Should You Get a Cast Iron Skillet or a Non-Stick Pan?

Published Categorized as Kitchen
A man and woman holding two frying pans at the storeNomadsoul1 /Depositphotos

When it comes to your daily cooking, few decisions make as much of a difference as your choice of frying pan.

Light and easy to maneuver, non-stick frying pans heat quickly and evenly. Their slippery surface keeps even the most delicate of foods from sticking to the bottom and sides of the vessel as you cook, giving you a superior cooking experience.

These frying pans are ideal for home cooking, particularly when it comes to delicate foods such as eggs, fish fillets, tortilla wraps, and pancakes. Pair that with the fact that they offer hassle-free clean-up, and it gets easy to understand why non-stick is the go-to choice for cooking beginners and seasoned cooks alike.

Non-stick pans, though it varies with the make and model, are mostly fit for stovetop use. The general rule of thumb is that most pans of this type are not oven-friendly and can’t go in the dishwasher.

Heavy, thick-bottomed, and thick-walled, cast iron skillets heat slowly. But, once a cast iron skillet gets hot enough, it retains and distributes that heat remarkably well.

That’s why cast iron skillets are great for cooking tasks that require steady, constant heat, such as searing thick-cut steak, pan-frying pork chops, and browning chicken filets. They yield a crispy crust on your foods that packs a punch in terms of flavor like no other vessel.

Cast iron skillets are suitable for cooking over medium-high to high heat. As long as it doesn’t have wooden or plastic handles on it, a cast iron pan is generally safe to use in the oven.

Though a cast iron skillet should be able to handle any heat you throw at it, using your skillet in the oven at temperatures higher than 400°F may cause the seasoning to start flaking off.

Cast Iron Skillet vs. Non-Stick Frying Pan

Cast Iron SkilletNon-Stick Frying Pan
Cooking vesselCast ironAluminum on most models, and stainless steel on some
Cooking surfaceUncoated, with seasoningPTFE-coated
Stove compatibilityGas, electric, inductionAll models are fit for gas and electric stoves, but not all are induction-friendly
Oven-safeGenerally oven-safe. Above 400°F, the seasoning make flake off.Most models are not oven-safe.
Dishwasher-friendlyNot dishwasher-friendly.Most models are not dishwasher-friendly.
PeculiaritiesNeed to be seasoned prior to first use. The seasoning must be maintained to protect the pan from corrosion and rust.

Leach significant amounts of dietary iron into acidic foods (with wine, tomato, lemon, vinegar sauces).
Shouldn’t be preheated empty (without cooking oil) and for longer than 20-30 seconds.

Metal utensils can scratch and therefore damage the non-stick coating.
AffordabilityGenerally affordableGenerally affordable
Comparing cast iron skillets to non-stick pans

Cooking Experience

Non-stick pans are arguably the easiest type of cookware to use on the stove. They’re light to carry, comfortable to hold, and heat up quickly and evenly. The slippery coating makes maneuvering and flipping foods—even the stickiest of them—a walk in the park.

Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), the material used in non-stick coatings, has one of the most slippery surfaces known to man. Smooth and non-porous, it lets you flip the most delicate foods, such as eggs, fish fillets, and pancakes, without having to worry about mangling them.

Though you can cook in a non-stick pan without the use of any butter, animal fat, or cooking oil, it’s recommended that you lightly grease the bottom and sides of your pan by rubbing some fat or oil onto it with the help of a paper towel.

This is because non-stick coatings degrade faster when heated dry and slower when heated greased. In other words, greasing your pan before every use will make it last longer.

To make non-stick cookware, manufacturers spray several layers of PTFE on regular cooking vessels, whose bodies are typically made from aluminum.

The choice of metal makes these pans light, easy to carry around, and just as comfortable to maneuver and flip foods in. However, the coatings are prone to scratching, especially when coming into contact with metal utensils, which is why you should only use a wooden or silicone spatula for non-stick cooking.

Some non-stick pans should never go in the oven; others are oven-friendly up to 350°F or so. Always refer to the usage and care instructions (or the manufacturer’s customer service) before putting your non-stick pan in the oven for the first time.

Bulky and weighty, cast iron skillets are no joke to carry about and feel heavy to the wrist when maneuvering foods in them.

Large and weighty, a cast iron skillet is no joke to carry around and feels heavy to the wrist when you’re holding and lifting it. Unless you’re training for the Cast Iron Olympics (yes, I just made that up), don’t expect to be able to flip food in one like they do on MasterChef.

Cast iron isn’t non-stick per se. But the seasoning on a cast iron skillet—that thin layer of cooking oil carbonated onto the interior and exterior of the pan—gives it non-stick properties and makes most foods glide.

Still, the cooking surface of most cast iron skillets is porous and tends to latch onto more liquidy food items, such as eggs or cornbread mix. So it’s not uncommon for bits and pieces of food to get stuck to the bottom of the pan, making flipping a little more challenging.

Most of these skillets have bare-metal handles. This makes them safe to use in the oven, but it also means that the handles get really, really hot, and it’s good to have a kitchen towel handy for holding the pan.

A downside to cast iron is that it catches smells from whatever it is that you’re cooking. Unless you like your bacon-and-eggs breakfast to smell like last night’s salmon dinner, you’ll need to do this or that to deodorize your skillet.

Heat Retention and Distribution

Most non-stick pans are made of aluminum. Aluminum is a good conductor of heat, so these pans heat up fast and cool down just as quickly. They heat evenly enough for home cooking, but they’re highly responsive to your stovetop’s heating panels turning on/off or to changes in the heat dial.

Never preheat a non-stick pan empty. Otherwise, it can exceed the maximum operating temperature for PTFE coatings, 500°F (260°C), which can discolor the coating or cause some of it to start peeling off.

Instead, lightly grease the pan with cooking oil and bring it to heat for no longer than 15-20 seconds before adding cooking liquid or food to it.

Cast iron skillets are on the opposite end of the spectrum. Cast iron is a poor conductor of heat, so these skillets take a good 2-3 minutes on your stove to preheat. Once they do, though, they distribute that heat really well, without cold spots, and are extremely reluctant to let go of it.

Cast iron’s ability to hold on to heat is less important for gas ranges, where you’re cooking under a steady source of heat from the flame of the burner, and more so for electric stoves and cooktops, which turn on/off as the thermostat detects a lower/higher heat temperature than the setting.

A cast iron skillet will stay hot for a long time, holding on to the heat and distributing it evenly, which leads to superior browning and caramelization when cooking red meat, poultry, and seafood.

Care and Cleaning

Cast iron is quick to corrode and rust when it comes into contact with water. That’s why a cast iron skillet must never go in the dishwasher and should only be cleaned by hand, then patted thoroughly dry for storage.

Don’t let the fact that hand-cleaning is a non-negotiable scare you from owning cast iron cookware.

A well-seasoned pan has a slick surface that keeps foods from sticking to the bottom and sides. More often than not, cleaning it is as simple as giving your pan a good wipe down with a paper towel.

Good non-stick pans are generally dishwasher safe. However, most manufacturers recommend cleaning them by hand nevertheless, as the harshness of your dishwasher’s cleaning cycles can shorten their useful life.

Cleaning a non-stick pan is easy. Allow your pan to cool down, wet your scrub sponge, squirt some dish soap on it and squish it a couple of times to make the soap foam. Give the pan a good scrub, then rinse it under lukewarm running water.

That being said, a cast iron skillets are more capricious than a non-stick pan. Even if you follow the instructions in the owner’s manual to the word—which you should—the seasoning will eventually wear off, and you will need to reseason your skillet.

Don’t get me wrong: seasoning a cast iron skillet isn’t all that hard to do. You rub a thin coat of cooking oil all over your skillet (interior, exterior, and handle), then you bake it upside-down for an hour or two in a preheated 350°F oven.

For some, that sounds like a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon. Others cringe just at the idea of having to cater to a piece of cookware for any longer than it takes to quickly rinse it in the kitchen sink.

If caring for your cookware sounds pleasant and not burdensome to you, consider getting a cast iron skillet. But if you want a hassle-free, low-maintenance cooking vessel, go for a non-stick frying pan.

Useful Life

Cheap non-stick pans are made of thin aluminum, and they’re utterly incapable of holding on to heat. Not only that, but their manufacturers skim on the quality of the coatings to cut costs.

I guess that’s why the cooking surface on the most economical non-stick pans—with fewer layers of PTFE and a poor application—tends to last for only a year or so, then starts to peel off, rendering your pan unusable.

To prevent a “buy it nice or buy it twice” kinda situation, get your non-stick pans from the mid- to high-end lineups of more reputable cookware brands. But don’t expect miracles: the best non-stick pans last for three to five years till the coating wears out, and they need to be replaced.

Unless you’re coming from Mars, where cooking isn’t a thing, and people like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos eat astronaut food, you probably know that a cast iron skillet can outlive you. And your children. And your children’s children.

In other words, if you’re fine with having to replace your pans roughly every two to three years, get non-stick. If you want a cooking vessel for twenty-thirty bucks that can turn into a family heirloom and get handed down for generations, you know what to do.

By Jim Stonos

When Jim isn't in the kitchen, he is usually spending time with family and friends, and working with the HCW editorial team to answer the questions he used to ask himself back when he was learning the ropes of cooking.