Cast iron pans vs. nonstick pans: Which is better?

From bestreviews.com
By
Chris Thomas
BestReviews

Longtime favorite manufacturer Tefal got its name by joining the words "Teflon" and "aluminum."

Comparing cast iron pans and nonstick pans 

Modern nonstick pans are long-lasting and effective thanks to advanced materials and you can find them in just about every shape and size. On the other hand, few types of cookware have such a vocal and dedicated following as cast iron pans. So, which pan is really the best? The two types of pans don’t have a whole lot in common but are both great for different methods of cooking. 

Overall, it’s a good idea for home chefs to have at least one cast iron pan. Skillets are especially versatile for home use and dutch ovens are great for camping. Alternatively, you can find most of your favorite pan shapes and sizes with a nonstick coating that can cook just about anything.

Cast iron pans

One of the big reasons that cast iron pans are so effective is their ability to retain and distribute heat. Since they’re so simple, they can withstand high temperatures in ovens and campfires without issue and are great for searing large cuts of meat.

One important thing to know when it comes to cast iron is how to take care of it. The crucial component here is known as “seasoning” — but it has nothing to do with salt, pepper or spices. Here, seasoning refers to a thin layer of polymerized oil on the surface of the pan. This layer protects the metal from rust and corrosion and significantly minimizes food sticking. Most cast iron pans come pre-seasoned and you’re always welcome to season yours as much as you want. The process involves coating the pan with refined oil and bringing it to a high temperature, usually in the oven.

While modern dish detergent is not as harsh as those of the past, it’s still a good idea to avoid washing a cast iron pan with more than just a scrub brush and hot water. This will prevent layers of oil from being removed in the cleaning process — a substantial seasoning layer makes it that much easier to clean. However, whatever you do, don’t put your cast iron pan in the dishwasher.

You’ll find mid-size cast iron pans for as little as $25, but if you want an heirloom-grade skillet you can find premium models that will last your family for decades in the $200-$300 range.

Cast iron pan pros

Especially when cooking for large groups, a cast iron pan’s versatility is unmatched. A large skillet can help you cook up an army’s worth of bacon and eggs and also makes a great baking pan for cinnamon rolls. Similarly, a dutch oven can help you craft artisan pizza, frittatas, stews, roasts and almost anything else you can slow-cook. Dutch ovens are also ideal for use on the campfire and can help add great food to an outdoor adventure.

Of course, one of the most endearing things about cast iron pans is their durability. A quality skillet can easily last a lifetime. Even if it falls into disrepair and starts to rust, all you have to do is clean and reseason it and it’ll be good as new.

Cast iron pan cons

The weight of cast iron is both a blessing and a curse. They can be unwieldy on smaller home ranges and they get substantially heavier as their size increases. Their heft means you won’t be able to use any advanced saute flipping techniques or quickly take the pan off-heat.

One other drawback is that no matter how well you season cast iron, it will never be as perfectly nonstick as other materials. For that reason, you’ll find yourself with quite a bit of scrubbing to do during cleanup. The more robust the seasoning layer, the less your food will stick, but getting to that point requires a little know-how and attention to detail.

Best cast iron pans

Lodge Pre-Seasoned Cast Iron Skillet: available at Amazon and Home Depot

Almost certainly the most popular cast iron skillet, the Lodge comes in a wide range of sizes and doesn’t cost much at all. Its factory seasoning is good enough to satisfy most users, although dedicated outdoor chefs might want to touch it up a little for the best performance.

Bayou Classic 20-inch Skillet: available at Amazon, Kohl’s and Home Depot

If you need to feed a large group of people, this is the cast iron pan for you. At 20 inches, it’s about as large as they get, so you’ll need a powerful burner or a decently sized campfire. While it’s a touch expensive, there are few models that can cook so much food at once.

Lodge Deep Camp Dutch Oven: available at Amazon and Home Depot

A good dutch oven is arguably even more versatile than a skillet. This classic design from Lodge has been around for decades and is still the best choice for outdoor use thanks to the elevated feet and the rim on the lid, which make it especially easy to arrange coals for the perfect heat level.

Nonstick pans

The majority of new nonstick pans are made mostly out of what’s called hard-anodized aluminum. This advanced material is significantly more rigid than normal aluminum and conducts heat better than stainless steel. Quality hard-anodized cookware often sports a copper or steel core layer in the base, which helps with heat retention and lets you use the pan on an induction cooktop.

You can find just about any shape and size of pan with a nonstick coating. The most affordable can be had for as little as $20. For around $40-$50 you can get your hands on the same nonstick pans found in high-end restaurants and the most expensive nonstick pans are only around $100.

Are nonstick pans safe?

When used properly, nonstick pans are completely safe for humans. In fact, PTFE, the nonstick coating first released as Teflon, doesn’t hurt the human body, so there’s nothing to worry about if you accidentally eat some. However, you should take care to not chip the coating off with metal utensils, as that can hurt the pan’s performance.

The only possible issue with PTFE surfaces is that when overheated to 600 degrees or more, the material starts to break down and release dangerous fumes. Inhaling too much of these fumes can cause flu-like symptoms in humans and can even kill pet birds. 

For this reason, owners of pet birds should err on the side of caution and consider an alternative to PTFE such as the ceramic formula used in the T-fal Scratc. There are a few similar options to choose from and while they’re not quite as non-stick as PTFE, it’s worth it to keep your pet in good health. But if you’re not a pet owner, you shouldn’t have any toxicity worries.

Nonstick pan pros

The clear main benefit is that food doesn’t stick to them. In practice, that means easier cooking and cleanup, but it also means you can reduce your fat content a bit because you won’t need so much oil. In some cases, you can leave the oil out entirely and still get a good sear.

The sheer availability of so many types of nonstick pans, their relatively moderate cost and their generally light weight make them a great choice for the avid home chef on any budget.

Nonstick pans cons

The biggest thing to be aware of when using nonstick pans is that their cooking surface isn’t as durable as cast iron. It’s highly recommended to use wooden or heat-resistant silicone utensils to prevent damage. While scratched and chipped nonstick material doesn’t pose a health hazard, it does make the pan less effective overall.

Best nonstick pans

Le Creuset Toughened Nonstick Pro: available at Amazon and Bed, Bath and Beyond

This brand is known for its top-of-the-line cookware and its nonstick skillet is a great example of why. It’s as rugged and rigid as they come and looks every bit as great as it functions.

Tramontina Professional Fry Pan: available at Amazon

This 12-inch skillet is the same one used in countless fine restaurants across the country. It’s oven-safe, highly rigid and also comes in a smaller 8-inch model.

T-fal Professional 3-Piece Set: available at Amazon

These pans sport a magnetic layer in the base to work with induction cooktops. Their nonstick surface is highly effective and also resistant to scratches, which makes them a great balance of price and performance. This set includes three frying pans measuring 8, 10.5 and 12.5 inches.

Should you get cast iron or nonstick pans?

Everyone should have one cast iron pan in their kitchen. If you like to camp and cook around the fire, a cast iron griddle and dutch oven are also great purchases. For regular use, every in-home chef should consider at least a couple of nonstick pans in addition to a set of non-marking cooking utensils.

Chris Thomas is a writer for BestReviews. BestReviews is a product review company with a singular mission: to help simplify your purchasing decisions and save you time and money.

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