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?
PS. I have a gas stove, I’m not sure this matters.
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
I’ve been using stainless steel cookware for the past 6² 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 and the studies don’t show that high levels of aluminum cause Alzheimer’s, it’s correlative data.
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. Please keep in mind if the handles have any of that fancy polymer grip stuff, the heat rating will be lower.
Stainless steel does not heat evenly, but this is why good quality cookware will have an aluminum or copper base or core 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.
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
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 in the oven.
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) 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
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, but there is a solution).
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.
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 I have several off-brand pieces, the enamel is chipping on the outside, but that doesn’t change how it cooks. In most cases, enameled cast iron is exactly that, 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 iron² (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!
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¹Definition: Pot likker is the liquid left behind after boiling greens, like collard greens and contains many vitamins. Also? Yum.
²2017 Update: When I divorced in 2013, I took only my enameled iron pieces and picked up some skillets and stock pots cheaply at a restaurant supply store. Eventually, I will get another set of stainless cookware, it just hasn’t been a priority, despite the ever increasing warpedness of my skillets. The refrigerator in its death throes is taking priority. I did end up getting the large, oval dutch oven, worth every penny and I do have a cast iron skillet used on the grill and under the broiler.