If you’re like a lot of our family and friends, you use nonstick pots and pans almost exclusively.
We get it: They’re easy to clean, and the performance of a cheaper nonstick pan is still pretty good compared with what a cheaper stainless steel pan can do.
Reasons to go beyond nonstick
Even the best nonstick pans have disadvantages:
- You can’t use them over especially high heat, or the coating deteriorates.
- Metal utensils can damage the nonstick coating (which disqualifies our favorite spatula).
- They shouldn’t go into ovens set higher than 400 degrees.
- Generally you need to throw them out every few years as the coating gets damaged.
And there are so many advantages to cooking on bare metal pans such as our recommendation for the best skillet, a stainless steel tri-ply pan:
- First and foremost, food has more potential to taste better. You can use higher heat without ruining the pan, so meat takes on crisp edges, onions brown more deeply, and you get more fond, the flavorful brown bits that caramelize on the bottom of the pan.
- You can also move a lot of pans (including our pick) straight from the stove to a hot oven, a technique that works well for seared chicken thighs, which can’t cook through on the stove, or thick pieces of fish.
- Metal pans are fine to clean in the dishwasher, whereas nonstick pans aren’t.
- Because the surfaces of most metal pans are lighter than dark nonstick coatings, you can see your food better and know when it’s burning, or when it’s not yet brown enough.
- You don’t have to break the bank to get a buy-it-for-life pan—our budget skillet pick costs about $60 currently but will last at least three times as long (probably more) as our nonstick skillet pick.
Here’s how to solve some of the most common complaints we’ve heard about stainless steel and tri-ply pans.
My food sticks to stainless steel pans.
Preheat your pan: This is probably the number one thing you can do to prevent sticking. Serious Eats explains, “Even on a perfectly smooth, polished surface with no cracks/imperfections whatsoever, meat will still stick as proteins form molecular bonds with the metal.” Later, the article says that “the goal is to get the meat to cook before it even comes into contact with the metal by heating oil hot enough that it can cook the meat in the time it takes for it to pass from the air, through the film of oil, and into the pan.”
Pat your meat or fish dry: Same idea here—you want the meat to cook as it hits the pan, rather than the moisture on the surface of the meat.
Add your oil after the pan is hot: This keeps the oil from causing the smoke alarm to go off by the time you’re ready to cook. In The New York Times, Harold McGee says, “Broken-down oil gets viscous and gummy, and even a slight degree of this can contribute to sticking and residues on the food.”
For dairy, a thin layer of water prevents scalding: If you’re heating milk in a saucepan for cocoa or custards, try this trick from Melissa Clark’s homemade yogurt recipe—rub the pot with an ice cube or rinse it with water before adding the milk. This step forms a layer of water that makes it harder for dairy proteins to form bonds with the metal of the pan. (We thought this was malarkey until we tried it—the trick really works.)
My food always burns on stainless steel pans.
In this case you’re probably using too-thin stainless steel. Try switching to tri-ply, aluminum sandwiched between layers of stainless steel. Thin, plain stainless steel gets hot spots and doesn’t heat as evenly as a pan that has an aluminum layer, but plain aluminum reacts with acidic foods and can make your tomato sauce taste metallic. Our picks for the best saucepan and the best skillet are made with tri-ply, so they combine the nonreactive quality of stainless steel with the even heating of aluminum. (Don’t be fooled by pans that have only an aluminum or copper core on the bottom. You want that triple layer up the sides, too, because food can still scorch there; look for fully clad tri-ply.)
Also, you want the pan to be hot hot hot to start, but you should turn the heat down once your meat goes in so that it doesn’t burn and smoke up the place.
Oil gets burned on, and I can’t scrub it off.
For caked-on oil or burned foods, Bar Keepers Friend is cheap and works miracles. If you don’t have any on hand, make a slurry of baking soda and water to scrub your pan clean.
I get weird white stains on metal pans.
Those are probably hard-water or lime deposits. The best way to combat those is with an acid such as plain white vinegar or Bar Keepers Friend (which has a main ingredient of oxalic acid).
I hate scrubbing.
For everything except caked-on grease, after cooking you can fill the pan with water and put it on the stove until it boils, pour the water out, and clean. These steps should release most caked-on foods, making the pan just as easy to swipe with a sponge as a nonstick one. Drying your stainless cookware with a dish towel, rather than letting it air dry, will keep it sparkling.
Okay, in that case, just use nonstick.