you thinking. But let’s look more at their pros and cons and uses in more detail…
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.
- Well priced
- Lightweight to use
- Makes cleanup a breeze. It’s probably one step up from the microwave for convenience.
Cons of nonstick cookware
Most are not suitable for high heat use. According to their manufacturers, it will affect the longevity of the nonstick coating. With Teflon nonstick, use with very high temperatures raises concerns around health issues (see Nonstick Safe below). And, 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
- High heat use for browning. The bits left from browning food in a stainless steel pan can make flavorsome pan sauces by deglazing with wine, water, or broth.
- High temperatures means you can use it for almost any kind of cooking.
- Won’t chip or crack and is durable, lasting you years and years.
- Can 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.
- Ones with metal handles and lids can go in a very hot oven, as I note in “can put stovetop pans in the oven“.
Cons of stainless steel
Good quality stainless steel is fairly expensive. Also stainless steel pans are not as convenient at nonstick to clean. From frying 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.
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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
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.
Safety: Best option
As I wrote In What Is The Healthiest Cookware Material, stainless steel and ceramic appear to be two of the least toxic types of cookware on the market. But, is Stainless Steel Cookware Safe? Is nonstick cookware safe?
The wrap on healthy choice: stainless steel and nonstick
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 –> see more in my article on Teflon vs ceramic.
The leaching of nickel is the main concern for health conscious buyers of stainless steel and if this is a safety issue for you, be sure to check out my article that includes nickel-free stainless steel cookware options.
Which cookware is best? What should I get?
Stainless steel will last you much longer than nonstick. But, a quality nonstick pan is probably a kitchen essential and one every home cook would benefit from. 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.
Rather than one versus the other why not have both. They each offer advantages in the home kitchen.
How to combine stainless steel and nonstick
Here’s my suggestion on how you could combine the two types:
- Opt for one or two nonstick skillets. Use these for cooking eggs, pancakes, crepes, or delicate foods like flaky fish that are known to stick to a pan.
- Choose high-quality uncoated stainless steel for the rest of your cooking. Where you’re cooking with liquids, a nonstick coating is not that important.
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.
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.
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.
In summing up, there is a big difference between nonstick and stainless steel pans that means having both in your kitchen is useful.
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