Back when we were young and green in the kitchen, our nonstick pan was our biggest workhorse, and cast iron was the pan we accidentally washed at Grandma's (or ate hipster mac and cheese out of at a restaurant). But we’re wiser now. And we know that not only is old, chipped, beaten up nonstick a no-no in the kitchen, but that we need – nay, want… NAY… deserve! – chef-quality cookware in the kitchen.
As for what that means…… help?
We’ve done the research and here’s what we’ve learned: cast iron is a classic for a reason. But it’s not the only heavy-duty pan you need in the kitchen. Stainless is a lighter, more maneuverable option, while carbon steel offers the best of both worlds (it’s no wonder our chef friends love it so much).
Lisa McManus, Executive Editor of America's Test Kitchen Reviews, says she has one of each kind of skillet.
“Because they're made from different materials, they perform differently, meaning they heat and cook differently,” she explains. “Depending on what I'm cooking I'll choose one or the other.”
But depending on your cooking style, you might find that one is better suited to your kitchen. Want to know which? Read on!
The Pros of Cooking with Cast Iron
It’s no surprise that cast iron has been a favorite for centuries (is it bad that we’re really hoping we win out against our sister when it comes to inheriting our grandma’s?) It’s amazing at heat retention, and whether well seasoned or enameled, like Staub, it’s naturally nonstick. (OK, not as nonstick as that toxic stuff, but we’ll take a bit of sticking over water pollution and endocrine disrupting chemicals any day of the week.) You can read more about Staub cast iron cookware in our profile.
McManus notes that cast iron is “terrific when you want a lot of retained heat for serious browning and cooking, like steak, where you can heat up the pan to 500 degrees in the oven, drop in the steak, and get an amazing deep golden crust on the surface, while the interior stays pink and juicy.”
She also loves cast iron for cornbread, giant cookies (like our gluten-free chocolate chip skillet cookie), and other baked goods that should be crisp on the outside and tender within.
The Cons of Cooking with Cast Iron
Of course, there are a few downsides to cast iron. Rachel Diener, Chef de Cuisine at two-time James Beard Foundation Semifinalist, Heirloom Restaurant, in Lewes, DE, notes that cast iron tends to have a “rough, uneven surface compared to a stainless or carbon steel pan, which can cause sticking when doing tasks such as frying an egg or making pancakes.” And especially if it’s not well seasoned, cast iron can interact with acidic ingredients, like tomato sauce, contributing to off flavors.
Of course, both of these issues are offset when a pan is covered in a crystal enamel coating, like those from Staub. But even then, cast iron is really heavy, which can make it difficult to maneuver for things like sautéing.
This can be a bonus, notes McManus, who likes "the extra arm strength I get from hoisting cast iron around. Who needs a gym if you cook with cast iron?"
But cast iron also likes to be cooked with regularly to stay well seasoned, so if you're only going to use it every once in a while, it's perhaps not the best pan for you.
The Pros of Cooking with Stainless Steel
Stainless steel is far lighter than cast iron, which makes it an excellent kitchen workhorse. Indeed, while McManus loves all of her pans, she notes, “if I had to choose just one, I'd say stainless steel.”
“In the test kitchen we use this pan in so many ways: as a frying pan, of course, but we also bake pies in it, we roast chicken in it, make shepherd's pie with mashed potatoes that we finish by browning it under the broiler, the list goes on and on," McManus says. "With its metal handle, this pan can go right in the oven or under the broiler. It's indestructible and incredibly versatile. It's the pan I'd take to a desert island because it will last forever, and won't rust, even in the salty air.”
Of course, she adds that not just any stainless will do. She likes tri-ply or “fully-clad” stainless, which essentially means that the pan is made of three layers of metal – steel sandwiching a central aluminum layer – all bonded together.
“Aluminum transfers heat very fast; steel is slower, but it holds heat better," explains McManus. "The combined result is a pan that cooks steadily, and evenly browns everything to perfection. Also, having the surface made of stainless steel means that it's non-reactive, so it will never rust or react to acidic ingredients or change the flavor of anything you cook in it. And because it's plain metal, you can scrub it hard, and use metal utensils, and it will not get damaged or wear out like a nonstick pan.”
Our EIC Laura Klein is a big fan of the stainless steel collections from both Demeyere and Made In. Both offer a five-ply stainless – the perfect kitchen workhorse that's durable, easy to handle, and forgiving of metal tools on its surface.
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"The Atlantis has a little more weight" she says, noting that while it's a little pricier, the superior design, heat conduction, retention and ease of cleaning that comes with it are worth it. Both collections come with Demeyere’s Silvinox finish, which she also feels makes these pans a worth while investment (read more about it below).
The Cons of Cooking with Stainless Steel
One of the downsides of cooking with stainless steel is that depending on the construction, they can be tough to clean and stain easily. This surface also usually requires more fat to keep your foods from sticking to the pan. So if you like to cook with minimal fat, stainless steel may not be right for you.
To help overcome the cleaning and sticking problem, Demeyere has created a unique Silvinox finish that allows you to cook with less fat and makes the pans easier to clean. Read on to find out more about this unique finish.
The Pros of Cooking with Carbon Steel
Carbon steel is kind of the forgotten middle child of the pot and pan world that’s “really big in Europe.” (No, seriously, European chefs swear by it.)
“Carbon steel is preferred due to the rapid nature of our work," says pro chef Diener. "Carbon steel pans retain heat well, are oven safe, and they heat and cool quickly. This allows for better pan control, which is an essential element of good cooking.”
In many ways, carbon steel offers the best of both worlds: a seasonable surface like cast iron, but a lighter, more maneuverable weight closer to stainless. According to Chip Malt of Made In Cookware, the pores of carbon steel are smaller than cast iron, meaning that you actually need less oil to achieve that perfectly seasoned surface (you can read more about Made In cookware in our profile).
Season your carbon steel for an hour in the oven before using, suggests George Steckel of Made In Cookware. After that, to ramp up the seasoning, "You can follow the same oven seasoning process or just stovetop seasoning, which would be putting your pan over medium-low heat, letting it get hot, and then applying a thin layer of oil and then gradually increasing the temperature."
McManus agrees, noting that "once you are using them regularly," the maintenance for carbon steel and cast iron is "exactly the same."
"The main difference is that most carbon steel pans are sold completely unseasoned and raw, and most cast iron pans come factory-preseasoned," she adds. "That means you have about a six month head start with the preseasoned cast iron, so you can just start cooking in the pan right away. The uncoated carbon steel pan has to be given an initial seasoning, then it might take a few months to really acquire a solid layer of seasoning."
“We love carbon steel for classic French omelets," says McManus, "where you're going to roll the finished food out of the pan: that's hard to do with a heavy cast iron pan (and the high straight sides of many cast iron pans make this a little harder, too).” She also loves the natural seasoning that builds up on carbon steel, much as it does with cast iron.
We love carbon steel as the perfect high-heat stovetop cooking vessel. Need a frying pan? Want to stir fry in a wok? Carbon steel’s your girl.
The Cons of Cooking with Carbon Steel
Much like cast iron, carbon steel is reactive to acidic foods. So be wary of stewing tomatoes in your carbon steel pan (use your stainless). Instead, choose carbon steel for things that need quick, high heat.
Our Favorite Stainless Steel, Carbon Steel, and Cast Iron Product Picks
We love Staub’s enameled cast iron, rich in generations of history. This heavy-duty material grew up in the culinary capital of France, and today, thanks to innovations from Staub, these heavy Dutch ovens allow even heating, excellent heat retention, and phenomenal moisture thanks to the little spikes on the inner surface of the pot lids.
When we’re high-heat cooking and want good heat retention and quick mobility, we’re big fans of Made In’s carbon steel. It’s great for searing veg or meat, going from stove top to oven, and back with ease (read: without the weight of cast iron). It heats up and cools quickly. Made In partners with the best producers around the globe to bring us carbon and stainless steel with the utmost transparency and attention to climate concerns. It even offers a pan recycling program in partnership with Habitat for Humanity, to offset waste as you seek out the best pans on offer.
For quick sautéing in a pan that doesn’t need to be seasoned, or simply for a dish boasting an acidic component like tomatoes or red wine, the non-reactive stainless steel from Demeyere and Made In are our go-tos. Klein recommends a fry pan/saute pan, or saucier as a staple for pan sauces, as well as an 8-quart stock pot for soups, bone broths, and tomato sauces. This size is ideal for batch cooking or feeding a crowd.
Klein loves the silvinox finish on the Demeyere cookware: It’s a unique electrochemical surface treatment (not a coating!) that enriches and purifies the stainless steel surface, providing a slicker finish that allows food to release with ease, not to mention rendering it far easier to clean. It also keeps your pans looking silvery white longer (you can read more about Demeyere in our clean cookware roundup here).