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Flipping broccoli and purple cauliflower in a Misen stainless steel skillet

Cast Iron vs. Stainless Steel: Which Is Best for Your Kitchen?

August 8, 2019


The Three Most Important Things to Know.

  1. Cast iron and stainless steel are both great options for long term durability and high heat cooking but differ in how much effort it takes to care for them.
  2. Cast iron requires regular seasoning to have a nearly nonstick surface and is prone to rusting if left in water.
  3. Stainless steel is great for cooking everyday dishes and can be left in the sink or put through the dishwasher.

There’s nothing like sinking your teeth into a perfectly seared tuna steak or a spoonful of crispy scalloped potatoes. And there’s nothing that can make those as well as a good fry pan made from the right material. When it comes to a dish with any sort of browning or texture, there are really only two options: cast iron or stainless steel.

The decision between the two can be a tough one. There are die-hard fans on either side, as well as lengthy articles that argue the benefits of both cast iron and stainless steel. We’ll compare the different features of cast iron and stainless steel — from construction to cleanup — to help you find the one you need in your kitchen.

The Science Behind Each Material

Misen Stainless Steel is comprised of 18/10 Stainless Steel, 3-Layer Aluminum and Alloy Core, 18/10 Stainless Steel

Both pans are steel alloys. The big difference is that stainless steel has less than 2% iron. At least 10.5% chromium (and oftentimes some other elements) is added to regular steel to produce a stainless steel that’s resistant to corrosion and rust, non-reactive (able to be used with almost any ingredient), and extremely durable.

Most stainless steel cookware, however, is not just stainless steel. As a poor heat conductor, stainless steel is best combined with a heat-conducting material, like aluminum or copper. These are either placed in the core or on the bottom of the pan, or they can be layered in tri-ply or 5-ply layers (also called cladding), which is a feature of many high-quality cookware brands like Misen.

The Main Differences in Cooking

Stainless stainless steel can be used for everyday dishes and is considered the most versatile piece of cookware.

Stainless stainless steel can be used for everyday dishes and is considered the most versatile piece of cookware.

For many reasons, cast iron is a pan that’s best for select cooking — it’s reactive to acidic food (although quick cooking is fine, long cook times can wear away the cast iron’s seasoning), takes some time to heat up, and is heavy. That being said, it’s well-loved for the flavor it adds to food. In time, a well-seasoned cast iron develops a glossy patina that produces a fairly (but not completely) non-stick surface. 

There are certain foods that don’t cook well in cast iron. Acids, like tomato sauce and wine, will react with the iron surface when cooked over long periods of time. While this isn’t dangerous, it can impart a metallic taste to your dishes. Smelly foods, like fish or other seafood, are also not recommended. Since cast iron shouldn’t be scrubbed and scoured, the oils from previous dishes remain on the surface. So while you’re enjoying your crusty salmon fillet today, you may not like the taste of it in your cornbread skillet tomorrow. 

Cooking with stainless steel, on the other hand, is a relative breeze. When used as the outer surface of cookware — in combination with aluminum or copper — stainless steel pans heat quickly, distribute heat evenly, and can be used to cook any ingredient in your pantry.

To best cook with stainless steel, the pan should be preheated over medium heat for a few minutes. An easy way to see if the pan is hot enough is to sprinkle in some water — if the water forms tiny beads that jump all over the surface, you’re ready to cook. 

The advantage of stainless steel is you can gauge just how “nonstick” you want the surface to be. Making a crunchy stir-fry? One to two tablespoons of oil should do. Whipping up a cheese omelet? Coat the pan with about 1/8 inch of oil then pour out the excess. Give the pan a good wipe with a paper towel, and you’ve made yourself a relatively nonstick stainless steel surface. 

This versatility makes stainless steel pans great for all kinds of cooking: making pan sauces, sauteing vegetables, searing scallops, and most quick everyday dishes. 

The Differences When Cleaning

Stainless steel is one of the most popular metals in cookware, thanks to its quick cooking and easy cleanup.

Although cast iron doesn’t technically need to be cleaned with soap and water, it does require a bit more maintenance. Right out of the box, a bare cast iron needs to be seasoned. A brand new cast iron should be hand-washed with warm water and soap — although hand-washing isn’t commonly required for cast iron, an initial wash is necessary to remove any debris or substance that may be left from manufacturing. 

Hand-dry your cast iron completely (do not leave it to drip dry, as cast iron tends to rust quickly), and start to season the pan by spreading a thin layer of oil (vegetable, flaxseed, or sunflower oil work well) over the entire surface using a paper towel. Then place the pan upside down on the middle rack of your oven, and bake at 375° Fahrenheit for one hour. Once the skillet is cool, it’s ready for cooking. 

After each use, a cast iron skillet should be cleaned and oiled. First use a paper towel to remove any remaining food bits and oil. Then give the pan a good rinse under hot water. Dry the pan by placing it back over low heat — don’t drip dry, as cast iron can rust easily — until all moisture has evaporated. Once dry, pour in about half a teaspoon of oil and use a paper towel to spread the oil over the entire surface until fully absorbed.

As you may expect, maintaining stainless steel is much easier. While many brands label their cookware dishwasher-safe, even hand-washing stainless steel is relatively easy. Simply use some warm soapy water and a soft sponge, or for tougher jobs, try a mild cleaner like Bar Keeper’s Friend with a plastic scouring pad. Dry your cookware completely before storing, and you’re done.

Durability. Cast Iron vs. Stainless Steel

Tossing diced potatoes and chives in a Misen Stainless Steel Skillet pan

Stainless steel is one of the most popular metals in cookware, thanks to its quick cooking and easy cleanup.

Cast iron and stainless steel share a lot of similarities — they’re both durable, versatile, and add an amazing sear to your food. A cast iron pan is a classic piece of cookware, and when cared for, can last a lifetime. Although the weighty material does require significant muscle and maintenance, it may be worth it for all the delicious dishes you can make with one. Plus, with its dark, rustic charm, a cast iron pan can easily double as a beautiful serving dish. 

Probably the most popular metal in the kitchen, stainless steel also offers a number of benefits. The material itself is much lighter and non-reactive, which makes the pans perfect for pretty much any kind of cooking. Stainless steel can sear, sauté, poach, caramelize, fry, and more. Plus, when all the dishes are done, cleaning a stainless steel skillet can be done in minutes.  

Which Pan to Choose?

Sauteéing onions and basil in a Misen Stainless Steel Pan with a blue Misen Mixing Spatula

Both types of pans have pros and cons. So it mostly depends on your preferences. Most home cooks, however, may find stainless steel pans to be a better choice for the majority of the pots and pans in their kitchen collection because they cook well and require virtually no extra care. While a cast iron skillet is a good addition to your cookware for specific recipes, it's important to know that unless you want to spend a good amount of time seasoning your pan, cleaning it properly, and ensuring it doesn't rust, then it's not a great everyday pan. 

Choosing the Right Material for Your Cookware

When it comes to selecting the perfect cookware for your kitchen, the debate between cast iron and stainless steel is a longstanding one. Each material offers unique benefits and drawbacks, making the choice largely dependent on your personal cooking style, preferences, and priorities. Cast iron is celebrated for its superior heat retention and natural non-stick properties that develop over time, making it ideal for searing, browning, and slow cooking. However, it requires more maintenance, including seasoning to protect against rust and improve its non-stick performance. On the other hand, stainless steel is praised for its durability, resistance to rust, and ease of maintenance. It does not react with acidic foods, ensuring that flavors remain pure. Stainless steel cookware often features an aluminum or copper core to enhance heat distribution, addressing one of the material's few shortcomings. Whether you're a home cook looking to perfect your sear or a busy parent in need of versatile, easy-to-clean kitchenware, understanding the differences between cast iron and stainless steel is crucial. In this article, we'll dive deep into the pros and cons of each material, help you understand which might be best suited for your culinary needs, and explore how you can make the most out of your cookware choice.