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When comparing cast iron and stainless steel, it’s as much about form and function as it is about material. .Both materials have their merits and their uses. In doing a bit of research on this article, I keep coming across cooks who comment that “You should never buy a complete set of cookware. You should choose individual pieces that suit your needs.” Looking at my own rather large and eclectic collection of pots and pans, I concur.
Stainless steel (often referred to simply as “stainless”) is an alloy consisting about 10 to 30% chromium and iron. Stainless steel does not rust or corrode. Solid stainless steel pans (those that are not clad, or sandwiched with other more conductive metals) can be downright cheap, but should be avoided at all costs. Stainless steel pans that are cladded (especially with copper or a mixture of copper and aluminum) are a much better choice, as they will heat evenly and not scorch food. They can also be quite expensive.
Cast iron is revered as a material for cookware – think about how many of us treasure our grandmother’s cast iron skillet as a family heirloom! Cast iron is shaped by pouring molten metal into a mold and letting it cool and set – as a result, cast iron can be made into a vast variety of shapes. Cast iron cookware needs to be seasoned in order to make it nonstick. The only exception to the seasoning rule is if you purchase an enamelled cast iron pan.
Enameled cast iron is just that. It is a cast iron cooking vessel that has been coated with a glaze of colored enamel (which is essentially glass). The best of these pans perform admirably, but they are a bit more fragile than uncoated cast iron, as they can chip and crack easily, especially when dropped or banged, which, given their weight, is a normal occurrence in most kitchens. The chemistry of the enamels that manufacturers use are very stick-resistant and very easy to clean. The best of these pans are manufactured in France by LeCreuset and Staub, but there are other manufacturers elsewhere (Lodge) who make less expensive but still excellent cookware.
Pros of cast iron:
Cast iron pans are essentially non-stick when seasoned and cared for properly. Cast iron holds heat in such a way that it is ideal for long slow cooking. It also excels at deep frying, helping to maintain the oil at a steady temperature necessary for good results. Enameled cast iron can also accommodate highly acidic foods (like tomatoes) without any chemical reaction or imparting a metallic taste on the food.
Pros of stainless steel:
Stainless steel is rust free. Although it can theoretically be put in a dishwasher, it is ill advised – I would never put any cookware in the dishwasher. Stainless steel is thinner and lighter than cast iron, so it is good for cooking pasta (the water boils relatively quickly) and for making soup. Stainless steel also makes good roasting and lasagne pans and great water kettles. The fact that it is lightweight is a boon when wrangling a large pot of boiling pasta to the sink to drain it.
Cons of cast iron:
Cast iron cookware requires seasoning and hand-washing, drying on a stovetop, and re-oiling (to prevent rust) .Cast iron is also prone to temperature shock. Never, and I mean NEVER put cold water into a hot cast iron pan, and never place a hot cast iron pan directly onto a cold surface, such as a granite countertop. When cast iron breaks from temperature shock, it has a tendency to explode. It can also break when dropped.
Cons of stainless steel:
Although stainless steel does not require seasoning, it is NOT a non-stick cooking surface. Even very experienced cooks who use the rule of “hot pan, cold fat,” can have trouble with food sticking to the cooking surface. Stainless steel has a tendency to heat unevenly and to have “hot spots” that can scorch food.
This decision really comes down to what you are cooking, or more specifically, what shape pan you need to use. While stainless steel and cast iron are both popular metals for frying pans, stainless is better for pasta pots and sauce pots (for tomato sauce), cast iron is better if you want a non-stick frying pan or a dutch oven.
If you are looking to make a sauteed dinner and want a fond at the bottom of your pan from which you can build a sauce, then stainless steel would be the right choice. If you are looking for a pot in which to boil pasta, then it would be stainless again.
If you are looking to make stews (or bake bread in a dutch oven), or deep fry, or make johnny cakes, or pancakes, or corn bread, then cast iron would be the best choice.
If you are looking for a “prestige” piece of cookware (or a wedding gift that will last a lifetime), you may want to consider a french enameled cast iron piece from Le Creuset or Staub. These pans can cost several hundred dollars, but they are worth it. You could also choose a piece of All Clad stainless steel. While generally less expensive than the two enameled pans above, it can still be pricey, but the cookware is downright gorgeous!
This bundle offers three skillets in 12”, 10 ¼”, and 8” diameters. The pre-seasoning means that you can wash them when you get home and start using them immediately. The two larger pans have loop-shaped helper handles to aid in picking them up. Pancakes, cornbread, and eggs will all release easily, and with three sizes, you will always have the right size skillet at hand.
This All-Clad pasta pot with strainer insert will last a lifetime. Quick to boil, large capacity (7 quart), large enough to boil 2 pounds of pasta at once, this will be your go-to pot for pasta night. And the insert makes draining your pasta a breeze, not to mention much safer!
This French-made dutch oven, or 5.5 quart round cocotte, is gorgeous in its simplicity. Versatile enough to handle sauces, stews, roasts, bread and cakes, it will quickly become part of your everyday batterie de cuisine. And it is made to last a lifetime!