Cast iron vs stainless steel pans

Cast Iron vs. Stainless Steel

*This post likely contains affiliate links; I may earn a small commission at no cost to you. More info: HCK disclaimer.

Cast iron and stainless steel have been my go-to options since I ditched nonstick pans over a decade ago. Both have their own ways they shine (you can’t beat a nice steak pan seared on a cast iron skillet), and their own quirks (I’m looking at you water-drop test.) So which material is better?

It’s not a simple answer. If you’re looking for an honest take on it all, you’re in luck. You’ve got a huge fan of both cast iron and stainless steel to give it to you straight: yours truly.

Cast Iron Cookware: The Fast Facts

Cast iron cookware is a time-tested kitchen staple, with a storied past almost as old as humanity itself.

With proper seasoning, cast iron has natural non-stick properties, and its heat retention can’t be topped. It’s simple and inexpensive to manufacture, made only from iron with high carbon content. 

Melt down iron, pour it into a mold, and voila- it’s ready to go. 

There are two types of cast iron on the market today: raw cast iron and enameled cast iron. Raw cast iron is left as is after casting, while enameled cast iron is coated with a protective porcelain glaze. 

Since the production of enameled cast iron is a more involved process, it’s quite a bit more expensive than raw cast iron.

But for some cooks, the protective layer of enamel is well worth the higher price tag. Raw cast iron needs to be seasoned and can be cumbersome to care for. Not to mention, it’s prone to rust if not dried properly.

Enameled cast iron doesn’t have these problems, though. Its surface is pre-seasoned, easy to keep clean, and as non-stick as you can get without venturing into Teflon territory.

The only downside? Enamel can chip. Given the price point of enameled cast iron pieces, the risk of chipping enamel means many cast iron lovers still opt for the traditional cast iron cookware as it’s all but indestructible.

Lodge cast iron skillet

Stainless Steel Cookware: The Fast Facts

Stainless steel cookware doesn’t have a richly woven historical tapestry like cast iron, but it’s a reliable pick with a wide range of uses all the same. 

With stainless steel by your side, you don’t have to worry about rust, seasoning, or chipping of any kind. You could be all but careless with its care and keeping – and a good pan could probably still last a lifetime. 

But I do want to mention that not all stainless steel cookware is created equal. High-quality stainless steel cookware is labor-intensive to produce. Meaning the better it is, the pricier it gets.

Since stainless steel is a pretty poor conductor of heat on its own, stainless steel cookware is cladded with at least one other metal like copper or aluminum. (And if it’s not – run in the opposite direction!) Picture pastry filling…but with a heat-reactive substance.

All-clad cookware means the secondary material goes all the way throughout the surface of the pan, including the sides. Disk-clad stainless steel only has cladding on the bottom, with 100% stainless steel sides.

All Clad stainless steel skillet with lid.

 Is It Better to Cook with Cast Iron or Stainless Steel?

Like most of the matchups in the cookware world, cast iron vs. stainless steel is less of a question of which is better and more about the trade-offs you’re willing to make and your personal preferences. 

Which one is better really comes down to what you want to get out of your cookware. 

Cast Iron vs. Stainless Steel: Heat Responsiveness

Stainless steel cookware is very responsive to heat, provided it’s well made, of course. 

If you’re cooking with it and nearing hangry territory, rest assured that you won’t be staring at an empty pan for long.

On the other hand, even the most die-hard cast iron enthusiasts will admit cast iron takes its sweet time to heat up.

There’s probably not a single person alive who wouldn’t benefit from learning a little more patience (@ me) …but there are better times to practice that than when you’re trying to get some food on a plate.

If you’re prone to bouts of rapid-onset hangry-ness, cast iron might not be for you.

Cast Iron vs. Stainless Steel: Heat Retention

We’re all human. Sometimes, we forget to take the chicken out of the freezer to let it thaw.

The old “run it under cold water for an hour” workaround can usually save the day. But if you find yourself doing this regularly (no judgment), you’ll be much better off with cast iron and its phenomenal heat retention. 

Stainless steel might heat up quickly, but it doesn’t always stay that way. And with its tendency to claw onto food for dear life at lower temperatures, you could end up with half your haphazardly thawed chicken stuck to the bottom of your skillet. 

Side by side of the material of a stainless steel vs cast iron pans.

Cast Iron vs. Stainless Steel: Heat Distribution

Have you ever had to play whack-a-mole with heat? I have; the stove in my first apartment had bent burner coils, so cooking anything evenly meant constant fidgeting and readjusting. 

As long as you have burners with a flat surface, neither cast iron nor stainless steel cookware will be quite this finicky. But, if you want to avoid any semblance of culinary musical chairs, you’ll want to keep a stainless steel pan on hand. 

As far as heat distribution goes, stainless steel is definitely the safer choice. It’s why, aside from the rust issue, you never want to boil water in cast iron. 

Cast Iron vs. Stainless Steel: Food Reactivity

If it’s between raw cast iron and stainless steel, stainless steel is the less reactive choice

Raw cast iron, with all its old-school charms, is prone to corrosion. So anything watery is an issue, but so is anything acidic: tomato sauce, vinegar in a marinade, citrus fruit, you get the idea. 

The only consideration with specific foods you need to make when you’re cooking with stainless steel is with proteins. Whether it’s eggs or cod, if it’s protein, it’s much more likely to get locked onto stainless steel. But it’s an issue with an easy fix. Just make sure you’re using the right technique, and you’ll be golden. 

Enameled cast iron is the real victor here, though. It has the non-stick power of cast iron with none of the food reactivity. It can truly take whatever you throw at it. 

Side by side of the edges of a stainless steel vs cast iron pans.

Cast Iron vs. Stainless Steel: Oven-safety

Cast iron probably wins in this category – but by a pretty small margin.

Cast iron and stainless steel are both usually oven-safe. That is, unless their handles or lids have attachments made from plastic or a similar material.

I’ve said it before and I’ll continue to shout it from the rooftops: always check the manufacturer specs for your cookware!

But even though both cast iron and stainless steel pots and pans are generally oven-safe, cast iron still comes out ahead for the simple fact that it has a higher temperature resistance (not by much, though).

Stainless steel can withstand temperatures up to 500-550 degrees, where enameled cast iron tops out at 500. Cast iron can handle any temperature you can throw at it. You might burn off the seasoning, but unless you can max out 1500 degrees – the cast iron itself is good to go.

To be fair, though, In most stovetop-to-oven situations, you won’t need many pans to withstand temperatures beyond 500 degrees. So you could arguably call this faceoff a draw. 

Cast Iron vs. Stainless Steel: Non-stick Properties

Whether raw or enameled, cast iron cookware has the closest thing to a nonstick surface as you can get without buying a non-stick pan. 

At least, as long as it’s been seasoned.

Enameled cast iron is pre-seasoned, but raw cast iron needs to develop a layer of oil called a patina before it becomes non-stick.

Stainless steel cookware has a lot of great qualities, but this is the area where you might find it the most lacking

Luckily, there’s really a simple trick to keep food from sticking to stainless steel: make sure the pan is hot enough, and use enough oil. 

Side by side of the material of a stainless steel and cast iron skillet.

Cast Iron vs. Stainless Steel: Weight

For a long time, the weight of cast iron was what kept me from taking the plunge and learning to work with it. There’s no way around it: it’s HEAVY heavy. 

Because cast iron has so much carbon, it has to be cast thick to combat its inherent brittleness. 

Stainless steel pans would probably be just as heavy if they were made completely from stainless steel. But they aren’t: they’re cladded with much lighter materials, which brings their weight down considerably. 

What Lasts Longer: Stainless Steel or Cast Iron?

With proper care, cast iron skillets can last several lifetimes. If that is, every owner avoided cooking acidic foods or boiling water in it, seasoned it and hand-dried it religiously, and never used a harsh degreaser or scrubbing tool on it. Even if it rusts totally, cast iron can be resurrected.

On the other hand, a high-quality stainless steel pan (like Heritage Steel)can also last several lifetimes with minimal care and effort – so I’m giving durability a tie. 

Side by side of the handles of a stainless steel vs cast iron skillet.

Cast Iron vs. Stainless Steel: Price

Raw cast iron is far and away the best bang for your buck. Since it’s relatively uncomplicated to produce, high quality pieces won’t break the bank. And even if it has quirks, it still yields reliably delicious results.

Enameled cast iron and Stainless steel are similar in terms of price. Pieces are priced similarly at both the low and high ends of the quality spectrum.

If I were shopping on a tight budget, I would avoid lower-end stainless steel and enameled cast iron and opt for raw cast iron, regardless of every other consideration I’ve mentioned so far.

The reason why is simple: you can count on raw cast iron to work well at any price point. In fact one of the leading cast iron brands, Lodge has many pieces under $50.

Inexpensive stainless steel and enameled cast iron pieces run the risk of being effectively useless. Cheap enameled cast iron chips, at which point you can no longer use it safely. And low-end stainless steel cookware usually doesn’t have enough cladding to heat properly. 

Cast Iron vs. Stainless Steel: Health

If you’re conscious of your family’s health (who isn’t?), you have nothing to worry about with either cast iron or stainless steel.

Both of them have been used for generations with no documented negative health outcomes. 

That being said, if one of your loved ones has a nickel allergy, it’s best to avoid stainless steel. Nickel is great in that it prevents stainless steel cookware from rusting, but it transfers to food during the cooking process. It’s in small enough quantities that it’s of no risk to people without allergies, though.

Searing Steak in Cast Iron vs. Stainless Steel

Cast iron, it’s your time to shine: there’s nothing like a steak seared in cast iron. 

But why exactly is that? Well, a lot of it has to do with its heat retention. You can take a juicy steak fresh from the fridge, throw it on the skillet and it’ll stay hot like nothing even happened. 

If all you have is stainless steel cookware, you can still make a delicious steak, though!

I would just recommend getting your pan piping hot (until you splash a drop of water on the pan and it dances around its surface in one piece.) Leave the steak out at room temperature for a little while, too. The less cold the steak is, the hotter your pan stays. 

Side by side of cooking on a stainless steel vs cast iron skillet.

Do Chefs Use Cast Iron or Stainless Steel?

If you’re trying to cook restaurant-quality meals at home, this is probably your most burning question. Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news….but there’s no real ‘right’ answer. 

There’s no standard type of cookware used by chefs

A chef at a Peruvian steakhouse will have a very different toolkit than the chef at a tapas bar. Everyone has preferences, but what chefs use depends largely on the stipulations of their menu and the manpower (or womanpower) at their disposal. 

My advice: if you’re trying to cook like a pro is to choose cookware of reasonable quality, and then devote yourself to working on your technique.

Obviously, you don’t want your equipment to be working against you. But there’s no piece of cookware that’s going to turn you into a chef overnight. 

Cast Iron vs. Stainless Steel vs. Carbon Steel

Carbon steel is interesting because it’s like cast iron without all the heft. It’s the material of choice for woks and traditional French cuisine. 

However, carbon steel might not come with cast iron’s heft, but it sure does come with all its baggage. All the areas where cast iron wins and loses against stainless steel are also true of carbon steel. Yes, even weight! 

It does heat up a little bit quicker than cast iron, but not by enough to overtake stainless steel.

Essentially, you can expect all of the same care and keeping considerations and performance weaknesses from carbon steel that you would with cast iron.

Cast Iron vs. Stainless Steel vs. Non-stick

In my opinion, there’s no real comparison here: cast iron and stainless steel cookware are both infinitely better than non-stick cookware. 

Take your pick of reasons why: the dubious safety of non-stick cookware, its impact on the environment, its short lifespan….need I say more?

If we’re looking at the three trying to determine what’s best, the distinctions between cast iron and stainless steel pale in comparison to non-stick cookware’s shortcomings. 

Side by side of the top view of a stainless steel, cast iron, and carbon steel skillet.

Cast Iron vs Stainless Steel Cookware

Cast Iron vs. Stainless Steel are both fantastic options, and you really can’t go wrong with either, so long as you know what you’re getting into.

If you’re looking for a non-stick pan to make your steaks shine, high-quality cast iron is the way to go.

But if you value convenience, a nice stainless steel skillet should be your go-to!

No matter how much the debate rages on, whether you’re a cast iron cutie or a stainless steel stunna is really up to you and you alone.

About Author

TiaGoodnight

Hey! I'm Tia, and I started this site to bring you the best information on all things kitchen so you can enjoy and elevate your everyday life.

I love trying new techniques and tools, living for the thrill of pulling off a new skill. On weekends you'll find me at the local farmer's markets or hosting friends and family for an evening of yard or card games and delicious food.

If you're looking for honest, real-world advice on all things kitchen and cooking, you're in the right place!