By Emma Stessman
Whether you’re cooking a simple protein or a flavor-packed one pan dinner, every meal starts with a solid base. For healthy eaters, ingredients often reign supreme in that regard—but your cookware can also have a huge influence on how your meal turns out.
In other words, the pan you use can really make or break a dish; it can put you on a path towards a perfectly cooked piece of salmon, or a flaky mess that is missing a few significant chunks.
Depending on the material they’re made with, your pots and pans will also need to be cared for differently and can even affect the nutrients in your food.
So, for your cooking ease, we’re comparing two of the best choices available: cast iron and stainless steel. Keep reading for the benefits, drawbacks, and best uses for each.
Cast iron vs. Stainless Steel
A good cast iron skillet will last you multiple decades (some even say a lifetime), which is good news for anyone who is tired of replacing pans every few years (which costs money!). It’s also good for the planet, since you won’t be running through pans and tossing them in the trash.
Aside from sturdiness, one of the biggest draws of a cast iron skillet is its versatility. The pans are made to be used in the oven, on the stovetop, and even on the grill. You can give meat a good sear on the stove before moving it down below to roast. Or you can skip the baking sheets and use a skillet for baked desserts and breakfasts.
And yes, it’s true: when you cook with this type of pan, your food may get an iron boost. An oft-mentioned study from 1986 tested how 20 different types of foods fared when cooked with an iron skillet versus a non-iron pan. The researchers found that 90 percent of the foods tested contained significantly greater amounts of the nutrient when cooked in the iron pans. However, the increase in iron depends on the cooking time and amount of water in the food, which means it can be hard to measure exactly how much extra iron you’re getting. So even though you’re getting a slight boost, you shouldn’t be depending on it as a main source of the nutrient. (Side note: While some people cite concerns about excess iron from cooking with cast iron, it’s very unlikely you’ll end up with too much unless you have a specific disorder.)
There are two main drawbacks to cooking with a cast iron skillet. Unfortunately, you can’t just throw it in the sink with the rest of your dishes at the end of a meal. It requires a specific type of care. Speaking of which, you need to season your pan—this will make it non-stick as well as add some extra flavor. You can get the details on the whole process, here.
After cooking, a warm water wash with a sponge will help to get any lasting bits of food off. But be sure to dry it thoroughly, as water can cause rust (though a rusted cast iron can still be saved). The idea that you can’t use soap on your cast iron pan after seasoning it is a myth, but some prefer not to (which is fine), and simply wiping it clean will totally work.
On top of that, acidic foods don’t always hold up well. If the pan isn’t seasoned well enough, the acids in certain foods can strip the small-amount of seasoning off the pan, and your food will take on the flavors of the skillet––leading to a slightly metallic-tasting meal.
Unlike cast iron, stainless steel pans are non-reactive, meaning they won’t change the chemical structure of your food or alter the taste. So they’re better for cooking your tomato sauces or citrus-heavy sauté dishes.
Many chefs and restaurants use these kinds of pans because of their durability and ease. Unlike with cast iron, you won’t get a workout from lifting the pan.
But, they are pretty notorious for creating burnt and stuck messes if used improperly, so a little prep is often needed. Steel doesn’t conduct heat very readily, so the pans can take a while to heat up (some pans have copper or aluminum added, to speed up the process). Before adding any cooking oil, you want to make sure your pan is hot enough—Buzzfeed has a good readiness test. Then, once it’s the right temperature, you can add the oil followed by the food. By letting it heat up first before coating the pan with oil, you’ll create a temporary non-stick surface.
The washing process is pretty easy––all that’s required is your standard soap and water. However, if you do have a stuck food situation, Food52 suggests filling the pan with soapy water, bringing to a boil, and scraping the problem areas.
The Bottom Line
In a truly stocked kitchen, switching between stainless steel and cast iron depending on what you’re cooking is your best bet. Both require a little more TLC compared to “nonstick pans” made with teflon (more on that topic coming soon!), but they’re better for you and the environment and will be long-lasting staples in your culinary toolkit.