Are Stainless Steel Pans Non-Stick?

Published Categorized as Kitchen
Are Stainless Steel Pans Non-Stick?

I recently switched from cast iron to stainless steel cookware. This includes my frying pan. So I’m now cooking with a 10-inch stainless steel frying pan from a Dutch cookware maker.

Cooking with stainless steel is a great experience, as long as you know how to use it. When I was researching what kind of frying pan to buy, one of the first questions that came to my mind was just how non-stick stainless steel cookware was. It turned out I wasn’t the only one asking that question.

Are stainless steel pans non-stick?

No, stainless steel frying pans are not non-stick. They have a bare steel cooking surface that’s prone to latching onto tender and delicate foods like eggs, fish fillets, and pancakes. Adding a dollop of oil and preheating the pan does help to make it less sticky.

If you’re like me, you’re wondering why food sticks to your frying pan in the first place. 

To give you guys the best answer, I talked to one of my best friends who happens to teach metallurgy in a renowned U.S. university.

Here’s what I found out.

There are two reasons why ingredients stick to your stainless steel frying pan:

  • The pan expands and contracts as it heats up and cools down;
  • On an atomic level, the food particles react and form bonds with the metal particles.

You counteract the first cause by preheating the frying pan for 2-3 minutes. And you counteract the second by using about 1 tablespoon of cooking oil or more depending on the recipe (for example, eggplants tend to soak up a lot of cooking oil).

Your stainless steel pan may look perfectly smooth to the naked eye, but its cooking surface is actually covered with microscopic hills, valleys, and caves. When you turn the heat on your cooktop up or tone it down, the steel expands and, respectively, contracts. This makes the imperfections on the cooking surface bigger or smaller, causing them to grip onto the food in it.

When you preheat the pan for 2-3 minutes, you let the tiny pores on the cooking surface expand and contract naturally until the temperature of the metal stabilizes.

When you add 1 tablespoon of cooking oil or more to the pan, the oil reacts with the free metal atoms and forms a non-stick coating that metallurgists call “patina.” It also leaves less free atoms to react and form bonds with the food once you place it on the frying pan.

How to Keep Food From Sticking to Your Stainless Steel Frying Pan

Now you know why food sticks to your stainless steel frying pan. But how can you keep it from sticking in the first place?

After all, stainless steel pans are used all across professional kitchens in hotels and restaurants. There must be something that chefs do to keep their food from sticking to them.

There are five techniques that you can use to prevent ingredients from sticking to your stainless steel frying pan. Here’s how:

  1. Use a clean frying pan. We’re talking about stainless steel here—and stainless steel frying pans are generally dishwasher safe. So it’s a good idea to clean your pan in the dishwasher after every use. That way, the next time you need to cook with it, it will be completely degreased and will have no food particles on its cooking surface.
  2. Bring cold ingredients up to room temperature. Cold eggs or meat can easily stick to the cooking surface of your stainless steel frying pan. The best way to prevent this from happening is to take the ingredients that you’re going to cook with out of the fridge, letting them rest for 45 minutes to an hour before you put them on the frying pan.
  3. Make sure you’re cooking with hot oil. It doesn’t make a difference if you put the oil before or after you preheat the pan. What I prefer to do is add cold oil to a hot pan. The oil heats up quickly and becomes less viscous, so I end up using less of it. When the oil starts to shimmer, you know that it’s ready to cook with.
  4. Don’t try to move the ingredients too quickly. Cooking food in a pan is about patience. If you try to move the ingredients too quickly, they’ll end up sticking to the pan and you risk breaking them apart. Give them enough time to cook on one side before moving or flipping them, and, almost magically, the ingredients will never stick.
  5. Don’t put too much food in the pan. One mistake most home cooks make is to crowd the pan with too many ingredients at a time. The pan and the cooking oil in it will drop temperature, moisture will stop evaporating and build up in it, and whatever you’re cooking will come up wet, soggy, and probably not as browned as you want it.

Tried these techniques out? Let me and the rest of this post’s readers know how they worked out for you by leaving a comment below.

Are Stainless Steel Pans Better Than Non-Stick?

In my view, stainless steel pans are better than non-stick on more than one criteria.

Most non-stick pans are covered by a polytetrafluoroethylene (or “PTFE”) coating. In general, PTFE is a stable and safe material.

However, it starts to break down and emit toxic fumes at temperatures above 570°F (300°C). Some cooktops, especially gas ones, can reach that temperature at their highest setting, making non-stick pans unsafe to use.

The coating on non-stick frying pans also tends to wear off over time. And it’s very easy to scratch if you put the pan in the dishwasher, which is why most PTFE pans are not necessarily dishwasher safe.

Stainless steel pans are essentially bare steel. Since there’s no coating to worry about, you don’t need to worry about using the pan at high heat, putting it in the oven, or getting it scratched in the dishwasher.

With good care, a stainless steel pan can last for decades. No matter how well you care for a PTFE pan, the protective and non-stick coating will sooner or later wear off, rendering it unsafe or unusable. 

Finally, stainless steel pans are sturdy and heavy. If you like your cookware solid and durable like I do, this is a major advantage.

How to Pick a Good Stainless Steel Pan

If you came here wondering whether or not to buy a stainless steel pan and I got you convinced that it’s worth the money, how do you pick a good one?

After moving house, I recently bought some stainless steel cookware myself that worked on my new induction cooktop. Here’s what I paid attention to.

Pick a cookware maker you can trust. My pan is made by BEKA, a Dutch company that’s been making cookware since 1899. In 99% of the cases, you probably want to pick a pan maker from America or Europe if you want to get a high-quality pan.

Determine the right diameter for your needs. Most of the time, a 10-inch and 12-inch pan will do you just right. Be careful with 14-inch pans; they tend to be bigger than the burners on most cooktops and often have cold spots that prevent you from pan-frying food evenly.

If you’re wondering whether to get a 10-inch or 12-inch pan, consider the size of your household. We’re a family of two and 10 inches are just enough for a good meal for me and the wife. If we were a family of three or more, I’d go for a 12-inch pan as I wouldn’t have enough surface to cook for everyone at home.

Pick something durable and sturdy. One of the perks of cooking with a stainless steel pan is that you can use it for baking in the oven. That’s not necessarily the case if your pan has a silicone handle (even if it’s made from baking silicone, which doesn’t melt at high heat).

Pick a pan that’s thick and heavy. A solid base means your pan will heat evenly and brown food well. Plus, I don’t know about you, but I like a sturdy piece of cookware that you can hold firmly with your hand.

The Bottom Line

Stainless steel pans are made of bare metal, and metal is sticky.

If you know how to cook with a stainless steel pan, you can keep food from sticking to it. Just make sure to preheat the pan for 2-3 minutes before cooking with it, adding a tablespoon or so of cooking oil before you place the ingredients on the hot cooking surface.

Stainless steel frying pans are generally more versatile and durable than non-stick pans. If you take good care of your stainless steel cookware, it will last you for decades. You can’t say the same for non-stick as the coating will sooner or later wear off, rendering the pan unusable.

The best stainless steel pan is made by a cookware maker you can trust, is of a diameter wide enough for your household cooking, and comes with a thick and heavy base that allows it to conduct heat well and brown food evenly.

By Jim Stonos

When Jim isn't in the kitchen, he is usually spending time with family and friends, and working with the HCW editorial team to answer the questions he used to ask himself back when he was learning the ropes of cooking.