Cast Iron Skillet or Non-Stick Pan: Which Is Better?

Published Categorized as Kitchen
Cast Iron Skillet or Non-Stick Pan: Which Is Better?Nomadsoul1 /Depositphotos

Confused about whether to go with a cast iron skillet or a non-stick frying pan? Read on, and we’ll help you make the call!

So, the big question: cast iron skillet or non-stick frying pan?

It’s a debate that’s been going on for decades, and there’s no clear-cut answer. Some people swear by their cast iron skillets, while others wouldn’t cook without their slick non-stick pans. It’s just one of those yin-yang things.

So let’s look into everything you need to know about these two options and try to put this to bed once and for all. Both have their pros and cons, and it comes down to what you want out of a cooking vessel and what you’re trying to achieve in the kitchen.

Alright, let’s get some basics out of the way.

Cast iron is a type of metal, and non-stick is a coating that’s sprayed on metal frying pans. A cast iron skillet is made entirely of cast iron and has no coating. A non-stick pan can be made from a variety of metals and has a non-stick coating on its surface. Just wanted to make sure we were all on the same page here.

Cast Iron Skillets

A cast iron skillet is made from cast iron. It’s heavy as hell, the cooking surface is uncoated, and the cooking vessel itself is virtually indestructible.

It can handle some seriously high heat, which makes it perfect for things like searing steaks, frying up pork chops, browning bacon, and even making cornbread or pan pizza in the oven. Cast iron skillets are so sturdy, you can even use them on the grill or over a campfire.

In other words, they’re kitchen workhorses that you can rely on for almost anything.

Pay attention to the “almost” here, because it’s the key to understanding what cast iron skillets are good for — and what they’re not.

Why?

Because cast iron skillets don’t do well at all with acidic foods and cooking liquids.

Cast iron skillets are great for fatty meats, oily fish, and proteins and carbs fried in butter, animal fat, or vegetable oil. But acidic ingredients and cooking liquids are a no-no. Acid can cause the seasoning on the pan to flake off, leading to a metallic taste in your dish and the need to re-season the pan. If you’re not careful, you might even find your pan corroded and rusty the next day.

Wait, seasoning?

What’s seasoning, and why does it flake off?

Yes, seasoning. I almost forgot about that! Because cast iron skillets are prone to corrosion and rusting if they’re exposed to air and moisture, they need a little bit of protection. That protection comes from the seasoning. The seasoning is a very thin layer of cooking oil that you rub all over the pan — inside and out, bottom, walls, handles, cooking surface — and bake onto it for 1-2 hours in a preheated oven.

The oil polymerizes onto the iron, which means it forms chemical bonds with it, and protects it from the elements. It also helps to make the cooking surface almost non-stick, which is a nice added bonus. But that seasoning needs to be looked after, which is why you shouldn’t cook acidic foods in a cast iron skillet and you should never try to clean it in the dishwasher.

And let’s not forget that cast iron skillets are built to last.

In fact, a good quality cast iron skillet can last forever. Many of them even outlast their owners and turn into family heirlooms that get passed down for generations. As long as you take care of them and keep the seasoning in good shape, you can expect your cast iron skillet to be a reliable kitchen companion for life.

Non-Stick Frying Pans

Okay, now let’s talk about non-stick frying pans. These babies are made from a variety of metals and coated with a material called PTFE, or Polytetrafluoroethylene, which helps to prevent food from sticking to the surface.

Non-stick pans are generally lighter in weight and easier to clean than cast iron skillets, which makes them great for cooking more delicate items, like sunny side up eggs, omelets, fish fillets, and crêpes. And they’re a lifesaver when it comes to pancakes.

Cleaning them is a breeze too. All you’ve got to do is allow the frying pan to cool down, give it a quick rinse with some soapy water, pat it dry, and boom — you’re done. No scrubbing or elbow grease required. Some of the more expensive ones are actually dishwasher-safe, which is super convenient. However, even though they can technically go in the dishwasher, manufacturers nevertheless recommend washing them by hand to avoid any scratches or damage to the coating.

These things are the exact opposite of cast iron skillets in a lot of ways. You can pretty much cook anything in them, including acidic foods, because the non-stick surface is inert and won’t react with anything. However, you can’t really use them at high heat. When the PTFE cooking surface gets hotter than 450-500°F, it can get damaged and emit toxic fumes into the air. We’re talking about some seriously toxic stuff here, people. So toxic that it can give you polymer fume fever.

If you ever look at a non-stick pan’s usage instructions, you’ll notice it says to only use the pan over low to medium heat and never heat it empty for more than 60 seconds. This is because empty pans have a tendency to overheat, and an overheated non-stick pan can be dangerous for anyone around it.

Non-stick coatings don’t have a long life.

Even if you’re super careful with your non-stick frying pan and treat it like a delicate flower, you might still find yourself needing to replace it within three to five years. Eventually, that non-stick coating is gonna start to flake off and you’ll need to get a new one.

And it’s not just about the way your pan looks, either. As that non-stick coating starts to break down, it can release flakes made up of man-made chemicals your body can’t in any way process and get rid of. So it’s definitely something to keep in mind.

The Rundown

Cast iron skillets. Heavy, sturdy, ready for some seriously high heat. Great for searing meats, frying up pork chops, and even making cornbread or pan pizza in the oven. But don’t use them to cook with acidic ingredients. Acidic stuff can cause the seasoning on the pan to flake off. Useful life? If you look after them well, forever.

Non-stick frying pans. Made from a variety of metals and coated with PTFE to prevent food from sticking to the surface. Lighter in weight and a breeze to clean, they’re great for cooking more delicate items like eggs, omelets, fish, and the likes. Be careful when heating them up, though: the PTFE coating can become damaged and emit toxic fumes, so it’s best to stick to low to medium heat. Even so, you’ll need to replace them within a few years when the PTFE film starts to flake.



By Dim Nikov

Food writer, Home Cook World editor, and author of Cooking Methods & Techniques: A Crash Course on How to Cook Delicious Food at Home for Beginners. Cooking up a storm for 30 years, and still no sign of a hurricane warning.

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