Differences between cast iron and stainless steel pans
When it comes to quality cookware, both stainless steel and cast iron pans are great picks for your kitchen. Cast iron and stainless steel pans can sear, fry, sauté, caramelize and more. Plus, both materials are known to be durable and versatile and will last you a long time with proper care. So what’s the difference?
A cast iron pan is heavy and extremely durable but does require some regular maintenance and may be more difficult to clean. Stainless steel pans are lighter and less reactive than cast iron pans, but slightly less durable over time. Which pan is best for you depends on what you plan to cook and how much maintenance you intend to perform on your cookware.
Cast iron pans
Cast iron has a lengthy history as a cookware material around the world. Molten cast iron is poured into a pan mold, rendering a pan that’s made from one solid piece of heavy metal. This means that cast iron pans are durable and can last you a lifetime with just a little maintenance. Cast iron is a superior heat conductor, meaning it can hold heat for a long time and distribute heat evenly when cooking food. Cast iron also stands up to hot oven temperatures and open flame grills, making it a versatile cooking material.
When a cast iron pan is “seasoned,” meaning it’s properly cleaned and oiled with vegetable oil or mineral oil, it has a naturally nonstick surface that works well for sautéing vegetables and searing meat without sticking.
Cast iron pans come in many different shapes and sizes. You’ll find cast iron skillets, fry pans, grill pans, woks, fajita and pancake pans, among others. Some cast iron pans are also “enameled,” meaning they have an enameled finish on the exterior.
You should never clean a cast iron pan with harsh detergents or place it in the dishwasher. In general, a cast iron pan should only be cleaned with salt, water and oil. This process helps keep a cast iron pan from rusting and maintains its nonstick surface.
A good cast iron pan can cost anywhere from $25 for the most basic model to $350 for the top-of-the-line. More expensive cast iron pans are typically enameled.
Cast iron pan pros
- Durable: Cast iron is a heavy and durable material that’s naturally scratch-resistant and is unlikely to warp or deform over time. With regular maintenance, your cast iron pan can last you a lifetime.
- Nonstick surface: When properly seasoned, your cast iron pan has a nonstick surface without the chemicals of a typical nonstick pan. However, it isn’t nonstick for all foods, especially dairy and eggs.
- Strong heat conduction: A cast iron pan holds heat and distributes heat evenly, which is ideal for some cooking preparations. Plus, it withstands high oven temperatures and open flame without harming the material.
- Adds iron and flavor to food: An uncoated cast iron pan leaches some iron into the food as it cooks, which adds nutrients — and some flavor — to whatever you’re cooking.
Cast iron pan cons
- Requires preheating: A cast iron pan needs to be preheated for several minutes before it’s hot enough to cook with.
- Requires hand-washing: Cast iron isn’t dishwasher-safe and can’t be cleaned with harsh detergents.
- Hot handles: Because cast iron pans are made from one solid piece of metal, their handles become hot and need to be handled carefully.
- Heavy weight: A cast iron pan is quite heavy, which can be hard on the wrists and makes it challenging to move the pan from the stove into the oven.
- Reacts with acidic foods: Cast iron pans may react to acidic foods such as tomatoes, which can impart a metallic taste to your food.
Best cast iron pans
Victoria Pre-Seasoned Cast Iron Frying Pan: available at Amazon
This pre-seasoned cast iron skillet features two wide handles to help you maneuver the pan from the stove to the oven, as well as a pour spout for grease. It comes with a lifetime warranty.
This high-quality set from Lodge comes with three pans: 8-, 10.5- and 12-inch skillets. It’s great for a variety of recipes and occasions, whether you’re frying an egg or two for breakfast or searing a large cut of meat for a crowd. The skillets come pre-seasoned with vegetable oil.
Le Creuset Signature Enameled Cast Iron Braiser: available at Amazon
This cast iron braiser pan from Le Creuset is as beautiful as it is practical. The large size accommodates a number of different preparations and can easily transition to a serving platter on the table. It comes in nine different colors.
Stainless steel pans
Stainless steel is another popular material for cookware and is made by combining steel with chromium and other elements to produce a durable metal material that’s non-reactive, highly durable, and resistant to both rust and corrosion. Most stainless steel cookware is made by combining stainless steel with other metals such as aluminum or copper, as these materials are better at conducting heat. In higher-end stainless steel pans, aluminum or copper are layered or “cladded” into the pan for superior heat distribution and resistance.
In general, stainless steel pans are versatile and easy to use. They preheat quickly and distribute heat evenly throughout the pan, and they heat much more quickly than cast iron pans. They stand up well to hot oven temperatures and gas stoves with open flame.
Like cast iron, stainless steel pans are durable and typically scratch-resistant. With proper care, they’ll last you a long time. Stainless steel pans are generally easier to clean than cast iron and many are dishwasher-safe. Unlike cast iron pans, stainless steel can stand up to harsh detergents and can be washed with scouring pads or steel wool.
Depending on the brand and the quality, a stainless steel pan costs $40-$150.
Stainless steel pan pros
- Versatile: A stainless steel pan can be used to cook nearly anything, including searing meat and fish, frying eggs, sautéing vegetables and steaming rice.
- Easier to clean and maintain: Stainless steel pans hold up to harsh detergents and scouring pads, can be soaked for long periods of time and are often dishwasher-safe. They also don’t require a seasoning process.
- Heats quickly: Stainless steel pans preheat much more quickly than cast iron pans. A stainless steel pan can be ready to sear a steak in less than a minute.
- Durable: Stainless steel is a durable material that’s unlikely to rust, corrode or warp over time.
- Non-reactive: Unlike cast iron, stainless steel will not react with acidic foods like tomatoes or vinegar.
- Lighter weight: Stainless steel pans weigh far less than cast iron pans, which makes them easier on the hands and wrists.
Stainless steel pan cons
- Doesn’t hold heat as well as cast iron: While stainless steel pans heat quickly, they don’t hold heat as long as cast iron pans.
- Food is more likely to stick. Stainless steel pans don’t have a naturally nonstick surface, so food (especially the sugars in fruits, vegetables and dairy) may be more likely to stick than in a cast iron pan. Stainless steel pans often require scrubbing and scouring to clean certain foods from the surface.
Best stainless steel pans
A high-quality frying pan from a trusted brand that’s made with durable tri-ply construction for even heat distribution and longevity. This pan is both oven- and dishwasher-safe, and it’s backed by a limited lifetime warranty.
This stainless steel saute pan is cost-effective for its quality. The aluminum encapsulated base makes for quick heating and even heat distribution. Plus, the small helper handle makes for easy handling when moving between the stove and the oven.
This 12-inch frying pan is made with tri-ply construction for ultimate durability. The aluminum heat core extends to outer sides for premium heat distribution. It’s relatively affordable compared to competitors.
Should you get a cast iron pan or a stainless steel pan?
A stainless steel pan is your best bet for versatile cookware that’s easy to clean and use. Stainless steel pans can handle nearly any cooking task in the kitchen and will last a long time if used properly. However, cast iron pans are great for specific tasks such as baking cornbread or fruit crumbles, and for using in outdoor ovens and grills.
Katy Severson is a writer for BestReviews. BestReviews is a product review company with a singular mission: to help simplify your purchasing decisions and save you time and money.