- Stainless steel cookware is versatile – the choice for top chefs.
- Food won’t stick to a stainless steel pan when used correctly.
- You don’t have to pay a lot of money for a complete set of superior quality stainless steel cookware.
Chefs, professional cooks, and restaurants use stainless steel cookware. They prefer it because it’s practically indestructible. The construction and material offer superior heat distribution, and when used properly, a stainless steel pan can keep food from sticking. Plus, stainless steel cookware can go from the stovetop to the oven, which makes it more versatile than cookware that’s been treated with a nonstick coating.
Stainless Steel vs. Nonstick
Stainless steel cookware is not the same as nonstick cookware. Most pans treated with a nonstick coating are made from aluminum. They’re lighter, and the nonstick coating makes them unsuitable for cooking anything that requires high heat.
Although stainless steel is a great way to go when it comes to a workhorse cooking pan, there is an occasional need for nonstick. Having one in your culinary arsenal lets you easily make crepes, omelets, or even just a fried egg. For those instances, invest in a high-quality nonstick aluminum pan that is PFOA-free.
Nonstick aluminum pans are excellent for cooking delicate fish or fried eggs, but they have their limits. This type of cookware needs to be treated gently so the nonstick coating isn’t damaged. It also has a low temperature threshold, which means you shouldn’t use it to sear a pork tenderloin and you can’t transfer the pan to the oven to finish cooking your dish.
For this type of flexibility, you need the durability of stainless steel. When you pick up a better-quality stainless steel pot or pan, you’ll feel its heft. It won’t chip or dent, and it’s scratch resistant. A nonstick aluminum pan may only have a lifespan of a few years before it needs to be replaced. Stainless steel cookware, on the other hand, will last you a lifetime.
Reasons to Love Stainless Steel Cookware
Durability and easy care are leading reasons why restaurants use stainless steel cookware. Here are some additional reasons:
Better for Your Food
Stainless steel cookware is naturally non-reactive, which means it won’t interfere with the chemical structure of your food as it’s cooking. A low and long simmer in a pan made with a reactive substance, like aluminum, copper, or cast iron, may interact with acidic ingredients like tomatoes or citrus juices, imparting a metallic flavor to your food.
Stainless steel offers superior heat transfer, which is further enhanced when an aluminum base is added. It gives you the assurance of even cooking. Pay attention to the description of how the bottom of the pan is made. The multi-ply construction used in most brands of stainless steel cookware means that the sides and bottom of the pan will heat evenly.
Heat distribution is key to performance. To help get a better idea of its importance Serious Eats writer Kenji Lopez-Alt used thermal imaging to capture the heat distribution patterns in 10-inch skillets made from a variety of materials. Like the best performing pans in this test, Misen cookware is made from a 3.0 mm thick composite, featuring five layers of stainless steel and aluminum for superior heat conduction and retention.
Heat distribution is important for pots too. Pasta needs water at a rapid boil, or it can end up gummy and sticky. Durable stainless steel can easily take the higher stovetop temperature needed to bring water to a boil, and its superior heat distribution ensures that you can adjust the temperature to keep the continuous boil you need.
Perfect pasta also needs a pot that’s big enough for the job. If it’s not, the water temperature will drop well below the boiling point when you add the pasta. A larger pot — one that can accommodate at least six quarts of water — helps reduce this temperature fluctuation. An eight-quart stockpot will give you plenty of room for proper pasta cooking, and it’ll work well for simmering homemade soup.
Stainless steel pots and pans are easy to maintain and clean. If you encounter a cooking mishap and food residue is stuck to the bottom of your stainless steel pan, you can allow it to soak in the sink. (You’d never be able to do this with a cast iron skillet.)
If it doesn’t respond to standard liquid dish detergent, you can make quick work of the cleanup by using Bar Keepers Friend. It’s a cleaning powder made with oxalic acid, a natural substance found in rhubarb that breaks down residue at the molecular level. It comes in a powder or paste. Rub the paste in a circular motion with a damp paper towel. It should be all you need to thoroughly clean your stainless steel pots and pans.
Stainless steel cookware is dishwasher safe but skip this option if you can. The detergent leaves a residue and dulls the shininess of your cookware. Frequent exposure to the harshness of automatic dishwashing detergent may even pit the stainless steel.
The Not-So-Sticky Truth About Stainless Steel Cookware
While other types of cookware can limit what you can cook, stainless steel offers amazing latitude. Cook everything from vegetable stir-fry to risotto to pork chops.
If you have any hesitation about cooking with stainless steel pots and pans, it’s likely because you’ve heard that food sticks to it. The truth is that food will stick to a stainless steel pan, but not if it’s properly prepared.
It’s all about heat. To reduce sticking, you’ll do something to your stainless steel pan that’s never recommended when using cookware with a nonstick coating. Place your empty stainless steel pan on a burner over medium heat. Let the pan heat up for two to three minutes. Now, add cooking oil. It acts as a protective barrier between the stainless steel surface and the food you’re cooking.
Your pan appears to have a perfectly smooth surface, but there are actually microscopic irregularities that the oil fills in. Allow the oil to come up to temperature. It’ll only take a minute or two.
The “Tsssss” Test
Now it’s time to test and see if your stainless steel pan is ready. Release a single drop of water into the pan. It should dance around, and you’ll hear a “Tsssss” sound. The sound you’ll hear is what occurs between the hot oil and the food you cook. Moisture gets converted to steam, which lifts the food away from the pan.
You won’t hear that sizzle if your pan is too cold. So if your pan stays silent after you add the drop of water, you may need to increase the heat to medium-high. Without the sizzle, the food will not lift away, and it’ll stick to the pan. Be careful not to overheat the pan. Smoking oil is one sign that the pan has gotten too hot. Excessive heat can also cause food to stick to the pan.
Well-crafted stainless steel cookware has excellent heat retention properties, so don’t rush the process of heating the pan and the cooking oil. Start with medium heat and work your way up to medium-high heat when necessary. If you overshoot the mark, temporarily remove the pan from heat to bring it back down to an appropriate cooking temperature.
Remove Excess Moisture
A drop of water makes for a good temperature test when you prepare to cook, but water or any excess moisture on food you add to a stainless steel pan works against you during the cooking process. It’s because water reduces the temperature of the cooking oil, which is acting as a barrier that prevents food from sticking to the stainless steel.
Give freshly washed vegetables a ride in the salad spinner, or pat them dry with a paper towel. Do the same with meat to remove any surface moisture.
Browning or searing meat and vegetables allows sugars and proteins on the surface to break down and creates complex flavor characteristics. This happens when meat is cooked at a temperature between 350-375 degrees Fahrenheit.
This taste transformation is known as the Maillard reaction. The oil and the evenly distributed heat of a well-crafted stainless steel pan deliver heat to the food’s surface, and this is what causes countless simultaneous chemical reactions within the sugars and proteins that produce mouth watering aromas and delicious flavors.
Maintaining the correct temperature in your pan is the key to keeping the food from sticking. Excess moisture will decrease the temperature of the cooking oil in the pan.
Bring Food to Room Temperature
If excess moisture can reduce a pan’s temperature, putting a cold piece of food in a heated pan only magnifies this challenge. You might be a bit nervous to let chicken sit out on the counter to come up to room temperature, but you’ll get a more flavorful meal that won’t stick to the bottom of your stainless steel pan.
You can cook vegetables faster and retain a higher amount of nutrients by taking them out of the refrigerator and letting them come to room temperature. You can also use that time to allow vegetables to air dry after washing them.
An Affordable Investment
With all this talk of the delicious food that stainless steel pans produce, you might be ready to reach for your credit card and order your perfect set of pots and pans. Before you do, you should know that it’s possible to pay a king’s ransom for quality stainless steel cookware.
All-Clad is generally considered one of the gold standards of stainless steel pots and pans. You’ll pay upwards of $2,000 for a full set. But you don’t need to invest in high-end brands like All-Clad or Calphalon. If you do, you’re paying for the name as much as for the construction and quality of their stainless steel cookware.
You don’t have to pay thousands of dollars for a complete set of superior quality stainless steel cookware. If you’re trying out stainless steel for the first time, why not start with a great stainless steel frying pan and see how you like it.
And if you want to take the plunge and buy a full collection, Misen offers a seven-piece set that matches or exceeds the features found in familiar brand-name sets — but at a far more affordable price. So anyone can upgrade to stainless steel for a lifetime of enjoyable cooking.