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Material Matters: Understanding Cast Iron & Stainless Steel

Picking the perfect pots and pans makes a positive impact on your cooking and baking experiences. Yet, knowing the ins and outs of cookware can be daunting, especially when preparing big meals, from family dinners to dinner parties. Omaha Knife owners Jennifer and Curtis Wilford share their easy-to-understand expertise about cast iron and stainless steel and offer up simple tips for caring for cookware and for choosing appropriate cookware pieces to create quality meals.

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Pot & Pan Principles: Cast Iron vs. Stainless Steel

Q. What key cookware pieces and brands do you recommend as kitchen staples for any-level cook, from dabbler to pro chef?
Jennifer: I'm a fan of the middle-price-ranged stainless steel, like Calphalon cookware. It's hard to buy really good cast iron these days. It's not nearly as smooth, so I'm more of a fan of the vintage. You want to look for cookware that's made in the U.S., Western Europe, and Canada.

With stainless steel … look for handles that are bolted on and not welded. Also, look for heavy-bottomed stainless steel pans. Cast iron pans are all going to be heavy-bottomed, some heavier than others. So it's really more about what you want to look for in the pan and where it's made, rather than a specific brand.

Q. Are there certain dishes that are prepared best with certain cookware pieces?
Jennifer: Yes, so a lot of time, people spend the extra money to get high-quality cuts of meat, and they want to have that nice sear or browning on it, and you can't get that with a Teflon pan. So you turn to stainless steel or cast iron, depending on what you have or what your comfort level is, and that's what you'll find that a lot of the chefs are using.

A lot of people bake in their cast iron, which gives a nice crust for dishes such as cornbread. A lot of times, people wonder how is it that you can go to a restaurant and have something like this, but you can't make it that way at home. I think it starts with the cookware and the quality of food that you use.

Q. Is it true that cast iron is more durable and more affordable than stainless steel?
Jennifer: Usually it is. With cast iron, still, you don't want to drop it on your glass stove top – you risk breaking the stove top. Cast iron is something that you can pass down to your children, and it'll still look just as wonderful and be just as good as the day you started using it. Stainless steel is probably not something you'll pass on to your children, but it'll last you for as long as you need it. Really it's more about the looks of it. It's probably still perfectly fine after 20, 30 years, but it's more about how it looks at that point.

Q. Does a well-cared-for cast iron pan have a better nonstick surface than a stainless steel pan?
Jennifer: Absolutely. Yes, stainless steel doesn't have a nonstick surface at all. You have to cook at a good, high heat; you have to use fat. There's a bit of a technique, whereas with cast iron – in the very beginning, when you first season it, you've got to baby it a little bit. Once you get to a certain level, it can take a lot and still be nonstick.

Cast Iron Skillet
Cast Iron Skillet on Stove
Turn Up the Heat … & Other Hot Tips

Q. Stainless steel is also touted as an even heat distributor … is it better than cast iron, or are they equal when it comes to this?
Jennifer: Just different – so a lot of times, there's aluminum in the core – that's what makes it an even heat distributor. So stainless steel by itself is typically not. Otherwise, if you just get a stainless steel pan that doesn't have that, which the very inexpensive stainless steel is like that, it will have hot spots and burn your food very easily, and it's hard to control that on the heat of your stove. If you want to boil, like make a soup, you definitely want to use stainless steel rather than your cast iron.

Q. Any thoughts about proper heating methods?
Jennifer: With whatever kind of stove you have, you can still use cast iron or stainless steel, whether it be induction, glass, or a gas stove. But you'll certainly find people on both sides of the camp, who will swear that one is better than the other. But it's really what they're used to, so I prefer gas stoves, because especially with cast iron, I can control the heat much better – ramp it up, immediately take it down so that you're not smoking your fats and oils. You just have to get to know your stove – that's what I tell people. Take it slow.

Q. For the seemingly impossible task of achieving just the right amount of golden browning on your proteins and veggies, while still maintaining a tender texture, is cast iron your best bet?
Jennifer: Cast iron browns just about anything you put in it. Vegetables, meat, tofu. It can brown the outside quickly so the inside doesn't get overheated.

Q. Is stainless steel a good choice for cookware that won't chemically react to foods that contain high acidity levels, such as tomatoes, lemons, and other citrus fruits, etc.?
Jennifer: Right, for the most part. I wouldn't store any tomato in my stainless steel for any length of time, beyond a day or so, because it is metal, but it is very resistant to any acidic foods.

Q. Does the same hold true for cast iron?
Jennifer: With cast iron, you want to stay away from your acidic foods. You know a little bit is fine, but I'm not making tomato sauce in my cast iron.

Vegetables in Stainless Steel Pan
Cooking with a Stainless Steel Pan
The Word on Seasoning and Washing

Q. What's the best way to season a new cast iron pan?
Curtis: It's got to be cleaned to bare metal, no rust, no old carbon. Lye is how you get the carbon off and careful use of vinegar will take the rust off. Then when you have it completely clean, then you put the oil in.

Jennifer: You want something that's high in omega-3s. Flaxseed oil is something that's readily available in the grocery store, but you can use pastured fat from pastured animals – 100% grass-fed beef or pastured pork – lard or tallow because they're higher in omega-3s, whereas grocery store meat, vegetable oils, and Crisco®, are all very high in omega-6s.

You've got to heat the pan to the smoke point, which is what makes it polymerized, kind of a change in the molecular structure of the fat happens and creates that nice, Teflon-like seasoning. Once you get several layers down, then you can start cooking with it, and then every time you cook with it, you're in essence adding more layers.

Q. What kind of washing is recommended for cast iron?
Jennifer: For cast iron, never use soap; never put it in the dishwasher. When possible, just wipe it out. And if you're using good-quality fats that are higher in cholesterol and saturated fat - not vegetable oil - it doesn't go rancid. So, you could use coconut oil. You just wipe it out when possible.

If you have anything that's kind of stuck, there are a few things you can do. You can put a little bit of water, not boiling, but until you can't hold your finger in it, and when it gets warm enough, then just use a scraper or flat end of the spatula to scrape it out. Then you want to wipe it out real well and occasionally put a little, very, very thin layer of oil on it, especially if you're not going to use it for awhile. Make sure that you never leave any moisture on it. Don't ever boil anything in cast iron. You don't want to start over with your seasoning.

Curtis: Cast iron can sit with fried bacon or anything that's not water-based … it'll clean up tomorrow or next week, just about as easily.

Q. What about using scouring pads on cast iron?
Curtis: Use a plastic scouring pad, not an SOS pad, which is based on steel wool.

Q. How about washing stainless steel?
Jennifer: I put my stainless steel in the dishwasher. Sometimes I'll have to boil a little water in the bottom of it if I have something particularly stuck on … it takes anything that's stuck right off your stainless steel.

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With this comprehensive collection of cookware tips from Jennifer and Curtis, you'll be equipped with the knowledge you need to find key cookware pieces to complement any cooking endeavor.

Stainless Steel Pan with Cast Iron Skillets in Background
Stainless Steel Pan
About Omaha Knife
Jennifer Wilford of Omaha Knife Shop
Jennifer Wilford of Omaha Knife

Omaha Knife carries an exceptional variety of hard-to-find items, from vintage cast iron pans to higher-end knives and axes. What began as the website omahaknifestore.com in 2010 has successfully expanded into a retail space at 8033 S. 83rd Ave., La Vista, NE 68128. Store owners Jennifer and Curtis Wilford have an impressively thorough knowledge of their products and also share their healthy-cooking expertise during Saturday morning classes held at the store. Omaha Knife offers free sharpening for life, for any knife or axe purchased from the store and omahaknifestore.com.

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