When asked about cookware, chefs often say that stainless steel is the way to go. So I spoke to them to understand why.
For decades, chefs have been preparing Michelin-star-worthy dishes in stainless steel. And for a good reason: the durability and versatility of this type of cookware have turned it into a true staple in restaurants—and home kitchens—across the country.
Stainless steel pots and pans have no coating to worry about, free you from the burden of seasoning, and can move gracefully from stovetop to oven. They are also safe to put in the dishwasher, making clean-up an undemanding, hassle-free task.
Stainless steel is an alloy of steel enriched with chromium and nickel. The latter two, says Melissa Collins, Partnership Manager at Perfect Brew, is what safeguards the steel against corrosion and rust after it’s been exposed to the elements (air, water, cooking liquids).
Collins is a chef and a coffee and brewing expert. She runs a small café in Henderson, a quaint city in Clark County, Nevada, not too far from Las Vegas.
Stainless steel one of the most widely used metals for cookware, she says, “because of its quick cooking and easy cleanup.”
Compared to carbon steel, cast iron, and copper, stainless steel is “substantially lighter and non-reactive, making the pans suitable for almost any type of cooking.”
It heats up slower than aluminum but is just as reluctant to cool down, so it holds a steady cooking temperature and can keep your home-cooked meals warm for hours on end.
On the flip side, stainless steel cooking vessels are pricey. Certain foods, such as eggs, bacon, and pancakes, are prone to sticking to them. Try all you want to get them unstuck, and, at best, you will end up mangling them beyond recognition.
That being said, a good stainless steel set can serve its owner trustily for a lifetime, and its stickiness can easily be counteracted by throwing in a lump of butter or drizzling olive oil with a heavy hand right before you get cooking.
Why Chefs Prefer Stainless Steel
“I have just about every type of cookware made,” says Jessica Randhawa, the head chef, recipe creator, photographer, and writer behind The Forked Spoon, “stainless steel, cast iron, enameled, non-stick, copper, porcelain, etc.”
Stainless steel pans and pots, Randhawa tells me, are the tools she reaches for the most.
They are practical for restaurant kitchens because they are sturdy, versatile, last for a long time, and—unlike almost all of their counterparts—can safely go in the dishwasher. For the same reasons, stainless steel pots and pots are a good choice for the home.
Randhawa creates delicious, family-friendly recipes that anyone can follow. Her website, a popular destination for home cooks, has more than a million monthly readers.
But chefs’ praise for stainless steel, or at least those to whom I spoke, didn’t end there. In the hustle and bustle of a professional kitchen, as it turned out, not having to worry about damaging your pan is considered an advantage.
“These pans have excellent heat retention,” Melissa Collins wrote to me, “which is required if you are working as a chef. Moreover, these pans are practically indestructible, so the chefs can use them however they want without the fear of destroying them.”
Stainless steel has one peculiarity that professionals are well-aware of, yet home cooks are often surprised by: by itself, it doesn’t make for good cookware. Steel is a poor conductor of heat, so it needs to be bonded with another metal to be able to heat quickly and evenly.
Disc Bottoms and Cladded Sidewalls
Experts will gladly tell you that cookware made solely out of stainless steel would take forever to preheat—an undesired behavior for a cooking vessel in any kitchen.
Perhaps that’s why modern-day stainless steel cookware consists of a stainless steel body bonded to a piece of aluminum or, on higher-end models, copper. Both of these metals trump steel’s ability to conduct heat by a wide margin, and compensate skilfully for its weaknesses.
There are two methods for bonding stainless steel to aluminum and copper:
- By attaching a disc-shaped base of aluminum or copper to the bottom of the vessel;
- By cladding layers of steel around an aluminum or copper core that runs all the way up to the sides of the pan or pot.
Each method has its ups and downs—and knowing the difference can save you from wasting your hard-earned money on inferior pans and pots that cook your food unevenly, and are prone to warping all too readily.
“Disc bottoms on stainless steel,” Randhawa says, “are designed to spread the heat evenly throughout the bottom of the pot or pan—meaning there are no hot spots.”
Disc-bottomed pans and pots are also cheaper than their clad counterparts. Cladding requires extra material and advanced machinery, the costs of which ultimately get passed to you and me as the consumers.
Yet disc bottoms have one shortcoming:
The base, whether aluminum or copper, only covers the bottom of the cooking vessel. This means that the thin, stainless-steel sides tend to overheat, scorching whatever food items come into contact with them.
In the 1970s, those drawbacks prompted John Ulam, American metallurgist and hobby cook, to take cladding—a patented process his company was using to produce bonded-metal coins for the U.S. Treasury—and use it to make a frying pan.
To say that Ulam’s clad pan worked would be a major underestimation. His company, All-Clad, continues to make some of the most cherished stainless steel cookware by professional chefs and seasoned cooks on the market today.
Clad pans and pots are made of layers of stainless steel sandwiched around an aluminum or copper core.
“A clad pan is basically a pan with a non-handle formed from a single sheet of multi-layered metal that has been hammered into shape,” Melissa Collins explains. “In comparison, a disc bottomed pan has a conductive material only at the bottom.”
“Having an additional layer of aluminum between two stainless steel layers,” Jessica Randhawa builds, “helps spread the heat evenly.”
Clad cookware, though, doesn’t come cheap.
Depending on the make, the model, the retailer, and the season of the year (the best days of the year to buy new cookware are Black Friday and Cyber Monday), a good 10 to 12-inch clad frying pan can cost you anywhere between $100 and $150.
That’s a hefty price for a single piece of cookware in your arsenal, and one that, for monetary reasons, not every home cook can afford to pay.
When to buy each:
When budget is a constraint, you are generally better off buying the best disc-bottomed cookware instead of the worst clad cookware. “Fully clad stainless steel can have hot spots if they are not high quality or engineered well,” cautions Randhawa.
Suppose you’ve set aside some money to take your cookware collection to the next level. In such a case, clad cookware is undoubtedly the way to go. (Keep on reading, and we will soon get to the best American and European brands to shop for.)
The Right Way to Cook With Stainless Steel
“One of the main complaints of home cooks,” says Divya Raj of Everything Better, “is that food gets stuck to the bottom of stainless steel pans.”
To avoid this, she recommends preheating the pan for 1-2 minutes on a medium flame. Then, pouring oil liberally and waiting for 30 seconds till the oil starts to glimmer. This technique, Raj says, “will drastically reduce food getting stuck to the stainless steel pan.”
Raj adds that, sometimes, the problem is not in the pan—but the lack of patience exhibited by the cook.
“After following these steps, if you find food still stuck to the bottom, it is because the food hasn’t seared enough. Once it is perfectly brown, the food will release from the pan without sticking to the bottom.”
Jessica Randhawa had similar advice for Home Cook World’s readers. “One tip to using stainless steel,” she said, “is to always preheat the pan or pot before adding the oil or butter to create the non-stick layer. If you don’t preheat it, you will more often than not end up with a burnt, harder-to-clean mess on the bottom of the stainless steel cookware.”
To test if a frying pan is hot enough to cook in, recommends Kate Swanson, CEO of modern housewares brand ENSEMBL, add a few drops of water. On a properly preheated pan, the droplets will roll and hover freely over the surface till they evaporate.
This technique is intended for a dry pan, and not a pan that’s been greased or filled with cooking oil; the oil will start to splatter as soon as it comes into contact with the water. A pan with oil is hot enough when the oil starts to glisten, shimmer, and dance around in ripples.
Cleaning Stainless Steel Pans and Pots
Stainless steel cookware is generally dishwasher-safe. Still, most manufacturers recommend cleaning your pots and pans by hand to maximize their useful life.
A dishwasher’s cleaning cycles are aggressive, and dishwasher detergent is chemically harsh. It’s not uncommon for the rivets on a handle to get discolored or worn out from frequent cleaning in the dishwasher.
Certain parts on the handles of suspiciously-cheap, Asian-built pans can even catch rust, which becomes apparent once you read into customer reviews.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article spoke of “cheaper, Asian-built pans.” On November 18, 2021, I updated that wording to “suspiciously-cheap, Asian-built pans,” to better reflect my stance on the topic.
While there are quite a few manufacturers that produce quality pans and pots with a high degree of craftsmanship in the Asia-Pacific region, there are also those that cut corners and sell inferior products. That pattern, of course, is in no way limited to a single part of our world; it is simply more prevalent in it.
In classic cases of “buy it nice or buy it twice,” readers have emailed me with cautionary tales of having bought the lowest-cost products at a seeming bargain, only to have to return or replace them shortly after.
At the end of the day, one should always do their due diligence when buying cookware, regardless of manufacturing location.
“All food-grade stainless steel materials are not equal,” tells me Lori Bogedin, a chef and culinary expert who runs TwigsCafe in Tunkhannock, Pennsylvania. “For example, excessive exposure to salt can eat away grade 304 stainless steel.”
Another thing to know about cleaning stainless steel is that food residue gets stuck, in a way that can only be described as stubborn, to the bottom of the vessel. That residue can be notoriously hard to scrub off, especially when cleaning by hand… unless you use the technique below.
To remove burnt-on food from your stainless steel pan or pot, allow it to cool down completely, pour enough water to cover the burns on the bottom and sides, and wander off for about 30 minutes.
Once you’re back, give the pan a good soap down, scrubbing the residue off with a soft sponge. If you’ve never done this before, you will be blown away by how effective it is. (Oh, and you could always deglaze the pan to make deeply-flavorful, dark-brown pan sauce instead of pouring the residue down the drain.)
Steel wool, the experts warn, should be avoided. “When cleaning a stainless steel pan, scrub it with non-metal scrubbers,” Melissa Collins instructs. Otherwise, it will sustain scratches and can become stickier during cooking.
Best Stainless Steel Cookware Brands
When shopping for stainless steel cookware, look for sturdy, weighty cooking vessels assembled by reputable manufacturers. Always be on the lookout for discounts, but stay away from shady brands and their too-good-to-be-true products.
Cheap metals, flimsy fittings, and wayward bondings can cause a pan to heat unevenly and make it prone to warping. Poorly-constructed pans and pots will need to be replaced in no time; in contrast, a well-engineered set can last you for life.
“Look for fully-clad stainless steel cookware that features a thick aluminum core and 430 stainless steel on the exterior and 304 stainless steel on the interior,” clarifies ENSEMBL‘s Kate Swanson. This, she elaborates, “will ensure the cookware is non-reactive, induction compatible, and made to transmit even, responsive heat throughout the entire vessel.”
For a number of reasons, my favorite brands are All-Clad and Tramontina. Fellow reviewers at Wirecutter and Cook’s Illustrated seem to agree, as they’ve consistently listed these brands’ best-selling products as their no-brainer picks.
All-Clad is a U.S. company, and its clad cookware is manufactured in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania. Tramontina is of Brazilian origin, and it makes its cooking vessels in Brazil and Italy.
Among the European cookware brands, I’ve had good results with Beka (Belgian), and Jessica Randhawa suggested Fissler (German), and Melissa Collins gave praise to Mueller (Austrian).
Randhawa tells me she’s enamored with her Fissler Pure-Profi disc bottom stainless steel pots and pans: “they are significant time savers because they all have etched measurement scales on the inside of the stainless steel.”
The Mueller Austria DuraClad Tri-Ply Stainless Steel Pan is Collins’ pick “because not only is it non-stick, but it is also dishwasher safe. This pan has a 3-ply stainless steel base with a thick aluminum core for quick heat absorption.”
“Having this integrated measuring scale in my pots and pans allowed me to measure the liquid amounts I need directly in the cookware while saving me time on the back end with fewer dishes to clean with no measuring cups used.”