Cast Iron vs. Stainless Steel Cookware – Which One Should You Choose?

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Last Updated on August 14, 2021

Annabelle

Annabelle Watson

Annabelle is an experienced food writer and editor. She focuses on common sense, easy to replicate recipes formulated to help keep things fresh and exciting while fitting into her day to day life as a wife and mother.

cast iron vs stainless steel cookware

If you ask 10 different cooks which they prefer, stainless steel or cast iron, you’re probably going to get 10 different answers. Both stainless steel and cast iron are popular options for the modern kitchen. And both have their pros and cons when it comes to their performance. 

If you’re new to the kitchen, or if you’re ready to make an investment in cookware, we’re certain that you’ve heard from friends and family the virtues of both, and why you “need” one or the other. You may have even heard that you need both stainless steel and cast iron, so what is the right answer? 

In this article, we’ll give you some helpful information about stainless steel and cast iron cookware so that you better understand which cookware is the best for your kitchen.

1. Cast Iron vs. Stainless Steel Cookware Compared

The Materials – What You Should Know

You may be surprised to know that stainless steel and cast iron both have the same base material. Both are alloys of iron, however, the difference between the two lies in the other metals that are added to the iron.

Cast iron is more iron than other metals. It has a high amount of carbon, which makes it very hard, and gives it that black or dark grey color that you may associate with cast iron. Cast iron as a molten liquid is poured into a mold and allowed to cool. It’s then polished and in some cases coated with an enamel for “seasoning”.

Stainless steel on the other hand is an iron alloy that has very little carbon but has other metals such as chromium and nickel. These metals are resistant to rusting and corrosion, and give the iron a shiny, silver appearance. 

However, most of your stainless steel pans are not 100% stainless steel. You’ll find that most stainless steel cookware has a core of aluminum or copper, which is great for conducting heat.

How are They Different?

Before we talk about how to best use cast iron and stainless steel, let’s look a bit at how they are different, from the practicality stand point. While we know they are made of different things, they also have some differences that may be a game changer for some cooks.

Reactivity – We mention this first, because it can be a selling point between the two. Cast iron, as a material, is considered to be “reactive”. This means that foods that are acidic will break down the iron and add a metallic taste to foods. This isn’t harmful or dangerous, but you probably won’t like your grandmother’s spaghetti sauce to taste like your pan. Stainless steel is non-reactive, so it won’t impart tastes to your foods.
Weight – To be fair, both stainless steel and cast iron are a bit on the heavy side. A good quality, multi-layer stainless steel pan can have good bulk, but it doesn’t compare to cast iron. Cast iron is heavy. Substantially heavier than stainless steel. This added weight can be problematic for some cooks when it comes to handling a cast iron pan full of food.
Heating – Both stainless steel and cast iron are known for relatively even heating across the pan surface. However, cast iron is most consistent when it has been allowed to heat up before food is added. Stainless steel doesn’t need to be preheated for the best results.
Care and Cleaning – Cast iron does require some unique care. It needs to be seasoned using oven or not and shouldn’t be washed like other dishes. Stainless steel is relatively low maintenance. In most cases it can go in the dishwasher with all of your other dishes.

2. Cast Iron vs. Stainless Steel Cookware Compared

Cooking in Cast Iron

To be fair, we love cooking in our cast iron pans. There is nothing better than a nice, thick cut pork chop, seared in a cast iron pan and then slowly roasted in the oven. It is one of the advantages of cast iron cookware, and there is a general consensus that cast iron is a really versatile cookware option. It goes from the stove top to the oven, easily. It can also be used over the campfire. 

However, not all foods are great in cast iron, so you need to know what works best in these awesome pans. We love our cast iron for meats (but not seafood), breakfast foods, cobblers or crisps, cornbread, and potatoes. These foods are low acid, and when your pan is properly preheated turn out crispy, and full of the deep flavor that people love cast iron for.

Cooking in Stainless Steel

If you’ve been cooking in non-stick cookware, stainless steel can seem a little daunting, because, well, it’s not non-stick. However stainless steel cookware can rarely be beat when it comes to delicious foods. Do use stainless steel for those reactive foods like tomatoes, tomato sauces, and foods with wine. 

We also love using our stainless steel for searing meats, seafood, vegetables, sauces and really any dish that cooks on the stove top. Stainless steel doesn’t go from the stove top to the oven quite as well as cast iron.

3. Which Should You Pick?

Would it surprise you if we told you that you need to pick both stainless steel and cast iron? For day to day cooking, stainless steel is easy to care for, and is perfect for making those quick, weeknight meals. 

However, no kitchen is complete without a cast iron skillet for comfort food favorites like pot roast and cornbread. If you’re being offered a family heirloom cast iron pan, don’t turn it down, cast iron is long lasting and won’t warp when cared for. Stainless steel just doesn’t have the longevity that cast iron boasts. We’ve made a review of the best cast iron cookware for your kitchen which we recommend reading. 

Annabelle

Annabelle Watson

FINAL THOUGHTS

If you are truly looking to have a kitchen with all of the “right” tools, then select a set of stainless steel pots and pans, but also don’t forget to pick up a couple of cast iron skillets for those low, and slow foods, the comfort foods that make everyone happy and content.