Cast Aluminum vs Cast Iron – How Does the Newcomer Stack Up?
My parents used cast iron pans all the time, so that’s what I grew up being accustomed to. And when I moved out of home, my mom let me take one with me.
But what about this contender that’s popped up? Cast aluminum. Can cast iron hold its own against its competition? I’ll tackle the answer to that here and provide you with a full comparison of both, and why one may be better for you in your situation.
Cast iron and cast aluminum look and feel the same, but cast aluminum is lighter and stronger. Due to the heavier mass of iron, it holds heat longer, but it takes a bit longer to get hot. Cast iron has a longer lifespan and is more expensive.
Let’s dig a little deeper into the similarities and differences.
The History of Cast Iron Cookware
I mentioned my parents—both cooks—having cast iron skillets. And I think they may have been passed down to them. This is quite possible since the first known use of cast iron cookware dates back to about 220 CE during China’s Han Dynasty.
For the math inept like me, that’s just over 1800 years ago.
During the 16th century casting techniques became commonplace in Europe and that pretty much set the stage for the growing popularity of cast iron cookware.
In 1707 a man named Abraham Darby patented a casting method known as sand casting, which is very similar to how iron is cast today. Thanks to that, its popularity grew and boomed in the 18th and 19th centuries.
However, with the introduction of new cooking materials in the 20th century, its popularity started to wane.
But it’s still a favorite among cooks and despite its cost, more and more who left it are returning to it.
Now let’s look at some of the differences between cast aluminum vs cast iron.
How Versatile is Cast Iron?
Iron itself is versatile and can withstand high heat, so this cookware can be used on your stovetop, in your oven, your oven gill, and even on your BBQ. Cast iron skillets are also the perfect choice for searing meat.
Another plus for cast iron is the fact that it retains its heat. Of course, if you’re waiting to wash up, this could also be a minus! But if you’re the type that has several items cooking at once but never seems to time them all being done at the same time, food in cast iron will retain its heat.
If you use your cast iron often, it becomes “seasoned,” meaning it will add flavor to whatever you cook in it.
How Durable is Cast Iron?
You remember me mentioning the skillet I got from my mom when I moved out? And that they came from a grandparent? They are 3rd generation now. So your cast iron can last a lifetime and then some more lifetimes.
These things are built to last. And it doesn’t take a lot of effort to keep them in great shape.
How to Care for Cast Iron
Like I said just above, they don’t take a lot of effort to maintain. Once they are seasoned—and then seasoned occasionally after that—all you need to do after use is wipe them off with a damp cloth and very mild soap because cast iron is naturally non-stick. Without a coating you need to worry about scratching and getting some dreaded disease from.
What is Seasoning?
You’ll often hear about seasoning when discussing or researching cast iron, but what does it mean? You need to season it before ever cooking on it. And how often you season after that will depend on how much acidic food you cook in it.
Steps to season your cast iron cookware:
- First, scrub it well in hot soapy water
- Dry completely
- Spread a thin layer of shortening or vegetable oil over the inner surface of your cookware
- Set your oven to 375 degrees F. Put down a sheet of foil and place your cookware upside down on the middle rack, overtop of it.
- Bake for 1 hour and then let cool
Now let’s dig into aluminum cookware.
The History of Aluminum Cookware
Aluminum doesn’t have the history that iron has. It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that its first industrial production began. This led to the production of cookware by the late 1800s. In fact, production of it became so widespread it nearly replaced the use of cast iron completely.
How Versatile is Aluminum?
Aluminum isn’t as versatile as iron. This is one reason why cookie sheets and cake tins that are going to be lined or greased anyway are so popular. And while aluminum conducts heat very well—meaning it gets hot fast and with ease—it’s lacking when it comes to even heat distribution.
Since it’s a very soft metal, aluminum pans can’t take the kind of beating cast iron can. Your cookware can scratch and dent easily, so caution is needed.
How Durable is Aluminum?
Nowhere near as durable as cast iron. As mentioned above it can’t take a lot of wear and tear, so you will need to replace it long before that need would arise with its competition. Having said that, aluminum is also much cheaper—and rightly so—so the cost to replace isn’t as much. Meaning that it does all balance out in the end. In a sense, at least.
How to Care for Cast Aluminum
Like cast iron, you need to season your cast aluminum. The steps are the same as outlined above. As for cleaning, here are some steps:
- Clean with warm water and mild detergent. Don’t use anything that you wouldn’t use on your skin
- Don’t leave food residue on them. Clean immediately as the acidity can degrade the nonstick coating
- Don’t put it in the dishwasher
- If your cookware becomes stained, you can use a mild aluminum cleaner
- Always refer to the manufacturer’s instructions since coatings may differ and have different cleaning requirements
And when storing your pots and pans keep in mind they are somewhat fragile and will scratch and dent. Don’t be forcing them into your messy, cramped pots and pans cupboard without care.
Cast Aluminum vs Cast Iron: What about Rust?
No one wants to cook in something rusty, so whether one or the other is rustproof is a sensible question.
If you are properly maintaining both, neither will rust. Ever. However, that’s not the case if you aren’t keeping up with maintenance—seasoning. Your cast iron pans can and will rust if you don’t season them and if you wash them in harsh soap and water. However, cast aluminum will not rust.
So if rust is your biggest concern, and you’re the type to follow care instructions, go ahead and choose either iron or aluminum.
Is It Safe to Cook in Cast Aluminum?
That’s a bit of a loaded question. There is a ton of debate on this issue, with both sides saying they are right. And since I’m not a doctor or scientist of any kind, I’m not going to give you a definitive answer, when I doubt there really is one.
What I will do is provide you with the views of each side. Then I suggest you make a decision you are comfortable with.
First off, here is a problem with aluminum. It doesn’t react well with acidic foods. The acid causes the metal to leach into whatever you are cooking. So most cookware will have some sort of non-stick layer or it will be anodized.
Anodization is an electrochemical process that forms a layer over naturally occurring aluminum oxide which happens when aluminum is exposed to the air.
Having said all that, even if aluminum is coated with a nonstick layer or anodized, it will still leach a small amount of aluminum content in your food. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), “Cooking in aluminum utensils often results in statistically significant, but relatively small, increases in aluminum content of food.”
In September 1985, the then-current issue of the Journal of Food Protection estimated that food that had been in contact with either aluminum pots or foil added an average of 3.5 mg of aluminum to the diet. However, most adults are already ingesting 7 to 9 mg of aluminum from food daily, not including the 3.5 mentioned above.
The bottom line is that if you do choose aluminum, anodized is probably your best option, but don’t cook acidic foods in it. And if your pots and pans are damaged in any way, get rid of them. Acidity and damage will increase the amount of leaching.
At the end of the day, the choice is yours. Do whatever you feel comfortable with.
Cast Aluminum vs Cast Iron: Is There Anything You Shouldn’t Cook in Them?
Again, there is some debate here.
As far as cast iron goes, assuming your cookware is kept well seasoned, you should be able to cook anything. But there are still lots of websites that say nope, you shouldn’t cook this or that. Then there is an equal number of sites that “debunk” these claims as silly and give reasons why.
Acidic food is strongly discouraged for cast aluminum since this will cause even greater leaching and a breakdown of the nonstick or anodizing process.
So which is the right choice for you? Cast aluminum or cast iron?
You should choose cast iron if:
- You are diligent with upkeep and maintenance—meaning seasoning
- The potential health concerns of aluminum freak you out
- You want something that will last at least your lifetime
You should choose aluminum if:
- You don’t believe the potential health concerns are true
- You’re looking for something lightweight
- You’re looking for something cheaper
Still weighing up your options? Check out our post on cast iron vs carbon steel pans.
Thanks for reading. Hopefully the above will help you make a final decision. And while you’re here, why not check out the articles below to see if we can help you with something else?