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Whether you have an arsenal of pots pans and are trying to pick the right one for preparing a particular dish or are new to cooking and out to buy your first pan or set, deciding between stainless steel vs nonstick cookware can have a huge impact on your enjoyment in the kitchen.
The wrong choice can result in ruined recipes, frustrating cleanups, or even costly cookware needing to be dumped in the trash.
While stainless steel and nonstick cookware shouldn’t be seen as opposing enemies, it’s important to understand their differences in order to select the right instrument to help bring your culinary visions to the plate beautifully.
When I moved away from home for the first time, I took a single nonstick pan. It was a nice one, picked by my mother, similar to this
Sometimes mother really does know best! Throughout my college years I simmered beans in it, fried eggs, made omelets seemingly all times of day and night and even impressed my friends with my sister’s crepe recipe on occasion. It seemed like the best pan for everything, because “everything” during that period entailed a lot of simple food that didn’t require high heats or fancy techniques.
Plus, as a student, a pan that cooked with consistent results and required little maintenance was ultimately attractive. My nonstick pan was one step up from the microwave; I had graduated to cooking my own food without having to commit to complicated cleaning or fussing over my cookware.
Of course, since becoming more interested in culinary pursuits, I’ve acquired an array of pots and pans including cast iron and stainless steel pieces. I now treasure my cast iron skillet above all and am learning (somewhat apprehensively!) to hone the power of stainless steel as a cooking surface.
While many culinary authorities voice adamant opposition to any and all types of nonstick cooking vessels, there are those who see the value of nonstick cookware. As a home chef, the views of these more moderate professionals are welcome relief in deciding what cookware to purchase or use. As touched on above, having an idea of what type of cooking you want or need to do is essential to sorting out the voices in this discussion.
In one of her Cooking Channel blog posts, culinary student Larisa Alvarez concedes that while nonstick pans are “the exception rather than the rule” in most professional kitchens, she used them at the French Culinary Institute on omelet day and crepe day.
A Q&A respondent for The Kitchen, a daily web-based food magazine, says she uses non-stick pans for things like eggs (picking up on a theme, yet?), delicate fish, and even good ol’ pancakes.
Nonstick pans are convenient and are indeed the best available option for fragile fare like eggs and flaky varieties of fish. Plus, unlike stainless steel or cast iron, nonstick pans don’t require much oil, butter or lard to keep food from sticking, which can help you maintain healthier cooking and eating habits.
That being said, nonstick pans have their drawbacks.Many people mistakenly assume their number one downfall is the health risk associated with nonstick coating getting scratched or chipping off into food and being consumed, however, there is no scientific consensus on this.The EPA and FDA claim Teflon particulates are not harmful to human health (similar to how iron leaching from cast iron cookware into food isn’t considered problematic).
Some research indicates over exposure of certain nonstick pans made of Teflon (just one of the nonstick cooking materials now on the market) to high heat results in dangerous “off-gassing” of toxic fumes.Toby Amidor, FoodNetwork.com’s nutrition expert, claims this possibility is no more threatening than the fumes given off by everyday cooking oils.
Still, the smell of an overheated nonstick pan can be less than appetizing, and after whipping up a tasty treat, no one would want to come across a Teflon flake mid-bite.Therefore, it’s important to understand and accommodate the properties of nonstick pans if you’re going to use one.
The two most important principles are:
- Avoidance of abrasive or sharp utensils on nonstick surfaces
- Maintenance of low or medium heats.
This means you should only use wooden or silicone spoons and spatulas in your nonstick pans (metal will scratch, plastic will melt) and should never expose them to high heats or put them in the oven. You can also reduce the risk of smelly overheating by putting food or oil into your pan before turning on the heat. Nonstick pans should not be preheated.
This leads us to another limitation of nonstick cookware:
you cannot easily or consistently achieve crisped, golden or browned food in a nonstick pan. This is because forming a crust or sear on food requires high heats and adherence at the micro level of some food to the cooking surface.
Nonstick pans, as per their nomenclature, don’t allow for this adherence and are not made to withstand the temperatures necessary to sear anyway.
Because you can’t brown or sear food in nonstick pans, you cannot deglaze in them either. This means you cannot make the most of the morsels and juices a piece of meat would leave behind in a stainless pan by developing them into delicious sauces with the help of a little wine, stock or water. If you want to deglaze, stainless reigns supreme.
- Easy cleanup
- Prevents delicate food like flaky fish and eggs from sticking
- Does not require a great deal of oil, butter or lard
- Cannot withstand high heat
- Does not allow for browning or searing of food, or deglazing
- May not last as long, since the nonstick coating can be scratched and compromised
- some people worry potential safety issues
To my mind, every home chef needs at least one nonstick pan. Even if you’re committed to elevating your cooking to the level of cast iron and stainless steel, when you’re in the mood for quick scrambled eggs or an impromptu crepe, you’ll be happy to reach for it.
If you’ve ever watched a cooking show, you know celebrity kitchens are full of glistening stainless steel cookware. The professionals all agree; stainless steel is the material of choice when it comes to cooking vessels.
Stainless steel is extremely durable and, unlike nonstick cookware, can withstand high heats and even go in the oven. When a proper amount of oil, butter or lard is used, an experienced cook can sear, brown or crisp in stainless steel with ease.
Furthermore, those tidbits left behind by browning food in a stainless steel pan can be used to create unparalleled pan sauces by deglazing with wine, water or broth. So, why not use all stainless, all the time?
Stainless steel cookware requires a certain level of culinary maturity to cook with and maintain. While it doesn’t demand the seasoning regimen cast iron does, stainless steel is overall less forgiving with food than either nonstick or cast iron pans. Nonstick pans are manufactured specifically to prevent food from sticking and cast iron develops a patina that serves as a natural nonstick surface. Clean stainless steel pans, however, feature absolutely no nonstick element.
Cooks using stainless steel have to be comfortable both employing the right amount of oil, butter or lard and preheating that substance to the appropriate temperature without burning it. Then, proper heat has to be maintained throughout the cooking of a dish once the main ingredients are added.
Failure to oil and preheat a stainless steel pan properly can result in irreparable sticking, and the same thing will happen with overheating. Essentially, until a cook really knows a recipe and the pan it’s being cooked in, something being prepared in stainless steel requires constant tending to.
The trick to making it nonstick is in the way that you cook with it.
If you have been using other nonstick cookware you will no doubt start your cooking when the pan is relatively cool still so as to not burn off thenon-stick layer.
The secret to cooking with stainless steel and it not sticking is the opposite, you heat the pan up until is hot enough for what you are looking to cook and then you add the food. This is how the professional chefs cook.
. If you know what you need to cook and how you need to cook it then you will also know what type of cookware you need.
The answer to this question is that both stainless and nonstick cookware are in fact nonstick. You just need the right conditions for this to happen
Like any new cookware that you purchase you will have to learn what are the right temperatures to get the best out of stainless steel
The necessity of oil, butter or lard in stainless steel cooking is also a turn off for some people who would rather cook foods, like fish, chicken, or even veggies, in their natural juices for health reasons. While there are many relatively healthful oil options, if you are opposed to adding oil or butter to your food, or want to have at least one pan that doesn’t require oil or butter, pick nonstick.
Another result of the truly no nonstick reality of stainless steel is its tendency to become spotted and discolored. Chefs and home cooks alike find it frustrating when their beautiful “stainless” steel turns into “stained” steel as they cook with it more often.
The luster of your stainless steel can be compromised by food stuck on the pan during and after use and even trace amounts of calcium in your tap water. Whereas you can be relatively laissez-faire with nonstick pans (“It’s in the sink; I’ll clean it later!”) stainless steel necessitates more diligence if you don’t want it stained and in need of serious elbow grease to get it back to its former glory.
Finally, good stainless steel is a financial investment. Good Housekeeping ranked 23 stainless steel cookware sets, and the top performers, including a set by Demeyere Atlantis
and another by All-Clad sell for over $600 a piece. In addition to other design elements, aluminum core construction of the pans in these highbrow sets translates into even heat distribution.
At this point, I may have scared you off from stainless steel, but let me right the record: we cook on stainless steel frequently in my house. We’re blessed with a FiveStar range that has a built in stainless steel griddle. With the right amount of oil, we sear chicken, chops and steaks, and of course cook bacon, pancakes and over-easy eggs on it. It’s also great for sautéing vegetables.
If you don’t have your own built in gas griddle, but want to have some fun with stainless, the Little Griddle SQ180 and Little Griddle GQ230 Professional Series are awesome culinary toys for your gas or charcoal barbecue.
Cuisinart’s Stir-Fry Pan and Open Skillet are also extremely popular and highly rated stainless cookware options that are surprisingly affordable.
Of course, there are hundreds of options for stainless pots and pans, depending on your budget. You can see the Good Housekeeping article in the Additional Reading list below for more inspiration.
And, to help you decide whether you should purchase or use stainless steel for a given recipe or to grow your cookware collection:
- High heat tolerance
- Long lasting
- Allows for browning and searing of food, and deglazing for pan-sauces
- Requires careful attention during cooking and diligent maintenance after use
- Risks sticking and ruined food if not properly oiled and preheated
- May be an expensive investment
There is an art to cleaning Stainless steel cookware. The way that you clean this type of cookware should be completely different to the way that you are cleaning nonstick cookware or even ceramic cookware.
We have also written a few guides to help you when it comes to cleaning.
A well-stocked kitchen boasts more than fresh and tasty ingredients; it also has well-maintained cookware ready to handle any recipe.
Given the pros and cons of both stainless steel and nonstick cookware, it’s clear that no professional chef or home cook would put them in an either-or competition.
If you are considering purchasing your first or a new piece of cookware: consider what and how you’ll cook with the pan you’re going to bring home.
Do you want to sear, brown and deglaze, or do you want to cook quick meals, throw your pan in the sink, and run out the door?
How we cook and eat is a huge part of our lifestyle, and our cookware is, too. Stainless steel and nonstick cookware stand to compliment one another as we pursue our culinary adventures.
- High heats
- Sautéing with appropriate amounts of oil or butter
- Low and medium heats
- Delicate fish
- Cooking with less or no oil, butter or lard
Links for Additional Reading