Frying pans are essential in every kitchen. But with so many different frying pan materials, how do you choose?
In this guide, I break down the pros and cons of the best frying pan materials. I also provide a comparison chart that shows the different options side-by-side.
So, keep reading if you’re shopping for a new frying pan and don’t know which material to buy.
Use the links below to navigate the guide:
- Best Frying Pan Materials: Comparison Chart
- Stainless Steel
- Cast Iron
- Enameled Cast Iron
- Carbon Steel
- Bottom Line: What Is the Best Frying Pan Material?
Best Frying Pan Materials: Comparison Chart
The comparison chart below breaks down the pros and cons of the best frying pan materials.
|Material||Pros||Cons||Best For||Best Brands|
|Stainless Steel||Versatile; Durable; Quick and even heating||Food sticks; Expensive||All types of food; Pan sauces||All-Clad, Demeyere, Made In|
|Cast Iron||Excellent heat retention; Naturally non-stick; Extremely durable||Heavy; Requires seasoning; Reactive to acid; Slow heating||Searing meats; Frying potatoes; Oven and open flame cooking||Lodge, Stargazer, Calphalon|
|Enameled Cast Iron||Low maintenance; Non-reactive; Colorful options||Enamel can chip; Food sticks; Expensive||Searing meats; Frying potatoes; Acidic foods; Braised meats||Le Creuset, Made In|
|Carbon Steel||Lightweight; Responsive; High heat tolerance||Requires seasoning; Prone to rust and discoloration; Reacts with acidic foods||Searing meat; Stir-fries; Cooking fish, eggs, and other delicate foods||de Buyer, Made In, Misen, Matfer Bourgeat|
|Copper||Heats quickly and evenly; Responsive to heat changes; Elegant look||Expensive; High maintenance; Appearance changes due to oxidation||Fish; Sauces; Pancakes; Foods that require precise temperature control||Mauviel, Matfer Bourgeat|
|Non-Stick||Food doesn’t stick; Affordable||Durability concerns; Low heat tolerance||Delicate foods like eggs and pancakes; Beginner cooks||Made In, All-Clad, HexClad|
Stainless steel is one of the most popular frying pan materials. But before I get into its pros and cons, it’s essential to understand how these pans are made.
Most are made with an aluminum or copper core sandwiched between thin layers of stainless steel. The steel serves as a protective shell around the aluminum or copper core.
Why are they made this way?
Stainless steel is durable and won’t rust or react with acidic foods, but it’s a poor heat conductor. Aluminum and copper react with acidic foods and are less durable, but they’re excellent heat conductors.
By bonding steel with aluminum or copper, you get the best of both worlds: a pan that heats evenly, lasts long, and can cook any ingredient.
There are two types of stainless steel frying pans: fully-clad and disc bottom.
Fully clad pans are made with bonded layers throughout the pan. That means the pan is the same thickness throughout, which results in even heat distribution.
Disc bottom pans have thin steel sides and a thick layered base. Because aluminum or copper is only present at the base, the flat cooking surface and sides don’t conduct or retain heat at the same rate.
Disc bottom stainless steel frying pans are less expensive and often lighter, but fully-clad frying pans perform better and are less likely to warp.
If you’re considering a stainless steel frying pan, I highly recommend investing in one that’s fully clad.
Regardless of which type you choose, here are the pros and cons you can expect with a stainless steel frying pan.
- Versatility: Stainless steel is the most versatile frying pan material. Unlike carbon steel and cast iron, which react with acidic foods, or non-stick pans that aren’t great for searing, stainless steel can handle any culinary task. It’s also the best type of cookware for pan sauces. Since it’s uncoated, cooking meat in a stainless steel pan creates fond, which is the brown stuck-on bits of concentrated meat flavor at the bottom of the pan. If you deglaze the pan with wine, broth, or other liquids, the fond and liquids combine to make a delicious pan sauce.
- Durability: Thanks to its thick, bonded construction, a fully clad stainless steel pan can last a lifetime. You don’t have to worry about chipping, flaking, or a non-stick coating wearing down.
- Quick and Even Heating: The aluminum or copper core ensures the pan heats quickly and evenly. Therefore, you get faster cooking times and more predictable results.
- Food Sticks: Food sticking is the most common complaint about stainless steel frying pans. Despite its smooth appearance, the pan’s cooking surface contains tiny pores that contract when heated, causing food to stick. Burnt bits are hard to clean, and oils can bake into the steel. The issue is the worst around the rivets and the sides of the pan. You can minimize the risk of sticking by preheating the pan and allowing a crust to form before moving the food. In this guide, I provide more tips about preventing food from sticking to stainless steel pans.
- Price: Versatility and durability come at a cost. Quality stainless steel pans are expensive. However, considering they can last for decades, the investment is worth it.
Fully-clad stainless steel pans offer a balance of durability and versatility that’s hard to beat. Although they are on the pricier side and require a bit more elbow grease during clean-up, their longevity and cooking performance make them one of the best frying pan materials available. The best stainless steel frying pans are All-Clad, Demeyere, and Made In.
Cast iron frying pans are made by pouring molten iron into sand molds, which are cooled and hardened. The material is primarily iron with about 2% carbon.
The carbon content in cast iron increases hardness but makes the material more brittle. That’s why cast iron frying pans have thick and heavy walls. The thickness of cast iron cookware makes up for its brittleness and results in unique cooking properties.
Pros of Cast Iron Frying Pans
- Heat Retention: Cast iron is the king of heat retention. The thick walls allow cast iron to hold heat incredibly well, making it ideal for searing meats. Although it’s still up for debate, I believe cast iron is the best frying pan material for cooking steaks and burgers because its superior heat retention results in a crispy golden crust.
- Mimics Non-Stick: A well-seasoned cast iron pan is one of the best chemical-free alternatives to Teflon-coated non-stick pans. When you season a cast iron pan by spreading a thin layer of oil on the surface and baking it in the oven (learn the exact steps in this guide), the carbonized oil forms a protective layer that prevents rust and makes the surface non-stick. Teflon pans might have a slight edge in food release, but seasoned cast iron comes close.
- Durable: A cast iron frying pan is a lifetime investment when treated with care. The pan’s one-piece design negates any worries about loose rivets or screws. And the thick walls ensure the pan will never warp or dent. Brands like Lodge boast a 5mm thickness, while Calphalon’s version is slightly slimmer at 3mm.
- Heavy: A 12-inch frying pan can weigh up to 8 pounds without food. It’s not the best option if you prefer easily maneuverable cookware for dishes requiring you to pick it up and shake the food, like when sauteeing veggies.
- Requires Seasoning: Regular seasoning is needed to prevent rust and create a non-stick surface. The seasoning process involves applying oil to the surface and baking it in the oven to bond the oil to the iron. To keep the seasoning intact, don’t use soap when washing. Instead, opt for a chainmail scrubber or sponge and plain water. Using too much soap will strip the seasoning.
- Reactive to Acid: Acidic foods like tomatoes, vinegar, or wine can strip the seasoning and impart a metallic taste to your dishes.
- Slow Heating: The thickness causes it to heat slowly, although it retains this heat well once achieved. For context, most stainless steel pans boil two cups of water in two to three minutes, and cast iron pans take around four minutes.
Cast iron frying pans offer exceptional heat retention and a natural non-stick surface. They’re ideal for foods like steak, burgers, chicken, bacon, and potatoes. You can use them on the stove, in the oven, and over an open flame (like a campfire). While they’re heavy and require upkeep and seasoning, their long lifespan and affordable price make them an excellent choice for a variety of dishes. My favorite cast iron frying pans are Lodge, Stargazer, and Calphalon.
Enameled cast iron frying pans have the same durable construction as bare cast iron but with an enamel coating applied to the surface.
The enamel eliminates the need for seasoning, allows you to cook acidic ingredients, and makes cleaning easier — but the extra material and steps in the manufacturing process make it much more expensive.
- Low Maintenance: Like uncoated cast iron, enameled cast iron frying pans have excellent heat retention and durability. But the standout benefit is its low maintenance. There is no need to season it, and you can use soap to wash it. It’s a time-saver and perfect if you’re trying to avoid a high-maintenance frying pan.
- Non-Reactive: With enameled cast iron, you can cook anything, including acidic foods like tomatoes or wine-based sauces. The enamel prevents any reactions that could alter the taste of your food. For example, enameled frying pans are excellent for short ribs or lamb braised in wine, tomato sauces, or lemon chicken.
- Colorful: Unlike bare cast iron, which is black or gray, enameled cast iron comes in a plethora of colors. Le Creuset, one of the more well-known makers of enameled cast iron (read my review), offers frying pans in over 20 colors. If you want a pan that looks as good as it cooks, enameled cast iron is a great option.
- Enamel Can Chip: Be cautious with your utensils, especially metal ones, because they can chip the enamel. Instead, go for wooden, silicone, or nylon. Also, avoid piling heavy objects on it if you leave it in the sink. Wash knives separately to avoid accidentally scratching the surface of your pan.
- Food Sticks: Enameled cast iron surfaces are glossy, but looks can be deceiving. These pans aren’t slick like seasoned cast iron. Foods like eggs and fish will stick if the surface isn’t preheated and well-greased. It’s not the best frying pan material for eggs or other delicate foods prone to sticking.
- Expensive: Enameled cast iron is significantly more expensive than bare cast iron. High-end frying pans, like Le Creuset and Staub, can cost more than double a traditional non-stick pan. These brands are made in France, and importing such heavy cookware is costly. Fortunately, Lodge, Cuisinart, and others offer enameled cast iron frying pans at lower costs.
Enameled cast iron offers the durability and heat retention of traditional cast iron without the upkeep or limitations (you can cook acidic foods in it). While you need to be cautious of chipping the enamel, its non-reactivity and low maintenance make it an appealing material for an everyday frying pan. The best enameled cast iron fry pans are Le Creuset and Made In.
Carbon steel frying pans are made from a blend of 99% iron and 1% carbon.
Unlike cast iron frying pans, which are made in molds, carbon steel frying pans are made by rolling out sheets of carbon steel, cutting the dimensions, and punching the pan into shape. This process results in cookware that’s thinner and less bulky.
Once mainly a staple in professional kitchens, these pans have started making their way into home kitchens due to their versatility, durability, and lightweight construction.
- Lightweight: If you love everything about cast iron but find it too heavy to handle, carbon steel is the perfect alternative. A standard 12-inch cast iron pan weighs about 8 pounds, while its carbon steel counterpart weighs around 4.5 pounds. This lighter construction makes it easier to pour sauces and transfer dishes from stove to oven.
- Responsive: Carbon steel reacts quickly to temperature changes. Turn the knob, and the pan responds almost instantaneously, thanks to its thinner construction. It gives you more control and reduces the risk of burning your food. Responsiveness is important when making stir fry, fried rice, or one-pan meals. It’s also vital for cooking fish, eggs, and other delicate ingredients that can quickly overcook if the temperature gets too high.
- High Heat Tolerance: Carbon steel is built for high temperatures. Most options can handle up to 600°F, but certain brands like Made In can endure an impressive 1200°F. This superior heat tolerance is why most high-volume restaurants are stocked with carbon steel pans. Chefs can leave them on the burners for hours without worrying about damage. High-heat cooking is necessary for searing meat to perfection. And because these pans can handle the heat, you never have to worry about them warping or damaging.
- Requires Seasoning: Like cast iron, you’ll need to season carbon steel fry pans to prevent rust and develop a non-stick surface. This process is simple, but it takes time and baseline knowledge to get it right (the tips in this video apply to carbon steel, too).
- Prone to Rust and Discoloration: Rust and discoloration is a common issue. If not seasoned and appropriately maintained, carbon steel frying pans lose their visual appeal quickly. Expect a blotchy and discolored cooking surface in the beginning when the surface hasn’t been fully seasoned. Even a well-seasoned carbon steel won’t impress your guests when you host a dinner party. This cookware is all about function rather than looks.
- Reacts with Acidic Foods: Avoid cooking acidic foods like tomatoes and citrus in these pans. Like cast iron, carbon steel will react with acidic ingredients, potentially altering your dish’s flavor. That means no wine-based or tomato sauces.
Carbon steel is a lightweight and responsive alternative to cast iron. Though it requires seasoning and careful maintenance to prevent rust, its versatility makes it one of the best frying pan materials. My favorite carbon steel fry pans are de Buyer, Made In, Misen, and Matfer Bourgeat.
Copper frying pans are crafted from pure copper on the exterior, combined with an inner lining of stainless steel or tin.
Why the inner lining? Because copper reacts with acidic foods, leaving behind a metallic taste.
Copper cookware isn’t for the novice home cook — it’s pricey, and its ultra-responsive heating behavior demands your full attention.
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- Heats Quickly and Evenly: One thing you’ll love about copper is its high thermal conductivity — it heats up quickly and evenly. You’ll never have to deal with hot or cold spots, and steak, chicken, and fish will cook completely even.
- Responsive to Heat Changes: The properties that make copper heat up quickly also allow it to cool down instantly. So, if your onions, eggs, or pancakes are seconds away from burning, a quick turn of the knob will save them.
- Aesthetic Appeal: Copper cookware offers stunning aesthetics. Its unique sheen and warm glow make it a luxurious addition to any kitchen. If looks are a priority, copper should top your list.
- Expensive: Copper cookware is costly — both the material and the labor-intensive hand craftsmanship contribute to the hefty price tag. You’re not just buying a pan but investing in a piece of art you cook with.
- High Maintenance: The surface of your copper pan can tarnish and scratch, requiring routine polishing. The inner tin lining is equally fragile and might need re-tinning down the line. If you cook a lot and use metal utensils, anticipate this maintenance.
- Appearance Changes: Oxidation produces a greenish patina on the copper’s surface. That’s why the Statue of Liberty is green — it’s oxidized copper. You’ll need to regularly polish your pans to keep them from turning green.
Copper frying pans offer unmatched heat conductivity and aesthetic appeal but come with the caveats of high cost and maintenance needs. It’s an investment, but a copper frying pan will make you feel like a Michelin-star chef in your kitchen. Mauviel and Matfer Bourgeat make some of the best copper frying pans.
Non-stick frying pans come in various base materials, including aluminum, hard-anodized aluminum, or fully clad stainless steel.
Aluminum is the cheapest material. It conducts heat well but is prone to denting and corrosion.
Hard-anodized aluminum is aluminum that undergoes an electrochemical process to increase its resistance to scratches and corrosion.
Fully-clad stainless steel is the most expensive, but it’s the most durable and the only base material compatible with induction cooktops. Aluminum is not magnetic; therefore, aluminum non-stick pans won’t work on induction cooktops.
To be considered non-stick, these base materials are coated with a non-stick material. The most common coatings are PTFE (Teflon) and ceramic.
PTFE coatings last longer and have superior food release properties but can emit harmful fumes when overheated. Ceramic coatings are considered safer but break down after 6 to 12 months, and food begins to stick when that happens.
Recently, a third option has emerged: hybrid non-stick.
Hybrid options, like HexClad, offer the benefit of non-stick without the durability concerns. Instead of having a smooth non-stick coating, the surface features raised stainless steel peaks and non-stick valleys. The steel peaks prevent spatulas, tongs, and forks from scratching and degrading the non-stick coating.
Whichever type of non-stick frying you choose, these are the pros and cons to expect.
- Food Doesn’t Stick: If you want to cook eggs, pancakes, or flaky fish, non-stick pans are the best option. Unlike cast iron or carbon steel pans that require seasoning, these pans are non-stick right out of the box. Non-stick frying pans are an excellent option for beginner cooks.
- Affordable: Aluminum non-stick is the most affordable frying pan material. Since it’s not cladded like stainless steel and copper and doesn’t require multiple layers of coating, like enameled cast iron, making aluminum pans is easier and cheaper. Plus, these pans are thinner, so less material is needed. Cost varies by brand, but in general, you can buy several non-stick frying pans for the price of one stainless steel, enameled cast iron, or copper frying pan from brands like All-Clad, Le Creuset, and Mauviel.
- Durability: Non-stick pans have a limited lifespan, typically between one and five years. The coating wears down over time, and you’ll eventually need a replacement.
- Low Heat Tolerance: You can’t crank up the heat too high with non-stick pans. Unlike stainless steel, carbon steel, or cast iron pans, most can’t withstand temperatures beyond 500°F. And you can’t use them under a broiler because high direct heat will damage the coating.
Non-stick frying pans are ideal for cooking delicate foods like eggs and pancakes, but that’s about it. If you need an all-purpose pan for searing, browning, roasting in the oven, and high-heat cooking techniques, you’re better off with a stainless steel, carbon steel, or cast iron pan. My top picks for non-stick frying pans are Made In, All-Clad, and HexClad.
Now that you know the pros and cons of the most popular frying pan materials, the question remains:
Which material is the best? Before I provide my recommendation, let’s quickly recap:
- Stainless Steel frying pans are durable and versatile, but they’re expensive and food sticks if you don’t follow the proper techniques.
- Cast Iron: Cast iron is the king of heat retention, which makes it ideal for searing. And with proper seasoning, the cooking surface becomes non-stick. The downsides are that it’s heavy, heats slowly, and reacts with acidic foods.
- Enameled Cast Iron provides the same heat retention as bare cast iron, but you can cook acidic foods and don’t have to season it. However, it’s expensive, food sticks, and the enamel can chip.
- Carbon steel is similar to cast iron but is lighter and heats up faster. However, like cast iron, you need to season it, and tomatoes, wine, and vinegar will react with the metal.
- Copper: Copper is one of the most conductive materials, so it heats quickly and evenly. Unfortunately, copper is expensive, and it’s prone to tarnishing.
- Non-Stick: Non-Stick cookware is cheap, food doesn’t stick, and it’s easy to clean. Unfortunately, it only lasts a few years, and you can’t use it to broil or cook at high temperatures.
The truth is, there is no best frying pan material; each serves a different purpose and comes with its own pros and cons.
Pick one that aligns with your cooking habits, maintenance preferences, and budget.
If you’re still unsure which to buy and only have the budget for one, go with stainless steel. It heats fast and evenly, and you can use it to cook any food, including tomato sauces, soup, and other acidic and liquid-heavy meals. It’s the most versatile option, and since it can last forever, it’s an excellent investment.
Eggs can be challenging to cook in a stainless steel pan, but following these tips can help. And if you still can’t pull it off, buy a cheap aluminum non-stick pan just for eggs and use the stainless steel pan for everything else.
If you’re ready to buy, these are the frying pans I recommend:
- Stainless Steel: All-Clad, Demeyere, and Made In
- Cast Iron: Lodge, Stargazer, and Calphalon
- Enameled Cast Iron: Le Creuset and Made In
- Carbon Steel: de Buyer, Made In, Misen, and Matfer Bourgeat
- Copper: Mauviel and Matfer Bourgeat
- Non-Stick: Made In, All-Clad, and HexClad
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