Similar to choosing between a chocolate chip or peanut butter cookie, choosing the right pan for you comes down to personal preference. In this article, I’ll break down the differences between the two pans, highlight their pros and cons, and touch on the cooking methods these pans are best suited for.
Let’s dive in.
Understanding Cast Iron & Cast Aluminum Pans
Casting aluminum is the process of heating aluminum to a very high temperature and pouring it into a mold. This durable metal is used not only for kitchenware, but also in the automobile industry, the medical industry, and it might even be used in that lovely set of patio furniture you bought. Cast aluminum is more durable than forged aluminum, the material is easily accessible, and the pans are much lighter weight than cast iron.
Cast Iron has been around since 220 A.D. Using a similar process to casting aluminum, the iron is heated to an extremely high temperature and cast into molds.
Cast iron pans last nearly forever. They distribute heat very evenly and hold temperatures well. This makes them ideal for cooking.
Is Cast Aluminum Coated with Anything?
Frequently, yes. The pans are generally better quality and easier to use if they’re coated. The most common coatings are: Stainless steel, enamel, or a non-stick coating such as ceramic.
Though forged aluminum pans are often anodized to create a finish, cast aluminum is too porous to complete the anodization process.
Is Cast Iron Coated with Anything?
Cast iron is sometimes factory seasoned, and other times it’s sold unseasoned. Either way, you need a good coat of seasoning on the pan before you cook with it, or the food you're cooking will stick.
The seasoning on a cast iron is nothing more than very thin layers of hardened oil. To learn more about seasoning cast iron check out this article
Is One Better than the Other?
Not necessarily, but there are three factors to consider when choosing between these two pans:
Care & Maintenance
Cast aluminum is very low-maintenance. If you treat the pan gently, it can last you a long time. Depending on the coating, you’ll want to be careful when scrubbing or using metal utensils on it to avoid scratching the finish or non-stick coating. Once the finish has been ruined or has worn off with time, the pan becomes difficult to use and there is no easy way to repair it.
Cast iron definitely requires more care to maintain, but if you do a quick re-seasoning every time you use the pan and take care not to scratch the finish too much, the pan will get better and better with every use. If you do happen to ruin the finish on your cast iron pan, you can strip the pan and do a full re-seasoning. You can do this indefinitely, so the pan will last you forever unless you somehow crack it.
Cast aluminum is often coated in enamel, stainless steel, or a non-stick coating such as teflon or ceramic. Neither enamel or stainless steel are non-stick, meaning you’ll want to cook with plenty of oil. The only non-stick cast aluminum pans are going to be the types coated in a non-stick finish.
A new pan with a good non-stick coating is extremely hard to beat. It will win over cast iron for its easy release almost every time. But no matter how careful you are with your pan, over time, the non-stick coating will wear away with natural use. This might take up to several years if you aren’t using it heavily every day, but it will happen eventually. There is no way to repair the pan when this happens and eventually, the pan will become impossible to use and you’ll have to buy a new one.
Cast iron will only be non-stick if you keep up with the seasoning processes. However, a well-seasoned cast iron pan that gets re-seasoned every time it’s used will become more and more non-stick over time.
This is because while you do tend to wear down the non-stick layer of a pan during the cooking and cleaning process, you are building it right back up with that seasoning.
Life of the Pan
Cast aluminum can last 1-10 years and the type of finish you choose will definitely impact its life. For example, an enamel or stainless steel coating will likely last you much longer than a non-stick coating.
If you choose a non-stick coating, you can expect to replace that pan every few years with regular use. I’m a big fan of having a separate pan for delicate things like cooking eggs, and another pan for rougher tasks like searing meat and whisking sauces. This will give you a much longer life out of a non-stick pan.
Cast iron can be used continuously, and passed down for generations. The only time you would really need to say goodbye to it is if you manage to crack the pan, which is pretty hard to do and takes extreme force.
No matter how bad the pan's finish becomes, you can always reseason that pan and begin using it again.
Are Aluminum and Cast Iron Safe to Cook With?
Yes, despite a lot of conspiracy theories to the contrary, both pans are completely safe to cook with.
The only precautions you should take is to avoid cooking acidic ingredients, such as tomato sauce, in unfinished aluminum or in cast iron. Finished aluminum is perfectly fine to cook acidic foods in.
Which is Easier to Clean - Cast Iron? Or Cast Aluminum?
Cast aluminum will win most of the time. People don’t keep up on their cast iron pan maintenance that well, which causes food to stick. Plus, cast iron pans are heavy, making them more cumbersome to clean.
The exceptions to this are when a non-stick coating wears off a cast aluminum pan and the pan becomes very difficult to cook with and to clean; and when a cast iron has been so well cared for, all you have to do is wipe it clean and it’s good to go again.
It used to be the case that cast aluminum was the cheaper of the two pans, but nowadays, they are fairly comparable.
Both cast iron and cast aluminum are great additions to any kitchen.
Cast aluminum, particularly when coated in a non-stick or enamel finish, is lightweight, easy to clean, and a joy to use. The downside is these pans wear out within a few years of heavy use and have to be replaced.
Cast iron has been around for centuries. While you do have to put in more work in keeping up with the maintenance of these pans, they can last you forever. A well-cared-for cast iron will make a wonderful non-stick pan, and the seasoning can be repaired no matter how badly you ruin it.
Both pans are fairly affordable options and are safe to cook with.
Remember to avoid cooking acidic foods in unfinished cast aluminum, or in cast iron.