Stainless steel cookware is durable, versatile, compatible with all cooktops, and oven and broiler-safe.
It heats up fast, evenly, and retains heat well, making it the ultimate all-purpose cookware.
Despite these advantages, it’s not perfect. Stainless steel cookware can be incredibly expensive, difficult to clean, and the cooking performance varies drastically between brands.
In this guide, I break down the pros and cons of stainless steel cookware, so you’ll know all the key facts before you buy.
Use the links below to navigate:
- What Is Stainless Steel Cookware?
- Pro: Versatile
- Pro: Durable
- Pro: Distributes Heat Fast and Evenly
- Pro: Responsive
- Pro: Tolerant to High Heats
- Pro: Excellent Heat Retention
- Pro: Compatible With All Cooktops
- Pro: Broiler and Oven Safe
- Pro: No Health or Safety Concerns
- Pro: Easy to Maintain
- Pro: Non-Reactive
- Pro: Sleek Design
- Pro: Many Options Available
- Con: Expensive
- Con: Food Sticks
- Con: Difficult to Clean
- Con: Inconsistent Cooking Performance
- Con: Heavy
- Con: Requires Cooking Skill
- Bottom Line: Should You Buy Stainless Steel Cookware?
What Is Stainless Steel Cookware?
Understanding the makeup of stainless steel cookware will help explain “the why” behind many of its pros and cons.
Stainless steel is an alloy of iron that contains chromium. The chromium makes it corrosion resistant, so it won’t rust, stain, or discolor. Stainless steel may also include carbon, manganese, nickel, and molybdenum.
When shopping for stainless steel cookware, you’ll see certain number combinations that explain the steel’s characteristics.
High-end brands typically use 18/10 stainless steel for the cooking surface. 18/10 simply means 18% chromium and 10% nickel. The nickel adds strength and ductility to the steel and helps it resist rust and hold its polish.
The exterior is typically 18/0, which is also corrosion-resistant and necessary for making the cookware compatible with induction cooking surfaces.
Each brand makes its stainless steel cookware slightly differently, but in general, it’s made with bonded layers. So while the cooking surface and exterior is stainless steel, inside, the cookware’s core is usually aluminum or copper.
Why is this the case?
Simply put, steel is durable, but it’s a poor conductor of heat. Aluminum and copper have higher thermal conductivity, so they transfer heat quickly and distribute it evenly across the cooking surface.
Some brands offer fully-clad cookware, in which they layer aluminum or copper throughout each pan, not just at the base. All-Clad, a renowned cookware brand, invented fully-bonded stainless steel cookware in the 1970s, but most high-end brands use this technique today.
For a less expensive alternative, some brands bond an aluminum or copper plate to the bottom of each pan, which is called an impact-bonded base. The downside; the heat doesn’t distribute evenly up the sides.
Now that you know the basics of stainless steel cookware, it’s time to dive into the pros and cons.
The Pros of Stainless Steel Cookware
Stainless steel cookware is a favorite amongst home cooks because it’s versatile, durable, responsive to temperature changes, and compatible with all cooktops. But that’s not all.
If you’re considering stainless steel cookware, here’s a full breakdown of all the advantages.
Stainless steel is the ultimate all-purpose cookware. It easily sears meat and fish, sautes vegetables, browns chicken, simmers sauces, and much more. Because of the high heat conductivity and even distribution, you can perform any cooking technique.
For example, with carbon steel or cast iron, you can’t boil liquids, and acidic foods will break down the seasoning. With non-stick cookware, you can’t sear meat very well. So, stainless steel trumps other kinds of cookware when it comes to versatility.
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.
You might think it’s really annoying to have to clean this stuck-on food, but if you deglaze the pan with wine, broth, or other liquids, the fond and the liquids combine to make a delicious pan sauce.
If you treat your stainless steel cookware well, it should last a lifetime. Compare this to non-stick cookware, which only lasts about three to five years because the coating wears off.
Stainless steel won’t rust, flake, chip, scratch, or stain. Most brands even offer a lifetime guarantee.
Pro: Distributes Heat Fast and Evenly
Due to the conductive aluminum or copper cores, stainless steel cookware heats quickly and evenly, resulting in faster cooking times and consistent, predictable results.
Most fully-clad stainless steel cookware stainless has an aluminum core, which provides excellent heat conductivity.
However, for something even better, stainless steel with a copper core is supreme. Copper boasts an even higher thermal conductivity than aluminum, heating up faster and giving you more control over your cooking.
Stainless steel responds quickly to temperature changes, giving you ultimate control when cooking.
Go from high to low heat or vice versa, without waiting minutes for the cooking surface to change temperature. This will help you avoid burning food, especially spices, like garlic, which can quickly become overcooked.
Responsiveness comes into play, especially for one-pot recipes. It allows you to quickly adjust the temperature as you add in new ingredients.
For comparison sake, cast iron cookware has very thick walls, which causes it to heats up and cool down slowly — not ideal for sauces or proteins like shrimp that can quickly overcook.
Pro: Tolerant to High Heats
Unlike non-stick cookware, stainless steel can handle extremely high temperatures.
Why is this good?
First, if you’re cooking burgers, steaks, and other types of meat — you need high heat to get a good sear.
Second, you can transfer meals from the stove to the oven or broiler without worrying about warping or ruining the pan due to overheating.
Most stainless steel brands can handle heat up to 500 degrees Fahrenheit, but All-Clad’s collections can handle 600 degrees.
On the other hand, most non-stick pans can handle up to 450 degrees Fahrenheit, but many are only tolerant to a maximum of 350 degrees.
Pro: Excellent Heat Retention
On the topic of heat, stainless steel retains heat well.
So if you want to keep a dish warm while your guests are still arriving, you can put a lid on the pot, and the food will stay hot until you’re ready to serve.
It’s also superb for continued cooking after you’ve turned off the heat, which is especially convenient for soups and sauces that develop more flavors the longer they’re cooking.
Lastly, when you slap a cold steak on a stainless steel pan, the pan will stay hot so you can get an even sear and lock in the juices.
Pro: Compatible With All Cooktops
Stainless steel is compatible with all cooktops, including gas, electric, and even induction.
Just note: to be compatible with induction, the base needs to be stainless steel. A few high-end brands utilize a copper or aluminum base (example: All-Clad Essentials). In cases like this, the cookware won’t be compatible with induction stovetops. Do a little extra research before buying if you have an induction cooktop.
Pro: Broiler and Oven Safe
Stainless steel is broiler and oven safe. You can switch between cooking methods all in one pan for ultimate versatility. Most brands are oven-safe up to 500 degrees, but All-Clad stainless steel collections can withstand 600-degrees.
Pro: No Health or Safety Concerns
It’s essential to choose a safe cookware option for your family. Stainless steel is popular because there are no health or safety concerns. It doesn’t have a chemical non-stick surface that can break down.
Non-stick cookware, while relatively safe these days, still has its concerns. If the coating starts to scrape or peel away, it can contaminate food, making it unsafe.
With stainless steel cookware, this isn’t an issue. While the surface isn’t non-stick and not as easy to clean, you can be sure that no chemicals are entering your family’s food.
Pro: Easy to Maintain
Unlike other cookware, such as cast iron, you don’t need to season stainless steel. When it arrives, give it a quick rinse and get to cooking right away.
Most stainless steel cookware is dishwasher safe. Although cooking at higher heats will increase the chance of food sticking to the surface, soapy hot water will remove most stubborn foods.
Though many manufacturers claim their stainless steel cookware is dishwasher-safe, in general, I recommend hand washing all cookware. Here’s why:
- You can ensure that it’s 100% clean.
- Sharp utensils can scratch stainless steel cookware during the washing cycle.
- Harsh dishwasher detergents may discolor or degrade stainless steel cookware.
- High heat can melt plastic utensils, which may transfer to your cookware.
From time to time, it’s okay to put your cookware in the dishwasher. But for the most part, I recommend taking the time to hand wash it (here are some techniques for deep cleaning stainless steel cookware).
Stainless steel cookware, unlike carbon steel or cast iron, doesn’t react with acidic foods such as tomatoes, alcohol, spinach, fish, or lemon. Feel free to put any recipe to the test with your stainless steel cookware.
Pro: Sleek Design
Stainless steel cookware is classy and elegant. The sleek design withstands rigorous use so that even after years of cooking, it still looks brand new.
Whether you go with a classic polished (shiny) finish like All-Clad D3 collection or a more modern brushed (matte) finish like Made In Stainless Clad collection, you’ll get cookware that’s as stylish as it is functional.
In fact, with stainless steel, your pans can double as serving platters.
On the other hand, cast iron and carbon steel cookware show some wear-and-tear after just a few uses. While this doesn’t affect the performance, it’s not as aesthetically pleasing.
Pro: Many Options Available
There are many stainless steel cookware options on the market, available in dozens of designs and styles.
Stainless steel cookware most commonly features 3-ply construction, which means it’s made of three layers: two layers of stainless steel surrounding an aluminum core.
But many brands boast 5-ply construction, which includes an extra two layers for added durability and heat retention.
Although stainless steel cookware can be expensive (I’ll talk more about this soon), you can find it at various price points. Even if you’re on a budget, there’s a good chance you’ll find a quality set that works for you.
The Cons of Stainless Steel Cookware
Although there’s a lot to love about stainless steel cookware, it’s not perfect.
Before you spend your hard-earned money on a fancy set, you need to understand the downsides.
Stainless steel cookware is significantly more expensive than non-stick, carbon steel, and cast iron varieties.
It costs more because of the durable and high-quality materials. Remember, it’s not just steel; the core layer is usually aluminum or copper.
Also, bonded construction is a complicated process that takes time and effort for manufacturers to perfect. Because of this, the price tag is higher.
Price varies rather drastically from brand to brand and where the cookware is made. Brands like All-Clad that manufacture in the United States are more expensive than brands like Cuisinart that manufacture in China.
Lastly, fully-clad stainless steel is more expensive than impact bonded-base cookware because, with full-clad, the core material extends throughout, and the sidewalls are thicker.
To put it into perspective, use the links below to view the current prices on Amazon of similar stainless steel, non-stick, and cast iron pans. As you’ll see, the stainless steel pans are significantly more expensive.
- All-Clad D3 12-Inch Stainless Steel Pan
- All-Clad Copper Core 12-Inch Stainless Steel Pan
- Le Creuset 12-Inch Stainless Steel Pan
- Lodge 12-Inch Cast Iron Skillet
- Utopia Kitchen 12-Inch Cast Iron Skillet
- Legend 12-Inch Cast Iron Skillet
Con: Food Sticks
Stainless steel is stick-resistant when used properly, but it’s not completely non-stick. You need to be very careful when cooking eggs, fish, and other delicate ingredients.
You can minimize food sticking by preheating the pan and greasing the cooking surface with plenty of oil.
Also, never overheat the pan. Since the aluminum or copper core conducts heat so well, you rarely need to exceed medium heat when cooking on the stove—the one exception: boiling.
For more information on this topic, check out my guide on why food sticks to stainless steel pans and how to prevent it.
Con: Difficult to Clean
Because stainless steel is not non-stick, it’s harder to clean than other cookware. Food doesn’t release easily, and the pan might develop brown spots, discoloration, and even a heat tint.
What’s a heat tint? It appears as blotchy blue and brown stains on the surface of your cookware. To avoid this, keep the burner at medium heat.
When you overheat a stainless steel pan, trace amounts of chromium in the steel create a thick oxidized layer which reflects light at a different wavelength, resulting in heat tint.
Due to the quality of many brands, specifically All-Clad, you don’t need to use high heat to get a good sear. Medium heat is just fine, and it will protect the appearance of your stainless steel cookware.
As I mentioned, boiling is the one cooking scenario when high heat is necessary and won’t make cleanup a challenge.
Con: Inconsistent Cooking Performance
Though there are many stainless steel cookware collections on the market, no two are the same.
Because it comes in a wide range of options, you need to understand what you’re buying. Some of the cheaper collections deliver inconsistent cooking performance.
Many factors affect stainless steel cookware’s quality and performance, including whether its construction is fully-clad or impact-bonded base, the thickness, and the core materials (aluminum or copper).
With stainless steel cookware, you need to do more research before choosing. Don’t have time? I’ve reviewed dozens of stainless steel cookware brands and can confidently recommend All-Clad (high-end), Calphalon (mid to high-end), and Made In (high-end but for a mid-tier price).
Stainless steel cookware is heavy, especially if it’s 5-ply (five bonded layers) or more. To give you a better idea, below are the weights of a few popular options (click the links to view on Amazon):
- All-Clad D3 12 Inch Fry Pan: 4.5 pounds
- All-Clad D5 12 Inch Fry Pan: 4 pounds
- Cuisinart 12 Inch Skillet: 5.9 pounds
Let’s compare these three pans to similar-sized non-stick options:
- Oxo 12 Inch Fry Pan: 2.49 pounds
- Calphalon 12 Inch Omelette Pan: 2.9 pounds
- Anolon 12 Inch Skillet: 4.07 pounds
If you’re looking for lightweight cookware, stainless steel might not be the option for you.
Con: Requires Cooking Skill
If you’re a beginner cook, I recommend starting with a non-stick pan, which is more forgiving, a breeze to clean, and doesn’t burn food as easily.
Although stainless steel is definitely worth the investment, you need to have some experience in the kitchen to make the most of it.
You certainly don’t need to be a classically trained chef to use stainless steel cookware, but it takes skill to understand how it responds to temperature changes, the level of heat retention, and how to grease it properly.
Bottom Line: Should You Buy Stainless Steel Cookware?
If you’re serious about cooking, owning a few stainless steel pots and pans is a must.
Although non-stick, cast iron, and carbon steel pans have their place in the kitchen too, no other type of cookware can match stainless steel’s versatility. Regardless of the ingredient or culinary technique, stainless steel can get the job done.
Stainless steel cookware has some cons — mainly the price tag, the weight, and the difficulty to clean — but the pros significantly outweigh these.
Let’s briefly recap the main advantages of stainless steel cookware.
- Lots of options, including frying pans, woks, sauciers, pots, and much more.
- Great for searing, sauteing, simmering, boiling, and frying.
- Stainless steel cookware should last a lifetime.
- Heat distributes evenly and quickly, more so if you have a fully-clad set.
- Responds quickly to temperature changes, so you’re less likely to burn or undercook food.
- It has a high heat tolerance so it can withstand rigorous use and high temperatures.
- Retains heat well, maintaining food’s temperature while you attend to other tasks, even if the heat is off.
- Compatible with all cooktops, including induction.
- It’s broiler and oven safe, up to temperatures of 500 degrees and in some cases 600.
- Doesn’t require seasoning.
- Doesn’t react to acidic foods.
- Looks great in any kitchen.
- Most brands have several stainless steel options, so it’s easy to find a set that fits your needs.
Although stainless steel cookware is expensive, it’s well worth the investment because it will last forever, giving you quality results with every meal.
If you’re ready to buy, but unsure which brand to pick, check out our in-depth reviews of the most popular options. Spoiler: I’m a big fan of All-Clad (view on Amazon and All-Clad.com), Made In (view on MadeInCookware.com), and Calphalon (view on Amazon).
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