Aluminum vs Stainless Steel Cookware

frying food in pans

Quick and efficient heat distribution are some of the most important features that modern cookware should have. Manufacturers use aluminum and stainless steel metals when making most cookware sets to achieve fast heating utensils.

Both metals are good for use in cookware because they heat up evenly without creating hotspots. The metals, however, bring about a few differences regarding how utensils are constructed and their performance when used over different heat sources. We discuss some of those differences in the sections below.

Aluminum Cookware Features

Aluminum is widely used in cookware because it heats up within a short time and spreads heat to the entire body of the utensil. The metal, however, is very reactive and reacts with acidic foods. Therefore, plain aluminum is not used to construct utensils. One more problem that restricts use of plain aluminum in utensils is that it is a weak metal. When exposed to high heat levels, aluminum easily bends and causes the utensil to warp.

frying chicken in aluminum pan

Cookware manufacturers are only able to use aluminum in cookware safely by incorporating a method known as Anodization. This method improves the natural oxidation properties of aluminum that leaves a non-reactive layer of aluminum oxide to make the aluminum stronger and less reactive.

Hard anodization also improves the resistance of the aluminum metal when exposed to extreme heat. The treated hard anodized aluminum holds up better and is less likely to warp.

The other solution used to achieve safe cooking with aluminum is coating the metal with non-stick material such as ceramic or Teflon. Utensils with non-stick coating are easy to clean and release food items cooked on the surface easily.

Advantages of Aluminum Cookware

  • Quick Heating- Aluminum is a good conductor of heat. Utensils that have an aluminum core heat up within a short period of time, which allows the cook to save on electricity and gas bills because they don't need to pre-heat the utensils.
  • Quick cooling – Aluminum utensils also cool down faster because of the high conductivity that works in reverse. You can finish cooking a meal, serve it, and by the time you finish eating, the aluminum utensils will have cooled down to room temperature and be ready for cleaning.
making omelette in pan
  • Light weight- Aluminum is lighter than most metals. As a result, cookware made using aluminum is also lightweight. Cooking with lightweight utensils is fun because you can toss, turn, or flip food better.
  • Easy cleaning – Aluminum cookware that comes with a non-stick coating as well as hard anodized aluminum utensils are easy to clean. Since food does not stick to the surface, the leftovers come off easily when you handwash the cookware with soap and running water.
  • Durability – Aluminum utensils last for a long time when you follow the correct care and maintenance guidelines.

Disadvantages of Aluminum Cookware

  • Restricts use of metal utensils – you should never use metal utensils on aluminum utensils because they can scratch the anodized surface or non-stick coating. When this happens, food gets contaminated and can lead to serious health issues.
  • Not safe for dishwasher cleaning
  • Non-stick coating wears off with time even with proper care and maintenance
  • Aluminum does not support cooking on induction heaters because it is not magnetic

Stainless Steel Features

Stainless steel cookware is made from an alloy of steel with chromium, which gives the cookware a shiny appearance. Numerous variations of stainless steel are used to construct cookware.

The most widely used, however, is 18/10 grade stainless steel due to its corrosion resistance properties. Some manufacturers, however, combine the 18/10 stainless steel grade on the interior of the utensils and the 400 series of stainless steel on the base and exterior to make the utensils viable for use on induction heaters.

frying vegetables in stainless steel pan

There is a cheaper version of stainless steel that combines steel and manganese. The cheaper version, however, is not as resistant to corrosion and rust as the 18/10 grade stainless steel. Moreover, the cheaper version is not magnetic hence cannot be used on an induction heater.

Advantages of Stainless Steel Cookware

  • Lightweight – Stainless steel cookware is thin and light. Lifting the cookware when you are cooking does not make your wrists or hands tired.
  • Durable – Stainless steel cookware is durable and since it does not have any coatings. Moreover, it does not suffer much damage when dropped.
  • You can use metal utensils on the cooking surface. The stainless steel materials are non-reactive and do not react with food.
cooking food on gas stove
  • Appearance- the shiny appearance of stainless steel utensils makes the cookware stand out in the kitchen.
  • Easy storage- stainless steel utensils can be stacked to save on storage space in the kitchen.
  • Stainless steel utensils have high heat retention. The thin construction also allows quick heating. For this reasons, stainless steel utensils have versatile use that includes frying, sautéing, braising, boiling, and stewing.
  • Some cookware sets that have a magnetic steel on the exterior support use of the stainless steel utensils on an induction heater.

Disadvantages of Stainless Steel Cookware

  • Stainless steel is a not a very good conductor of heat. As a result, the manufacturers make the cookware as thin as possible to mitigate this limitation.
  • Good stainless steel utensils are very expensive.
  • The cooking surface on stainless steel utensils is not non-stick making the utensils hard to clean
  • The shiny surface of stainless steel utensils can easily develop stains when left in water for a long time.

Aluminum vs Stainless Steel: Health Concerns

Aluminum cannot be used on its own on cookware surfaces because it is highly reactive. Anodized aluminum is safer and holds well against high temperatures. When using aluminum cookware that features non-stick coating, ceramic is a better choice because it does not contain harmful chemicals.

making beef steak in pan

Aluminum utensils coated with Teflon are not very good because they emit toxic fumes that could cause flu like symptoms when heated to high temperatures. The fumes from Teflon are also a health hazard for bird pets.

Stainless steel cookware made from food grade stainless steel is safe to cook on. You need to be careful when buying stainless steel cookware because the other grades of stainless steel do not perform very well in the kitchen. Quality stainless steel utensils cost a lot of money, which might prompt buyers to prefer cheaper low-quality utensils.

Aluminum vs Stainless Steel: Cooking Methods

When cooking using aluminum utensils you need to take care not to scratch the surface. Using non-abrasive cooking utensils made of wood or silicone is a good way to avoid damaging the cooking surface. You should also use low or moderate heat to cook. This is because high heat levels might cause the utensils to warp.

Aluminum is also not magnetic, which limits the use of aluminum utensils on induction heaters. Some manufacturers try to make their aluminum utensils viable for use on induction heaters by adding a magnetic metal plate to the base of the items. This has a negative effect on the quick heating properties of the cookware.

Stainless steel utensils don't have any coating on the cooking surface. You can use any type of utensils on the cooking surface. Magnetic steel used on the base of some stainless steel utensils also make them suitable for cooking on induction heaters.

What's more, the stainless steel cookware withstands high heat and is suited for multiple cooking methods. Both aluminum and stainless steel are popular choices for cookware used on ceramic and glass top stoves.

Aluminum vs Stainless Steel: Cleaning and Durability

Cleaning aluminum pots and pans should be done by handwashing with soap, warm water, and a soft sponge to prevent the cooking surface from scratching. With proper maintenance, the aluminum utensils can last a long time. They should, however, be replaced as soon as the coating begins to wear out or chip.

Dishwashing is not recommended for aluminum pots because the utensils might collide inside the dishwasher to compromise the non-stick coating or anodization layer. Stubborn stains can be removed by initially soaking the utensils in warm water before cleaning them.

Unlike aluminum cookware, stainless steel cookware is safe for dishwasher cleaning. However, leaving the utensils submerged in water for a long time might cause the surface to stain. For this reason, you should clean stainless steel pots by hand whenever possible. 

Stainless steel items are durable so you should avoid cooking acidic foods with them to prevent staining and retain them in good condition. Durability also makes stainless steel cookware the best choice for gas top stoves since the pots are exposed to direct flames for an extended amount of time.

Aluminum vs Stainless Steel: Which is Best?

Aluminum cookware is good because of quick heating and elimination of hotspots. The coating that prevent food from coming into contact with the metal core, however, limits the temperature within which the utensils can be used safely. Stainless steel utensils, on the other hand, can withstand high temperatures and have no coatings, which makes them suitable for many cooking methods.

Stainless steel cookware trumps aluminum cookware in many ways. You, however, should be careful when buying stainless steel utensils because there are many variations of the material.

Moreover, quality does not come cheap. The top quality stainless steel cookware sets are sold at high prices. If you are on a budget, you are better off buying hard anodized aluminum pans or sets. They also require more care and maintenance compared to stainless steel cookware.

Sean Bennett
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