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Cast Iron vs Stainless Steel (Pros, Cons, Differences & Uses)

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Both cast iron and stainless steel cookware are incredibly versatile tools. As a result, they’ve become popular in most home kitchens (and professional ones, too).

However, although many people own both (which I recommend – more on that later), it’s difficult to understand which is better. And even more tricky, when you should use cast iron vs stainless steel… That’s where we come in.

Simply put, they are different tools for different tasks. One is not necessarily better than the other. While stainless is lightweight and better for acidic foods, cast iron is more durable and better for long, slow cooks and searing. These aren’t the only differences, though.

Below, we’ll review the main pros and cons of cast iron and stainless steel cookware to help you decide which is best.

We’ll also explore in-depth the main features setting them apart, like weight, durability, and maintenance.

Let’s dive in!

Main Takeaways: When To Use Cast Iron vs Stainless Steel Cookware


Stainless Steel:

Stainless steel is the clear choice for most daily cooking. It heats up quickly (when cladded), making quick meals easier. Plus, you can use it with all types of food, including acidic dishes – unlike cast iron.

Stainless steel pans are oven-safe, as long as the handles are, too. Plastic or wooden handles can not go in the oven.

Most stainless steel can withstand up to 500℉ (260℃), but always check your cookware’s instructions for its temperature rating before baking.

Now, there’s nothing you can’t cook in stainless steel. But cooking foods that often stick (like eggs) can make cleanups a nuisance. We recommend cooking eggs in a cast iron or non-stick pan

Cast Iron:

Cast iron shines for “low and slow” cooking processes, like roasting, baking, or even moving a dish from stovetop to oven. Why? Heat retention. Pan temperatures stay more consistent in cast iron, so food cooks more evenly.

Cast iron is also the clear winner when comparing meat-searing abilities.

Again, we can thank its dense, heat-retaining structure, which helps prevent temperature drops. For example, if you toss a cold steak in a hot cast iron pan, the pan will maintain its temperature better than steel. This allows the pan to sear on contact rather than cool down and simply roast the meat.

Here are a few foods you shouldn’t cook in cast iron:

  • Acidic foods: Avoid cooking acidic foods such as tomato sauce, citrus-based dishes, or anything with vinegar in cast iron. These acids can react with the metal, leaching tiny iron particles into your food. While generally safe, leached iron can slightly alter food tastes. Acidic foods can also damage the seasoning layer, reducing its non-stick properties.
  • Delicate foods: Delicate meats, eggs, and flaky white fish can stick to cast iron easily, making them tricky to cook. Even sturdier fish like salmon can adhere to the surface. However, proper preheating and oiling can minimize sticking, but be cautious with seafood—
  • Pungent foods: Cast iron is a porous material that can absorb food flavors. Avoid cooking anything super smelly, like fish, if you don’t want your next meal to taste like fish, too!

Material Overview: Key Benefits & Disadvantages of Each

Before we get into specifics, let’s define these materials and quickly discuss the main benefits and disadvantages of stainless and cast iron.

Cast Iron Pros & Cons:


Cast iron is an iron with a high carbon content that’s melted down and poured into a mold where it hardens. Once removed from the mold, workers polish, rinse, and sometimes coat the pan with an enamel glaze.

Non-enameled (raw) cast iron cookware requires seasoning, a process where you heat the pan with oil to build a protective, non-stick coating on the surface.

On the other hand, enameled cast iron has a protective enamel coating on the outside. As a result, you don’t have to season it (yet it’s also somewhat non-stick). (For a truly nonstick pan, see our guide to best nonstick pans).

Cast iron is famous for retaining heat, as it’s incredibly dense and thick. Yet, although resilient, this makes cast iron heavy. Finally, bare (non-enameled) cast iron is reactive to acidic foods, which we’ll get into later.

Stainless Steel Pros & Cons:


Stainless steel is a refined iron mixed with nickel and chromium to produce a durable, rust-resistant, non-reactive material.

Unfortunately, stainless steel is a poor heat conductor. So, most stainless steel cookware has bonded layers of conductive metal in the core, like aluminum or copper.

This process, known as “cladding,” helps the pan conduct heat better. Cladded stainless steel pans can include three layers of bonded metal (3-ply) or five layers (5-ply).

You can read more about this bonding process in our article: All-Clad vs. Calphalon brand stainless steel.

Alright, so we’ve done a high-level overview of cast iron and stainless steel.

Now let’s dive into the specifics and cover all the various features that set them apart…

Diving Into The Details: Features Compared

My Lodge cast iron & Legend 5-ply copper-core skillets

Both materials have unique features that are helpful to review so you can understand where each shines. These include which material is best for different foods or cooking styles.

Weight, durability, ease of care, and price are also included. So, let’s jump in!

Material Properties & Effects on Cooking

Stainless Steel:

Stainless steel is an excellent material for cooking nearly anything. It’s sturdy and (relatively) lightweight, and the material heats quickly and distributes heat evenly.

The only real issue with stainless steel as a cooking surface is that food tends to stick.

However, you can easily solve this problem by adding a little oil to the hot, empty pan before cooking – like this. Stainless steel is also worse than cast iron at keeping food warm, as it cools just as quickly as it heats.

Cast Iron:

Cast iron is a little more finicky; it requires some patience when starting a meal. Because this material is so dense, it takes a while to heat up. This is especially true if you have an electric cooktop like me.

However, cast iron retains heat better than stainless steel once it does heat up. This heat retention offers a range of benefits, which we cover just below.

A well-seasoned cast iron pan also benefits from a natural, non-stick coating (no Teflon!). However, adding food to cold cast iron will cause sticking, so again, ensure you preheat/ oil properly.


Cast iron and stainless steel are both highly rugged materials – scratch-resistant and naturally strong. Yet there are still a few things to keep in mind:

Stainless Steel:

Stainless steel is a lighter metal than cast iron, so it can warp more easily. To prevent warping, avoid sudden temperature changes. Let the pan cool before cleaning. Also, opt for durable, “fully-clad” stainless steel cookware (more layers of metal mean higher durability!).

Despite its susceptibility to warping, stainless steel redeems itself with high corrosion resistance. It’s very unlikely to rust.

Cast Iron:

Cast iron is heavy, so it’s quite durable. However, it’s more brittle than stainless, so it’s more likely to crack. Cast iron can also rust if any moisture stays in the pan.

Always wipe your pan dry right after use to avoid rust—never air dry wet cast iron. Also, be careful with temperature changes to prevent cracking the pan.

With proper care, stainless steel and cast iron can last a lifetime. And that brings us to care and cleaning!

Ease of Care: Maintenance & Cleaning

Cast iron demands more care than stainless steel, although both require some maintenance.

Let’s review how proper upkeep and cleaning differ between cast iron and stainless steel:

Stainless Steel:

Maintaining stainless steel is straightforward— Here are a few things you can do to keep it looking (and performing) well:

  • Always preheat your (empty) pan adequately before adding oil. This helps avoid food sticking. How do you know when the pan is hot enough for oil? Watch this short tutorial.
  • Heat your stainless steel gradually, avoiding drastic temperature changes, which can lead to warping.
  • Avoid stacking your stainless steel; this can lead to warping and micro-abrasions.
  • Hand-wash when possible. Even though some stainless steel items say they’re dishwasher-safe, hand washing helps avoid discoloration.

Cast Iron:

Maintaining cast iron is a little more labor-intensive— Cast iron without an enamel coating requires seasoning. In this process, you oil the pan and expose it to heat, creating a patina. This protective layer is naturally non-stick.

Once the cast iron is seasoned, it will require occasional re-seasoning, especially if you cook acidic foods. (Acids strip seasoning.) Yet, cooking fatty, non-acidic foods helps build and maintain this layer!

But there are a few other things to keep in mind to protect your cast iron:

  • Avoid highly abrasive cleaning tools like steel wool. It can break down the protective patina.
  • Avoid using harsh dish soap to clean your cast iron. Instead, scrub food debris with a brush and hot water. Coarse sea salt helps, too. If you decide to use soap, opt for mild detergents only.
  • Never use the dishwasher.
  • Oil the pan after each use before storing. Vegetable oils work best.
  • Re-season your cast iron occasionally (2-3x per year).
  • Don’t store food in cast iron, especially acidic foods.


Cast iron wins on affordability. This is because of its simpler manufacturing process, where raw iron is poured into molds. As a result, most cast iron pans fall in the $20$60 range, depending on size.

Enameled cast iron tends to be pricier, with costs varying based on size and brand. For example, Bruntmor’s enameled iron is cheaper than Le Creuset’s, which carries a higher price due to its premium branding.

Stainless steel’s manufacturing process is more complex. It involves refining and bonding steel with a conductive core like aluminum to improve heat conductivity. This makes stainless steel pricier than bare cast iron.

The most expensive stainless steel includes fully clad options like All-Clad, which can cost hundreds of dollars per pan. However, you can find slightly lower-quality stainless steel for much less.

For budget-friendly, high-quality stainless steel cookware recommendations, check out our All-Clad vs. Calphalon Cookware Comparison.

The Bottom Line: Recap

Stainless steel excels in versatility, weight, and ease of care, making it suitable for everyday cooking. It’s lightweight, rust-resistant, and doesn’t need seasoning. However, it’s more prone to warping and costs more than cast iron.

Cast iron excels at searing meat, roasting, and baking. Its heat retention and durability make it ideal for these purposes, and it’s reasonably priced. However, it is heavier, requires more maintenance, and isn’t suitable for all foods, like those high in acidity.

The bottom line: One isn’t better than the other; each is suited to different tasks.

Most of your cookware should be stainless steel for versatility, especially for cooking acidic foods. But, a good cast iron skillet, Dutch oven, and griddle are invaluable for slow-cooking or searing hearty meats.

My Prescription: Start with a comprehensive stainless steel set for everyday cooking, including acidic dishes. Then, add one or two cast iron pieces for perfectly seared steaks or tender braised meats. A skillet and Dutch oven are a good start.

Ready to learn more about stainless steel and cast iron? Check out these posts:

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Adam Heck

Hi there! I'm Adam, author and founder of TGL. Since 2016, I've produced and sold non-toxic kitchenware throughout the US. Today, I'm using my passion and experience in sustainable product manufacturing to help families avoid unsafe reusable foodware. When I'm not writing, you'll find me hiking or camping throughout Appalachia!

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