- Cast iron and stainless steel are both iron alloys, with cast iron containing at least 2-4% carbon and stainless steel containing less than 2% carbon.
- Cast iron requires regular seasoning and imparts a rich flavor to dishes.
- Stainless steel is great for cooking everyday dishes with minimal cleanup.
There’s nothing like sinking your teeth into a perfectly seared tuna steak or a spoonful of crispy scalloped potatoes. And there’s nothing that can make those as well as a good fry pan made from the right material. When it comes to a dish with any sort of browning or texture, there are really only two options: cast iron or stainless steel.
The decision between the two can be a tough one. There are die-hard fans on either side, as well as lengthy articles that argue the benefits of both cast iron and stainless steel. We’ll compare the different features of cast iron and stainless steel — from construction to cleanup — to help you find the one you need in your kitchen.
About the Materials
Cast iron cookware has a long history and is actually still manufactured in a relatively low tech fashion. Basically, molten cast iron — an iron alloy with at least 2-4% carbon content — is poured into a mold where it cools and hardens into its desired skillet or frying pan shape. Once extracted, the cast iron is blasted, polished, rinsed, and oftentimes seasoned or coated with enamel.
Steel is also an iron alloy, but one with less than 2% carbon. At least 10.5% chromium (and oftentimes some other elements) is added to regular steel to produce a stainless steel that’s resistant to corrosion and rust, non-reactive (able to be used with almost any ingredient), and extremely durable.
Most stainless steel cookware, however, is not just stainless steel. As a poor heat conductor, stainless steel is best combined with a heat-conducting material, like aluminum or copper. These are either placed in the core or on the bottom of the pan, or they can be layered in tri-ply or 5-ply layers (also called cladding), which is a feature of many high-quality cookware brands.
The Differences When Cooking
For many reasons, cast iron is a pan that’s best for select cooking — it’s reactive to acidic food (although quick cooking is fine, long cook times can wear away the cast iron’s seasoning), takes some time to heat up, and is heavy. That being said, it’s well-loved for the flavor it adds to food. In time, a well-seasoned cast iron develops a glossy patina that produces a fairly (but not completely) non-stick surface.
Cast iron pans need to be preheated before you start to cook — adding food to cold cast iron will cause it to stick. This may take a while, as the thick material tends to heat unevenly. When cooking, it’s best to start at medium-low heat and increase gradually. Once a cast iron pan is properly heated, however, it retains its heat very well. For this reason, cast iron is ideal for slow, low cooking, such as roasting, baking, and dishes that need to move from stovetop to oven.
There are certain foods that don’t cook well in cast iron. Acids, like tomato sauce and wine, will react with the iron surface when cooked over long periods of time. While this isn’t dangerous, it can impart a metallic taste to your dishes. Smelly foods, like fish or other seafood, are also not recommended. Since cast iron shouldn’t be scrubbed and scoured, the oils from previous dishes remain on the surface. So while you’re enjoying your crusty salmon fillet today, you may not like the taste of it in your cornbread skillet tomorrow.
Cooking with stainless steel, on the other hand, is a relative breeze. When used as the outer surface of cookware — in combination with aluminum or copper — stainless steel pans heat quickly, distribute heat evenly, and can be used to cook any ingredient in your pantry.
To best cook with stainless steel, the pan should be preheated over medium heat for a few minutes. An easy way to see if the pan is hot enough is to sprinkle in some water — if the water forms tiny beads that jump all over the surface, you’re ready to cook.
The advantage of stainless steel is you can gauge just how “nonstick” you want the surface to be. Making a crunchy stir-fry? One to two tablespoons of oil should do. Whipping up a cheese omelet? Coat the pan with about 1/8 inch of oil then pour out the excess. Give the pan a good wipe with a paper towel, and you’ve made yourself a relatively nonstick stainless steel surface.
This versatility makes stainless steel pans great for all kinds of cooking: making pan sauces, sauteing vegetables, searing scallops, and most quick everyday dishes.
The Differences When Cleaning
Although cast iron doesn’t technically need to be cleaned with soap and water, it does require a bit more maintenance. Right out of the box, a bare cast iron needs to be seasoned. A brand new cast iron should be hand-washed with warm water and soap — although hand-washing isn’t commonly required for cast iron, an initial wash is necessary to remove any debris or substance that may be left from manufacturing.
Hand-dry your cast iron completely (do not leave it to drip dry, as cast iron tends to rust quickly), and start to season the pan by spreading a thin layer of oil (vegetable, flaxseed, or sunflower oil work well) over the entire surface using a paper towel. Then place the pan upside down on the middle rack of your oven, and bake at 375° Fahrenheit for one hour. Once the skillet is cool, it’s ready for cooking.
After each use, a cast iron skillet should be cleaned and oiled. First use a paper towel to remove any remaining food bits and oil. Then give the pan a good rinse under hot water. Dry the pan by placing it back over low heat — don’t drip dry, as cast iron can rust easily — until all moisture has evaporated. Once dry, pour in about half a teaspoon of oil and use a paper towel to spread the oil over the entire surface until fully absorbed.
As you may expect, maintaining stainless steel is much easier. While many brands label their cookware dishwasher-safe, even hand-washing stainless steel is relatively easy. Simply use some warm soapy water and a soft sponge, or for tougher jobs, try a mild cleaner like Bar Keeper’s Friend with a plastic scouring pad. Dry your cookware completely before storing, and you’re done.
Cast Iron vs. Stainless Steel
Cast iron and stainless steel share a lot of similarities — they’re both durable, versatile, and add an amazing sear to your food. A cast iron pan is a classic piece of cookware, and when cared for, can last a lifetime. Although the weighty material does require significant muscle and maintenance, it may be worth it for all the delicious dishes you can make with one. Plus, with its dark, rustic charm, a cast iron pan can easily double as a beautiful serving dish.
Probably the most popular metal in the kitchen, stainless steel also offers a number of benefits. The material itself is much lighter and non-reactive, which makes the pans perfect for pretty much any kind of cooking. Stainless steel can sear, sauté, poach, caramelize, fry, and more. Plus, when all the dishes are done, cleaning a stainless steel skillet can be done in minutes.
The Proof Is in the Pan
When it comes to cooking surfaces, cast iron and stainless steel are two of the best. They each have their own advantages and an important place in the kitchen. Most home cooks, however, may find stainless steel pans to be a better choice for the majority of the pots and pans in their kitchen collection. While a cast iron skillet is a good addition to your cookware, stainless steel really shines in its versatility, easy maintenance, and everyday use.