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Why/when is cast-iron better than non-stick? [moved from Home Cooking]

I'm new to cooking and my copy of "On Food and Cooking" hasn't arrived from Amazon yet.

I've read many times a particular preparation calling for a "heavy cast iron skillet". For example, a few people mentioned this in a thread on searing skirt steak.

What's the reason for this? What does a cast-iron skillet do better than my non-stick?

And how does the thickness/heaviness of a skillet affect results?

Thanks much for any comments.

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  1. Once it's well-seasoned, it works just as well in the "not sticking" department as nonstick. It holds heat much better, and will get much hotter than nonstick (not to mention the potential health issues with heating teflon above a certain temperature). That's why it's perfect for searing meats. I'm a total cast-iron convert. Unless I'm cooking something really acidic, I almost always reach for my cast iron skillet first.

    1. Lots of people here will be able to give you much more technical responses than I. However, I will tell you what I believe to be true. You don't want to heat nonstick skillets with nothing in them because the nonstick coating can emit bad things if it gets too hot. However, when you are looking to sear a skirt steak you want to put the steak in a pan that is already very hot. That's where the cast iron comes in.

      I tend to use them somewhat interchangably. The cast iron has the added bonus that it can go in the oven, so I take that into consideration if it is relevant. I use the nonstick if I'm sauteeing and I would rather not use quite as much oil.

      Good luck!

      7 Replies
      1. re: MalinDC

        Here's a related question: How do you clean a seasoned cast iron pan? My SO wouldn't stand for just wiping it out.

        1. re: mojoeater

          The usual recommendation is to just scrub it out with a dishwashing brush and hot water, and a Scotchpad for sticky stuff. Detergent can take out the seasoning.

          1. re: mpalmer6c

            Sometimes I scour mine with kosher salt, which absorbs some of the grease. Also, this may be heresy to some, but I occasionally use dishwashing liquid on my well-seasoned pan.

            1. re: whs

              I always use detergent. The seasoning on my pans has never been compromised by a good wash.

              1. re: Candy

                I always use detergent too but after drying I put it back on the burner to re-heat and then rub a small amount of oil to sort of re-season it.

                1. re: Cookiefiend

                  I use detergent too. We spray ours with spray olive oil after drying before storing it.

          2. re: mojoeater

            I pour some water in and let the pan soak for a few minutes. Then with a non scratching plastic scrubber like a Dobie, I clean it up - no soap, rinse and wipe dry. Just remember if you leave too much in the skillet, it means youve cheated your dish out of some of the essential flavors that stick to the bottom of the pan. Deglaze as often as you can.

        2. In addition to what others have said, cast iron has the advantage of being able to move from the stove to the oven. You don't want non-stick in the oven because of chemicals.

          1. One type of pan often overlooked except by real French chefs is the carbon steel frying pans. They are expensive, but last a lifetime. I have three I bought recently from Chef's Catalogue, and they are fantastic. Once seasoned, they are indeed non-stick. Like cast iron, they can reach a very high heat for searing. They require the same care as cast iron.

            4 Replies
            1. re: OldTimer

              Chinese chefs also often use carbon steel woks.

              1. re: OldTimer

                French carbon steel crepe pans are easier to find in the USA.

                1. re: OldTimer

                  I saw your recommendation for Carbon Steel frying pans. I've been looking for a lightweight alternative to the cast iron and this seems to fit the bill. Do you know the difference between "carbon" steel pans and "black" steel pans? I saw both on Amazon.com, and can't find out just what they are. Many thanks for your help!

                  1. re: Melodymaker

                    Black steel has a coating on it. Go for the carbon steel and treat them with the respect they deserve.

                2. great, thanks for the feedback everyone. couple more questions:

                  what does it mean to "season" a pan?

                  and what kind of special care do cast-iron skillets require?

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: PapaSlurp

                    I've seen all sorts of ideas, which probably all work. Jeff Smith says wash a new pan out with soap and water, and never use soap again. Heat the pan on a burner and put in 2 T. cooking oil, swirl it around and heat till smoking. Let cool and pour off oil. Do it twice more and you're ready to cook.

                    I don't give my cast iron any special care. I don't remember, but when they're new they might rust a little, in which case you'd want to dry them out. But my pan is so old and well seasoned that there's no problem.

                    1. re: PapaSlurp

                      The "seasoning" is a uniform coating/sealing. It is BOTH to prevent the pan from rusting AND to provide a stick resistant /less reactive surface. If will not add flavor, in fact if done well it makes the pan kind of sealed against leaching out off flavors

                      I am strong believer in the value of using an oil with a very high smoke point to do the seasoning, I believe the oil with the highest smoke point is refined avacado oil at about 495. I think pure refined safflower oil is next at like 460. It is big difference to be able to heat to higher temps. Oils with lower temps will smoke in the seasoning and will also prevent the pan from being heated to a cooking temp sufficient for the frying/ pan searing that is often called for.

                      The pan must be extremely clean before the oil is applied or the seasoning will not bake on. I mean don't just use a scrubbing pad, get the heavy duty steel wool from the hardware store. For a really nasty pan sandpaper or a spinning wire brush, like is used in an auto body shop, might be required. Once the pan is gleaming it must be dried completely. With towels and even over a low burner to drive off moisture.

                      Pre-heat your oven to near the smoking point of the oil, making sure that your oven will not over run the temp -- I keep a massive stone in my oven and use an external thermometer so I am sure of the real temp. Coat every bit of the pan with oil, rubbing it in well so that there are no uncoated spots. Put the pan in the oven and leave it in there for a long time, hours at least, overnight is better. The idea is that oil will be heated to dryness, baking into the metal. The surface should be a smooth hard barely carbonized coating -- basically imagine exterior of commercial kitchen's fry pans, but done in a uniform deliberate manner. If it is "gummy" you did not heat it to a high enough temp/did not leave it long enough.

                      The first few things you cook should not have ANYTHING acidic in them nor too much liquid. I like to cook some meat, some people swear by bacon, but I find that a bit of the salty residue seems to linger. Cast iron seems indestrucible so the temptation is set the burner to MAX, but due to its mass and the fact that empty pan will quickly exceed the smoking point I suggest reducing the temp that you preheat at, and making it up by preheating for a slightly longer time. After each use you have to give the pan a careful looking over. While it is warm you can usually use even a wooden flipper to coax any bit of food out. Then use a lot of very hot water to flush out anything left. A gentle swipe with a tiny amount of soap does not seem to harm the seasoning, but NEVER let the pan soak in soapy water or even think about putting it in the dishwasher. Careful and complete drying is key to never getting any rust/break down of the seasoning/coating. The trick of leaving it on a low burner for a minute or two to drive off moisture works well.

                      Eventaully the seasoning builds up/stabilizes and you can get away with cooking foods that are a little acid, but in generally if you need to make a tomato sauce or wine reduction SS is a much better choice.

                      The good news is that more you use a cast pan the easier the care get. The seasoning hardens and loses and high spots/low spots. It even will stand up to higher temps as it ages AS LONG AS KEEP IT CLEAN! Once you get food particles left behindyou have to clean em out. If you don't they become like magnets attracting other other food and moisture. The bits of stuck food will burn upon next use and the moisture will cause rusting upon storage.

                      Don't let my drawn out details scare you, in practice the care that it takes to clean a cast iron pan is maybe 30-60 seconds more than a good SS pan.