Stainless Steel vs. Nonstick Pans: Which Are Better for You?

Published on 11/01/2023 · 9 min readDive into the great kitchen debate: Stainless Steel vs. Nonstick pans. Our comprehensive comparison sheds light on the pros, cons, and best uses of each!
Jane M., Kitchen Expert
By Kitchen Expert Jane M.

Photo by Zhuravlev Andrey

TL;DR: Thinking about buying nonstick or stainless steel pans? Figuring out which type of pan to use depends on what you’re cooking, where you’re cooking it, how many people you’re cooking for, and—as with any kitchen product—your budget.

This year, I’ve been visiting different homes as a traveling housesitter. Where I’m currently staying, I’ve had a tough time making decent eggs. Believe me, I’ve tried! Here, I have only two pan options – a stainless steel sauté pan and an old nonstick frying pan whose coating has worn down. Unfortunately, neither pan has worked well for making eggs (and I’m not keen on using the nonstick pan when it would be better to replace it).

I’ve tried a few strategies, like using a lot of oil and butter (avoiding that is one of the benefits of a nonstick pan), without much success. The eggs still stick, and my typically “sunny-side-up” disposition has definitely veered toward “sunny-side-down.”

Instead of making this a stainless steel versus nonstick argument, I think it’s more of a stainless steel and nonstick situation. Most home cooks will want at least one of each. My personal collection also includes a Lodge cast iron pan, and I like having an enameled cast iron skillet, too (my favorites are Staub and Le Creuset). You might find you like having a carbon steel option as well, which is the traditional material used in woks and is great for stir-frying. A wish list item for me would be to also own at least one copper pan, such as a Mauviel or Ruffoni.

What Are Stainless Steel and Nonstick Pans?

Stainless Steel Pans

Photo by Peter Kim

Stainless steel cookware comes from a variety of vendors at a wide range of prices. These pans are generally more expensive than nonstick pans, but there’s a reason: overall, they’re more durable.

The versatility of stainless steel is a plus. You can use it to fry, sauté, boil, braise, brown, and sear food. Stainless steel can withstand higher heat, and it can go from the stovetop into the oven. For example, I use my All-Clad 3qt sauté pan to make everything from filet mignon to shakshuka, a brunch favorite featuring baked eggs in a spicy tomato base (there are those eggs again!).

It’s fair to say that All-Clad dominates the stainless steel space, but other names you’ll recognize include Calphalon, Zwilling, KitchenAid, Anolon, and Hestan. In general, you’re going to spend over $100 to $250 and upwards for a high-quality stainless steel pan from a reputable brand.

Nonstick Pans

Photo by G. Capture

I often use my Swiss Diamond 12.5-inch nonstick frying pan for making anything that I know runs the risk of sticking, like silver-dollar pancakes, eggs, fried tofu, or delicate fish. Nonstick pans are generally less expensive than stainless steel pans (although this Swiss Diamond one was $199).

Nonstick pans don’t necessarily have the same flexibility with temperature as stainless steel. They’re not designed for high heat, and they’re often not meant to go into the oven (Swiss Diamond is rated to go into the oven up to 500°F).

You will find the term “hard anodized” for some pans, which means that the surface has been treated to have a durable, corrosion-resistant finish. Many home cooks like the ease of nonstick pans, not only for cooking with an easy release but also for ease of cleaning.

What to Consider When Buying Nonstick or Stainless Steel Pans

1. Cooktop

Photo by M. Production

It’s important to read the manufacturer’s product specifications regarding types of stovetops. Induction stovetops require flat-bottomed pans that are ideally optimized for induction cooking. Not all pans—either nonstick or stainless steel—will work for induction. Stainless steel tends to be better for gas or electric stovetops when used in higher temperatures.

2. Oven-Safe Temperature

Photo by Dovzhykov Andriy

Many nonstick pans are not designed to go into the oven, while others may be safe up to a certain temperature. Follow the manufacturer’s guidelines. For a dish that you start on the stovetop but then put into the oven for broiling, such as a Mediterranean rice and shrimp dish that I love to make, stainless steel (or another material like enameled cast iron) will be what you need.

3. Durability

Not all stainless steel is the same. Overall, stainless steel pans are built to endure. The bonding and ply will clue you in about the quality. Traditional nonstick pans, which tend to degrade over time, generally need to be replaced.

4. Size and Style

Pans come in various measurements, but 8-inch,10-inch, and 12-inch tend to be classic sizes, and you’ll likely use a variety of sizes depending on the amount of servings. You also need to think about what cooking you do most frequently to determine whether you want a frying pan, sauté pan, or skillet. They all offer different features related to the sides of the pan, heat conductivity, and targeted recipes.

Some vendors pay particular attention to offering longer handles for ease of moving the pans around on the stovetop. Check the size if you think you’ll be putting your pan into the oven. Some handles are also designed to go into the oven and cool down fast when taken out.

I like the Goldilocks approach for pans—ideally, it’s great to have one small, one medium, and one large pan. If you buy a cookware set, you’ll typically be equipped with a couple sizes of frying pans as well as a sauté pan.

5. Cleaning & Maintenance

Photo by Kira Yan

A bonus of nonstick pans is easy cleanup. Remember not to scour them with abrasive cleaners or to use metal tools or spatulas that can damage the coating. Stainless steel pans, unlike cast iron, can be left to soak, and they can require more muscle than nonstick pans to get them clean.

Regardless of which material you use, I always recommend being vigilant about cleaning. Over time, stainless steel bottoms get brown and black marks, and some pans get stuck-on stains. I am big on elbow grease with baking powder and other natural cleaners like lemon and vinegar to keep pans shining like they’re brand new.

I know lots of people who stick everything in the dishwasher, including all of their pots and pans. See what manufacturers say about their pans being dishwasher-safe. I’m a fan of handwashing pans, which gives you better control of keeping them clean and lasting.

One boon for both stainless steel and nonstick pans is that they are relatively low-maintenance and don’t need to be seasoned like cast iron or polished like copper. I once stayed at a chef’s home whose stainless steel pans had essentially black bottoms and some caked-on stains. I have to admit that I made some scallops using one of this chef’s frying pans, and they turned out to be about the best scallops I have ever made, perfectly browned yet still delicate and moist on the inside. That certainly challenged my thoughts on shiny, clean pans!

6. Price & Warranty

Given the innovations in nonstick technologies, some pans in this category aren’t necessarily that much less expensive than their stainless steel cousins. You can still find plenty of options under $100, though, and they can save you money when you’re starting out. Nonstick is great for less complicated styles of cooking, too.

A high-quality stainless steel pan is something you’ll have for years, so they’re a good investment. They often come with lifetime warranties or limited lifetime warranties.

What Are the Different Types of Stainless Steel and Nonstick Pans?

Stainless Steel: 3-ply vs. 5-ply

One of the things you’ll see as a differentiator among stainless steel pans is whether they are 3-ply or 5-ply and the type of metal used in the core. To get the best heat conductivity, manufacturers bond the exterior layers of stainless steel around aluminum or copper, which retain and distribute heat consistently. Copper is the best heat conductor and, thus, the most expensive option.

All-Clad, for example, makes both 3-ply and 5-ply lines. You might find other materials like the Hestan NanoBond Titanium Skillet, a titanium coating that Hestan adds to its stainless steel exterior, which the company says is stick-resistant and more durable than typical stainless steel. It’s a premium option at $450.

Curated kitchen expert Joe Gargano says, “No matter what type of range you are cooking on, the more layers you can afford, the better the heat distribution."

Nonstick: Traditional Nonstick (PTFE Coating) vs. Ceramic Coating

There are two categories of nonstick pans. Since 2013, nonstick cookware made with perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA)—what was commonly in Teflon—has been replaced with what is considered the safer polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) that is now used in Teflon instead. To learn more about the risks associated with PFOA, Curated’s “What Is PFOA-Free Cookware?” is a helpful primer.

Today’s PTFE-based nonstick cookware is considered safe and non-toxic, but note that the coating can be damaged by high heat. It’s also the high heat that can give off unhealthy fumes, which is why it’s not recommended to preheat a nonstick pan in the same way you might with metal. With nonstick, it’s best to stick to low or medium heat.

The aforementioned Swiss Diamond uses a PTFE-based coating with proprietary technology that includes ground diamonds in the coating to improve durability. Other well-known brands in the nonstick space include Analon and Scanpan, and All-Clad has nonstick options, too.

For those interested in PTFE-free cooking, companies like Zwilling offer different coating options, such as a 3-layer “Granitium” coating on top of an aluminum bottom. GreenPan, KitchenAid, and Caraway are other popular options for ceramic coatings (which actually isn’t ceramic—see the Buying Guide Snapshot below).

Buying Guide Snapshot

Choose the Best Stainless Steel and Nonstick Pans for Your Kitchen

Photo by Pavlo Burdyak

When I finally was able to invest in a few higher-quality stainless steel pans, I felt like my cooking improved immensely. I also think a couple of nonstick pans are important to have in your repertoire, particularly for breakfast dishes. Since I regularly eat eggs that I make just for myself, an 8-inch nonstick is an essential item for me.

I am definitely a fan of investing in at least one All-Clad or similar quality pan, which will boost your confidence when cooking. I also carefully store my good pans, preferring not to stack them in a way that would potentially damage coatings or cause scratches.

Reach out to a Curated Kitchen Expert to get the best advice on what pans will be right for you.

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