My grandmother had only two pans she used for most of her life, heavy cast iron and stainless steel. Each had a specific set of tasks it was meant for, and she took great care of them.
However, once she hit her 80s, she switched to non-stick. As a child, I thought nothing about it. But, looking back, it was just time. Her old pans were great, but they were proving to be a lot of work and difficult to handle. The non-stick had a few quirks, but it was overall more convenient to use.
Unfortunately, you are not my grandma. If you were, you would make the best cakes ever, and you would already know which type of pan is better for you.
It’s your lucky day because my grandma taught me how to share. So, let’s take a look at this stainless steel vs nonstick showdown, and see which one is your winning choice.
Is stainless steel better than non-stick?
If you ask me, yes. But if you ask me to be a bit more objective, it depends.
Stainless steel cookware is more durable and versatile, and often more budget-friendly. On the other hand, nonstick is easier and more convenient to use.
As always, we have to go back to what’s your cooking style, how often do you cook, and what foods are on the menu.
For example, for a small or a minimalist kitchen, all you need is a frying pan, a 2-quart saucepan, and a stockpot or a dutch oven. With those three, you can cook almost anything that comes to mind. In that case, it makes sense to go for a universal nonstick pan since you will be able to use it to cook fish, meat, eggs, crepes, stir-frys, and a whole host of other foods.
But, if your skill level is anything beyond beginner, you can get more out of a stainless steel pan. It’s better for browning and developing flavors, as well as some cooking tasks that require a clear view of how colors are changing in the pan (ie caramelizing onions for the French onion soup).
What should I cook in a stainless steel pan?
All foods that could scratch the surface of other pans (ie toasting peanuts) and acidic foods like tomatoes or pickled cabbage. Anything with a lot of sauce and pan stews will be great, as well as shallow frying and sauteing.
What should I cook in a non-stick pan?
Non-stick is perfect for eggs, fish, cheese, and caramel. It’s also great for stir-frying meats and veggies in sticky sauces, and it handles acidic foods better than classic seasoned pans.
Is stainless steel safer than non-stick?
Overall, yes. But, if we look at specific brands and coating formulas, it doesn’t have to be so.
Let me tell you the story of Teflon. When it appeared on everything, people were amazed at its non-stick properties. However, they were not so amazed when they learned that it can give you the big C.
However, a bunch of boffins went back to the drawing board and figured out who’s the baddie and what to avoid,
When you’re shopping for nonstick cookware, look for ones that are PFOA-free. Perfluorooctanoic acid, also known as C8, is the stuff that has ties to cancer.
Still, take all other precautions. Mainly, don’t use metal utensils and knives with a non-stick pan. Try not to bang it, and check for chips before cooking.
Can stainless steel be nonstick?
Yes, if you season it. Seasoning a stainless steel pan works almost exactly the same as seasoning a cast-iron one.
However, there is a slight difference in how long the seasoning will hold due to the difference in surfaces. Everything else, from the process to maintenance, is the same.
How to season stainless steel pans
Start with choosing the right oil. Cast iron, carbon steel, and stainless steel all have oils that work best with them. In our case, it’s a high smoke point oil like peanut, grapeseed, and plain vegetable oil.
Start by giving the pan a thorough wash. Dry completely and apply a thin coat of oil all over the cooking area.
Time to heat things. Place the pan over high heat and keep there until the oil starts smoking. Repeat the process once or twice more if this is your first seasoning session.
The pan’s seasoning will naturally “top up” every time you cook. However, if you find that the food is sticking, you can repair the seasoning by applying another coat of oil and heating it until it smokes.
Just like with a cast iron pan, you want to avoid using detergents and abrasive materials. You can use soapy water if necessary. and you may want to invest in one of those chainmail scrubbers.
Avoid cooking a lot of acidic foods since the pan can’t handle them as well as it used to now that it’s seasoned. If you do, go for a quick round of re-seasoning with a single coat of oil before next use.
Why do chefs use stainless steel pans?
Go watch any show with Gordon Ramsay. Okay, what did you notice?
Right, chefs don’t tend to be very gentle when handling their cookware. This is why you will see a lot of stainless steel, carbon steel, and cast iron in professional kitchens. Stainless steel is a favorite of the bunch since it can handle abuse better than the others.
The other reason is performance. These pans work great with any heat source and can easily go from hob to oven.
And then there’s the fond. Most restaurants have at least a couple of dishes on a menu that come with a pan sauce. The best way to make great pan sauce is to sear meat in an unseasoned stainless steel pan and allow bits to stick to the bottom. Then when you add wine, stock, butter, or whatever else to deglaze it, those bits boost the umami of the sauce.
You can make a pan sauce in a non-stick or a seasoned pan the same way, but it won’t be as good.
Does non-stick have a bigger ecological impact?
Yes, after all, it’s not fairy dust that’s making that pan non-stick, but heavy chemicals.
You should be familiar with the Dupont and Teflon story by now. If you’re no, go watch Dark Waters and get angry. Anyway, when those chemicals leech into the environment, the entire ecosystem is at risk, including the humble homo sapiens.
These days, companies are a bit better in this aspect, but you can never know for sure. So, if this is something you care about, make sure to do your research properly.
There’s also a question of recycling. Since stainless steel cookware is usually only steel and aluminum, it’s a lot easier to recycle. On the other hand, non-stick pans tend to have layers of different materials, and not all of them are always recyclable.
Which ones are a better buy, stainless steel or non-stick pans?
A stainless steel pan will have a longer lifespan than a non-stick one.
It all comes down to the non-stick coating. Even if you are careful and use the right tools, eventually it will start to deteriorate.
But, if you are going to own only one pan, maybe non-stick is a better choice. That same pan will make you an omelet in the morning, a stir-fry for lunch, and steak for dinner. You can follow it up with a Tarte Tatin or chocolate crepes after.
In short, a plain non-stick pan is a bigger multitasker than a stainless steel one.
Which ones are easier to maintain, stainless steel or non-stick pans?
Depends if you are seasoning the stainless steel pans or not. Here’s how it goes in detail.
Unseasoned stainless steel pans are the easiest to use, clean, store, etc. You don’t have to worry about what utensils you’re using, they can go in the dishwasher, and there is very little that can damage them.
Non-stick pans are in the middle, mostly because you have to be careful which utensils you’re using. And scratching non-stick pans is not only bad for the but you as well.
And the most labor-intensive are seasoned stainless steel ones. Basically, you can’t wash them with soap or in a dishwasher because you will remove the seasoning. Even if you’re good at that front, you may need to preseason the pans from time to time.
In the end, what works best for you will work best for you. Just because I prefer stainless steel over non-stick doesn’t mean that stainless is the right choice for you.
Always keep in mind what types of foods are on the menu at your house and how your pans should handle them. Then think about how much effort you want to put into those pans. If you find them dreadful to maintain, you will avoid using them as well.
I leave you with these final answers. If the rest of this piece didn’t help you make a decision, they may seal the deal.
Who should get stainless steel pans?
Someone who wants durability, longevity, doesn’t mind some extra maintenance, and who builds pan sauces often.
Who should get non-stick pans?
A casual home cook that doesn’t want to spend time seasoning or scrubbing pans.
Should you just get both?
Maybe. You can have the stainless steel one for recipes where you build pan sauces, and the non-stick one for sticky and delicate foods (ie eggs or fish).