Cast Iron vs Stainless Steel Cookware: A Sizzling Showdown

Cast Iron vs Stainless Steel Cookware: A Sizzling Showdown

Cast Iron vs Stainless Steel Cookware: A Battle Between Two Kitchen Iconics. Which One Is Right For You?

Open up social media and a food blogger’s latest recipe of a cheesy baked camembert in a cast iron pan gets you drooling. Walk into a restaurant and your favourite mussels in white wine and garlic is served in a comfortingly sleek stainless steel pot.

Now you want the same for your meals at home. But if you only have space or the budget for one, which do you get?

So we’re back with a truly iconic showdown between cast iron vs stainless steel cookware, the long-time darlings of the culinary world.

Before you make your decision, let’s get to know them a little bit more intimately. Because it’s not just a simple matter of how they appear.

Let’s Get to Know Cast Iron Cookware a Little More

Cast iron cookware has a long history and is widely used in both home and professional kitchens worldwide. You’d have likely had your dishes served in it at your favourite cafes or restaurants. Some of you may have even seen a cast iron pan as a part of your family’s kitchenware collection.

Cast iron skillet served from stovetop to table.

But How is Cast Iron Cookware Made?

Cast iron pans and pots are primarily made from iron, a metal known for its durability, excellent heat retention, and ability to distribute heat evenly.

It is made by first melting iron until it becomes molten, then pouring it into a mould which is left to cool and solidify. The mould is typically made in the shape of the desired cookware, be it the popular cast iron skillet or the not-so-popular specialty pans designed with only one specific purpose (I’m looking at you, cornstick pan).

And finally it undergoes the finishing process which includes grinding, polishing, and sometimes enamelling.

Cast Iron Cookware and Enamelled Cast Iron Cookware

Cast iron pans and pots that go through the enamelling process are known as enamelled cast iron cookware, while those that don’t undergo the enamelling process are sometimes referred to as bare cast iron.

Serving with an enameled cast iron pot.

A prime example of enamelled cast iron cookware would be the vibrantly colourful French oven as pictured above, while cast iron cookware typically appears black and textured. Notice how both types of cast iron feature an integrated handle that is part of the cookware's construction? That’s one of the special features of cast iron cookware!

Now that you’re familiar with the nuances of cast iron, let’s get to know stainless steel cookware a little more!

Getting to Know Stainless Steel Cookware

Stainless steel cookware is a hugely popular modern choice wherever you go. It is after all on par with cast iron in terms of popularity. You’ll find it in almost every professional kitchen and home - I dare say 9 out of 10 would have one.

Example of an all clad stainless steel pot. Photo by Castorly Stock.

How Stainless Steel Cookware is Made

Similarly to cast iron, stainless steel pots and pans are primarily made from a combination of iron, carbon, chromium, and other metals. The chromium content is what gives it the “stainless” moniker, alongside its durability and resistance to corrosion.

Stainless steel pans and pots are shaped using various techniques such as stamping, spinning, or deep drawing, all of which involve the use of specialised machinery and tools. This is then complete with a polishing process to bring out its key feature - its smooth and shiny look.

The Different Types of Stainless Steel Cookware

Depending on the design and intended use, stainless steel cookware can appear in different forms such as bottom-clad stainless steel or multi-ply stainless steel. Both of which refer to stainless steel pots and pans that are layered with other metals like an aluminum or copper core for improved heat conductivity and distribution.

7 Fundamental Factors to Consider Before Buying Cast Iron Cookware and Stainless Steel Cookware

1. Material

Remember when we spoke of how cast iron and stainless steel cookware are made? Even though both are constructed with iron, the presence of additional metals and elements ultimately determine how suitable it is for your lifestyle.

For instance, cast iron is made solely from iron unless it is enamelled. This makes cooking with cast iron a natural way to add more essential iron into your diet because it naturally releases iron into your dishes.

Enameled cast iron features a ceramic outer layer which results in a smooth cooking surface, contrary to cast iron's textured surface. This same outer layer prevents iron from being released into your dishes, making it suitable for those who don’t feel comfortable with the idea of iron leaching onto their dishes.

On the other hand, stainless steel typically contains nickel which gives it the shiny appearance we all know and appreciate. But the very same nickel content makes it detrimental for those who are sensitive to nickel.

You can tell whether your stainless steel pots or pans contain nickel by checking out the associated number which usually appears like “18/10 Stainless Steel”. This means it contains 18% chromium and 10% nickel. 

If nickel sensitivity is a concerning factor, you can always shop for 18/0 stainless steel which does not contain nickel. But these are often much pricier and more commonly found in the form of utensils.

Cast iron French oven with superior heat retention. Photo by Edgar Castrejon.

2. Heat Retention and Heat Distribution

Cast iron is known for its excellent heat retention properties thanks to its superbly heavy and dense build. Sure it takes longer to heat up, but it makes up for it by distributing heat evenly and retaining it for a longer duration.

Because of this somewhat finicky characteristic, cast iron is not often a first choice when it comes to daily cooking tasks. But it definitely is the top choice when it comes to low and slow cooking like stews and pot roasts.

People also often love how it keeps their dishes warm for longer when it's used to serve from stovetop or oven to table, because a hot cast iron pan or pot takes longer to cool over a stainless steel one.

Stainless steel is the opposite as its often lighter build does not retain heat as well as cast iron. But it does heat up quickly and distribute heat evenly. This makes it the ideal choice for daily cooking tasks like a quick stir-fry. So if you want precise cooking control, stainless steel pans and pots would be your best bet.

Adding oil to a stainless steel skillet for easy food release.

3. Non-Stick Properties

“Is the cookware non-stick?” is definitely something that most people ask these days when shopping for cookware. I dare say it’s often a defining factor that confirms whether it’ll be a good buy or a goodbye for them.

Both cast iron and stainless steel are not inherently non-stick. But when it comes to cast iron, the way you use and care for it may allow it to become non-stick.

The process to turn your brand new cast iron skillets, pots, and pans' cooking surface to a non-stick one is called seasoning. This involves applying a layer of oil or fat to the cookware’s surface, then heating it to create a polymerized layer which forms a smooth, non-stick coating.

Unlike cast iron, the same can’t be said for stainless steel cookware so it's common to see food sticking. Cooks often use fats or oils while cooking on stainless steel to allow easy food release.

You can temporarily create a non-stick effect on stainless steel pots and pans by properly preheating it, then using sufficient oil and fat. But it still won’t be as effective nor will it last as long as seasoned cast iron pots and pans.

Enjoy easy food release with the non stick surface of a ceramic pan.

If a cookware’s non-stick capability is one of the most important points for you - I’d recommend checking out Cosmic Cookware’s range of non-toxic ceramic non-stick cookware which requires little to no seasoning nor oils for healthy cooking.

Cooking acidic foods in stainless steel. Photo by Klaus Nielsen.

4. Reactivity

Love a good tomato sauce or the occasional sweet and tangy delight of a healthy berry crumble? Then cast iron may not be the best choice for you.

Cast iron pots and pans are naturally reactive to acidic foods and alkaline ingredients such as tomato sauce, citrus fruits, and vinegar. Whenever these ingredients come into contact with cast iron, a reaction can occur which may leave a metallic taste in your food or alter the appearance of certain dishes.

If you find yourself cooking acidic foods regularly, then stainless steel is a fantastic bet for you. It's naturally non-reactive because the chromium content in stainless steel forms a protective layer on its surface, which protects the natural flavours and appearance of acidic foods.

Essentially, you can cook almost anything and everything in your stainless steel pots and pans.

Cast iron retains heat so well that people often use get a cast iron skillet or Dutch oven to cook outdoors. Photo by Harry Cunningham.

5. Durability

Cast iron and stainless steel are extremely durable metals and can last well over the years with proper care. However, this doesn’t mean that they are indestructible.

When it comes to cast iron, its durability and versatility makes it perfect heirloom pieces that families often hand to the next generation. It’s known for its strength and resistance to warps and dents, which is why you’ll also spot the occasional cast iron skillet being used outdoors for camps and barbecues.

But its density makes it susceptible to chips, cracks, rust, and even fractures when mishandled. Sure it won’t bend or wrap, but expose it to hard impact or sudden changes in temperature and you’ll find a broken and battered piece of cast iron on your hands.

Stainless steel on the other hand, is less prone to chips and rust compared to cast iron. Its natural resistance to corrosion and stains also make it suitable for use up to a lifetime. That said, it can be warped and bent when not properly handled.

While it may show signs of cosmetic wear and tear with scratches and micro stains, these do not affect the functionality of the cookware. Only the appearance.

Ultimately, you’ll want to follow the manufacturer’s care and maintenance guidelines to ensure the longevity of both cookware types. And remember to avoid popping a hot cast iron pan into a basin of cold water just to quickly cool it, nor put a cold cast iron pan into a hot oven - you’ll have a metallic mess on your hands if you do!

6. Maintenance, and is it Dishwasher Safe?

Maintaining cast iron involves regular seasoning, hand washing, and a proper storage process.

Remember, seasoning means that you’ll have to regularly apply about half a teaspoon of oil or fat on its surface and heat it up to maintain its non-stick properties. Cast iron is definitely not suitable to be cleaned in the dishwasher because of the often harsh chemicals and process used. You’ll also want to avoid using an abrasive scrubber like a steel wool because they can strip away the seasoning.

What you can do to scrub off stubborn stains, is to use a coconut brush. While it looks anything but gentle, its bristles are fantastic at removing excess oil and stains without being too harsh on the cookware’s surface.

Lastly, it’s important to completely dry your cast iron pan before storing it. Because when cast iron is left damp, rust can and will develop.

Then you have stainless steel which is generally easier to clean and maintain. You can either wash by hand with warm soapy water, or you can pop it into the dishwasher for quick and hassle-free clean up.

Because it isn’t reactive, you can also use acidic or alkaline home remedies like vinegar and baking soda to remove stains, discoloration, and heat marks on your stainless steel pans to restore its natural, polished shine.

So maintaining stainless steel is definitely much easier and takes the medal in this aspect.

7. Price

On average, cast iron is generally more affordable compared to high quality stainless steel cookware. That’s because of how it is constructed along with what goes into its construction that makes it accessible to a wide range of budgets.

Having said that, there are definitely more premium options and specialty cast iron cookware such as enameled cast iron which come with an equally premium price tag.

Whereas stainless steel pans and pots tend to be relatively more expensive than cast iron pans and pots. Its construction, multi-layered build, and even brand play a part with the higher price tag. But the ones of high quality often showcase superior craftsmanship that almost always ensures a cookware piece that lasts a lifetime, making it a worthy investment worth considering.

Is it Better to Cook on Cast Iron or Stainless Steel?

Cast iron and stainless steel are two different types of cookware with their own roles to play in the kitchen.

Cooking on cast iron is like having a sturdy companion by your side with its rustic charm that helps you whip up a comforting stew or a juicy steak when you need it. It’s great for lazy and even slow days, while its rustic appearance makes it a stunning oven to table or stove to table piece.

While stainless steel is the sleek and adventurous modern friend who always seems to be a step ready for you to join in on the next culinary adventure that catches your eye. It's the perfect weeknight cooking tool when you need a quick meal to recharge your energy levels.

But if you’re looking for a non-stick cookware that makes clean-up and maintenance a breeze, and you want a specific aesthetic for your kitchen, do check out Cosmic Cookware’s range of stunning ceramic non-stick cookware in various colours that will add a beautiful pop of life to your kitchen and home.

Cooking eggs and delicate meats with ease makes a ceramic non stick pan a wonderful alternative to stainless steel and cast iron.

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