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Various pans in different sizes and forms for cooking and frying hanging on metal hooks from shelf in kitchen with white wall in background

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Few pieces of cookware are used as much and debated as much as pans made of stainless steel and cast iron. Adored by home cooks and professional chefs, each has its pros and cons. Stainless steel — with its sleek, industrial feel — is perfect for sautéing and simmering, while cast iron — favored for its rugged, classic look — is ideal for deep frying and searing steaks.  


Here's what you should know about these kitchen go-tos.


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What Is Stainless Steel?


Made from a combination of steel, chromium, and other metals, stainless steel pans (also known as stainless clad) are known for their durability and ability to withstand high heat (up to 800 degrees Fahrenheit). The composition of metals is what gives them a silverlike, modern appearance, and makes them resistant to rust and corrosion. 


Pros


Stainless steel pans are a popular choice because they are versatile and can be used for a wide range of cooking methods — including sautéing, searing, simmering, or even boiling water. They are also easy to maintain and clean, being dishwasher safe, and their smooth surfaces are ideal for frequent, heavy use. In addition, stainless steel pans are non-reactive with acidic foods, making them safe to use with metal utensils. 


Cons


Because stainless steel pans are not the best conductors of heat compared with materials such as copper or aluminum, they can take longer to heat and may not distribute heat as evenly as cast-iron pans. Stainless steel pans also typically have a shorter lifespan and a tendency to warp over time, especially when exposed to high heat — making them less stable on stovetops, and likely to become discolored or heat stained


Additionally, stainless steel pans are not naturally nonstick, meaning that food may adhere to the surface if not properly seasoned or oiled. Lastly, they are not ideal for browning or searing, as they don't retain heat as well as cast-iron pans. 


Midsection image of woman cooking food in panPhoto credit: Neustockimages/istockphoto

What Is Cast Iron? 


A cast-iron pan is made by pouring molten iron into a mold, and allowing it to cool and solidify. Made from a combination of iron and steel, cast-iron pans are known for their bumpy, textured surface and profile. Though cast irons are known for their extremely thick and dense surface, they can be brittle and may still crack if dropped. Since cast-iron pans are forged from a single piece of metal, the surface of the pan, including the handle, will get extremely hot when in use. 


Pros 


Cast-iron pans are known for their ability to retain heat (up to 1500 degrees Fahrenheit), and distribute it evenly — making them ideal for searing, frying, and browning foods. They also have the ability to maintain a consistent temperature, which makes them great for long-cooking dishes such as stews and braises. Cast-iron pans are also known for their durability and can last for many years with proper care and maintenance. Further, those with iron deficiencies may benefit from using cast iron; the pans add iron to foods cooked in them.  


Cons


Cast-iron pans require seasoning and maintenance to prevent rust and protect the pan from damage. They also can be heavy and difficult to maneuver, are not dishwasher safe, and require gentle hand-washing with hot water and coarse salt to properly clean. If not seasoned properly or left in humid or wet conditions, food may stick to the surface, and the pan can corrode or rust. 


Additionally, cast-iron pans can be brittle and can chip or crack if dropped or mishandled, are more difficult to store, and may react with acidic foods, which could affect the flavor and quality of the food. 


pile of cast iron skillets on wood tablePhoto credit: mg7/istockphoto

The Bottom Line


Stainless steel and cast-iron pans have advantages and disadvantages. Stainless steel is durable, easy to clean, and has a sleek appearance, but it isn’t as conductive to heat and won’t retain it as well as a cast-iron pan. Cast-iron pans, on the other hand, are great for retaining heat and distribution, but they require more maintenance and care. 


Ultimately, the choice between the two depends on preference and what kind of dish you’re whipping up. For sautéing, simmering, and boiling foods such as vegetables and seafood, a stainless steel pan is likely a better choice. But f you’re frying, searing, and baking heavier dishes that require higher temperatures to seal in juices and flavors — such as meats, stews, and fish — these are best left for a cast-iron pan. 


Chef cooking at a restaurant and flaming the foodPhoto credit: Hispanolistic/istockphoto

Frequently Asked Questions


How do I clean a stainless steel pan properly? 


Proper cleaning is important for maintaining the quality and longevity of any pan. To clean a stainless steel pan, remove any excess food or debris by scraping it off with a plastic spatula or a soft-bristled brush, then pop it into the dishwasher. Or you can rinse the pan with hot water and dish soap to remove remaining food particles by hand. If the pan is particularly dirty, you can use a small amount of baking soda or vinegar to help remove stubborn stains or food residue. 


Use a non-abrasive sponge or cloth to scrub the pan — being sure to pay special attention to the bottom and sides — where food particles and stains are most likely to accumulate. Avoid using abrasive materials such as steel wool or scouring pads, as they can scratch the surface of the pan and may leave small particles that can rust over time.


How do I clean a cast-iron pan properly?


Unlike stainless steel, using dish soap on a cast-iron pan can strip it from its seasoning and leave a soapy residue. If your cast-iron pan is really dirty, you can use a small amount of coarse salt and a non-abrasive sponge or cloth to scrub the pan. Rinse it thoroughly with hot water to remove any salt or debris and dry it completely by placing it on a low heat stove for a few minutes, or wiping it dry with a clean, dry cloth. Finally, apply a thin layer of oil or shortening over the surface to maintain the pan's seasoning, and store it in a clean, dry place.


How do I season a stainless steel pan?


Seasoning a pan refers to the process of creating a nonstick surface by creating a layer of oil. While it is not a necessary step for stainless steel pans, it can help make cooking and cleaning easier in the long run. To season a stainless steel pan, wash the pan thoroughly with warm water and mild soap, and dry it completely. Then coat it with a thin layer of oil, such as vegetable oil or flaxseed oil. Place the pan in a preheated oven at 350 to 400 degrees Fahrenheit for one hour. Let the pan cool inside the oven for about an hour before removing it. 


How do I season a cast-iron pan?


Since cast-iron pans are prone to rusting, seasoning is an important step in taking good care of them. Start by washing the pan thoroughly with warm water and mild soap, and dry it completely. Then coat the pan with a thin layer of oil by using a paper towel or a soft brush to spread it evenly over the surface. Place the pan upside down on the middle rack of an oven preheated to 350 to 400 degrees Fahrenheit and bake for one hour. 


Seasoning a cast-iron pan is not a one-time process, and should be repeated every few months depending on use — or after each time the pan is washed with soap. Once the pan is seasoned, it will be less likely to stick to food and easier to clean.


Seasoning a cast iron skilletPhoto credit: Bruce Peter Morin/istockphoto
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