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Stir-frying in a Cast-Iron Pan: Good or Bad Idea?

By the editors of Cook's Illustrated

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A well-seasoned cast-iron pan is great for searing, but could it beat out our favorite nonstick skillet when it came to stir-fries?

For stir-frying, our go-to pan is a 12-inch nonstick skillet. But given that a well-seasoned cast-iron pan also has excellent nonstick properties and that it could potentially do a better job at searing (thus more closely imitating restaurant-quality stir-fries cooked in a ripping hot wok), we wondered whether this style of pan could work for stir-frying. We compared results using two recipes: a stir-fried beef dish and a stir-fried noodle dish.

The beef cooked more or less similarly in both pans, though cast iron came with pros and cons. On the one hand, it gave the meat a deeper sear. On the other, the beef’s marinade (which contained sugar) caused a good bit of fond to develop—and the meat to sometimes stick slightly, despite this vessel’s seasoning. Whereas cooking meat in cast iron wasn’t a total disaster, stir-frying noodles was: Both the noodles and the eggs in the dish stuck relentlessly to its surface. Frequently stirring those ingredients minimized sticking but also caused them to disintegrate. And where they did stick they burned, leaving behind black flecks and bitterness—a mess that stripped away the pan’s seasoning when cleaned.

Why the difference? Nonstick pan surfaces, whether cast iron or manufactured nonstick, rely on polymers for their slickness. When seasoning cast iron, we create the polymer ourselves by heating oil above its smoke point, at which time it forms a hard film on the pan surface. Most manufactured nonstick pans rely on polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), a polymer that creates a very slick surface. While both polymers repel water and fat, PTFE is more effective than is the homemade version on cast iron.

Furthermore, in both recipes, the added weight of the cast-iron pan was both an asset and a drawback. Thanks to the mass of the pan, once it got hot, it stayed hot, which meant that it needed less time to reheat between batches. But the heftiness also meant that it was hard work to both lift the pan and scrape out the food after each batch was cooked.

THE BOTTOM LINE: We’ll be sticking, so to speak, with nonstick skillets for stir-fries.

RECIPE FOR MEMBERS: Thai-Style Stir-Fried Noodles with Chicken and Broccolini

We wanted to create a version of pad see ew—the traditional Thai dish of chewy, lightly charred rice noodles, with chicken, crisp broccoli, and moist egg, bound with a sweet and salty soy-based sauce—that would work in the American home kitchen.

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