Stainless Steel Vs Nonstick Cookware – 5 Tips On How To Choose

If you’re in the market for new cookware and are agonizing over the question of stainless steel vs nonstick cookware and which you should choose, here’s an easy answer:

Choose both!

Not what you wanted or expected to hear I’m sure. But hear me out.

I’m here to offer the suggestion that there can be a place and need for both and it’s not an either/or decision.

Having said that, I do want to provide you with a complete framework for making the best choice. So when it comes to choosing between stainless steel vs nonstick cookware:

The decision depends on the following 5 points:

  1. What you are cooking
  2. Your cooking personality
  3. Pros and Cons of each
  4. How safe is each of them
  5. Your personal preference

Let’s dig deeper into each of these.

1. What you are cooking

Yes, probably one of the most deciding factors on whether you should choose stainless steel vs nonstick cookware is your type of cooking.

Some foods are just better suited to certain types of cookware.  Or maybe I should say some cookware is just better suited to certain types of cooking?  Either way, it matters what you cook.

For example, stainless steel might be right for you if you:

  • Do a lot of searing on high heat
  • Like to deglaze i.e. release all the caramelized food stuck to the bottom of the pan (known as fond) with some hot liquid.  You won’t get any fond with nonstick cookware
  • Like a really crisp skin on meats like chicken
  • Make dishes that start out on the stove top and finish in the oven
  • Like frying and stir frying food
  • Don’t mind using sufficient butter or fat as that is one of the secrets to cooking with stainless steel. (link here)

On the other hand, nonstick cookware might be right for you if you:

  • Make a lot of egg and egg  based dishes
  • Make pancakes and crepes
  • Cook delicate foods like fish
  • Cook sticky foods like cheese or cheese based dishes
  • Want to use little fat or butter (though with so many healthy oils and fats available nowadays and reduction in overall fat phobia, this may or may not be a factor in your decision)
  • Only cook on low or medium low heat

These lists by no means suggest that you won’t or can’t have an overlap on the types of cooking you do.  It also doesn’t mean that there is any one perfect pan. But hopefully it can help you shortlist the most suitable option based on your cooking needs.

2. Your cooking personality

I’ve written about this before in my buyer guide on how to choose cookware.

Everyone (yes, everyone, including you and I!) has a cooking personality.  And in a simple world, it would be either one of 2 distinct cooking personalities:

  1. Those who cook because they love to
  2. Those who cook because they have to

In reality, it’s more like a spectrum and most of us fall somewhere between these two extremes, with shades of both in our cooking personality.

So, what kind of a home cook are you?

And how much does it matter when it comes to cookware choice?

Answer: a lot!

If you cook because you love to, you will most likely:

  • Be willing to invest in premium quality, higher end cookware that is likely to last a lifetime.
  • Be willing to invest in the learning curve that comes with certain cookware materials, in this case stainless steel.
  • Choose cookware that not only performs well but also looks good.  You love your cookware and are proud to display it in your kitchen.
  • Take the time and effort to maintain your cookware.  After months of use, your cookware is likely to still look new.
  • Hand wash your cookware after each use.  No dishwasher needed for your cookware.
  • Make sure that food tastes authentic and there is no possibility of metal leaching into your food.

If that sounds like you, you’re definitely a ‘cook because you love to’ kind of person and your choice of cookware would be stainless steel.

If you cook because you have to, you will most likely:

  • Want cookware that is low hassle, easy to maintain and clean.
  • Want cookware that is dishwasher safe.  You’re not one to stand scrubbing pots and pans by hand.
  • Value the convenience that comes with a nonstick cookware set.
  • Want decent quality but within a budget.  You have other things you’d rather spend on.
  • Not really care to display your cookware so if it shows some signs of wear, so be it.

So if you’re a ‘cook because you have to’ kind of person, your choice of cookware would be nonstick cookware.

It’s relevant to note here that in the cookware world, nonstick is considered a more ‘amateur’ choice. Professionals use nonstick as an exception rather than the norm.  Here you might be saying, “I’m no professional, I just want convenience”.  Guess what, you just proved that you’re a ‘have to cook’ kind of person and further proof that a nonstick set would be just the right fit for you.

What if you’re somewhere in the middle?

Now don’t beat yourself up if you find you’re somewhere between a ‘love to’ and ‘have to’ cook kind of person.  We all are.

For example, I consider myself a ‘cook because I have to’ person.

Which means I need convenience.  But to be honest, while nonstick cookware is highlighted for its convenience, I find it quite high maintenance – don’t scratch it, don’t overheat it and always wash with a soft sponge.  I want pots that can take use and abuse.  Additionally, I also find that food just tastes better in stainless steel cookware. So for anything other than eggs and crepes, I prefer to use a stainless steel pan.   So the ideal cookware for me is a high quality stainless steel set.  With a nonstick pan or two thrown in for the eggs and crepes.

Here’s a great nonstick set that’s perfect for both ‘love-to-cook’ and ‘have-to-cook’ personalities as well as anyone who falls somewhere along the spectrum – Caraway Cookware.

It’s a high end cookware with designer good looks and it performs fabulously in the kitchen.  Plus it’s got a durable ceramic coating which makes it really easy when it comes to cleaning up.   Excellent choice no matter where you fall on the cooking spectrum.  You can read my full review here. Or buy it here.

3. Pros and cons of each

No discussion of stainless steel vs nonstick cookware would be complete without a look at the pros and cons of each type of cookware.  

Pros and Cons of stainless steel cookware

Pros of stainless steel cookware

  • Generally inexpensive and easy to clean

  • Strong and long-lasting, with a clean, polished appearance that fits any décor.

  • High resistance to acidic foods.

  • Resists scratches and safe for metal utensils.

  • Low maintenance and lightweight for easy handling.

  • Withstands high temperatures with few issues.

  • 100% recyclable.

  • Generally considered one of the safest cookware materials around.

  • Generally oven safe, depending on material used for handles and/or lids

Cons of stainless steel cookware

  • Cooking generally requires more oil or butter than amounts required with nonstick cookware, and pre-soaking is often required when cleaning.

  • Heat distribution can be uneven, depending on the thickness of the aluminum or copper core. (choose a high-quality set for this reason)

  • Chromium may leach into food. Though chromium is a naturally occurring element considered an essential nutrient, allergic reactions may occur.

  • Small amounts of nickel may leach into food (particularly when steel has been scratched by abuse or abrasive scouring). While health agencies note that small amounts of nickel do not pose a health risk, they may trigger allergic reactions for people with nickel sensitivities.

Pros and Cons of nonstick cookware

Pros of nonstick cookware

  • Excellent for foods like eggs, crepes, pancakes, cheese, and delicate fish.

  • Easy to clean up.

  • Does not need much oil or fat (if low fat is a priority for you)

Cons of nonstick cookware

  • Cannot sear or brown food.

  • Cannot deglaze the fond of cooked protein unlike stainless steel.

  • Life of a nonstick pan is limited, on average 2-3 years.

  • Must be used on low to medium heat.

  • Not recommended for oven use, despite manufacturer claims

  • Needs maintenance and care to make sure the nonstick coating does not get scratched or overheated

  • In case of PTFE/Teflon type nonstick, some safety concerns as it can release toxic fumes when overheated.

4. How safe is each of them?

This is probably the single biggest reason why most readers find themselves debating between stainless steel vs nonstick cookware.  And not surprisingly, because there are so many perceptions and misconceptions when it comes to the safety of various cookware materials.

Let’s look at each of them.

Is nonstick cookware safe?

In one word: Yes

But for a more fair and accurate answer, this question needs to be broken down into 3 separate questions because there are 2 types of nonstick coated pans – PTFE (Teflon) coated and ceramic coated.   So, let’s get started:

Is PTFE/Teflon coated cookware safe?

Teflon on its own is an inert plastic like compound and even if you accidentally ingest a flaked off piece, it will simply pass through your system.

Only when it is heated to a high temperature like 500 degree F does Teflon start to deteriorate and release fumes which have been found harmful for birds and cause flu like symptoms in humans.

In ordinary use, pans are not usually heated to such a high temperature.  The thing to keep in mind is that it is very easy to accidentally hit a high temperature with these pans.  According to a test done by The Good Housekeeping Institute, it took an empty nonstick pan less than 2 minutes to heat up to over 500°F.   A pan with oil?  A whopping 2.5 minutes to hit 514°F.

So in a nutshell, yes, Teflon or PTFE is safe as long as you are diligent about not heating an empty pan or cooking on too high a temperature.

Is ceramic coated cookware safe?

Yes.

The coating is made without PTFE or PFOA, which is an important factor for  many people looking for a Teflon alternative.

Additionally, it is heat stable, meaning that even if you accidentally heat a ceramic coated pan beyond 450 C (that’s 842 F), it will not break down or emit any toxic fumes, unlike a Teflon coated pan.  Which means it’s safe for humans and pets.

Is ceramic nonstick safer than Teflon?

At normal cooking temperatures under 500 F : No!

A ceramic pan is no more or less safe than a PTFE (Teflon) coated pan.

At temperatures over 500 F: Yes!

PTFE or Teflon starts breaking down over 500 F, emitting fumes that are bad for the environment, harmful for birds and cause flu-like symptoms in humans.

Ceramic coating, on the other hand, won’t break down and emit fumes, even if you accidentally overheat a pan. 

For a full analysis of Ceramic vs Teflon, read here.

Is stainless steel cookware safe?

I’ve covered this in great detail in my stainless steel cookware write up.  But to sum it up:

Yes.  Stainless steel cookware is generally recognized as one of the safest and most non-reactive materials for cookware.

It is low maintenance, durable and gives you no worries about any nonstick coating disintegrating or releasing fumes.

There is a caveat though.  Stainless steel, while relatively inert compared to other metals, can leach nickel and chromium into food in low quantities. The amount leached depends on the grade of the stainless steel, the cooking time and the cookware usage.  The good news is that according to Health Canada, the amount leached does not pose a risk hazard for most people.

I say most because it is an issue for people who are sensitive to nickel (an estimated 15-20% of the population) and those people are absolutely advised to use cookware that is free of nickel.

If that’s you, then head over to my list of 7 nickel free cookware options.

But if you’re specifically looking for a nickel free stainless steel option, the best choice is Homi Chef.  Made with JYH21CT Japanese standard 21/0 steel, it contains 21% chromium and 0% nickel and has garnered excellent reviews from users.

5. Your personal preference

Forget all the reasoning and logic, sometimes you just have to cut through the noise and choose cookware based on what you like.

Example, you might love the idea of getting stainless steel cookware that will last you a long long time.  But you’re also aware that your cooking skills are basic (nothing wrong with that – we know that stainless steel cookware does come with a learning curve) and your life craves the convenience and ease of clean up of nonstick cookware. 

In this case your personal preference wins and the best choice for you in stainless steel vs nonstick cookware is nonstick.

Or you might be like me. I love the convenience of nonstick cookware in that it’s so easy to clean.  But I also find nonstick cookware high maintenance since it’s so easy to ruin the nonstick coating, either by scratching or overheating.  More importantly, I just find that food tastes better in a stainless steel pot.  Maybe it’s the sear. Maybe it’s the fond.  And maybe’s it just my perception! 

So for me, my personal preference is stainless steel cookware with a couple of nonstick fry pans on the side for delicate foods.

In conclusion….

It’s a given – there’s no perfect pan.  But if you’re still confused in the choice between stainless steel vs nonstick cookware, I have a few suggestions for you: 

Suggestion #1: Stainless steel + 1-2 nonstick fry pans

(This happens to be my choice!): 

Choose a high quality stainless steel set and add 1-2 nonstick fry pans for delicate foods like eggs, crepes and pancakes.

Because in my opinion and experience, every home cook needs at least one non stick pan. 

Can you make a stainless steel pan nonstick?  In theory yes, and it can be summed up in 4 words: hot pan, cold oil.  You can read more here but in my experience, while it works for most cooking, I find it just doesn’t work for foods like crepes, pancakes and eggs.  Take my word for it – or better still read about my 3 experiments to cook eggs in 3 nonstick alternative pans.

Best choice for stainless steel cookware: Made In cookware

stainless steel vs nonstick made in cookware

Best choice for nonstick fry pan

High quality (replace every 3+ years): Made In Cookware Nonstick Fry Pan

Mid range nonstick fry pan (replace every 2 years): Tefal Nonstick Fry pan

Suggestion # 2: Stainless steel with nonstick coating

This is a ‘best of both worlds’ option. You get the durability and strength of stainless steel, the heat conducting capability of aluminum via an encapsulated base and the convenience of nonstick coating. Plus if you have an induction stove and want nonstick cookware, your best choice would be stainless steel with nonstick coating since the steel allows the pans to be induction friendly,

Best choice for stainless steel with nonstick coating: Farberware stainless steel nonstick cookware set.

Buy Farberware stainless steel nonstick cookware here

Suggestion # 3: High quality ceramic coated nonstick cookware

Ideal for both ‘love to cook’ and ‘have to cook’ personalities, you can’t go wrong with this option.   Also a no brainer if you want to avoid PTFE based cookware.

Best choice for ceramic nonstick cookware: Caraway cookware

Stainless steel vs nonstick cookware - Caraway ceramic coated cookware

Caraway is one of the newer entrants in the cookware market, offering premium, high quality ceramic cookware free of any toxins.


Buy Caraway Cookware here

Suggestion #4: Hard anodized aluminum nonstick cookware

A perfectly good choice if you just want to get on with it and make a decision. It’s also easy on the pocket and you get excellent food release, making cooking a breeze.

Best choice for hard anodized aluminum nonstick cookware: Rachael Ray Brights Cookware

Buy Rachael Ray Brights Nonstick Cookware Here

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