Veteran Move # 9: Cast Iron vs Non-Stick?

My collection of skillets runs to 6 pans of various types and sizes... and a splatter screen!
My own personal collection of skillets (left to right):
10 inch non-stick and 10 inch cast iron skillet, an 8 inch dual handle cast iron pan, a 10 inch stainless steel skillet, a 12 inch cast iron skillet, a 10 inch ‘square’ cast iron grill pan and… a 14 inch stainless steel splatter screen

So… choice of skillet? Should you use cast iron or non-stick? If you ask for my advice I’ll tell you to own both at 10 or 12 inches diameter. But, make sure both are ‘oven proof’ and learn when and how to use each one. Over more than 3 decades cooking up dinner for two, three then four people I’ve owned a lot of different skillets and now primarily use my cast iron. But, there are plenty of times when only my trusty non-stick will do. Aside from being an issue of personal preference, I think it also kind of depends on your level of experience and confidence.

I have owned a 10 inch, cast iron skillet (frypan?) for more than 25 years… it possibly came with me from before my sweetie and I were married so possibly 40+ years, I really can’t remember. But, truth be told, I only started using it regularly around five or six years ago after our girls had grown up a bit and there seemed to be more time for me to take things in the kitchen more seriously. Up to that point I went through a lineup primarily of non-stick skillets and several big 14-16 inch non stick woks. Eventually I settled on the 10 inch non-stick skillet I use now (it happens to be from IKEA) but I use it sparingly compared to my big old cast iron.

Non-stick skillets make up about three quarters of the frying pans sold in North America. They are treated with chemical products that create a synthetic surface and food cooked in the pan will tend to not stick. They’re not perfect but, they’re generally pretty close. Many people are concerned though that the chemicals may in fact leech into food over years of steady use. Decades of studies by disinterested third parties show that, provided you follow recommended heat limits, there’s probably no need to worry. But, those heat limits affect how they’re used and what can be cooked in a non-stick pan.

Actually, a well seasoned cast iron skillet is in fact almost as ‘non-stick’ as any pan coated with any popular non-stick treatment. Regularly ‘seasoning’ your cast iron with the right oil is a good start. Simply using it also creates a reliable layer of oils and fats that bond to the cast iron at higher heats. That further serves to protect it and prevents most foods from sticking to the pan surface.

You do have to be more careful when cleaning a non-stick pan because the finish can be more easily damaged. And, once damaged, there is no way to repair the artificial non-stick finish. As a result, non-stick pans tend to have to be replaced every few years. You can be more forceful cleaning a cast iron pan even using steel wool (although I use a ball of crumpled up tinfoil instead). A cast iron finish can actually improve with age and use and it can usually be repaired if somehow damaged.

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Non stick pans are great for cooking foods with breaded coatings and for foods with acidic ingredients.
A non-stick skillet is a good pan to start with… as confidence grows you’ll feel better about adding a cast iron pan to your repertoire and, using both will extend the life of the non-stick.
Non-stick pans are usually recommended for cooking at medium to medium high heats only.
At heats of 500 degrees or more, studies show the chemical finish can start to break down. That’s a big reason why you should never deep fry anything in a non-stick pan.
Non-stick pans are great for dishes with long cooking times or that contain acidic ingredients like vinegar or tomatoes. They are also better for cooking foods with breaded coatings.
Cast iron pans are good for searing or browning meats, can go under the broiler or can be used for deep frying. Food looks and smells better when cooked on cast iron.
Cast iron is better at many common cooking tasks but especially browning or searing meats. This is because cast iron handles higher temperatures better than non-stick and heat distributes more evenly on cast iron.
Food cooked in a cast iron pan often looks and even smells better.
Cast iron skillets are also great for roasting beef, pork or even whole chickens.
They’re also great for baking things like biscuits.
If the seasoned finish of a cast iron pan is damaged it can be repaired. Not so a non-stick pan with a synthetic finish.
Pre-heating a pan on high to get it ready to brown or sear meat or cook a burger, will often mean it could reach surface temperatures above 600 degrees. That would be fatal for a non-stick pan. As you can see, it even marked up my grill pan. But, unlike my non stick skillet, I can gradually ‘repair’ the seasoned finish on the cast iron pan.
You'll use more butter or oil coking on cast iron than on non-stick surfaces.
Using cast iron skillets does mean having to use more butter or oil than with non-stick pans. If you need to preheat a pan, or if you want to finish a dish under the broiler, use cast iron.
But, some cooking smells stay on cast iron more than on non-stick pans… things like fish or bacon. Also, cooking delicate foods like fish, eggs or pancakes is better on a non-stick surface.
Its better to season a cast iron pan with mineral oil which won't turn rancid over time unlike vegetable oils like Olive, Peanut or Canola oil.
I use food grade mineral oil to season my cast iron skillets.
Using vegetable based oils like canola, peanut or olive oils can get a little smelly as the oils tend to turn rancid sitting out waiting for the next use.
Stainless steel skillets can be used to sear meats and create crispy finishes because they can be used at high heat.
Some foods, butter or pancakes, can actually burn themselves right onto the finish of a stainless steel skillet.
But, it can be seasoned in much the same way as a cast iron pan. They’re great for creating crispy finishes, particularly on chicken because you can let them get really hot.
They’re also really useful searing meat or even cooking acidic foods with ingredients like tomatoes or vinegar.
My trusty 14 inch stainless steel splatter screen has saved me from many a burn and keeps most of the splatters off our glass cooktop.
My trusty 14 inch stainless steel splatter screen has saved me from many a burn and keeps most of the splatters off our glass cooktop.

I have based this post primarily on personal experience but, because I thought it best to provide a level of technical information, I feel the need to cite some more official sources. I’ve read numerous articles and owe a debt to: The Washington Post, The New York Times, Cooks Illustrated, Good Housekeeping, and Consumer Reports in particular.

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