Ceramic vs. Teflon vs. Stainless Steel Cookware, which one it the best for you?
If you’re shopping for new cookware, the range of choices can be frankly overwhelming. There are so many styles and materials, it can be hard to figure out which is best. Pots and pans that look very similar can cost hundreds of dollars more or less, and it can be difficult to determine what makes them worth the investment.
One great way to sort it out is to choose which material is the best for your cooking style, so let’s look at the most common cookware materials so you can make the right choice.
What is Ceramic Cookware?
Firstly, there are two kinds of ceramic cookware. Cookware can be made of ceramic material made from clay, minerals, or sand, called “pure” or “classic” ceramic. Ceramic cookware can also be made of metal (usually aluminum), with a nonstick ceramic coating, often called “modern” or “ceramic non-stick” ceramic cookware.
Pure ceramic cookware is one of the oldest human inventions. It is a natural, non-toxic material that conducts heat less efficiently than metal, so it is slow to heat up, but then creates a gentle, even heat. For that reason, we most often see pure ceramic in bakeware like this classic set from Corning Ware.
When specially treated, pure ceramic can withstand the more abrupt temperature changes of a stovetop, and today there are a few pure ceramic cookware sets available, notably from Xtrema.
Pure ceramic PROS
- All natural with no harmful materials or gasses
- Gentle, even heat
- Withstands high oven temperatures
Pure ceramic cons
- Slow to heat up
- Breakable when dropped
Ceramic coated cookware is made by taking a metal pot or pan (usually aluminum) and coating it in a ceramic coating, then glazing it for smoothness. The ceramic coating and glazing makes the pan non-stick, using the minerals and silicone that occur naturally in ceramic materials. The nonstick coating on this cookware is organic and nontoxic.
Ceramic coating can have something of a bad reputation, because in the past it was sometimes glazed with ceramic glazes that use lead or cadmium. Today, those materials aren’t used, particularly if the product is regulated for sale in Europe or North America. Be mindful that ceramic coating is made by many different manufacturers, with slightly different properties, and ceramic-coated cookware is made in many different ways. For example, some cookware only has a single coating of ceramic surface, while others have two or three. For that reason, performance can vary greatly between different ceramic-coated cookware brands.
Ceramic Coating Pros
- Natural and nontoxic
- Conducts heat more quickly than pure ceramic
- Nonstick surface allows you to cook with less oil and fat
- Ceramic nonstick is tougher, so you can use a wider range of cooking and cleaning utensils on the surface
- Smooth, non-porous surface
- Easy to clean
- Naturally sound-dampening
- Variety of chic, stylish colors
Ceramic Coating Cons
- Ceramic coating is not very durable, particularly in low-priced or low-quality cookware. It will eventually chip, scratch, or degrade
What is Teflon Cookware?
Teflon is a brand name for the polymer polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), originally discovered by DuPont. Teflon and similar chemicals are made using perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), so you will often see PTFE and PFOA mentioned in cookware materials. Teflon is incredibly strong, water-resistant, and has an extremely low coefficient of friction, making it excellent as a nonstick coating in cookware.
Primary Concerns of Teflon Cookware?
Recent years have raised serious questions about the safety of Teflon and PTFE coatings.
The Presence of PFOA
PFOA is a carcinogen and causes developmental problems in animals, as well as an ecological hazard. In 2004, DuPont agreed on a $343 million settlement for PFOA contamination in drinking water near one of their facilities.
PFOA (and related PFAS substances) is a byproduct of many industrial processes, not simply the making of Teflon, and the US regulates how much is allowed to be in drinking water, and it is restricted in Europe.
Experts agree that, while PFOA is used during the Teflon-coating process, it is evaporated or degraded during manufacturing, and the pans themselves do not have significant amounts of it by the time they reach the consumer.
Hazards From Degradation
As we all know, Teflon and similar nonstick coatings will scratch, scuff, or degrade over time, which may mix small amounts of Teflon into your food while you cook. While this is probably not a delicious ingredient, it doesn’t pose a significant health hazard.
Hazards From Off-Gassing
When PTFE is heated, the chemical compounds begin to degrade and release gases into the air. At sustained temperatures above 500°F/260°C, Teflon releases fumes that can cause illness in humans and animals. Manufacturers agree that PTFE coatings should never be exposed to temperatures over 500°F/260°C, and this cookware should not be used in high-heat applications like searing.
Because Teflon coatings can scratch or mar, which places particles in your food and reduces the nonstick properties of the pan, Teflon cookware should only be used with appropriate cooking utensils, made of wood or silicone, and should be cleaned gently. With proper care, Teflon cookware is durable, and retains its nonstick properties much longer than ceramic coating.
- More effective nonstick than any other material, so you can cook with no oil or fat
- Longer-lasting nonstick coating than any other material
Ceramic Coating Cons
- Production is harmful for the environment
- Should only be used with gentle utensils and gentle cleaning methods
- Temperatures should be monitored carefully to avoid off-gassing
What is Stainless Steel Cookware?
As the name implies, stainless steel is a metal alloy that resists rust and stains, while improving strength and heat resistance. Stainless steel is rugged, durable, and easy to clean, so it is popular in kitchens, and does not impart any flavor to foods. Stainless steel does not conduct heat very well, so it is often layered with materials like aluminum or copper that conduct heat better.
Magnetic grades of stainless steel are the only cookware that works with an induction cooktop, so layers of stainless steel are often included in induction-ready cookware, even when the outside is coated with ceramic or Teflon.
While stainless steel is durable and easy to clean, it is not non-stick, and foods will stick to the pan unless you cook with sufficient fats or oils to protect the surface.
Stainless Steel Pros
- Durable, low maintenance, and easy to clean
- Can be used with any kinds of cooking utensils or cleaning methods
- Non-reactive, without imparting flavor or reacting to acidic foods
- Can be used at any temperature
- Can be used with induction cooktops (when it is a magnetic grade of steel)
Stainless Steel Pros
- Does not heat up quickly, unless combined with another metal
- Food will stick to the surface
Different Scenarios May Call for Different Materials
As you can see, there is no single perfect material that is ideal for all cooking methods, applications, and preferences. For example:
- If you want to go from the cooktop to the oven, a pure ceramic pot might be the best choice. It’s heavy, but provides gentle, even heating over long periods for slow-cooked foods
- If you want to quickly cook and flip sticky foods like pancakes or eggs, a Teflon coating might be the best choice. Teflon pans are light in weight and non-stick, perfect for foods that require a lot of movement or flipping
- If you want to sear a steak, stainless steel might be the best choice. It’s perfect for higher temperatures, and you can use rugged metal cooking utensils without damaging the surface
However, if you are looking for cookware that is versatile and can be used in a wide range of applications, your best bet is probably to combine materials.
Most cookware manufacturers combine different materials in an attempt to get the best out of each choice and make the perfect cookware. For example, this cookware set from T-fal, which is made of stainless steel with layers of copper and aluminum for more efficient heating.
For nonstick cookware, a set of lightweight aluminum pans with ceramic coating is probably the most versatile choice, like this set from GreenLife. For induction cooking, you might need multi-layered cookware, like this frying pan from Carote, which is made from cast aluminum with a magnetized base, with a durable nonstick ceramic-reinforced coating.
Every cookware material has its own unique advantages and disadvantages, making each one perfect for certain applications and poorly suited for others. Today, cookware manufacturers are combining materials in innovative ways, offering new pots and pans that heat quickly and evenly, have nonstick surfaces that make cooking a variety of foods fast and easy, and are low-maintenance and easy to clean. Knowing about different materials (Ceramic vs Teflon vs Stainless Steel Cookware) will help you choose the right type of cookware for your food preferences and cooking habits.