Stainless Steel vs. Non-Stick Cookware: What’s the Difference?

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In this comparison, I break down the advantages and disadvantages of the two most common types of cookware: stainless steel and non-stick.

You’ll learn how they compare in terms of cooking performance, safety, durability, price, and much more.

I also reveal what professional chefs have to say about stainless steel and non-stick cookware (hint: it’s not what you may think).

By the end, you’ll understand which situations are best for each cookware type, and why every kitchen needs a mix of both.

Let’s get started.

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Stainless Steel vs. Non-Stick: 30-Second Summary

If you only have a minute and you’re looking to quickly understand how stainless steel and non-stick cookware compare, here’s what you need to know.

Stainless steel cookware is known for its sleek design, exceptional heat conduction, and superior durability.

It’s the ultimate all-purpose cookware; it can tackle searing, braising, boiling, sauteing, frying—you name it.

Is All-Clad Worth It_All-Clad Cookware Review
All-Clad Stainless Steel Cookware

The main downsides of stainless steel cookware are that it’s expensive, food sticks to the surface, and it can be a challenge to clean.

Non-stick cookware is designed to make life in the kitchen easy. Food doesn’t stick to its slick surface, which makes cooking and cleaning a breeze.

Calphalon Hard Anodized Aluminum Cookware Set
Calphalon Hard-Anodized Non-stick Cookware Set

But, unlike stainless steel, you’ll need to replace your non-stick cookware every few years when the cooking surface wears down and loses its magic.

When choosing between cookware types, keep the following points in mind.

When to Use Stainless Steel vs. Non-Stick: Searing, browning, and cooking acidic foods are jobs best suited for stainless steel. Non-stick cookware is ideal for cooking eggs, pancakes, flaky fish, and other delicate foods.

Cooktop Compatibility: Stainless steel cookware is compatible with all types of cooktops. Non-stick cookware is compatible with all cooktops except induction (there are some exceptions, such as the All-Clad HA1 collection, which is induction-compatible).

Oven-Safe Temperature: Most stainless steel cookware is broiler and oven-safe up to 500 or 600 degrees Fahrenheit. Non-stick pans are not broiler-safe, and overheating can damage the coating, so the oven-safe heat thresholds are typically lower. Some brands completely prohibit the use of non-stick cookware in the oven.

Heat Conduction and Retention: Stainless steel and non-stick cookware both heat up fast and evenly, but stainless steel can withstand higher temperatures and retains heat for longer periods.

Safety: Despite previous concerns, all non-stick cookware made after 2013 is free of PFOA (a potentially harmful chemical) and completely safe for cooking. Stainless steel cookware that contains at least 16% chromium (which is the case across all modern cookware) is completely safe.

Durability: Stainless steel cookware, when properly maintained, will last a lifetime. Non-stick cookware needs to be replaced every three to five years when the coating wears down.

Cleaning and Maintenance: Non-stick cookware is much easier to clean, but you need to take extra care while cooking and storing to prevent damage.

What Professional Chefs Are Saying: Stainless steel is the material of choice for pro chefs, but they keep at least a couple of frying pans in the kitchen for delicate foods like eggs. Several celebrity chef cookware lines feature both stainless steel and non-stick pieces.

Price: In general, stainless steel cookware is significantly more expensive than non-stick, but the difference varies by brand. Check Amazon to get a better idea of the cost of each.

Bottom Line: I recommend investing in a high-end set of stainless steel cookware from a brand like All-Clad (see on Amazon). Stainless steel will handle almost any meal, and it’s worth spending more for a quality set because it will last forever. Supplement the stainless steel set with a couple of quality non-stick pans for cooking eggs and other delicate foods, but don’t overspend since you’ll need to replace them eventually.

Cooking Performance

Both types of cookware can handle almost any recipe. However, certain meals cook best in stainless steel, while others are better suited for non-stick.

In this section, you’ll learn:

  • Their strengths and weaknesses in the kitchen
  • Their cooktop compatibility (vital if you have an induction cooktop)
  • Their maximum oven-safe temperatures
  • And how well they conduct and retain heat

When to Use Stainless vs. Non-Stick

A common question that you might be wondering: When should I use stainless steel cookware, and when should I use non-stick?

Although the answer isn’t always black-and-white, there are specific scenarios where you should use one over the other.

Sauté: Both stainless steel and non-stick pans work great for sautéing, but, for fast cooking and clean up, non-stick is the better choice. Non-stick pans make it easier to toss the food around. If you decide to use stainless steel, allow the pan to heat up completely before added ample oil, and then add the food.

Stir fry: Similar to sautéing, both cookware types will work, but food will release much easier with non-stick, which allows you to shake, stir, and toss the ingredients much easier.

Braise: Since braising requires long, slow cooking at lower temperatures, you can use a stainless steel or non-stick Dutch oven. Not all non-stick cookware is oven-safe, and if it is, sometimes the lids are not. Before you get started, make sure your cookware is rated for at least 300 degrees Fahrenheit, which is a standard braising temperature. 

Sear/brown: Searing steaks, burgers, and hearty fish like salmon is a job for stainless steel or cast iron, but not non-stick. Why? First, stainless steel cookware retains heat exceptionally well (more on this in a minute), which means it won’t lose its temperature when you slap a cold steak on its surface. Second, its stickiness maximizes contact between the meat and the hot surface, which allows it to form a golden-brown crust. 

Pork chops seared on a stainless steel pan
Pork chops seared on a stainless steel pan

Some non-stick brands, such as Calphalon Unison Non-stick, claim to produce a result similar to stainless steel, but, in general, stainless steel is your best bet. And when it comes to browning and deglazing, you need some bits of food stuck to the pan for the most flavorful sauces.

Boil: Both stainless steel and non-stick can handle this job. However, stainless steel cookware heats up faster, which means it will bring water to a boil in less time. One watch-out—never add salt to cold water in a stainless steel pan. Wait until it has come to a rolling boil. Adding salt to the water beforehand may cause pitting, a form of rust.

Bake: Stainless steel is notorious for food getting stuck, so if you use it for baking, you must adequately grease the pan or use parchment paper. Baking with non-stick will make your life easier since your baked goods shouldn’t stick, but make sure the cookware can handle the oven temperature that the recipe calls for before you get started.

Roast: Roasting often requires higher temperatures than baking. You’ll have no issues with stainless steel, but check the temperature rating for the recipe before using non-stick.

Broil: Non-stick coating can break down under the intense flames and high temperatures of broiling. In fact, I have yet to come across non-stick cookware that is safe for use in a broiler—even All-Clad’s non-stick pans aren’t built for broiling. For this job, stick to stainless steel.

Acidic foods: Acidic foods like tomatoes, wine, vinegar, and citrus fruits could accelerate the wearing down of your non-stick coating. So, for that slow-simmered Sunday sauce, stick with stainless steel.

Chicken and tomato sauce simmering in a stainless steel pan
Chicken and tomato sauce simmering in a stainless steel pan

Delicate foods: Use non-stick pans for pancakes, eggs, flaky fish, and other delicate foods. It’s possible to cook these foods with stainless steel, but not worth the risk since they could rip, break, or fall apart if they get stuck to the pan.

Cooking an egg with a non stick pan
Cooking an egg with a non stick pan

Cooktop Compatibility

Before you buy or use each type of cookware, you need to make sure it’s compatible with your cooktop.

Fortunately, stainless steel cookware is compatible with all types of cooktops, including gas, electric, halogen, and even induction.

Induction cooking requires a magnetic field to deliver heat to the pan. Stainless steel cookware is typically constructed with a magnetic steel exterior, which allows the heat handshake to occur.

Most non-stick cookware has an aluminum exterior, which works on all cooktops except induction.

Certain non-stick sets, like All-Clad HA1 (see on Amazon), are made with a stainless steel base, optimized for induction. But, this is the exception, not the rule. 

One of the easiest ways to tell if cookware can be used on induction cooktops (or any other cooktop) is to flip the pan over and look at the base. On newer pans, you’ll see symbols that indicate cooktop compatibility.

Another way is to place a magnet on the bottom of the pan. If it sticks firmly, it should work on induction. If not, then it won’t.

Maximum Oven-Safe Temperature

In general, budget non-stick cookware is not oven or broiler-safe—at least not at high temperatures.

Why?

Overheating non-stick pans can cause the coating to break down and give off harmful gasses. However, there are no proven cases of illness due to these gases and the FDA confirms on their website, “there are no known risks to humans from using Teflon/PTFE-coated cookware.”

If you want an oven-safe non-stick pot or pan, check out higher-end brands like All-Clad, Cuisinart, and Calphalon. They have non-stick offerings that can handle the heat of the oven without issue.

With non-stick cookware, it’s critical to follow the heat thresholds outlined by the manufacturer, even if you buy a high-end brand.

Stainless steel cookware doesn’t have the same limitations.

While you still need to adhere to temperature guidelines set by the manufacturer, stainless steel cookware can withstand higher heat in an oven than its non-stick counterparts.

Is All-Clad Cookware Oven-Safe

Many non-stick, oven-safe cookware sets top off between 450 and 500 degrees Fahrenheit, while some stainless steel sets can be safely used at up to 600 degrees Fahrenheit.

When it comes to broiling, never use non-stick. Broiling exposes the coating to open flames or a heating element that will exceed the oven-safe temperature. For your broiled meals, choose stainless steel and monitor it closely, so it doesn’t overheat.

Heat Conduction and Retention

Due to the way stainless steel cookware is constructed, it heats up fast, distributes heat evenly, and retains heat for long periods.

If you haven’t done any research, you might think that stainless steel cookware is made from steel only, but that’s rarely the case.

Stainless steel is ultra-durable, but it conducts heat poorly. So, to compensate for steel’s lack of heat transfer capabilities, manufacturers construct their cookware with other additional materials that have superior thermal conductivity, such as aluminum or copper.

Let me explain.

Stainless steel cookware comes in two varieties: impact-bonded base or multi-clad.

Impact-bonded stainless steel cookware has a steel exterior and a thick base that’s layered with heat-conductive materials such as aluminum, copper, or a blend of both.

With impact-bonded cookware, heat spreads quickly and evenly across the bottom of the pan, but not as fast or evenly up the sides, which can lead to inconsistent cooking.

Multi-clad stainless steel cookware is constructed by bonding external layers of steel along with a heat-conductive core layer of aluminum or copper that extends throughout the entire cookware, including the sides. This type of cookware heats up faster and more evenly than impact-bonded, but it’s significantly more expensive.

All-Clad Tri-Ply Construction
All-Clad Multi-clad Construction. Photo Credit: CooksWarehouse.com.

Non-stick cookware comes in many varieties, but most commonly, the base material is aluminum, and the cooking surface is coated with a substance known as polytetrafluoroethylene or PTFE. Teflon is the most recognizable brand of PTFE, having been around since 1938. Non-stick pans can also be coated with ceramic.

Since aluminum has excellent heat conductive properties, most non-stick pans heat up quickly and evenly. However, non-stick pans do not retain heat as well as stainless steel.

Why?

First, steel has low heat conductivity; it takes longer to heat up, but it also takes longer to cool down.

Second, stainless steel cookware is usually much denser than aluminum non-stick cookware, so once the heat is absorbed into its thick walls, it takes longer to lose it.

One other point to keep in mind—PTFE and ceramic coatings provide quick and easy food release and manipulation, but they are not heat conductors. So, non-stick pans essentially have a thin barrier between the hot metal and your food. For most meals, this won’t matter. But, it prevents you from getting a good sear on steaks, burgers, and other meats.

Bottom line—stainless steel and non-stick cookware both heat up fast and evenly, but stainless steel retains heat longer and delivers the heat directly to your food (without a coating in the way).

Safety

If you google “are non-stick pans safe?” you’ll find dozens of articles and blogs with differing opinions.

Some say that they’re made with harmful, cancer-causing chemicals, while others say there’s nothing to worry about.

The truth is, today, non-stick pans are safe, but that wasn’t always the case.

While researching non-stick cookware, you’ll likely come across the acronyms: PFOA and PTFE.

PTFE is short for polytetrafluoroethylene, which is the scientific name for non-stick coating.

PFOA stands for perfluorooctanoic acid. It’s a man-made chemical that, in the past, was used in the manufacturing process of non-stick coating.

The American Cancer Society has been researching PFOA for years and, in their studies, found possible links to certain types of cancer in humans and animals.

Thankfully, due to research and safety demands, PFOA has not been used for creating non-stick cookware or as an ingredient in Teflon or any other PTFE coating since 2013.

So, unless you’re using pans that you bought before 2013, there is no cause for alarm. But, if you’re still concerned, opt for non-stick cookware coated with ceramic.

During the backlash against non-stick cookware years ago, companies started marketing pans coated with ceramic as a safer, healthier alternative.

Although I’m not a huge fan of ceramic-coated non-stick pans (food tends to stick to the surface more so than PTFE), many people love them, and one brand in this space that’s become wildly popular is the GreenPan (you can check out their products on Amazon).

If you’re interested in learning more about the safety of non-stick cookware, I went in-depth on the topic in this recent article.

Stainless steel is a steel alloy, which means it’s a combination of metals.

In addition to steel, stainless steel cookware typically contains chromium, nickel, and other elements which make it resistant to corrosion and rust. As a rule of thumb, stainless steel cookware with higher levels of chromium is more resistant to corrosion, therefore safer.

For steel to be considered “stainless steel,” it must contain at least 10.5% chromium. However, according to the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), stainless steel cookware must contain at least 16% chromium to be safe for food preparation.

Fortunately, all modern stainless steel cookware (even low-cost brands) meets this requirement, so you don’t need to worry when shopping around. Premium brands like All-Clad use 18/10 stainless steel, which contains 18% chromium and 10% nickel. If the makeup of the steel is not clear on the packaging, contact the manufacturer.

Bottom line—non-stick cookware made after 2013 and stainless steel cookware that contains at least 16% chromium is completely safe.

Durability

Another significant difference between stainless steel and non-stick cookware is its durability.

In short, stainless steel cookware is more durable than non-stick.

If you take care of stainless steel pans, they will last for a lifetime.

Unfortunately, this is not the case with non-stick. Most non-stick cookware lasts between three and five years.

Even the best made non-stick cookware will eventually wear down and get cracks or scratches in the coating. In the image below, you can see scratches in the non-stick coating of my pan.

Scratched non-stick cooking surface
Scratched non-stick cooking surface

When this occurs, the non-stick coating will lose its effectiveness, and you’ll need to replace it. When choosing cookware, multi-clad stainless steel is the longest lasting because it is constructed from multiple layers of stainless steel and heat-conductive metals.

If you’re looking for the longest-lasting non-stick cookware, go with a set made with a hard-anodized aluminum or stainless steel exterior with a multi-layer non-stick surface.

The Calphalon Signature Non-Stick collection is a great choice (see on Amazon). It’s made with hard-anodized aluminum and three layers of PFOA-free non-stick coating.

Although you should always use wood or rubber utensils when cooking with non-stick, this particular collection can handle metal whisks and spatulas without scratching.  

To increase the durability of your cookware, follow the tips in the next section.

Cleaning and Maintenance

It’s no secret that non-stick cookware is easier to clean. Its design makes food and residue practically melt away when washed with soap and warm water.

Stainless steel cookware takes a little more work. Discoloration and brown spots can build up over time (as you can see in the image below).

Stainless steel cookware discoloration and brown spots
Stainless steel cookware discoloration and brown spots

But, if you’re using the right techniques for cooking, it’ll keep the clean up to a minimum.

Below are the best ways to ensure your cookware lasts; these tips apply to both non-stick and stainless steel.

Helpful Resource: We recently published an in-depth, step-by-step guide on how to clean All-Clad stainless steel cookware. Although I focus on All-Clad, the methods I cover in this guide apply to almost every cookware brand. Check it out to learn how to remove stubborn stains, discoloration, brown spots, and much more.

  • Avoid sharp temperature changes – Suddenly placing a hot pan in cold water or vice versa could cause warping. The same can go for food. Not only is placing frozen or cold food in a hot skillet dangerous, but it can also degrade the quality of a pan. For best results, let meats come to room temperature before cooking.
  • Handwash your pans – Even if your cookware is rated as dishwasher-safe, hand washing allows you to use gentle soap and control how the pots and pans are scrubbed. Some dishwasher detergents can degrade pans and cause marks. Also, refrain from using abrasive cleaning tools like steel wool and opt for synthetic brushes with flexible bristles. You can even boil water in your stainless steel pans to soften up stuck-on food and remove gently with a heat-safe rubber spatula.
  • Don’t stack your pans – Unless the pans are designed to be stacked like some space-saving options out there, don’t stack or nest your pans. Doing so can cause nicks and scratches.
  • Use the right utensils – Use nylon, coated, or heat-resistant synthetic tools to protect your pans, whether non-stick or stainless steel.
  • Stay away from cooking spray – These sprays are usually filled with ingredients that can form a layer on your pans that is near impossible to remove. To get spray results, you can buy an oil diffuser or sprayer and add your favorite oil or put oil into your pan and use a paper towel to coat the pan evenly
  • Stick with the instructions – Read the manual that comes with your cookware. It will have the best tips on how to protect your investment and what is required to keep you eligible for a warranty replacement.

What Professional Chefs Are Saying

Contrary to popular belief, most professional chefs use both stainless steel and non-stick cookware.

Sure, stainless steel is usually the cookware of choice because of its durability, heat conduction, and retention (and you need that in a busy commercial kitchen). But you’ll find, just as the pros do, that there are cooking scenarios better suited for non-stick.

In renowned Chef Gordon Ramsay’s list of kitchen essentials, a non-stick pan is the first one he mentions, followed by stainless steel saucepans and a frying pan. He calls his home kitchen the engine room. His stove? A piano—a place to play. It’s evident that even in his home kitchen, he sees a place for stainless steel and non-stick.

Chef Esther Choi, the owner of Mǒkbar, talks through a test of non-stick cookware while Chef Jacob Burton of Stella Culinary School breaks down when to use a non-stick pan.

A quick search online will reveal that many famous chefs have cookware lines that offer stainless steel and non-stick, further solidifying that there is a place in your kitchen for both.

A few examples include Wolfgang Puck and Rachael Ray, who both feature stainless steel and non-stick offerings (check out Rachel Ray’s non-stick pans on Amazon). Thomas Keller, a world-renowned chef and restaurateur, co-designed the All-Clad TK collection that features mostly stainless steel, but also a 10-inch non-stick frying pan.  

And then there’s Ree Drummond (The Pioneer Woman) whose collections are primarily non-stick (see on Amazon).

Price

Stainless steel cookware pieces and sets tend to be significantly more expensive than non-stick.

Why?

Because the process of making stainless steel cookware, especially the multi-clad variety, is significantly more complex. Plus, steel is typically more expensive than aluminum (aluminum is the base material of non-stick cookware).

So, how much more expensive is stainless steel cookware? Well, the price of both cookware types varies significantly by brand, and each brand offers several collections at different price points.

Instead of making a general statement, I recommend that you run a few quick searches on Amazon to get a sense of the actual difference in cost.

On the high-end of the range are brands like (note: these links go to Amazon) All-Clad, Calphalon, and Demeyere. On the lower-end are brands like T-fal, Cuisinart, and Farberware. These brands make both stainless steel and non-stick options.

Bottom Line: Which Type of Cookware Is Better?

The question is not whether you should choose stainless steel over non-stick, or vice versa. Clearly, each cookware type has its place in the kitchen.

The question is, what’s the best approach when shopping for your kitchen? Should you mix and match different types of pots and pans, buy a complete set, or a combination of a set and individual pieces?

Non-stick and stainless steel pans

Before I give you my recommendation, let’s recap the pros and cons of each cookware type.

Pros of Stainless Steel

  • Incredibly versatile; it can handle every type of cooking
  • It can withstand higher temperatures than non-stick
  • Broiler and oven-safe
  • Can be used on all cooktops, including induction
  • Retains heat better than non-stick
  • No health or safety concerns
  • Superior durability; it will last a lifetime

Cons of Stainless Steel

  • Food stick easily if you don’t use the right techniques
  • Cleaning is more difficult; food doesn’t release easily
  • Significantly more expensive than non-stick

Pros of Non-stick

  • Food releases easily with little to no oil
  • Faster to clean than stainless steel
  • Less expensive than stainless steel

Cons of Non-stick

  • Acidic foods can degrade the non-stick coating
  • Some brands are oven-safe, but many are not
  • Not broiler-safe
  • Not compatible with induction cooktops unless it has a magnetic bottom
  • Not ideal for searing and browning
  • Concerns about the safety of chemicals used in the manufacturing process (although those have been addressed)
  • Wears down and needs replacement after a few years

The Verdict

I highly recommend investing your money in a high-end stainless steel cookware set like All-Clad or Calphalon (see how these brands compare).

With that set, you’ll be able to handle virtually every meal in your cookbook.

Spending hundreds of dollars on a quality set of stainless steel might seem excessive, but considering that it will last your lifetime, it’s worth the investment.

But, you should save some room in your kitchen for non-stick.

Instead of buying an entire set of non-stick cookware, get two to three moderately-priced fry pans of different sizes.

These pans will be your go-to tools for quick breakfast meals like omelets, pancakes, crepes, or hash. They are also an excellent choice for a hurried lunch or dinner when you want to pan-fry delicate fish, or just don’t have time to fiddle with the nuances using and cleaning stainless steel.

There are so many quality non-stick options on the market, but these are the brands and collections I recommend:

Do you use stainless steel or non-stick in your kitchen? Which style of cookware are you thinking of purchasing? Share your thoughts below!

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