Cast Iron, Enameled Cast Iron, and Stainless Steel Oh My!

Dear Home Ec 101,

If you were going to replace some of your cookware with cast iron or enameled cast iron, including a large dutch oven, would you purchase enameled cast iron, plain cast iron, or stainless steel? I do cook a lot of acidic foods, is this a concern?

Signed,

Pot Likker¹

PS. I have a gas stove, I’m not sure this matters.

Heather says:

I have a smooth top electric range so I, like many others,  am limited to enameled cast iron and stainless steel. (I personally do not use non-stick pans, except for the electric griddle we own -it’s too easy to accidentally overheat an empty pan.)

Cast iron, enameled cast iron, and stainless steel each have unique characteristics, make your decision based on what best fits your needs based what fits your needs and appliances.

Stainless Steel Cookware

This is the set of stainless steel cookware I’ve been using for the past 6 years.

For the record, in this conversation stainless steel cookware refers to plain stainless cookware, as well as the cookware with an aluminum or copper core. Please do not tell me that the aluminum core of stainless steel will cause Alzheimer’s. Your food does not come into contact with the aluminum.

Pros:

Stainless is versatile, it can be used on both electric and gas ranges. Usually the pots and pans are rated safe to 550°F, although the glass lids will have a lower rating. If a recipe needs to be cooked covered in the oven over the rated temperature, you simply use aluminum foil instead of the lid. Also keep in mind if the handles have any of that fancy polymer grip stuff, the rating will be lower.

Stainless steel heat does not heat evenly, but this is why good quality cookware will have an aluminum or copper base to aid in even heating which prevents hot spots and scorching. Since stainless steel is comparatively thin, it heats relatively faster than thick cast iron cookware despite having a lower thermal conductivity.

For the most part, stainless steel cookware does not react to acidic foods and is excellent for making pan sauces and won’t discolor white sauces.

Cons:

Stainless is more expensive than most aluminum, cast iron, or nonstick cookware. However the lifetime warranties that often accompany stainless steel cookware mitigates this factor. (Typically I recommend purchasing from a company that manufactures in the US when possible, but I hear good things about some brands made in France and Brazil, too.)

Stainless steel cookware is comparatively heavier than aluminum or most nonstick. Most adults (excluding those with health issues) get used to the weight over time.

What to look for / be aware of:

When choosing stainless cookware look for riveted handles, avoid any cookware attached with screws. Stainless steel can warp and scratch if not used properly. Never use metal utensils with stainless steel cookware as this can scratch the pan making food more likely to stick and making clean up more difficult. Do not use Brillo or copper scouring pads and never place a hot pan in tepid, cool, or cold water, as this can warp even sturdy cookware.

Bar Keeper’s Friend is quite inexpensive and makes cleaning stainless cookware a cinch.

Never purchase a set of stainless steel cookware without handling it. Visit a department store, open a box, check it out. Does the shape / angle of the handle make the pan easy to lift and pour from? Take a look at the lids, do they fit snugly? If not, the pot will not be good for making rice, unless of course you cook rice using the gentle boil method.

Cast Iron Cookware

Pros:

Cheap.

Cast iron is the original nonstick when properly seasoned.

It is probably the best cookware for blackening and searing. I’d recommend everyone have one cast iron skillet, even if it’s only for use under the broiler.

Cons:

Cast iron must be seasoned. It’s also quite heavy and you shouldn’t use it to cook acidic foods.

Now before someone goes nuts. Yes, it’s POSSIBLE to cook acidic foods in a well seasoned cast iron pot or pan. However, if the acidic food eats away enough of the seasoning it can come into contact with bare iron, which will cause a reaction. This will ruin your dish (the food) will be ruined with a metallic taste.

Cast iron can shatter if it is treated incorrectly. Never place a hot pan in water. Don’t place any hot pan in water

Cast iron should not be used on a smooth top range, it may scratch the surface making it very difficult to clean.

Cast iron has low thermal conductivity and it takes a relatively long time to bring a pan up to cooking temperatures.

If not taken care of properly, cast iron can rust and that’s a pain.

What to look for when buying cast iron:

Is the handle usable? Don’t waste your time buying a big pan with a stubby handle; you’ll be miserable. For dutch ovens, can you grip them? New cast iron often comes pre-seasoned. That stuff skeeves me out, majorly. Strip off the old seasoning and start over. Need advice? Read:  How to Season a Cast Iron Skillet.

Enameled Cast Iron

Pros:

Enameled cast iron is equivalent to stainless steel when it comes to relative non-stick. It is safe for acidic foods, and due to its thickness it has a high heat retention. Additionally, enameled cast iron is also oven safe (except for some knobs, we’ll talk about that in moment).

Enameled cast iron is usable on all stoves, in the oven, and on the grill.

Have I mentioned it’s gorgeous? Umm ’cause it’s friggin’ gorgeous.

Cons:

Enameled cast iron is heavy. It’s just as heavy as cast iron.

Enameled cast iron has lower thermal conductivity than its plain cast iron counterpart. I love my dutch oven, but I generally surf the web waiting for it to get hot enough to use.

Cost. Enameled cast iron is significantly more expensive than regular cast iron, especially when you consider some well known brand names. (I love my Le Crueset, but in the future I may be willing to try off- brands). In most cases, enameled cast iron is enameled cast iron. The pots and pans vary in their shape, the handles, and the knobs. Order replacement knobs for just a few dollars and your off-brand pot is now oven-safe.

Don’t use metal utensils in enameled cast iron, as it is possible to chip the coating, but in that case, you just need to season it. It’s only exposing cast iron and the pot or pan is still usable.

Hopefully this information will help you choose which cookware is right for your needs. I personally have a mix of stainless and enameled cast iron (I love my dutch oven and would really like a larger one) and I’m looking to pick up a new cast iron skillet for use on my grill and in the oven the next time I see one. Good luck in your purchasing decision!

Send your questions to helpme@home-ec101.com.

¹Definition: Pot likker is the liquid left behind after boiling greens, like collard greens and contains many vitamins. Also? Yum.

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Comments

  1. Thanks for the information! I have a cast iron skillet that I love, love, love, but most of my cookware is stainless steel. I'm in the market for an enameled Dutch oven (I plan to master the art of roasted chicken this year) and was wondering about brands etc. You answered all my questions. (and yes, I can't wait to get that pretty piece of cookware into my kitchen!)
    My recent post The beauty of a buttercup bag

  2. I have some of all of it. I love it all for different reasons and you laid them out nicely. I really love my cheap cast iron fry pans – I have 3 sizes, and we used them ALL the time for breakfast meats and eggs. I have an enamel cast iron dutch oven which is great for braising and stews and such. And I have stainless for, well, everything else. :-) I love me some pots and pans! :-)

  3. Phillip Guyton Jr. says:

    there is nothing like cast iron for cornbread, always seems to taste 10x better when i cook it in one

  4. Glad I'm not the only one wary of the pre-seasoned seasoning. I picked up an enameled dutch oven at Target for $40 a while back. It's lasted me a couple years nicely. That said, my mom has a le Creuset dutch oven that has lasted over 40 years and is still going strong. I don't think my Target cheapie will last that long but who knows.

  5. Very timely post. I’ve been finding myself annoyed lately that I can’t use metal utensils and been considering slowly replacing everything with cast iron.

    I’ve never heard that meaning of “pot likker”, but I’ve heard “pot-licker” to be used for pestering children who are under-foot (as in while they wait to lick the pot, but not necessarily).

  6. We have my husband grandaddy Slick's cast iron skillet and we love, love, love it. We also have a smooth electric range (which I could not possibly hate more) but have managed to use it pretty well over the years. Until recently that is. There is a shiny, sticky spot right in the middle. EVERYthing sticks to it. We've tried scrubbing the thing with kosher salt (a GREAT way to clean lots of old grimy build up), reseasoning and I (gasp!) even washed it once. All to no avail. Giant, sticky, shiny food destroyer still there. Any ideas?

  7. lakeneuron says:

    I got the chance to tour the Lodge cast iron factory in South Pittsburg, Tenn., some years back to do a story for the newspaper, and it was a lot of fun. I don't think they do public tours — but If you like cast iron, and you're ever on I-24 between Chattanooga and Nashville, you have to stop at the factory outlet store. It's great. The first-quality cookware in the main room is cheap enough, but you can get some really great deals in the side room with the factory seconds — and I can't usually figure out what's supposed to be wrong with them.

    They have another factory outlet store in the tourist areas surrounding PIgeon Forge, but I think that one is first-quality only, with no factory seconds.

    One of these days, I'm going to go to the National Cornbread Festival they have in South Pittsburg each spring.

  8. DiaryofaSAHM says:

    I LOVE my cast iron pot, absolutely love it :)

  9. I had to re-season an old pan recently and I used the post linked above. Only problem was my oven smelled like burnt oil for about a month afterward, even after I ran the self-cleaning cycle and cleaned it myself (well the cleaning lady did). Then one day the smell was gone.

  10. I want to get married just so I can put Le Cruset on my gift list. It's probably the only way I will ever get some.

    That said, I love my two cast iron frying pans inherited from Grandma-I'm guessing at least 50 years old and other than re-seasoning a couple times, they are still working great. I also have a smooth top electric range which i hate, so I use the cast iron anyway and maybe soon it will get scratched enough that i can justify buying a new gas stovetop. Yes i know i am crazy.

  11. Keter Magick says:

    I have both stainless steel and cast iron cookware, and use them for different dishes, as cast iron will impart a different flavor. I cook acidic food in my cast iron, so I can tell you what will get you into trouble there:

    1. Wait until the cast iron is well seasoned before trying to cook acidic food in it. That means at least two months of use.

    2. Never leave food sitting in your cast iron. After the food is cooked, put it into another container immediately. By the time you've gotten things to the table, the pot will be cool enough to fill with plain water. Leave it sit while you eat, then wash it right away after the meal.

    3. Don't put cast iron in the dishwasher or use dishwashing detergent, use mild soap. I use liquid castile soap. You don't want to strip all of the oil off the cast iron, just the food residue. Use a nylon or copper scrubber or a blue Scotchbrite to remove anything that might still be stuck on – never use steel wool or especially Brillo, that will destroy the seasoning and cause terrible rust. I've had problems with green Scotchbright also removing seasoning.

    4. Dry the cast iron right away with a towel you don't mind getting discolored, and then swish on a very light coat of olive oil before putting away. This keeps the seasoning in top condition and prevents rust from forming on any area that may have had the seasoning damaged during cooking.

    I want enameled cast iron, but don't need it so I haven't bought any yet. My grandmother had LeCreuset, and it was dreamy.

    I have a smooth surface cooktop and love it – it's the only range I've ever had that I could keep really clean. I use my cast iron on it all the time with no damage. I've had this cooktop for 9 years now, so I think it it was going to damage it, it would have done so already. One qualification on that is that I never, ever scoot, shake, or spin a pot on the cooktop. I pick it up first. That makes a world of difference.

    Mindy – odds are that's burned on grease. Here are several things to try. First, get a Mr. Clean Magic Eraser and some GooGone and try that. If that doesn't work, escalate to baking soda paste with the Magic Eraser. If that doesn't work, try Barkeeper's Friend, but watch that you don't put a lot of pressure on that, as I haven't used it enough to be certain that it won't scratch under pressure. I have also used Brasso and had it work, but don't feel comfortable recommending it as it can leave microscopic scratches. If none of those work, take a single edged razor blade and use very light pressure to scrape off the spot. That almost certainly will work. If you are left with a metallic looking spot, you probably can get that out with vinegar on the Magic Eraser, or, if that fails, lime and rust remover. If using the latter, don't let it sit for very long, and rinse thoroughly with water as acid can etch the glass if left too long. If your stove is white, some discoloration may have soaked in…try soaking a paper towel in hydrogen peroxide and leave it overnight to see if that will get it.

  12. Casey that's rather unusual. I've never experienced that problem. I'm sorry you had to deal with it.

    • I don't know what I did wrong I've seasoned cast iron before and never had that problem. I did use a cookie sheet under the pan so no oil dripped down onto the heating element. What was more strange was the fact that the smell just suddenly went away on it's own.

  13. My vote: I luurrrve enameled cast iron and swear by Le Creuset. Seriously, it's almost impossible to burn anything in it – you have to really try. It is in fact very expensive but it usually goes on sale once a year, and it will last forever. (and if you have a Tuesday Morning store near you, it usually turns up there for even less!) Pick a color you can live with for the next thirty years. You will be using it at least that long.

  14. This past christmas i replaced my mis-matched wal-mart and target non-stick cookware from college with a brand new $600 set of calphalon tri-ply stainless steel and let me tell you – BEST MONEY SPENT. Also – i have some serious health problems and for me I purchased some extra heavy duty oven mitts and have developed the habit of always using two hands to lift every pot and skillet. This has helped with the weight. It sounds really simple but many dont notice that they always lift skillets with one hand so using two has helped.

    • I hear lots of good things about Calphalon. Unfortunately I just can't go out and buy cookware to test it. (Wouldn't that be nice?) Thank you so much for sharing your experience with the Home Ec 101 community.

  15. I'm currently lusting after a larger dutch oven. I do think I'll be experimenting with Travertine or Lodge.

    I do swear by the Le Creuset silicone whisk and spatulas I have… they just are better quality than the off brand ones I have tried.

  16. I've had a heck of time seasoning my skillet I use for my camp stove. It's tough to figure out so I'm not fond of buying cast iron for the kitchen. Stainless looks great…just need to make sure its good quality I guess. Thanks for this info.
    -Joe

  17. bookchick says:

    I was recently at a christening in Sewanee and was informed upon my arrival that if I had flown into Chattanooga instead of Nashville, I would’ve driven past the Lodge outlet store. My mom and I were very dissapointed since there was not enough time to drive there and get back prior to the christening so I guess I will have to go visit my brother’s father-in-law again so I have an excuse to go. :)

  18. bookchick says:

    Apparently there is a Le Creuset factory outlet store in Atlanta. My SIL has bought some things there and I plan to go there when I am visiting her in two weeks.

  19. bookchick says:

    I need to replace some of my cookware. Right now I have a mix of non-stick, stainless, and cast iron. My big stock pot is the only stainless pan I own, and it has gotten so warped that it ‘dances’ when I use it and if I am doing anything other than just boiling water in it, the food scorches. I’m wondering if it is better to just bite the bullet and purchase a full set of cookware, or if it’s better to replace pieces one at a time. I don’t really care if it matches, but there is just something satisfying about opening a new box of cookware for the first time.

  20. everything sticks to it. We’ve tried scrubbing the thing with kosher salt (a GREAT way to clean lots of old grimy build up), reseasoning and I (gasp!) even washed it once