You may have already made the switch to stainless steel, trying to steer clear of dubious nonstick coatings. But here’s a culinary conundrum: what about the aluminum in stainless steel?
Is that a health risk? Why do steel pans contain aluminum, and can you find stainless steel cookware without it?
Why Do Most Stainless Steel Pans Contain Aluminum?
Stainless steel doesn’t actually conduct heat very well! So it would be useless for cookware if not paired with a conductive material. That’s why most stainless steel cookware consists of an aluminum core sandwiched between two layers of stainless steel (known as “fully clad” or “tri-ply” cookware.) Some manufacturers use copper instead of aluminum as the core material, but those products are harder to find.
Does Aluminum in Stainless Steel Pans Come in Contact With Your Food?
The short answer is no. Stainless steel is an alloy made of iron and other metals, including chromium and nickel – but not aluminum. So aluminum isn’t used in the stainless steel layer of the pan, the one that you’re actually cooking on. So, there’s no chance of aluminum transferring to your food directly from the stainless steel surface.
Then, there’s the question of leaking aluminum from the core. This is technically possible, but only if the stainless steel layer is damaged so badly that the aluminum core is exposed. However, this may not ever happen during the life of your stainless steel cookware.
If it’s made of high-quality and durable stainless steel, there’s a near-zero chance of leaching aluminum.
Do They Make Stainless Steel Cookware Without Aluminum?
Although it’s rare, you can find stainless steel pans made without aluminum. Here are some of the best aluminum-free (or minimal aluminum) stainless steel pots and pans that I’ve found.
The Best Stainless Steel Cookware Without Aluminum
Pieces included: Two 2qt & 3.5qt saucepans with lids, 10″ fry pan, 5qt sauteuse with a glass lid, 8 qt stock pot with a glass lid
This Chantal SLIN-9 induction cookware set is among those hard-to-find products that are truly aluminum-free. Instead of sandwiching a copper layer between aluminum sheets and wrapping them with stainless steel layers, this Japanese company bonds melted copper to the stainless steel layer.
The stainless steel grade is 21/0, meaning it is 21 percent chromium and zero nickel. So, it’s more resistant to corrosion and has better thermal conductivity compared to other grades of steel, like 18/10. It’s also a ferritic steel grade, meaning it has magnetic properties and can be used on induction cooktops.
But if you’re looking for stackable pots and pans, this set is not for you. The handles take up too much space and aren’t removable. Cooking with these pans has the learning curve typical of all stainless steel cookware—you need to heat them to the perfect temperature to make the surface 100% nonstick.
Best Stainless Steel Without Copper: Cuisinart 89-13 13-Piece Cookware Set Professional-Series
Pieces included: 8″ non-stick skillet, 10″ skillet, 2 qt. saucepan with lid, 4 qt. saute pan with helper handle and cover, 3 qt. saucepan with straining cover, 5 qt. Dutch Oven with straining cover, 8 qt. stockpot with lid,18 cm steamer insert
This stainless steel cookware set has just about anything a home cook needs in their kitchen. They do contain aluminum, but only as a bottom plate bonded on the outer base. So, there’s almost no chance that aluminum will come into contact with your food, even if the inner bottom surface is damaged.
The pieces have tempered, see-through glass lids, so you can monitor cooking easily. Plus, the handles are long and don’t get hot during cooking.
Best Copper Core Cookware: All-Clad Copper Core 5-Ply Stainless Steel Sauté Pan
No list of the best stainless steel cookware is complete without my beloved All-Clad! Like other fully clad pans, this saute’ pan has an aluminum core. So it’s perfect if you want a stainless steel pan with zero aluminum in the cooking surface. But if you want the product to be totally aluminum-free, it doesn’t fit the bill.
This All-Clad copper core 5-ply saute pan features a layer of copper between two aluminum sheets, which are sandwiched between two layers of 18/10 stainless steel. This structure provides optimum thermal conduction, benefiting from the two most used conductive metals in cookware: aluminum and copper.
The sleek design and the polished stainless steel are complemented by the copper ring running around the pan, giving you a hint of the beauty inside.
The flared rims allow for drip-free pouring and the contoured, riveted handles offer a firm grip and stay cool during cooking.
This pan is part of a set containing:
- Two 8 and 10-inch fry pans
- A 3-quart saute pan with a lid
- Two 2 and 3-quart saucepans with lids
- and an 8-quart stockpot with a lid
So, depending on your cooking needs, you can go for a single pan or the entire cooking set.
Best Beginner-Friendly Aluminum-Free Cookware: Falk Culinaire Copper Coeur Line Chef Set I
Pieces included: 9.4” Saute pan, 2.1 qt saucepan with lid, 2.9 qt Dutch oven with lid
Falk Culinire is a Belgian company specializing in cookware and kitchenware. They also have a U.S. branch, Falk Culinire USA, selling to U.S. customers directly through their website.
This set is made of three metal layers: a thick copper sheet wrapped between two layers of stainless steel. The outer stainless steel is ferritic, making the vessels induction-compatible.
These pots and pans are 2.5 mm thick, which is near the thickness I consider ideal (3mm) for stainless steel to strike a balance between weight and heat distribution and retention.
The rims are flared and feature a copper ring that showcases the cookware’s inner beauty. The riveted handles are sturdy and comfortable. But the angle could be a bit more ergonomic, especially given the heavy weight of the cookware.
Although the set includes limited pieces, it’s ideal for a beginner with basic cooking needs. However, if you cook for a large family or need to cook several dishes at the same time, you may need more pieces.
Best Copper and Steel Cookware: Made In Copper Set
#5 Best Choice
4.0 out of 5.0 stars
Pieces included: 5.2 qt rondeau pan with cover, 1.2 qt saucepan with cover, 5.2 qt saucepan with cover
Made In is a trusted name in cookware, producing a wide range of kitchenware and bakeware. This 6-piece copper set is excellent for high-heat cooking. Made of 90% copper and 10% stainless steel, it offers superb heat distribution with no hot spots.
The interior is lined with stainless steel, which is better than the traditional tin lining because of its durability. Stainless steel has higher heat tolerance, making the cookware oven-safe up to a whopping 800°F.
The handles are perfectly angled, giving them an ergonomic and easy-to-grip design. And the tight-fitting lids retain flavors extremely well.
However, the biggest consumer gripe with copper cookware is that the sleek, shiny look doesn’t last long. No matter how carefully you take care of it, the exterior develops a patina. Some people love the aged copper vibe; others are willing to overlook it in light of the wonderful performance of these pans.
What Are the Best Alternatives to Stainless Steel with Aluminum Cookware?
Aluminum is an essential component of stainless steel cookware. So, it’s nearly impossible to find products that don’t have aluminum cores. Products with copper cores are available, but many of them still contain aluminum layers that enhance heat conduction and bond the other layers together.
So if it’s really important to you to have absolutely no aluminum in your cookware, you could skip stainless steel and go for alternative materials. These are the best options:
Cast iron is hailed as one of the best alternatives to Teflon cookware since it doesn’t contain synthetic polymers like PTFE. A well-seasoned cast iron skillet can offer a surprisingly good nonstick surface.
The drawback to cast iron is that it reacts with acidic foods. It may leach iron into your food, but, unlike aluminum, that can be beneficial for those who don’t have chronic high iron. If you regularly season the cast iron and avoid simmering acidic foods in it, it won’t add as much iron to your diet.
Carbon steel is cast iron’s lightweight cousin. It contains less carbon, so it’s more durable and less brittle. Due to its lighter weight, it’s the preferred choice for home and professional cooks. Like cast iron, it needs seasoning to remain non-stick and reduce reacting with acidic foods.
Copper is highly heat conductive and offers beautiful heat distribution. It’s also very responsive, meaning it loses heat quickly. So, it’s ideal for frying and sauteing delicate proteins like seafood.
The metal is very soft, however, and can be toxic at high levels in the human body. So, manufacturers line copper cookware with tin or stainless steel. This way, they create a barrier between the copper and your food, while taking advantage of all its thermal properties.
Here are our favorite pans you can use instead of stainless steel cookware:
Best Cast Iron Set: Cuisinel Cast Iron Cookware Set
Pieces included: 8″, 10″, 12″ Skillets with Glass Lids, 2-in-1 Multi-Cooker/Dutch Oven, Grill Pan, Griddle, Pizza Pan, Rack
With pieces that range from a dutch oven to a grill pan, this set includes all you need for home cooking. All the pieces come pre-seasoned, so you can use them quickly after you bring them home.
The best thing about this cast iron set is its price. Cast iron is usually affordable, but with this number of pieces, it’s hard to find such a bargain.
The set also comes with silicone grips so you can touch the hot handles easily. But they still get hot during cooking, so only attach them when you need to touch the handles.
Best Cast Iron Skillet: Lodge Pre-Seasoned Skillet – Signature Teardrop Handle
While the Cuisinel cast iron set looks tempting, it may be too much if you’re not a serious cook or don’t have enough space. In that case, this Lodge cast iron skillet is a perfect pick.
It comes pre-seasoned and you can use it for a variety of cooking purposes like sauteing, searing, frying, broiling, and baking.
This U.S-made skillet doesn’t pit if you take care of it and heats evenly. It’s also thick enough to retain heat exceptionally well and is big enough to fit 3-4 steaks.
It’s a bit heavy, weighing 12.4 pounds, but that’s what you want with a cast iron pan! If it’s not heavy, it can’t retain heat well and is probably low quality.
Best Carbon Steel Skillet: Merten & Storck Pre-Seasoned Carbon Steel Skillet
If you’re looking for a high-performing pan to add to your cooking arsenal, this carbon steel skillet is up your alley. It can replace stainless steel pots and pans, which are typically on the heavy side and not suitable for purposes like stir-frying.
This pan only weighs 1 lb., making it super comfortable to handle and lift. The riveted handle is thick, offering a firm grip, with a V-shaped design that prevents heating.
The pre-seasoned surface is perfectly smooth, making it nonstick right out of the box. However, with more cooking, the nonstick features increase and you can boost your cooking to restaurant-quality.
Is Stainless Steel Cookware with Aluminum Bad for You?
The use of aluminum in cookware is highly debated. While it’s prized for being lightweight, widely available, and low cost, it comes with some health concerns.
Aluminum is used in the manufacturing of most stainless steel pans. But the good news is there’s a next-to-zero chance of that aluminum ending up in your food if you buy quality stainless steel cookware made by reputable manufacturers, such as All-Clad.
If the stainless steel sheet protecting your cookware from the aluminum layer is thick enough, it won’t get damaged and expose your food to aluminum. But if it does, you have to replace the cookware.
The risk of ingesting aluminum from your cookware is much higher if you use pure (aka natural or uncoated) aluminum than if you use stainless steel pans with an aluminum core.
Benefits of Aluminum in Stainless Steel Cookware
Aluminum is nearly indispensable in manufacturing stainless steel cookware, since it offers thermal conductivity and heat distribution that stainless steel just doesn’t have.
It’s also lighter in density and weight compared to steel, making cookware easier to handle.
An alternative element used to bring thermal conduction to stainless steel is copper. It’s also highly conductive and great for cooking. However, it’s more expensive than aluminum since it’s harder to source.
How Is Aluminum Used in Stainless Steel Products?
There are different types of aluminum construction in stainless steel cookware.
Finding a stainless steel pan that doesn’t contain aluminum is really tough, since adding a conductive metal like aluminum is necessary for stainless steel to work as cookware. However, the products we recommended on this page are either aluminum-free or very close to it! At the very least, their construction should prevent aluminum from leaching into your food. Please see the description of each product for details.
#1 Recommendation: Chantal Induction 21 Steel 9 Piece Cookware Set
A few cookware manufacturers use copper instead of aluminum in their stainless steel pots and pans. Our best picks for copper core stainless steel cookware are Falk Culinaire Copper Coeur Line Chef Set I and Chantal Induction 21 Steel 9 Piece Cookware Set.
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