The Differences Between Nonstick and Stainless Steel Cookware

by / May 15, 2023
stainless steel versus nonstick

Though they might feel like two opposite ends of the kitchenware spectrum, most people have a mix of cookware styles in their cupboards. Here’s what to know about two of the most common camps: nonstick, and stainless steel.  

What are the main differences between stainless steel cookware and nonstick cookware?

We get it: the siren song of nonstick can be incredibly compelling. Here’s how it differs from stainless steel:

The coating. Nonstick cookware features a plastic polymer coating over a base metal like aluminum. These can be everything from the increasingly less-common polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), commonly known as Teflon, to newer silicone coatings or sol-gel coatings, marketed as “green” or “ceramic” coatings. While these coatings prevent food from sticking to the surface, making it easy to clean and cook delicate foods like eggs and fish, they do wear away with subsequent use.

Stainless steel cookware is uncoated, and usually features layers of stainless steel cladded together around a core conducting metal, like aluminum. A “low-stick” environment is created through a combination of proper preheating and cooking fat.

Price. Nonstick cookware is generally less expensive than stainless steel cookware, but it may need to be replaced more frequently due to wear and tear. Stainless steel cookware can be more expensive upfront, but it is often a better long-term investment due to its durability.

Care. Nonstick cookware is generally easier to clean than stainless steel cookware, as food does not stick to the surface, but is generally not recommended as dishwasher safe to avoid damaging the nonstick coating. Stainless steel cookware is typically easier to clean than nonstick cookware, as it can be scrubbed with a metal scrubber without damaging the surface, and is dishwasher safe.

A Brief Word About PFAS

First off: What are PFAS? PFAS, or per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a group of man-made “forever chemicals” that have been used for a variety of industrial and commercial purposes since the 1940s. PFAS are primarily known for their ability to repel water and oil, making them useful in a wide range of products, including nonstick cookware. 

The rub: PFAS don’t break down easily, (like, at all) and accumulate in the environment—and human body—over time, contaminating soil, water, and air, leading to environmental and health risks for humans and wildlife.

The good news: Efforts are being made to reduce the use of PFAS and to regulate their production and disposal. Several countries, including the United States, have established regulations to limit the use of certain PFAS, and there is ongoing research to better understand the health and environmental impacts of these substances.

Pros and Cons of Stainless Steel vs Nonstick Cookware

Here’s what to consider when weighing stainless steel or nonstick for your own kitchen:

Durability. Nonstick cookware is less durable than stainless steel cookware, as its namesake surface wears off over time and is more vulnerable to scratching. Stainless steel cookware, on the other hand, is known for its durability and longevity, and is compatible with metal utensils and scrubbers. While scratches on stainless might be an aesthetic issue for some, they won’t render your cookware unusable. 

Cooking performance. Unlike stainless, nonstick cookware is typically not safe for use in the oven or at higher temperatures on the stove top, as the coating can release toxic fumes when heated above a certain temperature and various lightweight components can warp or melt, depending on the model.

Preheating. A low-and-slow preheat is a crucial piece of creating a "low-stick" environment with a stainless steel pan. Carving out a few extra minutes to warm up the surface of your skillet before adding your cooking fat of choice will ensure less sticking and more success. Nonstick pans don't require the same step, making it easier to pull off delicate dishes like eggs or fish. 

Aesthetics. We love a pop of color as much as the next person, but we're also here for cookware materials and finishes that complement changing tastes year after year. Stainless steel—and the patina you earn over time—never goes out of style.