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Taking the plunge to invest in a real set of cookware, (i.e., something a step or three above that cheap IKEA set), can be a serious project, especially if you’re an over-thinker like me.
While building my wedding registry, I encountered endless choices: stainless steel, nonstick, teflon, ceramic, and plenty of others, whether frying pans, cooking pots, baking sheets and more.
Cast Iron – The Traditional Choice in North America
Cast iron cookware is extremely popular both with professional chefs and home cooks. In particular, people appreciate the material’s remarkable durability.
As a matter of fact, New York Times food writer Mark Rittman writes that he’s been using the same cast iron skillet for over forty years.
He’s far from the only one out there using ancient cast iron; there are countless stories of cast iron frying pans and dutch ovens being passed down for generations (which, by the way, makes it incredibly well-seasoned and your food extra tasty).
Why is cast iron able to last so long?
It starts with the material’s sturdiness. You will never find yourself looking sadly at a pan of food on the floor, still holding the handle.
My fiancé wasn’t any help in making a decision; after all, this is a product he’ll only use to reheat leftovers. After some extensive research, I finally narrowed it down to two choices for the bulk of my food preparation adventures: cast iron or copper.
Heat, be it high or low, is cast iron’s best friend. Although it takes its time to heat up, once it’s there, it’s there to stay. This makes it a great tool for searing or browning meat. In addition, this metal tends not to create “hot spots”, which means chicken breasts won’t need to dance around the pan to be prepared evenly.
Giant pan cookies and bread bakes beautifully in cast iron skillets and you’ll find that many traditional cornbread recipes do so as well. Speaking of cornbread, try Jennifer’s Jalapeno Skillet Cornbread for a tasty variation of this southern staple.
If it isn’t enameled, cast iron can stand the highest temperature on nearly all home cooks’ ovens. Its ability to withstand and hold high heat make it ideal for deep frying and searing, and as an added bonus, the oil used for deep frying deepens the seasoning every time you use it! The once ubiquitous black iron pan is traditional vessel used to make fried chicken, hushpuppies, and all your other favorite deep fried goodies. Best of all – it works perfectly with all of the new induction stoves that are hitting the market!
If seasoned correctly, it is naturally nonstick, so there’s no worry of leaving half a fried egg behind and breaking that lovely yolk. Moreover, it typically isn’t chemically treated which means it won’t be imparting anything to your food but the flavors of the spices. Since cast iron is usually seasoned with oil or another form of fat, it adds a richness to food prepared in it and its flavor deepens over time and use.
Lodge L8SK3 Pre-Seasoned Cast-Iron Skillet, 10.25-inch available at Amazon.
Frying pans made from this material are also more affordable than many of their peers. A good quality pre-seasoned ten inch skillet can be found for $20 and it’s not a piece that you’ll find yourself replacing very often, or maybe even ever if it’s well taken care of.
The many benefits of cast iron cookware do come at a price. Its sturdiness also means serious heft, making the larger examples relatively difficult to clean or transfer to the oven, especially if it has only one handle.
You’ve also got to make sure the shelf storing all of that iron is up to the challenge.
Secondly, it takes quite a while for the metal to heat up, which is fine if you have the time, but can be a pain if you’re trying to get dinner whipped up quickly.
That also means it takes some time to cool down, which could be annoying for those of you that like to get the dishes done right after dinner.
On that note, cast can be difficult to clean if the food is left intact for an extended period. Usually scraping any bits off, rinsing with hot water, and thoroughly drying (very important to avoid rusting!) will do the job but there are many methods to clean these dependent on how thick of layer of seasoning that is
In order for the cast iron to last and remain nonstick, it has to be “seasoned”, which involves coating it in oil and baking it for several hours. Luckily, you don’t need to do this often, but it’s time consuming when you do.
Further, iron is a reactive material, meaning it’s not a good idea to cook acidic foods, like fruit or tomatoes, in cast products because you could damage it, or at the very least have to re-season it.
Le Creuset Signature Enameled Cast-Iron Round Braiser, 3-1/2-Quart in “Palm” available at Amazon.
The porcelain is pretty much immune to any chemical reaction but it a little bit brittle when it comes to clanging and banging so no beating your metal spoon on the side with these.
Copper – a little old world charm for your kitchen
Visions of hearty French cuisine, a romantic chateau along the French riveria, the bustle of Paris – that’s what I think about when I imagine a collection of copper in my kitchen.
However, in spite of the dreamy connotation, copper cookware does live up to its hype and deserves some consideration when trying to choose the best cooking products for your home.
Copper cookware is also very popular, but more with chefs and advanced home cooks. It’s a favorite among these groups because of how well it distributes heat; many would argue that it’s the best type of cookware for avoiding hotspots.
This makes it great for braising, simmering sauces, and preparing temperamental dishes like hollandaise and risotto.
Unlike cast iron, it heats up and cools down very quickly, meaning you can easily use it for several components of a meal and get dinner on the table fast.
Copper lasts quite a while when well taken care of, although the stainless lined varieties may not for decades like cast iron.
The thicker tinned lined examples may well last a century or more when maintained and the tin is refreshed as needed – typically 20 to30 years in a home environment if it is not regularly attacked with metal utensils. When well made, copper pots and frying pans are very solid and won’t break into pieces.
Even though copper cookware tends to make for sturdy equipment, you won’t need a spotter when moving a pot full of food from the stove to the oven; it’s lighter than cast iron.
However, the better, thicker quality pieces will way much more than thin pans your used from the department store.
Mauviel M’heritage M250B 5-piece 2.5mm Copper Cookware Set with Bronze Handles available at Amazon.
One of its greatest, and certainly most obvious, benefits is that copper cookware is very pretty. If you have open shelving, you’d happily fill it with beautiful, shiny metal that makes you think old world Europe.
Many people even use it for home decor as well as for food preparation by hanging the pieces on the wall or from the ceiling above the stove, and why not? It really is gorgeous.
Not to mention, there’s no harm in showing off a little by letting your friends see that you’ve got what the pros are using.
Although it can be difficult to maintain, copper cookware is pretty easy to clean. Its lighter weight, for one thing, means you won’t be struggling to maneuver it in the sink.
It’s totally fine to clean copper cookware with gentle soap and a dish brush or sponge without worrying about damaging the pan or affecting it’s usefulness.
If tinned line, avoid the any sort of steel wool or abrasives – and go real light with the green scrubby pads. Stainless lined examples can take a bit more punishment.
Just make sure you dry the pans thoroughly afterwards if you’re trying to keep that shiny look!
It’s incredible heat conducting power isn’t the only reason copper is mostly used by professionals and near-pros, though. Investing in copper cookware is not easy on the bank account: it’s typically the most expensive available.
Although you are paying for a product that will last you a long time, copper requires a lot of upkeep.
First, it has to be polished frequently in order to allow it to remain shiny. Second, copper on its own is very reactive, so typically copper cookware is lined with tin or stainless steel.
If it’s lined with tin, it’ll need to be re-tinned every 15 to 20 years in a busy home environment – if it is not regularly attacked with metal utensils.
Although it will last quite a bit longer, stainless steel lined copper cookware is even more expensive, and if you ever do need to have it re-lined, it’ll cost you a pretty penny.
You can use unlined copper products, but this really limits the range of food you’re able to prepare in it. Definitely no acidic foods, and lighter colored foods, like eggs, can pick up gray streaks from the copper. Safe to eat, but not exactly appetizing.
Lastly, unfortunately most copper is currently incompatible with many advanced cooks’ favorite home appliance: induction ranges. There have been rumors that this may be changing in the near future with the introduction of a new generation of induction stoves, but nothing is certain as of yet.
Cast Iron Vs Copper Cookware
In the following comparison table, you can see that I’ve listed the various pluses and minuses and pros and cons of cast iron and copper cookware to help you decide which is the best for your home kitchen. They both have some significant advantages but there are trade offs as well.
Cast Iron Vs Copper Cookware
|Cast Iron Cookware||Copper Cookware|
|Not very expensive! At least for the bare metal/pre-seasoned models.||Heavy!||Superior conduction of heat to all regions of the pan. No hotspots!||Expensive!|
|Bare cast iron is seasoned with natural oils - making for a non-toxic surface.||Seasoning cannot take highly acidic food on a regular basis without be re-seasoned.||Reacts FAST to changes in temperature which helps with sautéing.||Can't take high heat - low and medium heat only (although you will not need as high of a temp from your stove).|
|Soaks up heat and slowly radiates it out.||The porcelain on enameled versions is a little brittle. Avoid hitting it with metal utensils or the bottom of the sink.||Lighter than cast iron.||Tinned lining will need to be re-tinned at some point.|
|Works great with induction stoves.||Not nearly at reactive to changes in temperature as copper (sometime this is good and sometimes bad).||Tinned versions are naturally nonstick.||Stainless liners can (in rare circumstances) separate.|
|Tolerates high heat for searing.||Handle will get HOT! Use often mitts or pott holders (those quilted pieces of cloth your gandma used to keep in the kitchen).||If well treated, will last for years.||Almost all models will NOT work with induction.|
|Seasoning add to the flavor.||Can be expensive for the French manufactured products (cheaper for the Chinese made models).|
|Dual use - the frying pans works as well in the oven as the stove top.|
What did I purchase?
After some brooding, writing detailed pros and cons lists, and a few (or seven) phone calls to my mom, I settled primarily on cast iron for my kitchen with a few stainless copper “anchor” pieces thrown in, a few enameled cast iron dutch ovens, and even some stainless steel “clad” sauté, sauce, and stock pots for the more punishing duties – it’s not an all or nothing proposition.
You’ll have to read about my exact choices in a latter post.
Lodge L5HS3 5-Piece Pre-Seasoned Cast-Iron Cookware Set available at Amazon.
How did I make the call? It came down to three factors. For one, the stakes are a lot lower with cast. Both types of cookware require attention and treatment, but if I somehow mess it up, I’m not out hundreds of dollars.
Two, copper is definitely more finicky when it comes to what can be made in it. If I prepare the wrong thing in cast iron, I may need to re-season it but at least I haven’t ruined the pan.
Three, cast iron is more compatible with my style of cooking. It’s perfect for the several times a year I deep fry a big batch of hot wings before a football game and I love using dutch ovens to cook a stew low and slow in the oven – be sure to use enamel coated products if using these for tomatoe based stews – acid foods can eat away at your nice seasoning.
Although it took a while to reach this decision and it was a close call, cast iron cookware will be put to better use in my kitchen and I’ve asked for a new stainless steel clad set on my wedding registry to round out my collection.
That may not be the case for you, though, and hopefully this will help you reach your own decision!
About Chelsea Miller
Chelsea Miller, born and raised in Portland, Oregon, graduated from the University of Oregon where she discovered both her love of football and cooking great food. She's the founder of the food blog "A Duck's Oven" and began writing for Foodal in 2014.