Cast Iron vs. Stainless Steel: 9 Points of Comparison for Home Cooks

The cast iron vs. stainless steel debate has always been a point of contention among home cooks. Most people gravitate towards these materials (along with carbon steel) if they want highly durable cookware with great cooking performance. While both cast iron and stainless steel are great for searing meats and veggies, one excels in a certain aspect whereas the other does not.

From my experience, cast iron cookware retain heat better and are more durable than their stainless steel counterparts, but they are harder to maintain. On the other hand, stainless steel cookware are lighter and exhibit better heat distribution characteristics, but they lack the slick surface and cooking versatility that cast iron provide.

I use both cast iron and stainless steel pans in my kitchen, and I want to share a few of my observations that may be helpful to you when you ever find yourself choosing between these two types of cookware.

Cast Iron vs. Stainless Steel: The Differences in 9 Points

I will compare cast iron and stainless steel cookware along the following criteria:

  1. Heat conduction
  2. Heat retention
  3. Heat distribution
  4. Durability
  5. Non-stick quality
  6. Versatility
  7. Maintenance
  8. Weight
  9. Price

These aspects matter differently to everyone, so choose which traits you will put more weight on when choosing between a cast iron pan vs. a stainless steel one.

1. Stainless steel cookware conducts heat better* than cast iron cookware

You may have surmised from the asterisk right after the word “better” that there is something to unpack here.

You see, both metals are poor conductors of heat – and it turns out that stainless steel is objectively worse than cast iron at conducting heat. Measured by Watts per meter-Kelvin (W/mK), the thermal conductivity coefficient of stainless steel is 25 W/mK – less than half of cast iron’s 55 W/mK. With that said, stainless steel cookware are more responsive to heat changes than their cast iron counterparts. So, what gives?

MaterialThermal Conductivity (W/mK)
Cast Iron55
Carbon Steel45
Stainless Steel25

Stainless steel cookware have cores that are made out of more thermally-conductive materials such as copper and aluminum that are sandwiched between layers of stainless steel. This makes them more responsive to temperature changes. On the other hand, cast iron cookware are essentially pure, thick, and solid chunks of cast iron – which means that more energy needs to be expended for it to heat up.

In terms of practical applications, stainless steel cookware are easier for home cooks to work with as they can change the temperature of the cooking surface quickly when the situation calls for it. This level of control is easier for beginners too as it can help them avert overcooking and burning.

The same cannot be said for cast iron pans as their poor thermal conductivity means that they are slow to respond to temperature changes; it takes a longer time for them to reach optimal temperatures, and it will take them longer to cool down than stainless steel cookware.

2. Cast iron cookware offer better heat retention than stainless steel cookware

Cast iron being a poor thermal conductor is not all bad – on the flip side, it makes them better at heat retention compared to stainless steel pans!

Better heat retention characteristics mean food can cook evenly as temperatures stay consistent while cooking, making cast iron cookware apt for slow cooking techniques like braising, roasting, and stewing. It also prevents dramatic temperature drops when more ingredients are added while cooking. Moreover, it ensures that your food is adequately warm upon serving.

While you can certainly do slow cooking techniques with stainless steel cookware, cast iron cookware are better at it due to their superior heat retention qualities. With that said, a merit point to consider for stainless steel in this section is that you can put acidic ingredients in your stews or as deglazing for braised dishes. These same acidic ingredients can weaken a regular cast iron pan’s seasoning. This is the reason why people use enameled cast iron cookware like dutch ovens and braisers when cooking these types of dishes.

3. Stainless steel cookware distribute heat more evenly compared to cast iron cookware

Due to their high heat tolerance, both stainless steel and cast iron skillets are the go-to cookware when it comes to searing meats. However, from my experience, I have achieved better searing using stainless steel pans than cast iron ones.

Stainless steel pans exhibit superior heat distribution on their cooking surface due to the great thermal conductivity characteristics of their copper or aluminum core. This means that the parts of the pan that are not directly above the burner’s flames can reach optimal temperatures more quickly, ensuring that the cooking surface will have an even and consistent temperature throughout the process.

On the other hand, cast iron pans often exhibit hot spots as their dense material requires more time and energy for the hit to be evenly distributed along its surface. While you can take the time to preheat your pan and even rotate it over the burner before and during cooking to help quicken the heat distribution process, it is clearly beaten out by stainless steel pans in this regard.

4. Cast iron cookware are more durable than stainless steel

Both cast iron and stainless steel are tough materials that can stand the test of time. But with that said, cast iron cookware tend to outlast their stainless steel counterparts for the following reasons.

While stainless steel pans are less likely to rust compared to the finicky nature of cast iron pans, they are more susceptible to denting and warping due to their thinner construction, especially at the sides. To add to that, their construction offers more opportunities for failure, as their handles are only bolted on to their body. These rivets – even those made with stainless steel – will corrode over time, causing your pan’s handles to fail.

In contrast, cast iron cookware are nearly indestructible. Their thick and dense construction makes them impervious to dents and dings. No rivets are needed for its handles, too, as their handles are included in the casting mold. This eliminates a point of weakness that can be easily destroyed by corrosion.

Speaking of corrosion, rust is not an uncommon sight for cast iron owners, and it should not be seen as a sign that that piece of cookware has already deteriorated. In fact, it can be easily fixed by washing and reseasoning the pan. Even decades-old cast iron pan barn finds can be restored back to its former glory by seasoned (pardon the pun) restorers. Corrosion won’t be a problem unless it renders a part of the surface too thin, but even then, that requires decades of neglect to develop.

5. Cast iron cookware have slick surfaces; stainless steel pans do not

Probably the most notable trait of a cast iron cookware is its coating of black polymerized oil throughout its body called the “seasoning”. Apart from protecting the bare cast iron from the elements and prevent it from rusting, the seasoning also acts as a sort of “non-stick” slick surface that easily releases food during cooking. 

On the other hand, stainless steel pans do not have this feature, hence a fair bit of food tends to stick to its surface, even when properly oiled and heated. This can pose a problem for delicate foods like eggs you may need to put more oil on the pan to ensure that they won’t stick and that the presentation will not be ruined.

With that said, there is a subcategory of cast iron cookware that do not have slick surfaces – enameled cast iron. In lieu of a slick layer of seasoning, these pots and pans are coated with a type of glass called enamel. While it does protect the cast iron from the elements, food tend to stick on them. Just keep that in mind.

6. Cast iron cookware have more versatile cooking applications than stainless steel

    Both stainless steel and cast iron cookware are versatile and can be used in different applications. However, cast iron beats stainless steel in this regard due to the following reasons.

    Cast iron cookware can be used on open-fire grills and are safer to use in ovens, while stainless steel cookware should not be used on top of grills at all. This is because cast iron can withstand higher temperatures compared to stainless steel. 

    While it is true that cast iron has a lower melting point than stainless steel (1204°C or 2200°F for cast iron and 1375 – 1530°C or 2500-2785°F for stainless steel**), the aluminum core of a stainless steel pan has a melting point of (660°C or 1220°F). This can cause the stainless steel pan to warp and deform when used on a grill or in an oven.

    **stainless steel is an alloy, therefore its melting point is a range that is dependent on its composition

    Additionally, some might argue that the range of food you can cook in a cast iron pan is limited as most people will tell you not to cook acidic food on it as it may react to the pan and strip off bits from the seasoning and even from the metal itself. While it is true that acidic food leeches more iron into your diet when cooked in a cast iron pan, I feel that this is a little overblown and only has a minuscule effect on the taste of your food. Moreover, the effect on the pan’s seasoning will not be catastrophic either. If you clean and oil your cast iron pan after you cook acidic food, you probably won’t notice a deterioration in your pan’s seasoning.

    7. Stainless steel cookware are easier to clean and maintain than cast iron

    Cast iron cookware have the unfortunate reputation of being finicky and for being a hassle to maintain. When left to the elements, these pans tend to develop surface rust quickly, especially when not properly seasoned. Speaking of which, there is also a lot to be said about maintaining the seasoning: no soap at all cost (though that has been debunked countless times), no acidic food (see previous section), use this or that oil, and no metal utensils as it may scratch the precious black gold that is the seasoning.

    Even the act of cleaning a cast iron pan contains a lot more steps than washing its stainless steel counterpart. A stainless steel pan can be washed and dried just like any other utensil. You can even chuck it in a dishwasher for a true hands-off washing experience. 

    Unfortunately, you cannot say the same for cast iron pans.These pans need to be scrubbed, dried with a towel, then dried using heat to really get the moisture out of the metal to prevent it from rusting. From there, you have to rub your choice of cooking oil all over the pan, then you have to do a once-over using a clean towel to remove any excess oil as a thick layer of oil can result in a sticky cooking surface and may cause the seasoning to flake off over time. And you need to do all of this after every use. 

    Okay, now let me cut cast iron pans some slack (the word cult is in the name of this website after all). The paragraph above may seem like too much work, but the whole process can be finished in 5 minutes or less once you get used to it. While it is much longer and more complicated than washing a stainless steel pan with soap and a sponge, I think that it’s not as tedious as people make it out to be. 

    8. Stainless steel cookware are easier to handle than cast iron 

    One advantage that stainless steel pans have over cast iron pans is that they are significantly lighter. This makes them easier to handle, and thus easier to perform culinary techniques like stir-frying and pan tossing. Carrying and tilting a stainless steel pan to pour liquids is also much easier compared to doing it in a cast iron pan.

    Also, if there’s one thing that would-be cast iron pan users should know before using one for the first time is that their handles get seriously hot. As you can imagine, I found this out the hard way when I first used a cast iron pan. Since it is basically just a single mass of metal in the shape of a pan, the heat from the burner will eventually get distributed to the handles. This can give new cast iron pan owners a nasty surprise not to mention painful burns on their hands. Using mitts and pot holders is a must when cooking with cast iron.

    In contrast, stainless steel pan handles don’t get that hot. Since their handles are hollow, heat gets distributed slower as there is less medium for energy to pass through. Combined with the handle’s length and the fact that stainless steel is a poor conductor of heat, stainless steel pan handles are cooler to the touch than the handles of their cast iron counterpart.

    9. Cast iron cookware are more affordable than stainless steel

    Due to the low price of their raw materials and the simplicity of their manufacturing process, cast iron pans are generally more affordable than stainless steel pans.

    Cast iron cookware are made out of iron – a big portion of which may have come from scrap iron. These are then melted and poured onto a mold in the shape of whatever type of cookware is being manufactured. 

    In contrast, stainless steel cookware start their lives as pre-formed stainless steel discs (certainly more expensive than scrap iron), along with its aluminum or copper inner core. These sheets are then mechanically pressed into shape by heavy machinery. Apart from the finishing and polishing process, the handles need to be manufactured and bolted on as well, which adds to the production costs of stainless steel cookware.

    Wrapping up

    Both cast iron and stainless steel have their own unique properties and are suitable for different uses. You won’t go wrong with either choice, but the best option depends on the type of cooking you are planning to do. 

    In my opinion, you should own both types of pans in your kitchen to supplement each other. You can use your cast iron pan for high-heat cooking, baking, and roasting, while you can use your stainless steel pans for sautéing, frying, and boiling.

    If you’re still hungry for more info about cast iron and other cookware made from carbon steel, stainless steel, copper, and aluminum, then be sure to check out the rest of my blog!

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