How to Choose Between Stainless Steel, Nonstick, and Cast Iron Cookware
An expert shares when you should cook with each kind of cookware—and when you may need to swap one variety for another.
Home cooks should have a robust set of cookware in their kitchen arsenal, including multiple stainless steel pieces, including stock pots, sauté pans, grill pans, and a range of nonstick pieces. With full sets and well-stocked cabinets, novice cooks might shy away from cast-iron skillets; after all, half a dozen fry pans can feel more than substantial for a small family. The real question for home cooks, then, is: When should one use a piece of stainless steel cookware versus a cast iron pan, and where do nonstick options fit into the equation?
Ann Taylor Pittman, a James Beard-award winning food writer and author of Everyday Whole Grains, says deciding which kind of cookware to use should be an active part of the prep process. Each pan is designed to handle certain ingredients differently; a finished recipe can taste much differently when cooked in a nonstick pan than it would on stainless steel, and may be much more challenging to cook. With over 20 years experience developing recipes and supervising test kitchens, Pittman says stainless steel is the most frequently used in her own personal kitchen. "But nonstick cookware can sometimes be the safer option for tricky recipes. And there are things you can't do in other pots and pans that are perfect in cast iron."
Stainless steel pans and surfaces are the best for browning ingredients-and since they're usually uncoated, unlike nonstick varieties, they are more durable and resistant to slip-ups in the kitchen. Most importantly, stainless steel is a non-reactive metal-unlike cast iron-and won't introduce a "tinny" flavor profile into a dish that's highly acidic, Pittman says. "Tomato sauces, like a classic meat sauce or a marinara blend, is perfect for stainless steel pans and pots." Because stainless steel pans and pots have a thin profile, you can better control temperatures compared to cast iron: "If you're sautéing onions and they're getting too brown, turn the heat down on your stovetop, and a stainless steel pan will respond quickly to the change," Pittman says. "This wouldn't be the same case in a cast-iron pan, which holds onto heat for much longer."
Pittman believes that the stainless steel fry or sauté pan is the best all-around option for home cooks. It works well with most proteins, especially chicken, since stainless steel can easily brown meat while helping create rich flavor in pan drippings that wouldn't develop in nonstick. "As opposed to other pans, you can see what's happening on the bottom of a stainless steel pan," she says. "It puts you in better control, so you can eye the level of browning in the pan and not accidentally develop a scorched crust." For vegetarians and veggie-lovers alike, Pittman says stainless steel pans are also best suited to brown and caramelize vegetables: "I get a very nice browning on them in a stainless steel pan, and contrary to popular belief, nothing ever sticks," she says. "The key is to heat the pan first before adding any oil or butter." And try not to overcrowd stainless steel pans as they do not hold onto heat as well as other types of pans. "The only things I would strongly recommend not cooking in a stainless steel pan are delicate, breaded items, which can quickly stick to the pan," Pittman says.
Nonstick pans and pots are best for delicate items that may disintegrate in a stainless steel or cast iron environment-a prime example is scrambled eggs, Pittman says, and most quick-fire breakfast items for hectic mornings. Another is breaded filets or thinner cuts of meat or fish. "If you're frying something up that's been breaded, like a cod fillet, for example, and you don't want the breading to stick to the pan, nonstick releases very nicely," she says.
"Definitely do not use nonstick pans for anything you wish to get a sear on," Pittman says. "It's also not a good option for pan sauces or liquids in general, since you shouldn't overheat nonstick due to its coatings." While they're much easier to clean, and often require less oil to cook with, nonstick cookware does carry some potential risks: the surfaces are often coated in some chemicals, chiefly PTFE (also known as Teflon), that can potentially be altered under high temperatures. "Nonstick cookware definitely can't go into the oven, and it shouldn't be heated at the highest temperatures on your stovetop."
"There's something very nostalgic about cast iron; it feels homespun, like an heirloom, even if it's a new pan," Pittman says. "It feels like it'll be with you for a long time-because it probably will. "Because cast iron is so dense, it holds onto heat for a really long time, and out of the three kinds of cookware, is best for heat retention. You'll need to pre-heat cast iron longer than stainless steel. "Cast-iron is the go-to pan for deep frying: fried chicken, fried okra," Pittman explains. Fried foods tend to get greasy if the oil becomes cooler than necessary, which can be the case when you add cool food into a hot pan of oil-but since cast iron holds onto so much heat, Pittman says it usually keeps oils at proper frying temps, helping food feel less greasy overall. Cast iron is not well suited to delicate ingredients: Cheese and dairy, especially eggs, don't hold up well. Recipes that call for acid or acidic ingredients are also better suited for stainless steel; tomatoes and citrus, in particular, can strip the pan's seasoning and result in metallic-tasting food.
Some cooks prefer to sear meat in hot cast iron pans, Pittman says, as well as fish since skin can become extra crispy in a shorter matter of time. In her experience, charred vegetables take on a richer flavor in cast iron, and they're often easier to remove in a well-seasoned pan compared to stainless steel because of the cast iron's naturally oily surface. Plus, cast iron is great for baking: "If you're doing cornbread in any other pan other than a cast iron skillet, you're not doing it right," Pittman says. "Cast iron can go from the stovetop into a hot oven, and is well suited for dessert recipes and savory baked dishes like a classic chicken pot pie."