Stainless steel is a cookware stalwart. It’s durable, pretty, safe to use and versatile. But is it nonstick? That’s a great question.

The answer isn’t straightforward, as there are a few key factors to consider. If you’re keen to purchase a new stainless steel cookware set or item but you’re a little concerned about the nonstick factor, keep reading. In this article we figure out exactly what stainless steel is, why it’s great for cookware, if it’s nonstick, and what you can do to make it more non-stick…

What is stainless steel cookware?

Stainless steel cookware is cookware made from stainless steel (obviously!). But the more important question is…what is stainless steel exactly?

Stainless steel is a metal consisting of iron, chromium and nickel, often with other “ingredients” such as molybdenum. It is these added metals which make stainless steel rust-free and resistant to tarnishing.

There are different grades of stainless steel with different amounts of chromium and nickel. That’s what the numbers mean on the bottom of your stainless steel cookware, most likely “18/10” or “18/8”. These numbers let you know how much chromium (first number) and nickel (second number) is in the stainless steel.

Stainless steel isn’t the most impressive heat conductor out there, so it’s often layered with copper or aluminum to help with heat conduction. Aluminum and copper help the heat to absorb quickly and evenly without hot spots.

But it’s the stainless steel cooking surface we are concerned with here…and whether or not it will hold on to your food…

Is it non-stick?

In one word? No. Stainless steel alone is not a nonstick material. One of the great things about stainless steel is that the surface is awesome for getting a lovely browned crust on meats, better so than nonstick cookware.

However, it’s not the material of choice for egg or batter-based goods, because you will be facing a bit of stuck residue and potentially burnt bits if your temperature isn’t quite right.

In saying that, you can season stainless steel cookware. This will help to create a surface which is not “nonstick” per se, but it certainly creates a surface which releases food a little more efficiently. More on that below…

Can it be made non-stick?

The reality is, you’re never going to get stainless steel to be nonstick in the sense that you associate with a nonstick coating such as Teflon. You won’t be able to crack an egg into the pan and see it sliding around, it just won’t happen. But when you use stainless steel correctly, you can achieve a “minimal-stick” result.

When I refer to “sticking” I am talking about little bits of browning or smaller pieces of food clinging to the pan, not full-on, “get the scraper out”  stuck. Those little bits of browning, especially from meat, are the keys to flavorsome gravies and sauces!

So, if you want to make your stainless steel cookware more nonstick, you can season it.

Seasoning creates a nonstick surface, kind of like a friendly layer of cooked-on oil to help release food. The process is easy and definitely worth it for the sake of your food and your cookware cleaning chores.

Before casting out your stainless steel cookware because it’s causing a sticky mess…try seasoning it and you may well be pleasantly surprised. Plus, you’ll save money by not buying a whole new set.

How to season a stainless steel pan:

  1. Give your chosen stainless steel pan or skillet a thoroughly clean and dry
  2. Drizzle oil with a high smoke point into the pan (rice bran oil is a good choice) and swirl the pan around so that the oil coats the cooking surface
  3. Pop your stainless steel skillet or pan over medium-high heat and heat until the oil is very hot and smoking (remember to have the extractor fan on!)
  4. Take the pan off the heat and leave it to cool down
  5. Pour the oil out into the rubbish (don’t tip it down the drain or it can cause clogging)
  6. Use a paper towel to give the cooking surface a thorough wipe down and you’re done

Tips for reducing sticking on nonstick pans

As well as seasoning your stainless steel cookware, there are a few other techniques you can use to help the nonstick factor.

Always preheat: give your stainless steel pans time to heat up before you add food. Putting food onto a cold pan will increase the risk of sticking. If you allow the pan to reach temperature, the heat causes the food to sizzle and react when it hits the heat, stopping the food from simply sitting there and melding to the surface.

A good way to know if the pan is hot is to take a little bit of the food you intend to cook and pop it onto the pan, if the food sizzles, the pan is ready. If it smokes and spits…it’s too hot. If it sits there limply. Too cold.

Room temperature meats: throwing a fridge-cold steak onto a stainless steel frying pan will result in sticking, (not to mention a tough steak). The cold meat and the hot pan react and the outcome is a stuck mess. Leave your meat out to reach room temperature before cooking.

Use oil smartly: successful stainless steel cooking does require oil. Plus, oil makes things tasty and gives a crispy exterior. Add your oil once the pan has almost reached temperature, then let the oil heat up too.

If you add the oil earlier, it might burn. If you add the oil too late, it won’t be hot enough and it will simply sink into your food and won’t create that lovely sizzle.

Final thoughts

Stainless steel cookware isn’t what we consider a “nonstick” option. However, it can be made more stick-resistant with a quick seasoning process, proper preheating and using room temperature foods.

Stainless steel cookware is a great choice thanks to its attractive, non-reactive, durable and versatile nature. Plus, it doesn’t have any coatings or layers which can be chipped and scratched, eventually becoming less usable over time.