You might be thinking about investing in a good quality, durable pan, but can’t decide between cast iron and stainless steel. While both have definite merits, they also have some downsides. We will discuss them all below, so you can sift through them and hopefully be able to make an informed choice.
Cast iron is admired for its durability and often ends up becoming family heirlooms, due to its ability to last a long time. It has even been known to cook better as time passes, especially if it has been well looked after and seasoned properly and regularly. Modern cast iron pots and pans come pre-seasoned, which means you don’t have to do the initial preparations before you can even use the cookware.
Over time, however, it does tend to lose its seasoning layers, and this is where the effort comes in, because they will need regular re-seasoning. Seasoning of cast iron requires a lot of attention to detail, time and effort. Failure to season your pots correctly and regularly can have an effect on the flavor of your food. Acidic foods have been known to strip the seasoning layers. Cast iron cookware is also much heavier than stainless steel, which can be an issue too, especially when the pan is full of food.
With a stainless steel pan or pot, long-term care is less fussy than with cast iron. Seasoning is not required and you don’t have to be choosy with what cleaning utensils and cleaning materials you use on it. Most are dishwasher safe, but it is preferred that you clean your cookware (whichever material it’s made out of) by hand. Stainless steel is a poor conductor of heat, so the majority of stainless steel cookware comprises other materials, typically aluminum or copper.
While these quick comparisons make it seem like stainless steel is an outright winner, it’s really not that simple. Both of them are fantastic for searing meat and generally being highly versatile. Both can be used on the stovetop and in the oven, depending if the handle is oven-friendly, which may not be the case with some stainless steel pans. Cast iron wins here, as it can literally take the heat in the kitchen. Stainless steel will also never be a non-stick material like the well-cared-for cast iron, but you do get workarounds for this problem, such as non-stick sprays. But let’s investigate further.
Heat Conductivity and Retention
Cast iron takes a while to heat up and often requires preheating. However, once it reaches the desired temperature, it’s second to none at retaining it. Depending on your stove top, cast iron generally offers even heating, although it has been known to have hot and cold spots.
As mentioned, stainless steel is awful at conducting heat, which is why it has an inner layer of a different material. Depending on what materials were used on this inner layer, and how many layers there are, determines how well the stainless steel pot or pan will perform. Pots with an aluminum inner layer tend to be cheaper than, but not as effective, as the ones made with a copper inner layer. As expected, copper ones are more expensive as a result. Stainless steel pots tend to heat quicker and more evenly.
Cast Iron Pros
Stainless steel can last you a long time, but well looked after cast iron cookware can last you a lifetime, and even be passed down.
Depending where you look, cast iron cookware can be found at reasonable prices. Thrift stores have been known to sell them for as little as a few dollars. Yes, they may require some re-seasoning attention, but once you’ve made that extra effort, you will have a worthy pan that can last.
Can be used for most dishes. Can go from stovetop to oven and even be used on an open fire if you want to enjoy outdoor cooking.
A well-seasoned cast iron pot cannot be beaten for its non-stick properties.
Stainless Steel Pros
Cast iron is heavy, which can be an issue for some cooks, especially the elderly.
No matter what you cook, the material will not affect your ingredients.
So much easier to clean!
So, which one is better? Both are an excellent choice, and it pretty much boils down to your budget and preference, and how much you enjoy cleaning.