In this review, I compare two of the most popular types of cookware: stainless steel and cast iron.
You’ll learn how they stack up in terms of cooking performance, durability, maintenance, price, and much more.
Plus, I explain which foods you should cook with cast iron, and which foods are better suited for stainless steel.
By the end, you’ll know the similarities, differences, pros, and cons of each cookware type.
Spoiler—every kitchen should be equipped with cast iron and stainless steel cookware, but for different reasons (that we’ll explore).
Ready? Let’s get right into it.
Use these links to quickly navigate the article:
- An Overview of Cast Iron Cookware
- An Overview of Stainless Steel Cookware
- Cooking Performance and Cooking Scenarios
- Cleaning and Maintenance
- Bottom Line: Which Cookware Is Better, Cast Iron or Stainless Steel?
Cast iron cookware, lauded for its rugged look, exceptionally high capacity, and low cost, has been used for thousands of years.
Although its popularity declined in the 1960s when Teflon-coated aluminum pans hit the market, it’s now back in favor due to its use on TV cooking shows and in popular recipes across the internet.
There are many things to love about cast iron cookware, but these are the top advantages:
- Versatility: You can use cast iron on the stove, grill, or in the oven.
- Durability: Its walls are thick and dense, which results in superior strength. With cast iron, you only need to buy it once, and you have it for life.
- Heat Capacity and Retention: Since cast iron is so dense, it can withstand and retain heat for longer than most cookware materials.
- Affordability: Compared to stainless steel, cast iron cookware is generally less expensive. Check out the most popular cast iron skillet on Amazon to get an idea of the cost.
Despite these advantages, cast iron cookware comes with a few downsides too:
- Weight: Cast iron cookware is hefty. On average, a standard 12-inch cast iron skillet weighs 8 pounds, which is twice as much as a comparable stainless steel skillet.
- Seasoning: Unless it’s coated with porcelain enamel, like Le Creuset dutch ovens (check out my review), you need to season cast iron cookware to add a protective layer to its cooking surface (these are the steps).
- Reactive: Although there are few materials better for searing a steak or burger, cast iron doesn’t play well with acidic foods like tomato sauce, or foods with strong odors like fish. I explain why later in this article.
Cast iron cookware comes in different shapes and sizes—from commonly seen 8 to 12-inch skillets to specialty pans like 4-cup egg poachers.
There are two varieties of cast iron cookware: bare and enameled.
Bare cast iron cookware, as the name suggests, isn’t coated with other materials. The surface of bare cast iron is typically black, rugged, and requires seasoning to prevent rust and allow easy-release.
Cast iron cookware also comes coated in porcelain enamel; a glass-like coating that adds a tasteful aesthetic and protects food from sticking to the surface.
Enameled cast iron cookware retains heat just as well, plus it’s nonreactive, so you can slow-cook those acidic tomato sauces without issue.
This type of cast iron cookware is easier to clean and maintain, but it’s also costly due to the added materials and processes to produce.
The most popular example of enameled cast iron cookware is the renowned Le Creuset Dutch Oven (see on Amazon).
For this comparison, I’m focusing on bare cast iron cookware, since that type is the most common.
Stainless steel cookware is a staple in homes across the globe due to its classic shine, sleek profile, variety of uses, stellar heat conduction, and exceptional durability.
Similar to cast iron, stainless steel cookware is exceptionally durable. It contains chromium, which forms a passive layer of oxide on the surface, making it resistant to scratches and corrosion.
All you need to know is, stainless steel cookware is tough, durable, and will last a lifetime—which makes up for the fact that it isn’t cheap (more on this later).
On its own, steel is a poor conductor of heat, which is why manufactures layer in materials like aluminum and copper. The layering of these materials is referred to as cladding, and stainless steel cookware made this way is called multi-clad cookware.
In other words, when you buy a stainless steel pan, it’s actually stainless steel on the outside and aluminum or copper on the inside. Stainless steel is an excellent exterior because it’s nonreactive and ultra-durable, and aluminum/copper is an ideal core material because it transfers heat quickly and evenly.
As you shop around for stainless steel cookware, you may come across the terms: tri-ply, five-ply, or bonded base. These terms refer to the type of construction.
Tri-ply means the cookware is made with three layers, usually a steel exterior, then an aluminum core, then steel again for the cooking surface.
Five-ply means it’s made with two outer layers of steel along with three core layers of other materials, usually a combination of aluminum or copper and steel.
A bonded base is when manufacturers only put the heat conductive material at the bottom of the cookware, not up the sides too. This type of cookware costs less but lacks the even heat distribution of multi-clad cookware.
To sum it up, stainless steel cookware has several advantages, including:
- Heat Conduction: Stainless steel cookware, especially multi-clad, is known for its superior heat conduction. The core layer(s) of aluminum or copper transfer heat from the cooktop to the food fast and evenly, providing consistency and control.
- Durability: It’s just as durable as cast iron. With stainless steel, you don’t need to worry about scratches, rust, or chipping. As long as you use it properly, it will last your lifetime.
- Versatility: You can cook pretty much anything with stainless steel. Unlike cast iron, stainless steel is nonreactive, which means acidic foods like tomato sauce and wine are good to go. It can also be used on the stove (including induction), grill, and in the oven.
- Easy to Maintain: Unlike cast iron, you don’t need to season stainless steel—it comes ready-to-go and doesn’t require any special ongoing maintenance.
But, stainless steel cookware also comes with several downsides:
- Pricey: The main disadvantage of stainless steel cookware is that it can be costly, especially if you opt for high-quality, multi-clad cookware like All-Clad (wondering if All-Clad is worth it? Check out our recent review). There’s no doubt that the upfront cost is high, but when you consider how much use you get out of it over decades, the cost of ownership is very low.
- Food Sticks: If you browse reviews of stainless steel cookware on Amazon, you’ll notice one common complaint: food sticks. It’s true, food won’t release as quickly as it will with non-stick or well-seasoned cast iron cookware, but if you learn how to cook with it properly, you can mitigate the issue. You can also create a non-stick surface by seasoning the pan (here’s how).
- Difficult to Clean: Going along with my previous point, when food sticks, stainless steel cookware can be a challenge to clean. Over time, brown spots and discoloration, especially around the rivets (rivets are the bolts that connect the handle to the base), are difficult to avoid. Luckily, products like Bar Keepers Friend are available to remedy these issues, but elbow grease is still required.
Now that you have a better understanding of the pros and cons of cast iron and stainless steel, let’s get into the details on how these two types of cookware compare to each other.
When you’re shopping for new cookware, cooking performance is one of the most important things to consider. This includes:
- Which type of meals it’s designed to cook
- How fast and evenly it conducts heat
- How long it retains heat
- Whether it’s safe in the oven and on your type of cooktop
In this section, I compare cast iron and stainless steel across all these dimensions, so you understand how they differ in terms of performance.
When to Use Cast Iron vs. Stainless Steel
One of the most common questions people ask on this topic is:
When should I use cast iron, and when should I use stainless steel?
Cast iron and stainless steel cookware are excellent for many of the same meals, but with some exceptions.
When most people think of cooking with cast iron, they immediately think of steak and burgers. It’s true, a cast iron skillet is excellent for searing meat since it can tolerate extremely high heat and holds heat when it comes in contact with cold protein, but there’s so much more you can cook with this versatile pan.
Nothing compares to the natural crisp that you can achieve by roasting potatoes in a cast iron skillet.
Besides that, cast iron is also great for baking. There is something magical about the browning cast iron provides on cornbread, cakes, brownies, pies, and pan pizza.
Although you can tackle a wide range of meals with cast iron, there are a few limitations.
Since cast iron is a reactive metal (more on this in a minute), it doesn’t play well with acidic foods such as tomatoes, red wine, vinegar, and citrus fruit.
Also, cast iron has a porous surface, which means smelly foods like garlic and fish can seep in and linger.
Hold off on cooking delicate foods like flaky fish and over-easy eggs until your cookware is well-seasoned because they’ll stick to a new, rough surface.
Lastly, boiling water in cast iron is a no-no; the process can attack the seasoning and allow the iron to leach into the water.
Stainless steel is suitable for almost every cooking scenario—sautéing, braising, baking, browning, searing, roasting, boiling—you name it.
Since stainless steel cookware is non-porous, nonreactive, and safe in the oven. You can cook practically anything with stainless steel cookware, including acidic and smelly foods.
So, if you’re planning on making a big pot of tomato sauce, or a dish that requires deglazing with wine, go with stainless steel.
Similar to cast iron, stainless steel cookware has a high heat capacity, which makes it an excellent choice for searing and browning.
The most common complaint about stainless steel cookware is that food sticks, but this plays in its favor when it comes to searing. The sticky surface maximizes contact between the meat and heat source, creating a golden-brown crust. Once the crust forms, the food releases.
What should you avoid cooking with stainless steel?
Sure, with the proper amount of grease, patience, and technique, you can prevent eggs from sticking. But, in my opinion, it’s not worth the effort. Instead, use a well-seasoned cast iron skillet, or, even easier, a non-stick pan.
Heat Conduction and Retention
You want cookware that heats up evenly and retains heat for long periods. It makes cooking more predictable and consistent.
So, which type of cookware heats more evenly and retains heat longer?
In short, stainless steel cookware heats more evenly, but cast iron has better heat retention.
Heat conductivity, which is the ability of a material to transfer heat, is often measured by BTU or British thermal unit. The BTU expresses the amount of heat needed to raise the temperature of one pound of water by one degree Fahrenheit. The higher the number, the greater the heat conductivity.
Aluminum and copper, the materials used as the core of stainless steel cookware, have a much higher BTU compared to cast iron. According to EngineersEdge.com, below are the BTU of each metal:
- Cast iron: 46.33
- Stainless steel: 8.09 – 8.11
- Aluminum: 136
- Copper: 231
To further prove the point, America’s Test Kitchen pitted a stainless steel fry pan against a cast iron skillet to see which one heated more evenly.
They spread the same amount of all-purpose flour across both cooking surfaces and turned the burners on medium. The stainless steel browned flour more evenly, while the cast iron skillet showed hot spots where flour began to burn in some areas.
Cast iron may not heat up as fast or evenly as stainless steel, but due to it’s thick, dense construction, it has far superior heat retention.
In other words, once a cast iron skillet is heated up, it stays that way for longer than stainless steel.
Heat retention comes in handy when you’re entertaining. You can turn the burner off, and the food will stay warm while you prepare the rest of the meal.
It’s also beneficial for searing because the pan doesn’t lose much of its heat when you slap a cold or room temperature piece of meat on it. Its ability to hold temperature so stable is why many people believe cast iron is the ultimate cookware for searing—just look at the sear on this pork chop!
Bottom line—stainless steel heats up faster and more evenly. Cast iron takes longer to heat up but retains heat for longer. If you’re cooking a meal that requires precise control over the temperature, go with stainless steel. If all you need is a hot pan that will stay that way for a while, cast iron is the best choice.
Reactive vs. Nonreactive Cookware
Cast iron is considered reactive cookware because the metal reacts when it comes in contact with certain foods, most notably, acidic foods like tomatoes, wine, and vinegar.
You should be careful when cooking acidic foods with cast iron for two reasons.
- First, prolonged exposure to acid will attack the seasoning in your pan.
- Secondly, high acidity can cause tiny molecules of iron to leach into your food and alter color or flavor drastically. Although it’s harmless to your health, the small bits of iron give your food a darker hue and metallic taste—not good.
So, do you have to avoid acidic foods when cooking with cast iron all together? No. In fact, a well-seasoned cast iron pan can handle most acidic foods without issue. Seasoning creates a barrier between the acid and the cast iron, therefore minimizing a reaction.
According to tests conducted by America’s Test Kitchen, the keys are limiting the cooking time to under 30 minutes, and removing the food after its finished; don’t let it sit in the skillet for hours.
Grandma’s slow-cooked tomato sauce? Not a good recipe for cast iron cookware. But, quicker meals, like seared chicken breasts with lemon or wine added towards the end, no problem.
On the other hand, stainless steel is considered nonreactive cookware, which means it doesn’t react with the food or liquids it touches.
Its nonreactive nature makes stainless steel more of an all-purpose type of cookware. Perfect for grandma’s slow-simmered tomato sauce or a quick gravy made with pan juices.
One of the main benefits of both cast iron and stainless steel cookware is that it’s safe on the stove and in the oven.
Although it varies by brand, there’s not much of a difference between the maximum oven-safe temperature of stainless steel and cast iron. In general, both types of cookware can withstand the temperatures of a standard home oven, up to 600 degrees Fahrenheit.
Some stainless steel cookware may top out at 500 or 550 degrees, so be sure to read the manual of your particular cookware before you pop it in the oven.
Most quality stainless steel cookware is made with an exterior layer of magnetic steel, which makes it compatible with all cooktops, including induction.
Cast iron is also compatible with any type of cooktop, but you need to be careful when you use it on glass or other electric cooktops:
If you have a glass stove, place the pot gently on the glass and don’t slide it around. The heaviness of the pot could crack or scratch the surface if handled roughly.
Be sure the bottom of the pot is clear of residue or debris, or you may stain your glass cooktop.
With a glass or other electric-style cooktop, gradually heat cast iron for best results instead of putting it on the highest setting straight out of the gate.
The exact weight varies by piece and brand, but, in general, cast iron cookware is approximately twice as heavy as stainless steel cookware.
Recently, I researched over 20 cast iron and stainless steel skillets and discovered that a standard 12-inch cast iron skillet weighs about 8 pounds on average. In contrast, a 12-inch stainless steel skillet weighs about 4 pounds.
Cast iron itself isn’t heavier than steel, but cast iron cookware is made with thick walls to improve durability. Stainless steel has greater ductility than cast iron, so it doesn’t require such thick walls. Thus, stainless steel cookware is much lighter.
Since stainless steel is lighter, it is easier to manipulate. You can toss food, slide around sauces, flip burgers, and move pans easily between the cooktop and oven.
Once you place a cast iron pot or pan on a cooktop, that’s where it will pretty much stay. Moving it requires oven mitts and two sturdy hands, especially when you factor in the eight of the pan plus the food.
One of the greatest benefits of cast iron and stainless steel cookware is its superior durability.
Both materials are naturally strong, scratch-resistant, and, unlike non-stick pans, don’t wear down after years of use.
If you treat them right, both cast iron and stainless steel can last you a lifetime, but you’ve got to put in some work. These types of cookware, although hearty, are not indestructible.
One of the downsides of stainless steel cookware is that, if you’re not careful, it’s susceptible to warping.
Fortunately, you can prevent your pans from warping if you follow a few simple rules.
- Avoid sudden temperature spikes, such as heating a pan on high heat or rinsing or submerging a hot pan in cold water. Sudden temperature changes can lead to thermal shock.
- Match the pan to the burner. Using a large pan on a small burner can cause the metal to expand in some areas, but not others.
- Opt for multi-clad stainless steel cookware. It not only heats up faster and more evenly, but its multiple layers also increase its strength and make it less likely to warp.
Helpful Resource: You can learn more about the reasons pans warp and how to prevent it in this recent article.
Cast iron is not immune to warping, but since it’s walls are so thick, the chances of it happening are slim.
Cast iron can become rusty if you allow water or other liquids to sit on your pan, even for a few hours. If this happens, don’t panic. A thorough scrub should do the trick. You may need to use a scouring pad or stiff bristle brush to clean the rust fully. In this case, you’ll need to re-season the pan since you’ll likely remove the top layer of seasoning along with the rust.
Stainless steel cookware won’t rust, but if you allow water to sit, ugly water spots will form, and you’ll need to scrub it with water and baking soda.
Bottom line—if you use the proper cooking and cleaning techniques, stainless steel and cast iron cookware should last you decades, if not longer.
And just in case your cookware doesn’t last, you still have options. Contact the manufacturer with warranty claims (manufacturers like All-Clad offer a lifetime warranty on materials and craftsmanship), seek a professional who may be able to repair the cookware, or recycle your pots and pans so they’ll live to see another day.
Cast iron and stainless steel cookware deserve all the praise it gets for its versatility, durability, and heat conduction properties.
But, the two most common complaints across both types of cookware are that they’re a pain in the neck to clean, and they require more maintenance than the everyday non-stick pan.
While these claims are valid, if you follow a few simple rules, you’ll save yourself a lot of time, and your cookware will last for decades.
Now, let’s get into the specifics. How do cast iron and stainless steel differ in terms of cleaning and maintenance?
Following these simple tips for cast iron and stainless steel will help you protect your investment for years to come.
Cast Iron Cookware Maintenance
Let’s start with some tips for maintaining cast iron.
Clean your cookware properly:
Allow your cookware to cool just enough to handle. Working with it while still warm yields good results because the stuck-on food is still soft.
Remove bits of food and excess oil with heavy-duty paper towels. Give your pan a good rinse with hot water, and then use a non-abrasive sponge or scrubbing tool to further remove food particles.
Some swear by chainmail scrubbers for cast iron cookware, and if you’d like to try one, I recommend The Ringer (see on Amazon).
You can also get good results using a stiff brush with short bristles (an inch or less). Keep in mind also that dish soap is designed to remove oil and can deplete your seasoning, so I don’t recommend it.
Learn more about the proper cast iron cleaning techniques.
Keep your cookware seasoned:
High-quality pans come pre-seasoned, but you still must season them periodically to maintain the non-stick surface. A properly seasoned pan will lessen the need for vigorous cleaning.
The thought of seasoning a cast iron pan might be intimidating, but it’s actually pretty easy.
- First, thoroughly clean and dry the pan.
- Then, spread a thin layer of vegetable shortening over the entire surface, including the exterior walls and bottom.
- Next, preheat your oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and place the pan, cooking side down, on a piece of foil on the oven rack.
- Finally, let it bake in the oven for an hour or two and let it cool down inside the oven.
I dive deeper into these steps in this recent article.
Keep temperatures stable:
Avoid high flames or settings on your cooktop. Instead, heat the pan gradually. Start on low to medium and then ramp up based on what you are cooking. Also, refrain from rinsing a hot pan in cold water.
Store your cookware to avoid rust:
Keep your cast iron cookware in a cool, dry place. If you are nesting your pots and pans, you may want to lay a paper towel or a pot and pan protector between them to protect the surface.
Don’t use it for food storage:
Remove cooked food as soon as possible from cast iron. Allowing it to sit can deplete the seasoning and alter the taste and color of your food.
Avoid lengthy exposure to acidic foods:
As noted earlier, keep contact with acidic foods brief because they could erode the seasoning, which allows iron to leach into food.
Stainless Steel Cookware Maintenance
Stainless steel also needs special care to keep it looking good and functioning at peak performance, but the required maintenance isn’t as labor-intensive as cast iron.
Helpful Resource: Check out our in-depth, step-by-step guide on how to clean All-Clad stainless steel cookware (the methods in this guide work for almost every cookware brand).
To help your stainless steel cookware last for generations, here are my recommendations:
Wash stainless steel cookware by hand:
Even if the manufacturer permits using the dishwasher, opt for handwashing.
Don’t use abrasive soaps or cleaning tools that may damage the surface.
Clean the pan while it’s slightly warm, before bits of food cool and stick to the surface.
Remove excess oil with a paper towel and use hot water to further deglaze the pan.
Synthetic, long-handled bristle brushes such as the OXO Good Grips Dish Brush (see on Amazon) can help remove bits of food.
Make a paste out of water and Bar Keeper’s Friend (see on Amazon) to remove any stubborn discoloration.
Preheat the pan before adding oil:
Avoid food sticking (and the headache of trying to clean it up), by preheating your pan before adding oil. Since multi-clad stainless steel conducts heat so well, you rarely need to set the stove above medium.
Use the right oil:
Use oils with a high smoke point, such as canola, avocado, grapeseed, and peanut. These oils won’t break down and burn you pan as quickly as oils with a low smoke point, such as olive oil.
Keep temperatures stable:
Heat and cool your stainless steel cookware gradually. Exposure to extreme hot or cold, or drastic changes in temperature could cause thermal shock, which may lead to warping.
Don’t stack stainless steel cookware:
Unless you buy a set that’s designed for nesting, do not stack your stainless steel pots and pans. Doing so can damage the surface of the pans and void your warranty. Instead, lay them flat or hang them on a pot rack.
Is seasoning necessary?:
Stainless steel cookware doesn’t need to be seasoned like cast iron to provide non-stick results, but some chefs use a similar process to add a temporary non-stick coating to stainless steel.
Keep in mind that this temporary seasoning on a stainless steel pan will darken the interior of the pan until you wash it off, and it could take some real elbow grease to do so.
One of the advantages of cast iron cookware is that it’s less expensive than stainless steel.
The exact price varies by size and brand, but most cast iron skillets cost between $20 and $60.
The price range is much wider for stainless steel. On the low-end, you can find pieces for $25, but high-end, multi-clad cookware can cost several hundreds of dollars—for just one pan.
Although bare cast iron cookware is inexpensive, enameled cast iron cookware, such as Le Creuset, can be very expensive—in some cases, even pricier than stainless steel.
To get a better sense of the actual costs of cast iron and stainless steel cookware, check out the current prices on Amazon of some of the most trusted brands.
Note: Click the links below to view each brand on Amazon.
When it comes down to it, there’s a place in every kitchen for both cast iron and stainless steel cookware.
Some meals are best cooked with cast iron, while you’re better off using stainless steel for others.
Let’s recap the pros and cons of each:
Pros of Cast Iron
- Excellent for searing, quick and deep-frying, baking, braising, and slow simmering
- Master of heat retention for prolonged cooking
- Durable and built to last for a lifetime
- Less expensive than stainless steel, in general
- Comes in a variety of shapes and sizes
- Safe for the cooktop, broiler, and oven use
Cons of Cast Iron
- Heavy and hard to move or manipulate while cooking
- Forged design means even handles get extremely hot
- Extra care must be taken if using on glass, electric, halogen, and ceramic
- Requires regular seasoning for best performance
- Not the best choice for cooking acidic foods
- Requires a multi-step cleaning process
Pros of Stainless Steel
- Excellent for searing, browning, sautéing, deglazing, pan-frying, and cooktop to oven transfer
- Stellar heat conduction, retention, and responsiveness (multi-clad construction is best)
- Durable and built to last for a lifetime
- Comes in a variety of sets and individual stock pieces of different sizes
- Safe for the cooktop, broiler, and oven use
- Not as heavy as cast iron, which makes it easy to move and manipulate while cooking
- Stay-cool handle design allows for safer transfer between cooktop and oven
- Can be used on all cooktops
- No seasoning required
- Can handle all types of food, including acidic foods
- Easier cleaning process than cast iron
Cons of Stainless Steel
- More expensive than cast iron
- Food sticks to the surface if you don’t follow the proper cooking techniques
- Doesn’t retain heat as long as cast iron
If you’re just starting, you shouldn’t choose between cast iron and stainless steel; get both.
Your stainless steel set covers all your cooking needs, from a quick vegetable sauté to a slow-simmered tomato sauce, and everything in between.
Use your cast iron for your hearty, comfort food—your burgers, fried chicken, skillet cornbread, beef stew, braised short ribs, deep dish macaroni and cheese … you get the idea.
While you can get an excellent sear on a steak with stainless steel, there is something magical about red meat and cast iron.
What Are Your Thoughts on Cast Iron and Stainless Steel Cookware?
Which type of cookware do you prefer and why? Let us know in the comments below!
If you found this article helpful, you should also check out:
- Stainless Steel vs. Non-Stick Cookware: What’s the Difference?
- Stainless Steel vs. Hard-Anodized Aluminum: Which Cookware Is Better?
- Copper vs. Stainless Steel Cookware: Which Is Better?
- Stainless Steel Cookware Pros and Cons: 19 Things to Know
- Carbon Steel vs. Stainless Steel Pans: What’s the Difference?
- Carbon Steel vs. Cast Iron Cookware: 10 Differences You Need to Know
- Is All-Clad Cookware Worth The High Price? An In-Depth Review
- Are Lodge Cast Iron Skillets Any Good? An In-Depth Review
- Why Do Pans Warp? 6 Common Causes (and How to Unwarp)
- Hard-Anodized vs. Non-Stick Cookware: What’s the Difference?
- Best Space-Saving & Stackable Cookware (Top 5 Compared)
- Made In Carbon Steel Cookware (In-Depth Review)
- Is Made In Cookware Any Good? An In-Depth and Unbiased Review