Are you shopping for new pots and pans but can’t decide between stainless steel and aluminum?
What’s the difference between these two materials? What are the pros and cons of each?
In this comparison of stainless steel vs. aluminum cookware, I’ll answer these questions. You’ll learn how they differ in construction, design, cooking performance, lifespan, price, and more.
By the end, you’ll be able to decide which cookware type is best for your cooking needs.
Use the links below to navigate the comparison:
- Stainless Steel vs. Aluminum Cookware: Comparison Chart
- Difference 1: Materials and Construction
- Difference 2: Design
- Difference 3: Food Release
- Difference 4: Browning and Searing
- Difference 5: Oven-Safe Temperature
- Difference 6: Broiler Safe
- Difference 7: Induction Compatibility
- Difference 8: Lifespan
- Difference 9: Weight and Maneuverability
- Difference 10: Cleaning and Care
- Difference 11: Price
- Bottom Line: Should You Buy Stainless Steel or Aluminum Cookware?
If you’re in a hurry, the chart below provides a quick side-by-side comparison of stainless steel vs. aluminum cookware.
|Stainless Steel Cookware
|Stainless steel with an aluminum or copper core
|Aluminum or hard-anodized aluminum with ceramic or PTFE non-stick coating
|Traditional and sleek
|Modern and colorful
|Needs oil or fat to help with food release
|Food releases easily due to non-stick coating
|Browning and Searing
|Ideal for browning, searing, and other high-heat cooking
|Not ideal for searing due to non-stick coating
|Used to sear, braise, or fry a wide variety of foods
|Used primarily for preparing delicate foods, such as eggs
|500°F on average
|450°F on average
|Only if a steel plate is bonded to the bottom
|Weight (12-inch fry pan)
|Cleaning and Care
|Harder to clean; requires occasional polishing
|Easier to clean, but abrasive cleaning methods will ruin non-stick coating
|$$-$$$$ (view on Amazon)
|$-$$$ (view on Amazon)
Difference 1: Materials and Construction
Aluminum cookware is available in many forms, but the two main types are standard and hard-anodized aluminum.
Standard aluminum is affordable and highly conductive but reacts to acidic foods, leaving behind a metallic taste. To prevent this reactive, cookware manufacturers apply a PTFE (Teflon) or ceramic non-stick coating to the cooking surface.
Years ago, cookware manufacturers made uncoated hard-anodized aluminum cookware since the oxidized exterior layer is non-reactive. But in the 1980s, brands began applying non-stick coatings to make cooking and cleaning more convenient.
Today, almost all standard and hard-anodized aluminum cookware has a non-stick coating applied to the cooking surface. In other words, food sits on top of the coating and never touches the aluminum.
Before 2013, dangerous chemicals were used to process non-stick coatings, causing people to ditch aluminum cookware. But since then, all modern non-stick cookware is PFOA-free and safe to use, as long as you don’t severely overheat it.
Stainless steel is a strong, non-reactive material, but it’s not a great conductor of heat. So to make stainless steel cookware, manufacturers bond the outer steel layers with more conductive core materials.
In most cases, the inside and outside layers of stainless steel are bonded to an aluminum (sometimes copper) core.
This layer is necessary because stainless steel is durable and non-reactive, but it’s a poor heat conductor. On the other hand, aluminum and copper are excellent at transferring and distributing heat, but they’re not nearly as strong as steel.
Stainless steel cookware is usually available in 3- or 5-ply, although some brands, like Demeyere Atlantis, go up to 7-ply. The term ‘ply’ Ply refers to the layers of bonded materials in stainless steel cookware.
The term “fully-clad” means the layering is present throughout the cookware. “Impact-bonded” or “disc-bonded” means the layered metals are only bonded to the cookware’s base but not up the sides. Generally, fully-clad stainless steel cookware is more durable and heats more evenly than impact-bonded.
Most high-quality stainless steel pans are made of 18/10 stainless steel, which contains 18% chromium and 10% nickel. Chromium and nickel make the steel resistant to corrosion and rust and give it a high-polish finish.
Some stainless steel cookware comes with a non-stick coating similar to the coating on aluminum cookware. For example, this Made In fry pan has a 5-ply stainless steel base and a PTFE non-stick coating.
Regular aluminum cookware is available in a range of modern and colorful designs. However, that’s not the case with hard-anodized aluminum.
The process of making aluminum hard-anodized creates a thick coating of aluminum oxide on the metal. As a result, hard-anodized cookware is typically only available in dark gray or black metallic shades.
Calphalon is best known for its hard-anodized aluminum cookware that features a dark exterior and brushed steel handles.
Caraway takes a more modern and fun approach. Its aluminum non-stick cookware comes in bright and bold colors like sage, navy, marigold, and perracotta (a mix of terracotta and pink).
Tramontina offers a unique brushed aluminum bottom, dark non-stick coating, and red silicone-wrapped handle.
Stainless steel cookware has a more traditional look. The finish is either brushed (satin) or polished (shiny), but the exact texture and design vary by brand.
For example, All-Clad offers several lines of stainless steel cookware. The D3 collection features a polished finish with straight, double-riveted handles.
The D5 collection has a more sleek look with a brushed, matte finish.
The Copper Core collection has a copper ring around each pot and pan, a nod to its copper core layer.
Demeyere is another top-rated stainless steel cookware brand, and one of its most unique design features is its rivet-less handles. Without rivets, you get a completely smooth cooking surface that’s easier to clean.
As I mentioned, all aluminum cookware has a non-stick coating applied to the cooking surface, and that coating ensures food never sticks.
As long as the coating stays intact (more on that in a minute), food will release easily.
In contrast, the number one complaint about stainless steel cookware is food sticking, especially if you try to move it around too soon. If you flip a piece of meat before the surface has a chance to sear and develop a solid outer layer, it will stick to the pan.
Food sticks to stainless steel pots and pans because the metal is porous. Those tiny holes expand and shrink when the pan is heated, gripping the food and causing it to stick.
You can reduce the risk of food sticking by preheating the pan to medium heat and applying oil before adding the food. In this article, I explain why food sticks to stainless steel cookware and what to do to prevent it.
Non-stick aluminum and stainless steel cookware have different temperature tolerances, which affects how well it browns and sears food.
For example, stainless steel cookware is perfect for the high heat required to brown and sear. It also retains heat better because of its multi-layer construction, which means the pan won’t lose heat when you add a cold piece of meat.
Non-stick aluminum cookware is designed to be used over medium heat. It’s more suitable for cooking delicate foods, like pancakes or eggs, that you don’t want to stick to the pan and break.
Another advantage of stainless steel cookware is that it can handle higher temperatures in the oven than aluminum. Aluminum can tolerate high heat, but the non-stick coating applied to all aluminum cookware starts to break down around 500°F.
The table below shows the maximum oven-safe temperatures of popular stainless steel and aluminum cookware collections across various brands.
|Brand / Collection
|Maximum Oven-Safe Temperature
Stainless steel cookware is broiler-safe, but aluminum pans are not. Direct exposure to intense flames will degrade the coating.
Stainless steel is magnetic; therefore, stainless steel cookware is induction compatible.
Aluminum cookware is only induction compatible if it has a steel base. Some examples of induction-compatible aluminum cookware include:
You need to read the fine print within the usage instructions before buying aluminum cookware if you have an induction cooktop. Or, you can read this guide highlighting the best non-stick aluminum cookware for induction cooktops.
Stainless steel cookware can last a lifetime if you use it and clean it properly. On the other hand, since it has a non-stick coating, aluminum cookware will only last between two and five years.
The aluminum underneath gets exposed when the non-stick coating gets scratched and starts to flake. And since aluminum is reactive, it will leach tiny particles into your meal and leave behind a metallic taste. When your pan looks like the example below, it’s time to replace it.
Aluminum pans with a PTFE (Teflon) non-stick coating will typically last longer than pans with a ceramic non-stick coating.
Fully-clad stainless steel is much heavier than your average aluminum cookware. Its walls are thicker and include more material, which adds heft to the product.
Heavier cookware may be more challenging to move. However, heavier pans heat more evenly and are less likely to warp.
The table below shows the weight of various stainless steel and aluminum cookware brands.
|Brand / Collection
|All-Clad D3 12-inch fry pan
|All-Clad D5 12-inch fry pan
|Made In 12-inch fry pan
|Tramontina Gourmet 12-inch fry pan
|T-Fal Professional 12.5-inch fry pan
|GreenLife Soft Grip 12-inch fry pan
|Caraway 10.5-inch fry pan
|Calphalon Contemporary 12-inch pan
Difference 10: Cleaning and Care
Thanks to its non-stick coating, aluminum cookware is significantly easier to clean than stainless steel.
I break down several techniques for cleaning stainless steel in this video, but the short explanation is that you need warm water, soap, a sponge, and a heavy dose of elbow grease.
In most cases, soap and water will do the trick. But for stubborn bits of food, you may need to boil water in the pan to loosen the debris before scrubbing again.
Stainless steel is notorious for brown spots and discoloration (darkening of the finish), which happens when food or oils burn and bake into the metal. Fortunately, products like Bar Keepers Friend and Bon Ami can help restore the original shine.
Using the rough side of a Scotch-Brite sponge is okay, but don’t use steel scouring pads or steel wool. These products can scratch and ruin the steel.
Non-stick aluminum cookware is much easier to clean than stainless steel. Since food doesn’t stick, a quick scrub with a soft sponge will clean the surface thoroughly. Rinsing with just warm water (no soap or sponge) will sometimes clear the mess.
However, soap and water won’t remove baked-in oils or burn food bits. In those cases, make a paste of vinegar and baking soda and gently rub it into the stains before scrubbing with a soft sponge.
Avoid the temptation to use the abrasive side of a sponge, as it can damage the non-stick coating, making your pan unusable.
Generally, stainless steel cookware is more expensive than aluminum cookware. However, pricing varies significantly depending on the construction, materials, and other features of the specific brand and collection.
For example, brands like All-Clad, Made In, and Demeyere cost more because they’re made in the USA and Europe using the highest quality materials.
Brands like Cuisinart and T-fal offer more affordable stainless steel cookware that’s made in China with thinner walls and lower quality standards.
Ceramic non-stick aluminum cookware is often the least expensive option in the aluminum category. Hard-anodized aluminum cookware is the most costly, and PTFE non-stick aluminum cookware falls between the two.
The table below compares the prices of various stainless steel and non-stick aluminum brands.
|All-Clad D3 12-Inch Fry Pan (Stainless Steel)
|All-Clad Copper Core 12-Inch Fry Pan (Stainless Steel)
|Heritage Steel 12-Inch Fry Pan (Stainless Steel)
|Demeyere 5-Plus 12.5-Inch Fry Pan (Stainless Steel)
|Demeyere Atlantis Proline 12.6-Inch Fry Pan (Stainless Steel)
|T-fal Performa 12-Inch Fry Pan (Stainless Steel)
|All-Clad HA1 12-Inch Fry Pan (Aluminum)
|Calphalon Contemporary 12-Inch Fry Pan (Aluminum)
|Anolon X 12-Inch Fry Pan (Aluminum)
|Cuisinart 12-Inch Fry Pan (Aluminum)
|Tramontina Professional 12-Inch Fry Pan (Aluminum)
|T-fal 12-Inch Fry Pan (Aluminum)
Now that you know the key differences between stainless steel and aluminum cookware, it’s time to decide which is right for your kitchen.
Before I provide my recommendation, let’s quickly recap:
- All aluminum cookware features a non-stick coating, but the designs and colors vary across brands.
- Stainless steel cookware is either fully-clad or impact-bonded, but the number of layers and core materials vary.
- Stainless steel cookware is better for browning and searing, but aluminum non-stick is ideal for eggs and other ingredients prone to sticking.
- Stainless steel pans are more versatile because they can tolerate higher temperatures in the oven, they’re broil-safe, and induction compatible.
- Stainless steel pans are heavier and more durable than aluminum pans.
- Stainless steel pans can last a lifetime, while aluminum pans usually only last between two and five years.
- Due to its non-stick coating, aluminum pans are much easier to clean.
- Price varies significantly across bands and collections, but stainless steel cookware is usually more expensive.
Ultimately, stainless steel and non-stick aluminum cookware have different purposes, and you may want to have both types in your kitchen. Buy a stainless steel fry pan, saucepan, and stock pot, and complement that set with one non-stick aluminum pan for eggs, crepes, fish, and other delicate foods.
Since stainless steel cookware can last forever, it’s worth investing more in a high-quality brand. With aluminum, you can get away with thinner, more affordable pans. However, pans with thicker walls and multi-layered coatings (like All-Clad) will perform better and last longer.
My top recommendations for stainless steel are All-Clad (stainless steel and aluminum), Made In (stainless steel), Demeyere (stainless steel), Scanpan (aluminum), and Tramontina Professional (aluminum).
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- Pros and Cons of Hard-Anodized Cookware: 17 Things to Know
- Cast Iron vs. Stainless Steel Cookware
- Cookware Essentials: 9 Pots & Pans Every Kitchen Needs
- The Difference Between Hard-Anodized and Non-Stick Cookware (Video)
- Is Stainless Steel Cookware Safe? What the Research Says
- Hard-Anodized vs. Ceramic Cookware: What’s the Difference?
- Ceramic vs. Stainless Steel Cookware: Differences & How to Choose
- Hard-Anodized vs. Non-Stick Cookware: What’s the Difference?
- What Are the Best Cookware Materials? (Top 10 Compared)