Are All Stainless Steel Pans the Same?

Are All Stainless Steel Pans the Same?Milkos /Depositphotos

Are all stainless steel pans the same?

If you’re not into stainless steel cookware, you may think that all pans and pots made of this metal are give or take the same. But the reality is a little different than that.

When selecting a stainless steel pan, it’s important to get to know the various types out there and the key differences between them. This will help you do your due diligence as, for better or worse, a higher price doesn’t necessarily guarantee higher quality.

So, before we get into it, here’s the long story short:

Not all stainless steel pans are the same. Those with an aluminum core are cheaper compared to those with copper cores, yet they’re good enough for home cooking. Disc-bottomed pans are prone to cold spots, unlike fully-clad pans.

All metals have a property called thermal conductivity, a term from physics for their ability to conduct heat.

Thermal conductivity is measured in W/mK, which stands for “Watts per meter-Kelvin.” A high number means that a given metal is good at conducting heat; a low number means it’s a poor conductor.

Grade 304 stainless steel—the kind that manufacturers use for making pans and pots—has a thermal conductivity of only 14.4 W/mK.

MetalThermal Conductivity
Stainless steel (Grade 304)14.4 W/mK
Cast iron52 W/mK
Carbon steel54 W/mK
Aluminum237 W/mK
Copper413 W/mK

Compare this to 52 W/mK for cast iron, 54 W/mK for carbon steel, 237 W/mK for aluminum, and the whopping 413 W/mK for copper, and it gets easy to understand what every metallurgist means when they tell you that stainless steel isn’t that good at conducting heat.

Stainless steel is 3.6 times worse at conducting heat than cast iron, 3.75 times worse than carbon steel, 16.45 times worse than aluminum, and 28.68 times worse than copper.

Even though it makes for a sturdy and durable cooking surface, stainless steel is a terrible conductor of heat. To make their stainless steel pans and pots heat quickly and evenly, cookware manufacturers must add a second, more conductive metal—such as aluminum or copper—to their construction.

How exactly they do that determines the quality of your frying pan.

Generally speaking, there are two ways to add a more conductive, more responsive aluminum or copper core to stainless steel cookware.

The difference between fully-clad and disc-bottomed frying pans
Fully-clad vs. disc-bottomed pans

Disc-Bottomed Pans

The first way is to make a so-called disc-bottomed frying pan by bonding a thick and heavy plate of the metal of choice to the bottom of the stainless steel cooking vessel.

Disc-bottomed pans are easier to make since it doesn’t take that sophisticated of a production process to bond a plate of metal to the bottom of a thin cooking vessel, and therefore cheaper to buy.

However, they don’t heat as evenly as you’d think: the aluminum or copper core is located only under the bottom of the pan—and the sides are made of thin sheets of stainless steel.

When buying a disc-bottomed pan, go for one made by a reputable brand whose manufacturing practices you can trust, even if that means paying a higher price.

High-quality disc-bottomed pans are bonded in hydraulic presses that apply 1,500 tons of pressure to the stainless steel cooking vessel and the thick plate of aluminum or copper, making them inseparable.

Pans and pots made by brands with shady manufacturing practices, on the other hand, may feature plates of aluminum or copper “bonded” to the vessel with silicone oil. As Consumer Reports found out, this makes them useless for anything other than boiling water.

Fully-Clad Pans

The second way is to make a fully-clad pan by layering three or more metal sheets on top of each other, bonding them together using various technologies, and pressing them into the vessel’s shape.

Fully-clad pans, also known as clad pans, are more expensive to produce and, therefore, sold at a higher price tag. They are also superior to disc-bottomed pans.

Since the aluminum or copper core runs all the way to the sides of the pan, fully-clad pans distribute heat better than disc-bottomed pans and heat evenly, with few cold or hot spots.

Clad pans can have a tri-ply (consisting of three layers of metal), five-ply (five layers), or seven-ply (seven layers) construction.

The exterior layer is made of magnetized stainless steel that makes the cooking vessel induction-friendly, and the interior layer is made of 18/10 stainless steel that gives the cooking surface excellent resistance to corrosion and rust.

The internal layers tend to vary with the construction (tri-ply, five-ply, or seven-ply) and the metals it’s made from (stainless steel with aluminum, stainless steel with copper, or stainless steel with aluminum and copper).

As metals for the cores of fully-clad pans, aluminum is cheaper and good enough, whereas copper is expensive and highly performant.

There are nine possible combinations:

ConstructionAluminum CoreCopper CoreMulti-Metal Core
Tri-ply
(three layers)
1. Magnetized stainless steel exterior
2. Aluminum core
3. 18/10 stainless steel interior
BEST VALUE FOR THE MONEY
1. Magnetized stainless steel exterior
2. Copper core
3. 18/10 stainless steel interior
WHEN YOU WANT TO SPLURGE
N/a (not enough layers)
Five-ply
(five layers)
1. Magnetized stainless steel exterior
2. Aluminum layer
3. Stainless steel layer
4. Aluminum layer
5. Stainless steel interior
1. Magnetized stainless steel exterior
2. Copper layer
3. Stainless steel layer
4. Copper layer
5. 18/10 stainless steel interior
1. Magnetized stainless steel exterior
2. Aluminum layer
3. Copper layer
4. Aluminum layer
5. 18/10 stainless steel interior
Seven-ply
(seven layers)
1. Magnetized stainless steel exterior
2. Aluminum layer
3. Stainless steel layer
4. Aluminum layer
5. Stainless steel layer
6. Aluminum layer
7. 18/10 stainless steel interior
1. Magnetized stainless steel exterior
2. Copper layer
3. Stainless steel layer
4. Copper layer
5. Stainless steel layer
6. Copper layer
7. 18/10 stainless steel interior
1. Magnetized stainless steel exterior
2. Aluminum layer
3. Copper layer
4. Aluminum layer
5. Copper layer
6. Aluminum layer
7. 18/10 stainless steel interior
The types of fully-clad stainless steel cooking vessels

That’s quite a few options… how do you know which one is right for you?

Though the marketers of stainless steel cookware will try to convince you otherwise, a tri-ply frying pan with an aluminum core gives you the best value for the money for your daily home cooking.

Five-ply pans are heavier and heat a bit more evenly, but not enough for you to notice much of a difference (unless you cook in a restaurant kitchen). Seven-ply pans are overkill, even in the eyes of some professional chefs.

I’ve shared my best picks from All-Clad, my favorite brand, in an article titled, “The Best All-Clad Cookware for Induction.”

Frying Pan vs. Saucepan 

Frying pans are shallow and have sloping sides that make it easy to use a spatula and allow moisture to evaporate. They’re great for most of your daily cooking needs and, if you could only buy a single type of pan, this is the one to go for.

Saucepans are still shallow, though a little taller than frying pans, and have straight sides that keep moisture and splatter in—especially when covered with the lid. They’re a good choice of cookware for cooking methods such as braising and stewing, so they would probably appeal to the seasoned home cook.

Compact vs. Spacious Pans

The diameter of your pan determines how much cooking space you have.

If you cook mostly for yourself and rarely have friends or family over, a 10-inch frying pan is your best choice. With one, you’ll have plenty of space for most cooking tasks, be it frying eggs, browning steak, or making burgers.

Those who cook for a family of two to three members can safely go for a 12-inch frying pan. If you’re feeding a family of four or often have to cook for a crowd, consider a 13-inch to 14-inch frying pan. But first, make sure your stove has a burner that’s big enough to fit it.

Uncoated vs. Non-Stick

A stainless steel frying pan can have a cooking surface that’s uncoated (made of bare steel) or coated (with non-stick film).

Uncoated stainless steel pans are sturdy, durable, and generally dishwasher safe. However, foods high in protein and low in fat, such as eggs, whitefish, and pancakes, are prone to sticking badly to their surface unless you cook with a generous amount of fat.

Non-stick stainless steel pans are basically ordinary stainless steel pans sprayed with a polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) coating, which most of us know as “non-stick” or “teflon.” Cooking with these pans and cleaning them up after is a breeze as the slick surface practically cleans itself.

However, non-stick coatings are prone to scratching and, no matter how well you care for them, tend to wear off in two to three years. So, sooner or later, you’ll have to throw your pan away and get a replacement.

Not All Pans Are Oven-Friendly

Stainless steel pans with metal handles are safe to use in the oven, typically up to 500°F (260°C). However, the maximum temperature can vary with the make and model. When in doubt, it’s best to refer to the usage and care instructions for your pan.

Pans with bakelite, plastic, or wooden handles are usually not oven-safe since the prolonged exposure to high heat can melt the materials on the handle and damage it beyond repair.

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