With so many brands, collections, and features to choose from, shopping for stainless steel cookware can be overwhelming.
Should you buy 3-ply or 5-ply, fully-clad or disc bottom, 18/10 or 18/0 steel? The list of decisions goes on and on.
Since stainless steel cookware is expensive and can last forever, it’s important to know what to look for and which features actually matter. You don’t want to get stuck with pricey cookware that you don’t love.
To help you make a wise investment, I’ll walk you through 15 common mistakes people make when buying stainless steel cookware and explain how to avoid them.
Use the links below to navigate the guide:
- Video Summary
- Mistake 1: Fully-Clad vs. Disc Bottom
- Mistake 2: Number of Plys
- Mistake 3: Thickness
- Mistake 4: Weight
- Mistake 5: Rounded Handles
- Mistake 6: Rivets vs. Welded Handles
- Mistake 7: Finish
- Mistake 8: Rims
- Mistake 9: Lids
- Mistake 10: Steel Grade
- Mistake 11: Oven-Safe Temperature
- Mistake 12: Cooktop Compatibility
- Mistake 13: Sets vs. Individual Pieces
- Mistake 14: Saving Money
- Mistake 15: Overpaying
- Stainless Steel Cookware Buying Principles
Don’t feel like reading? Watch me break down what to look for and the mistakes to avoid when shopping for stainless steel cookware:
Mistake 1: Fully-Clad vs. Disc Bottom
The first mistake is buying the wrong type of stainless steel cookware.
Most people don’t realize that stainless steel pans are not made entirely of stainless steel. They mainly consist of aluminum or copper, encased by thin layers of stainless steel. The steel serves as a protective shell around the aluminum or copper core.
Stainless steel is durable and won’t rust or react with acidic foods, but it’s a terrible heat conductor. On the other hand, aluminum and copper are less durable, but they’re great 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.
Here’s where the mistake happens.
People who don’t understand how stainless steel cookware is made fall into the trap of buying disc-bottom pans instead of fully-cad pans.
Fully-Clad pans have the conductive core layer of aluminum or copper throughout the pan, including the sides. Disc Bottom cookware only has this conductive layer at the base.
There are two advantages of Fully-Clad cookware. Number 1, it distributes heat across the entire cooking surface more evenly. So if you’re sautéing vegetables and tossing them around in the pan, the bottom and sides will be the same temperature, and the food will cook evenly.
And two, it’s more durable since it’s the same thickness throughout. With fully-clad pans, you don’t have to worry about the disc separating from the bottom of the pan – which I’ve seen happen with disc bottom pans.
Fully clad cookware costs more upfront but performs better and lasts longer.
Mistake 2: Number of Plys
Similarly, you might see the terms 3-ply and 5-ply when shopping for stainless steel cookware. Ply refers to the number of bonded layers that make up each pan.
A huge mistake that people make is assuming more plys are better. The reality is that most stainless steel cookware is 3-ply with two layers of steel and a core layer of aluminum.
But to get a leg up on the competition, some brands call their 3-ply cookware 5-ply. They get away with this because, technically, the core layer of aluminum is three sheets of metal – a middle sheet of aluminum alloy bonded to the steel by two layers of pure aluminum.
I go deeper into 3-ply vs. 5-ply cookware in this article, but the key point is that the number of plys doesn’t really matter. What matters is the materials of those plys and their thickness.
In the case of All-Clad D3 and Made In, the materials and thickness are the same, so despite the difference in name, there’s no significant difference in function.
Mistake 3: Thickness
Another mistake, which I just alluded to, is not paying attention to the thickness of the cookware.
It’s easy to make this mistake because most cookware brands don’t list thickness online. In most cases, you must call the manufacturer or go to the store to compare pans.
As a general rule, the thicker the cookware, the better. Thick cookware heats slower but more evenly, and it retains heat better. It’s also less likely to warp.
Controlling the heat is much more difficult with thinner pans. They heat up extremely fast, and it’s easy to burn food and smoke up your kitchen if you’re not paying attention.
Also, most electric stoves cycle the heat on and off to maintain a desired temperature. With thin pans that lose heat fast, the continuous cycling of heat can throw off your cooking. Thicker pans will maintain a more consistent temperature as the heat cycles on and off.
Look for pans that are around 3 mm thick — All-Clad D3 and D5, Made In, Misen, and Heritage Steel are all around that size. Those will provide a good balance of thickness and weight. If you don’t mind a heavy pan, the Demeyere ProLine is one of the thickest I’ve used at 5.5 mm.
Mistake 4: Weight
Speaking of weight, another mistake is buying pans that are too heavy. Thick, even heating pans are great, but if they’re too heavy to use comfortably, that’s a problem.
As you shop, think about not only the weight of the pan but also the added weight of food. This is especially important for pieces you’ll use for stove-to-oven meals, like skillets, saute pans, and shallow stock pots.
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Most 12-inch stainless steel fry pans are around 3 pounds, but some, like the Demeyere ProLine, can be over 5 pounds. If you buy a heavy fry pan, make sure it has a second helper handle so you can easily move it with two hands.
Mistake 5: Rounded Handles
Rounded handles seem like a great idea. When you pick up a pan with a round handle in the store, it feels comfortable and smooth, exactly what you want. But the problem is that rounded handles can be dangerous.
When you’re cooking, and your hands are wet and greasy, or you’re holding a towel or wearing an often mitt, your hands can easily slip.
Let’s say you’re pouring a saucepan full of hot pasta into a strainer; when you tilt the pot, you want your hand to remain secure so the handle doesn’t rotate and lead to a dangerous spill.
All-Clad takes this to the extreme and has these cup-shaped handles that almost guarantee your hand won’t slip, but the downside is that they’re not as comfortable.
There are two ways to attach handles to pans. Using rivets is the most common, but some handles are welded.
Riveted handles are durable and will never detach, but the area around the rivets can collect food and grease and is challenging to keep clean.
Pans with welded handles have a smooth, uninterrupted cooking surface that’s easier to clean, but the handles are not as secure.
I learned that the hard way when the welded handle of my Demeyere Atlantis fry pan broke off after a few months of use. I’m not saying this happens frequently, or you should avoid all pans with welded handles, but it’s a risk most people don’t consider.
Another mistake is not considering the finish. Polished stainless steel has a shiny, mirror-like finish. It has an aesthetically pleasing and traditional look, but smudges, fingerprints, and scratches are more noticeable.
On the other hand, brushed stainless steel has a duller, matte finish that requires less maintenance to keep it looking new.
Stainless steel pans are often used for serving, so think about the look you want in your kitchen and dining rooms but also think about cleaning and maintenance.
Rims play an important role in the function of your cookware, and for most people, it’s an afterthought.
Pans with flared rims make drip-free pouring and sliding food from the pan to a plate easier. But pans with straight rims contain ingredients better because the walls are slightly higher.
If all else is equal, go with flared rims and avoid messes from liquid dripping down the sides.
Stainless steel pans have either steel or tempered glass lids.
Glass lids seem like a good idea since you can monitor your cooking without lifting the lid and letting heat and moisture escape. But in most cases, the steam fogs up the glass, so you need to lift the lid anyway.
If you have the choice, go with stainless steel lids. There’s no risk of them breaking, and they’re easier to clean. With glass lids, food and grease can get stuck between the glass and the metal rim.
The grade of stainless steel directly impacts the cookware’s durability and performance.
The interior of most stainless steel pans is made of 300 series 18/10 stainless steel, an alloy containing 18% chromium and 10% nickel. These elements are essential for rust and corrosion resistance.
Brands like Heritage Steel and Hestan use titanium-enhanced steel for advanced durability.
Heritage Steel claims its 316Ti surface is 20 times more corrosion-resistant than typical 304-grade 18/10 steel. I’ve tested Heritage Steel thoroughly and haven’t noticed a substantial difference.
Hestan uses Molecular Titanium technology, bonding titanium nano-layers to 18/10 stainless steel. They claim this technology makes the surface 4X harder than standard steel. But again, I tested Hestan and have not noticed a significant improvement.
The key point is to look for cookware with 300 series 18/10 stainless steel interior. You can pay more for more advanced alloys, but the added benefit likely won’t make a major difference.
Look for pans with an exterior layer of 400-grade 18/0 steel. Specifically, look for 430 or 439-grade steel. These types of steel aren’t as corrosion-resistant as 300-grade 18/10, but they ensure the pan is compatible with all cooktops.
Avoid pans with an exterior made of 409-grade steel. This steel is cheaper but significantly less durable, with only 11% chromium content.
A common but simple mistake to correct is not considering the maximum oven-safe temperature.
Look for pans that can handle at least 500°F. You might not often push your oven to this limit, but for broiling and certain recipes, it’s a necessity.
However, some brands aren’t oven safe up to 500°F. For example, Calphalon Premier stainless steel pans are only oven-safe up to 450°F.
So, why might some pans fall short of the 500-degree mark? The answer usually lies in their construction. For example, a non-stick coating will limit a pan’s temperature tolerance. Likewise, a handle with a rubber sleeve or other meltable materials can lower a pan’s oven-safe temperature.
Another common mistake is assuming all stainless steel cookware will work on your induction cooktop. But that’s not true.
For cookware to be induction-compatible, the bottom needs to be magnetic. Before you buy stainless steel pans, make sure the bottom layer is made of 18/0 steel or another type of magnetic steel.
Purchasing a complete cookware set might seem like a good deal, but it’s often a mistake. The overall cost per item is less, but sets often include unnecessary sizes, extra lids, and pans you’ll never use.
A smarter approach is to buy individual pieces. This way, you can pick the exact shapes and sizes you need and expand your collection over time. Another advantage to buying individual pieces is mixing brands.
That said, sets that include essentials like a skillet, saucepan, and stock pot can be a good deal, especially if you’re starting from scratch. This Made In 6-piece starter set is one of the few I recommend.
Another mistake people make is buying cookware they don’t love to save money. I’m not suggesting you buy anything you can’t comfortably afford, but you should look at it as a lifetime investment. Stainless steel cookware can last for decades and is a product you’ll likely use daily.
So while I don’t recommend buying expensive non-stick cookware that you’ll need to replace, it makes sense to splurge a little on stainless steel and get something with the design, finish, and handles you’ll love.
You don’t want to be stuck with pans you don’t enjoy, and upgrading later will cost you even more.
On the flip side of that is overpaying. You don’t need to spend $200 on one All-Clad or Demeyere pan for great performance and durability.
Read my reviews on each brand to learn more:
Stainless Steel Cookware Buying Principles
Shopping for stainless steel cookware can be stressful. But now that you know what to look for and the common mistakes to avoid, you’re ready to make a smart investment.
As you shop for stainless steel cookware, keep these principles in mind:
- Fully-clad pans distribute heat more evenly and are more durable than disc-bottom pans.
- The material and thickness of the layers (plys) in stainless steel cookware are more important than the number of plys.
- The thicker the cookware, the better. Look for pans that are 3 mm thick or more.
- Make sure you can handle the pan’s weight, and consider the added weight of the food.
- Pans with flatter handles or a groove on top are safer and more secure than those with rounded handles.
- While riveted handles are more durable, they can be harder to clean than pans with welded handles.
- Polished stainless steel may be more attractive, but brushed stainless steel requires less maintenance.
- Pans with flared rims are better for drip-free pouring, while straight rims better contain ingredients.
- Stainless steel lids are more durable and easier to clean than glass lids.
- Cookware with 300 series 18/10 stainless steel interior and an exterior layer of 400-grade 18/0 steel are optimal for durability and compatibility with all cooktops.
- Pans should be able to handle a temperature of at least 500°F for optimal versatility in the kitchen.
- Not all stainless steel cookware is compatible with induction cooktops; ensure the bottom layer is magnetic.
- Buying individual cookware pieces instead of sets allows you to pick exactly what you need and mix brands.
- Investing in high-quality stainless steel cookware is worth the cost, considering its durability and daily use.
- Brands like Made In offer high-quality pans at reasonable prices because they sell directly to consumers online and avoid retail markups.
If you’re still confused about which stainless steel cookware to buy, check out the Prudent Reviews shop on Amazon. There you’ll find a list of our favorite stainless steel cookware brands, along with all the home products we recommend.
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