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The thing with a cast iron pan and stainless steel pan is you've got to season them. Once they're seasoned, they have a non-stick (more or less) layer that's transformed olive oil, vegetable oil, or butter. I've been told that the jury's still out on which could be more harmful: that, or non-stick plastic. One advantage of a regular seasoned pan is you don't have to be afraid of overheating it past 350 or so degrees. Another one is you can use a metal spatula on it. With non-stick pans you have to use wood, or plastic (the latter option scares the hell out of me). As for the heat spreading evenly: it won't. Each individual pan and skillet has its own little faults and foibles.

I'm a great fan of Italian cuisine. I would love to cook French, but it's just too labor-intensive for me: I favor efficiency over meticulousness.

I use my pans to cook chicken, veal, lamb, turkey, fish, vegetables, and pasta, plus, occasionally, eggs and pancakes. All other things being equal, what's the best option for those who put taste first: cast iron, stainless steel, or anodized non-stick? Or should I try ceramic?

closed as primarily opinion-based by GdD, Stephie, Cascabel Dec 10 '15 at 18:48

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • You could also add seasoned steel into the mix of options. Lots of chefs prefer it for quick high temp cooking when you need a lighter pan to toss the food with. – Escoce Dec 10 '15 at 14:30
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    This question is a little weird. A lot of the effects aren't really so much on taste but on what you can easily do (e.g. what you have to do to prevent sticking, what kind of heat you can use), with taste being only an indirect consequence. And generally asking what's best is a good way to get people's personal opinions, not as much more objective answers that'll help you evaluate what'd then be best for you. If you're really trying to ask specifically about effects on taste, you might want to emphasize that. If you just want general pros/cons, you might want to say so. – Cascabel Dec 10 '15 at 15:31
  • And as a community, I think we might create a better resource for future readers if we did approach this as an objective pros/cons thing (possibly asking a new question if that's not what Ricky wants here) - I'm surprised I can't seem to find a solid one in the past. Some of that may be because we've tended to just allow questions like this and never really buckled down and tried to do something solid for the future. – Cascabel Dec 10 '15 at 15:33
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    There are a lot of incorrect assumptions in this question. You don't need to season stainless steel. You should not use metal utensils in a seasoned pan. Not to mention that the type of pan you use has little to do with the flavor of the food you cook in it. – Dan C Dec 10 '15 at 17:04
  • I'm putting this on hold for now because the answers are all focusing on general pros and cons with often a healthy dose of opinion, and it's unclear if most of the content even directly addresses the question. That is, there's concrete evidence that your question has ended up primarily opinion based (and maybe unclear) even if that wasn't your attention. I'm happy to reopen if it's substantially clarified. – Cascabel Dec 10 '15 at 18:48
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I give you my opinion

  • Cast iron pans give you exceptional results when you have to cook, because they are facilitating a chemical reaction with the sugar contained naturally in food. However, I find them heavy and for my way of cooking I prefer an iron frying pan (de buyer does fantastic pans. I suggest carbone plus). I have three of them, one for fish, one for meat and one for vegetables. It requires a bit of effort to clean them and take care of them. If you're not planning to use them often be sure you keep them oiled to avoid rust. After a while the pan will be naturally non stick, just keep use them, avoid water and enjoy your cooking. I use them almost daily.

  • Aluminium (non anodized) is great for boiling, it has an exceptional heat transfer and you can cook keeping your flame lower. Do not use these pans for anything acid, the aluminium will enter in your food and is very dangerous for your body.

  • Aluminiun (anodized): brilliant pans! Resistant, easy to clean, the best ones are even dishwasher safe, despite I don't really feel the need to put them in a dishwasher, it takes me less then a minute to clean them with a sponge, the food doesn't stick.

  • Copper: requires a bit of maintenance. You have the best thermal diffusion, it has to be covered with a layer of stainless steel, or tin. Tin is not as sturdy as stainless steel.

-stainless steel: very good. You can cook everything in here, sturdy pans, food will stick a bit.

I have all these pans at home and I use them in base of my needs. In any case, never leave the food in any of these pans, take it off as soon as you can, for the best result, and use the right size. It's incredible how food will improve with these two simple tricks :)

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Once you become accustomed to cast iron, you will find it to be far superior to other cookware for frying, sautéing, roasting and baking. Cast iron is also wonderful for reheating leftovers in a hot oven — it almost makes them taste freshly cooked again.

Some people avoid cooking acidic foods in cast iron, for fear it will affect the seasoned surface, but I've had no problems using it occasionally for making pasta sauce. Stainless steel, or copper clad stainless steel (e.g.: vintage Revere Ware) is excellent for boiling or steaming.

Best of all, you can purchase vintage cast iron (and Revere Ware) at a junk shop or flea market, with better quality than anything sold as new, for just a few dollars. You cannot wear out cast iron, the oldest pieces work just as good as when they were new. Properly seasoned cast iron is easy to clean, easy to cook with, and in most cases, will result in the most delicious food!

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    What makes it superior for frying sauteing etc? The OP asked about taste but I suspect you're talking more about other things? – Cascabel Dec 10 '15 at 7:45
  • Well the question and answer are subjective and opinion based, but I tend to fall in the cast iron camp as well. However, it is easily argued that cast iron provides a superior cooking surface by heating evenly across its surface, thereby giving better control of the food you are cooking. Better cooking technique contributes to better food so...I would argue cast iron as well. I do however prefer stainless for tomato sauces. – Escoce Dec 10 '15 at 14:28
  • I agree with @Escoce about the even heating property of cast iron. In addition, it retains the heat better, not cooling down as much when ingredients are added. With cast iron, it's easier to brown food to perfection, with less chance of burning. Maybe that's why it makes food taste better. – ElmerCat Dec 10 '15 at 15:26
  • Many of the same advantages are shared by carbon steel pans - but for tasks that doesn't require the same heat-retention capabilities I prefer carbon steel, since they heat up faster, are lighter if you want to pick them up and throw the food around, you can control heat easier. Now I only use cast iron and carbon steel (both seasoned, of course) – Max Dec 10 '15 at 15:31
  • @Max yeah, I mentioned seasoned steel in my comment to the original question and the ability heat up fast and being able to toss food easier. However I would argue the even heating element. Cast iron heats evenly and retains its heat due to its insulation properties, the nature of cast iron being saturated with little pockets of air. Sheet metal doesn't have this because it's extruded and pounded, and sheet metal is what seasoned steel is made from. – Escoce Dec 10 '15 at 16:44
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I have to disappoint you, but you do have to worry about overheating seasoned pans.

If you go to pre-heat them, and forget about it for an extended period of time, you can cook off the seasoning. On the working side of the pan, you'll be adding a new layer of oil, so you'll quickly repair it (although it might take a few days to build things back up) ... but most people forget about the bottom of the pan, which can rust over time. ...

My advice would be to buy something that you enjoy cooking with, and won't break your budget. Some people really like cast iron -- and it's great for sitting on the stove and moving the food around with a spatula or such ... but it sucks if you want to flip your food or when lifting a large pan to pour the contents into a serving dish.

Enameled cast iron is a bit more forgiving about not cleaning up immediately after cooking, and there are now brands that are much more affordable than Le Creuset and other more established brands ... but you can damage your puts if you're sloppy and leave them unattended. (first crazing, then the enamel starts alligatoring & flaking off.)

Stainless steel is a nice introductory material -- it's more prone to sticking than the other two that I mentioned, and there are some issues with pitting (wait until the liquid is hot before adding salt), but you can scrub the hell out of it without much worry. The problem is, it's a rather poor conductor of heat, so companies either weld a disk on the bottom of aluminum or copper, or they sandwich the conductive metal between the stainless steel (aka. 'tri-ply'). The tri-ply pans will last longer (less of a problem of the disk de-laminating from thermal shock), but they're much more expensive. There used to only be one major manufacturer of them, but I assume any patents have run out, as in the last year or so I've seen tri-ply available from Oxo and Calphalon at about 1/2 the price of All-Clad. (but they're still expensive relative to other materials)

I'd advise against using copper pans -- expensive, and too much effort to keep clean.

Bare aluminum is generally to be avoided because it's reactive and soft (can scratch easily), but Annodized Aluminum is treated so that the surface has already reacted and made harder. As such, it's great for people who don't have the same arm-strength, as aluminum is quite light relative to other materials. There's also cast aluminum, which can be seasoned like cast iron, but is more expensive (you generally only see it at the occasional camping store). And none of them work if you have an induction stove.

Seasoned steel is another decent pan ... they're thin, so lightweight but don't have the same thermal mass so can be more prone to hot spots and such ... but they also don't require the same amount of time pre-heating like heavier pans. You need to deal with the seasoning like cast iron, and they're more likely to get dented up over time, but they're relatively inexpensive at restaurant supply stores. (they're more difficult to find at kitchen stores you'd find in a mall).

I've never used the 'ceramic' pans (unless you count enameled), so can't comment on those. I've heard rumors that the non-stick behavior will decrease over time.

...

And whatever you do, don't buy a set of pans. It's one thing if it's a hand-me-down, or a great buy at an estate sale, but don't buy a set from a store. Consider what pans you actually need, and then buy the right material for how you're going to use it.

So my stock pot (a big, huge thing) ... is anodized aluminum. Dutch ovens are enameled cast iron. Griddles and a few pans of seasoned cast iron, quite a few stainless (all disk, none tri-ply ... can't justify the expense), some more annodized aluminum for ones that can go in the oven and my egg pan ... and even a non-stick one (that I have to replace every 5 years or so) for times when it's useful.

If I was cooking over camp fires, I'd have seasoned dutch ovens, not enameled ones. If I had an induction stove, I'd have to skip all of the anodized aluminum.

If your sole consideration is taste -- I'd personally avoid non-stick (as it won't develop a fond the same way as other pans), but if you're only used to cooking with non-stick, if you end up ruining all of your meals because things are sticking and burn, you've done yourself a disservice.

  • Any kind of pan can be forgotten on the stove and overheated, but with cast iron, it won't cause permanent damage. Overheating a stainless steel pan will cause it to discolor and warp, effectively ruining it. – ElmerCat Dec 10 '15 at 15:30
  • @ElmerCat : true ... seasoned cast iron can be restored from some really horrible states. But even leaving it on 'medium' on my stove for 20-30 min, I've come back to where the middle of my 12" cast iron pan was quite dull .... both working side & the back. Stainless steel requires much higher heat to ruin, or multiple cycles of fast heating & cooling. – Joe Dec 10 '15 at 15:35
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    @Joe the dullness is the ash residue leftover from burning the seasoning off. It ruins the surface temporarily, but you just have to reason that portion of the surface and with continued proper use and care, the seasoning will heal back to its prime condition. – Escoce Dec 10 '15 at 16:46
  • @Escoce : which I do ... but after a few times of it (preheating pan for breakfast while in the shower ... then getting distracted and taking longer than planned) ... I realized that not only was the surface a problem, but the back had signs of rust. I've taken to seasoning the back of my cast iron pans whenever I'm seasoning a new pan. – Joe Dec 10 '15 at 18:34
  • Well I season the whole pan, but once it's been seasoned a couple times all over, I just maintain the inside of the pan and keep the rest oiled, but not baked on. I get a rust spit now and again on the bottom as well. I just scrub the spot with scotchbrite and oil and it's good. – Escoce Dec 10 '15 at 18:53

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