This is one of the most common questions that people ask when they consider purchasing this type of cookware. Unfortunately, the answer is a little complicated.
If you back us into a corner and force us to give you a one-word answer, we would have to say, “No”.
This is because a product must have a chemical coating in order to be labeled “non-stick.” Stainless steel’s lack of a chemical coating means that it does not qualify as a non-stick product.
BUT… Here’s the thing:
Stainless steel is really good at preventing food adherence, if you use it correctly.
Also, there are some new products on the market that claim to be “non-stick stainless steel.”
What’s that about?
Let’s break things down to find out exactly what the confusion and controversy are all about on our question of is stainless steel non-stick and what’s behind the debate.
What is Stainless Steel?
First, let’s review what exactly stainless steel is for those of you who are seeing stars from all that online stainless steel cookware research you’ve been doing.
At its most basic level, it is an alloy (or combination) of several metals that contain a minimum of 10.5% chromium.
This is just what gets added to stainless steel to help it resist corrosion and help it appear shiny.
There are many different types and qualities of stainless steel to choose from. What you choose depends on your budget and priorities.
Personally, we are big fans of this type of cookware.
It’s durable, reliable, safe, and, most importantly, it’s super shiny and makes our kitchens look like professional chefs cook there.
Speaking of professional chefs, they overwhelmingly choose stainless steel for their kitchens; hardware, appliances and utensils. Why?
For the above-listed reasons and because they don’t have time to waste prying food off of cookware.
They also use it to create a perfect sear on their meat, and then deglaze the pan for an accompanying sauce. This process is simply not possible with a Teflon pan.
Is Stainless Steel Non-Stick? The Full Answer
So, let’s talk more about these mythic non-stick qualities.
As we mentioned above, stainless steel lacks any special chemical coating to ensure that food slides off easily. What it does offer is a thick metal base and even heating.
While this may sound underwhelming, it is an effective and safe way to cook food.
Cookware with chemical coatings can release toxins when used improperly or heated to too high of a temperature.
Why Do I Hear So Much About Stainless Steel Causing Food to Stick?
Stainless steel has an unfair reputation among many consumers for being difficult to use, causing food to stick, and being a pain to clean.
While we would never accuse these people of being liars, we suspect that they are not using their stainless steel products correctly.
So, what’s the scoop?
The thing about stainless steel is that you have to care for it properly and have the patience to use it correctly.
Many cheaper materials catch people’s attention by touting how easy it is to simply throw some food into their stainless steel frying pan and then slide it out after a few minutes.
But there is usually a catch. The food will come out soggy and missing that crunchy sear you get at restaurants, or it might taste strange due to flavor transfer from the pan.
How to Use Stainless Steel Correctly
With stainless steel, you’ll get a delicious sear on that steak every time and be able to proudly serve all manner of dishes with no strange aftertaste.
That is, if you are willing to abide by its rules.
Because this material does have rules; strict ones.
The first one is that you absolutely must season each piece of cookware thoroughly before first use and then regularly thereafter.
These are not products that you can remove from the box, rinse, and then immediately cook an omelet on.
They require love and attention on a semi-regular basis.
Heat it Up
The second rule is that you must preheat your pan. Stainless steel is naturally porous when cold.
Heating causes the steel to expand and close those holes, creating a seamless cooking surface.
If you add food (or oil) to a pan before it reaches optimum temperature, the food will adhere to those tiny pores, and you’ll end up with a sticky mess.
This video demonstrate the best way to know when your stainless steel pan is ready to add oil and food to help reduce the possibility of food sticking to the pan.
Keep it at the Right Temperature
The third rule is that you must respect the temperature.
It doesn’t matter how impatient you are to eat or how worried you are about salmonella.
You should never surpass medium heat when cooking with stainless steel. In fact, most of the time, a low heat setting is preferable.
Well-made stainless steel is constructed of several layers of metal that work together to heat the pan evenly and consistently.
Using a heat setting higher than medium will only result in burned food and possibly warped cookware.
Then Ditch the Teflon
Using an appropriate heat setting, however, combined with sufficient preheating on a seasoned pan will produce high-quality, stick-free meals that will impress even the most judgmental mother-in-law.
You will be so satisfied with the outcome of your meals that you’ll never look twice at a Teflon pan again.
“Non-Stick” Stainless Steel
We’ve just spent the last several paragraphs explaining how and why stainless steel cookware is not non-stick.
So why, then, do some companies now offer exactly that?
In recent years, some manufacturers have tried to bridge the gap between stainless steel and non-stick cookware.
Given the number of negative reviews of even the most highly-rated brands of stainless steel that mention food sticking, we can admit that there is certainly a market opportunity.
But what exactly is “non-stick” stainless steel?
It is exactly what it sounds like: a traditional stainless steel pan with a non-stick coating added to its cooking surface.
One important thing to note is that “non-stick” stainless steel cookware is non-stick for the same reason that regular non-stick cookware is.
Early versions of these pans used a chemical – Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) – in the manufacturing process.
PFOA has been linked to a number of health conditions and is known to be an environmental pollutant.
Manufacturers stopped using PFOA as a component of non-stick cookware in 2013. It continues to be used in the manufacturing process, though.
Despite claims that “most, if not all” of it gets burned up during this process, it is hard to ensure that no remnants remain in the final product.
Today’s non-stick cookware (whether stainless steel or not) is made using the chemical polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE).
PTFE is considered safe and stable, meaning that it doesn’t react with other chemicals.
Despite this improvement, there are still health risks associated with PTFE products. PTFE can break down at high temperatures and produce toxic fumes.
This chemical has not been as extensively studied as PFOA, so the long-term effects of inhaling its fumes are unknown.
For this reason, it is best to be vigilant about cooking temperatures with non-stick products.
The Fond Problem
The reason most chefs cook on stainless steel is because they are after fond.
Not only does a stainless steel pan create a terrific sear on your meat but the bits that are left over in the pan, lovingly referred to as fond, are the basis for a great and tasty sauce.
This is the best purpose for stainless steel pans. With the non-stick variety you don’t get the fond.
So what’s the point?
Yes, your pans will look beautiful and make your kitchen look professional, but you won’t be able to use them for their best purposes.
In that light, stay away from the “fake” non-stick stainless steel products.
Which to Choose?
The answer to this question depends on your personal experience and preference.
Traditional stainless steel enthusiasts will insist that there is no need to add anything to a good-quality piece of cookware. To them, it’s merely a matter of using it correctly.
For those who have had negative experiences with food sticking to stainless steel in the past, there is only one way to get them to consider investing in another high-priced piece of kitchenware.
That is to guarantee that future outcomes will be better.
The idea is that non-stick products combine the best of both worlds: superior heat conductivity and cooking with the easy release of non-stick pans.
But they also carry the risk of chemical exposure if used improperly and you won’t get any fond.
Purists will argue that the non-stick variety is a Frankenstein and should not even be placed in the same category as “true” stainless steel.
But considering how many people struggle with regular stainless steel, it makes sense to try to attract these dissatisfied customers with such a product.
Depending on which camp you fall into, you will probably have a strong opinion on the is stainless steel non-stick debate.
And if you have not yet jumped on the stainless steel bandwagon, you’ve got a difficult choice to make.