What Is a Stainless Steel Pan Good For?

Photo of a Beka stainless steel frying pan

Everyone tells you that you can cook almost anything in a stainless steel pan. But what does that mean, exactly?

As a long-time owner and tester of stainless steel pans and pots, I’m going to tell you what you can—and cannot—cook in stainless steel. By the end of the post, you’ll have an easier time telling whether or not this type of cooking vessel is for you.

So, what can you cook in stainless steel?

Stainless steel pans are sturdy, oven-friendly, and dishwasher-safe, and a good overall choice for daily use. Their metallic surface excels at browning steak and searing foods in general. However, low-fat, high-protein foods are prone to sticking to it.

Stainless steel pans are good for searing steak, poultry, and salmon, shallow-frying French fries, fritters, and fish sticks, and simmering sauces or gravies. Less so for eggs, omelets, whitefish, and pancakes, which tend to stick to the surface (in which case you may be better off buying a cast iron, carbon steel, ceramic, or non-stick pan).

Ask any chef what it is that sets stainless steel pans apart from all of their other peers, and they’ll almost always reply to you with two words: pan sauce.

When browning red meats, birds, and fatty fish, bits and pieces of food get stuck to the bottom of the pan and turn into a sticky brown residue:

Searing steak in a stainless steel frying pan

That residue packs a ton of flavor thanks to the Maillard reaction.

The Maillard reaction is a complex chemical reaction that sets off when cooking protein-rich foods at 280 to 330°F, producing hundreds of new aromatic and flavorful compounds that impart an umami (savory) taste to your food.

Much has yet to be discovered about it, but researchers generally agree on one thing: it’s the reason why seared steak, sautéed mushrooms, toast bread, and roast coffee are so delicious.

Instead of scrubbing off that residue in your sink, pour a can of beer or yesterday’s leftover wine in your pan, add a few aromatic herbs like thyme or rosemary, introduce some decadence with a lump of butter, and bring the whole thing to a simmer. You’ll make the most delicious sauce that you’ve ever tasted.

How to Keep Foods From Sticking to Stainless Steel

To keep foods from sticking to stainless steel, bring them to room temperature first by taking them out of the fridge 15 minutes ahead of time. Fry them in a preheated pan with plenty of butter or cooking oil.

I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to preheat your frying pan for 2-3 minutes before using it. Contrary to what most of us think, it won’t matter if you add the oil before or after—as long as it gets hot enough to cook in.

You’ll know that the oil in your pan is hot enough when it starts rippling. The ripples form as hot oil floats to the top and gets replaced by cool oil, which falls to the bottom, producing turbulence in the form of waves.

Butter has more moisture than cooking oil (15% compared to 0.1% – 0.5%), so you need to look for other signs.

Butter is hot enough to cook in when it stops bubbling in the pan. This means that most of the moisture has evaporated, allowing the fat to get heated past water’s boiling point of 212°F (100°C).

Things to Know About Stainless Steel

Most stainless steel pans are safe to use in the oven at temperatures of up to 500°F (260°C). However, that number can vary with the make and model, so do refer to the owner’s manual for your pan before baking with it.

Stainless steel is a poor conductor of heat, so manufacturers bond another metal, like aluminum on low- to mid-end cooking vessels or copper on high-end ones, to make their pans heat quickly and evenly.

There are two ways to do that: one is by attaching the other metal as a thick disc to the bottom, the other is by sandwiching multiple layers of steel and pressing them into shape in a process called “cladding.”

Clad vs. disc-bottomed pans

Disc-bottomed pans are cheaper, but clad pans heat more evenly as the aluminum or copper core runs all the way to the sides.

Clad pans are also better balanced in terms of weight, so tossing and flipping foods in them are much easier to do (the disc bottom drags the center of weight down).

Clad pans can consist of three layers of metals (tri-ply), five layers (five-ply), or seven layers (seven-ply). When in doubt, buy a tri-ply pan with an aluminum core; it gives you the best price/performance ratio for home cooking.

Do Stainless Steel Pans Leach Into Foods?

It’s a common misconception that stainless steel pans don’t leach metals into your food.

Stainless steel is an alloy, a metal made by combining multiple metals. Stainless steel consists of, in order of amount, iron (Fe), chromium (Cr), nickel (Ni), and carbon (C).

When it comes to cookware, manufacturers use three grades of stainless steel, but the one that you’ll find in almost all pans and pots is 18/10 steel, which contains 18% chromium and 10% nickel. The chromium and nickel give your pan its shine and protect it against corrosion and rust.

A 2013 study found that stainless steel leaches chromium and nickel into your foods during cooking:

“Stainless steel cookware can be an overlooked source of nickel and chromium,” the researchers said, “where the contribution is dependent on stainless steel grade, cooking time, and cookware usage.”

The researchers, who worked at the Department of Environmental and Molecular Toxicology of Oregon’s State University, found that stainless steel pans leached the biggest amount of chromium and nickel in their first six uses, after which they seemed to stabilize.

However, that stabilization by no ways meant that no subsequent leaching happened. “Metal leaching decreases with sequential cooking cycles and stabilized after the sixth cooking cycle, though significant metal contributions to foods were still observed.”

As with cast iron and carbon steel, acidic foods—such as those containing tomatoes, lemons, limes, vinegar, and wine—react the most to the bare surface. The longer the cooking/simmering time, the more significant the quantity of metals leached.

Does this make them “bad” for you?

That’s the thing about cooking. You’re heating a cooking surface that comes in direct contact with cooking liquids and acidic foods, sometimes for minutes or hours on end.

Some sort of reaction is bound to happen, especially if the cooking surface is uncoated. Ceramic and non-stick coatings, on the other hand, have a fair share of controversy on their own.

Alternatives to Stainless Steel

When shopping for cookware, you’re kind of faced with a choice: use cookware coated with man-made chemicals (silicone oil for ceramic and PTFE for non-stick), cook in carbon steel, cast iron, or stainless steel, knowing that they leach, or go for enameled cast iron.

Cast iron and carbon steel have a slick, non-stick-like coating. But, since they don’t contain chromium and nickel, they’re prone to corrosion and rust. So you need to season them now and then, and you can only clean them by hand.

Still, cast iron and carbon steel are legitimate alternatives to stainless steel if the majority of your cooking comprises searing and shallow-frying. Keep in mind that they’re also not the best choices for acidic foods, as the acidity will cause them to seep dietary iron into your foods and strip off their seasoning.

Many say that enameled cast iron is the most “natural” choice of cookware as you’re basically cooking on a porcelain coat. But these pans and pots are very heavy, and the vitreous enamel is prone to chipping and cracking, so it’s not like there aren’t a few caveats that you should be aware of when going that route.

Non-stick pans and their more modern counterparts, ceramic pans, are a generally good option for readers who want hassle-free non-stick cooking.

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