The grill grates are where you spend most of your time grilling. Therefore, they should be tough and durable. Not to mention the ability to retain and conduct heat as well as to keep food from sticking.
The two most common materials used in making grill grates are cast iron and stainless steel. They both provide an effective and safe surface to cook on. But they are different materials with distinct features, therefore affect your cooking differently.
In this stainless steel grill grates vs cast iron article, I will outline the differences between the two so you’ll have the proper knowledge to choose the right material for you.
It All Started With Iron
Iron is a pure metal that has a silvery white color. Surprisingly, it’s quite soft. It becomes even softer when heated. Therefore, iron isn’t good for making cookware.
Both cast iron and stainless steel are alloys of iron. In other words, they are a mixture between iron and other metallic elements. The purpose is to give them greater strength (cast iron) or resistance to corrosion (stainless steel).
Cast iron contains 2% to 4% carbon, along with other stuff such as silicon, manganese, sulfur, and phosphorus. Due to its carbon quantity, cast iron is extremely tough and durable. However, the material is brittle and rusts easily.
When it comes to cast iron grill grates, there are two main types. The first one is cast iron grates without any exterior coating. This type has a black and rough surface, which is similar to our regular cast iron skillet.
Because it has no coating, it is still spongy and porous. Therefore, to protect the bare iron from the oxygen which causes corrosion, we need to constantly oil or “season” this type of cast iron grates. These tiny holes gradually absorb the oil and, with the help of heat, they start to form a non-stick surface over time.
The second type of cast iron grate is plated with porcelain enamel. It has a smooth and shiny exterior. Food is less likely to stick on this one which makes it very easy to clean. However, constant brushing and cleaning can score the finish and wear it out eventually.
Furthermore, if you happen to drop the grate, the finish will crack and expose the cast iron inside to rusting. That said, if you take care of this type of cast iron grate properly, it will last for a long time. It’s also cheaper than stainless steel.
Unlike cast iron, stainless steel contains less carbon, anywhere from 0.3% to 1.5%. It does have some silicon and manganese. But the key ingredient that makes stainless steel really different from cast iron is chromium.
The chromium atoms react with the oxygen in the air, forming a silvery smooth and protective shield that prevents other oxygen atoms and water from corrupting the iron inside. Stainless steel usually has a minimum of 10.5% chromium.
The more chromium is added, the more rust-resistant the stainless steel becomes. You can also add some nickel to improve its quality even further.
There are 5 types of stainless steel but austenitic and ferritic are the two most common ones used in the grilling industry. The 304 represents the most popular grade of the austenitic steel. It has more nickel, therefore higher quality and commands higher price.
The 430, on the other hand, represents the most common grade of the ferritic steel. It’s not as durable and thus on a lower price tag.
Also keep in mind that there are regular steel grates that are coated with chrome and nickel. That’s why they look silvery and shiny. They’re also quite cheap. However, they warp under constant exposure to high heat. With time, their finish discolors and flakes off, causing the steel inside to rust and the food to stick.
Stainless Steel Grill Grates
- Heat up quick – Unlike cast iron grates, stainless steel ones heat up really quick. Preheat them alongside with the grill. After 10 minutes, you’re ready to cook. They’re actually excellent for situations when you don’t have time waiting around such as dinner after work.
- Rust-resistant – Due to having chromium, stainless steel grates are less susceptible to rust and corrosion. You don’t have to constantly season them with oil and fat.
- Ease of cleaning – Stainless steel grates require very little maintenance because they’re easy to clean. A quick brush and you’re good to go. Once in a while, you can do a deep clean and that should take no more than 1 hour.
- Lightweight – Stainless steel grates are considerably lighter than cast iron ones due to their metal makeup. That’s why they’re easy to move around. It helps when you have to remove the grates when they’re still hot off the grill.
- Poor heat retention – Although stainless steel grates warm up quickly, they lose heat just as quick. Once you turn off your gas burners or shut down your charcoal grill’s vents, the grates won’t retain any of that heat for long.
- Darken and flake off over time – Even the best stainless steel grates start to discolor and chip off with repeated use. Keep in mind that lower grade stainless steel will do so faster than higher grade one.
Types Of Food
The rods in a stainless steel grate are usually thinner than those of a cast iron one. Therefore, the types of food that are perfect for stainless steel grates are thick and wide pieces of meat (steak, chicken, fish, seafood, etc.), big vegetables and fruits.
The reason is because these food items are large enough that they won’t fall through the grate. You can still cook thinner food but that requires some babysitting.
Also, the thin rods won’t block any radiant heat coming from the fire below. This will give the food more even browning across its surface or what we know as the Maillard reaction. The food, however, won’t have more pronounced grill marks since the rods are thin. Another reason is that stainless steel doesn’t transmit heat as well as cast iron.
Cleaning & Maintenance
As I mentioned earlier, stainless steel grates are easier to clean than cast iron ones. That said, you still have to care for your grates properly to ensure they’re long-lasting. The most optimal way to clean your stainless steel grates is right after cooking.
With your best grill brush, start scrubbing off any remaining food debris after removing the food. Then close the lid and let everything cool down together. Unlike cast iron, you don’t have to apply any layer of oil to cure stainless steel. Though I’d recommend running a lemon half across the grate to sterilize it and remove any grill bristles that might get stuck there.
Occasionally, you also want to clean your grates thoroughly. Throw them into a large enough container. Pour some dish soap into it and start scrubbing with a scouring pad. After that, rinse and let the grates dry before cooking on them again.
Cast Iron Grill Grates
- Great heat retention – Because of its high thermal mass, cast iron is very efficient at holding heat once it’s hot. This characteristic really comes in handy when you slowly shut down your fire but are still able to cook your food.
- Conduct heat well – Besides heat retention, cast iron grates also conduct heat very well, meaning that they transfer energy to cook food rapidly. As a result, the food develops more noticeable grill marks.
- Non-stick surface – Many cast iron grates come pre-seasoned so food won’t stick to them initially. To maintain that, you just have to keep oiling the cast iron surface every time you cook. That will keep them non-stick for years to come.
- Durable – Cast iron grates are tough and can last forever assuming you maintain your upkeep regularly.
- Slow to heat up – Cast iron is good at retaining and transferring heat. However, it is slow to warm up.
- Rust quickly – One of the main concerns about cast iron grates is that they will rust away quickly when exposed to moisture and water. If you leave them outside under the rain or forget to coat them with oil, rust will develop.
- Constantly upkeep – Because of its susceptibility to rust, it pays to care for cast iron grill grates. However, unlike cast iron skillets, cast iron grates are under extreme heat from grilling all the time. All the seasoning oil gets burnt away every time you cook. Therefore you have to re-season the cast iron, well, every time you cook.
- Heavy – Another concern is that cast iron grates are heavy. This makes them a pain in the rear to move around, especially when they’re hot and greasy.
Types Of Food
The types of food that are suitable for cast iron grates are both thick and thin food items. Unlike stainless steel grates, the rods in cast iron grates are considerably thicker and wider. Therefore, food won’t fall through them easily.
Being good at holding and conducting heat also helps cast iron produce more pronounced grill marks on food. And that means more noticable and better flavor.
Cleaning & Maintenance
Similar to stainless steel grates, the best way to clean cast iron grill grates is to do it right after cooking.
Start by brushing any leftover food particles off your grates. Then use a natural bristle brush to coat them with thin layers of oil, preferably food-safe with a high smoke point (peanut oil). The remaining heat of the grill will help seal all the pores. One caveat is that don’t use nylon brush to do this since it will melt.
In case your grates start developing rust, put them in a container. Pour into it 1 bottle of white vinegar and 1 cup of baking soda. Leave it like that for several hours or overnight if you have the time.
Then scraping off any remaining rust with steel wool the next day. Even better if you have a drill with various wire brushes. That will speed up the whole process tremendously. Once everything is gone, rinse the grates and put them back on a heated grill (350F to 400F or higher). Follow the steps from the seasoning procedure above.
This will take around 4 hours or more depending how bad the rust is. Once the grates are back to their former glory, meaning jet black and shiny, you can start cooking on them again.
Stainless Steel Grill Grates Vs Cast Iron Comparison Table
|Stainless Steel||Cast Iron|
|Appearance||Silvery & smooth|
|Types Of Food||Any types of food regardless of the thickness|
|Grill Marks||Less noticeable||More pronounced|
Requires constant upkeep to develop and maintain non-stick surface.
|Level Of Upkeep||Medium||High|
|Durability||Medium to high depending on the grade of stainless steel.||High if being cared for properly.|
How To Keep Food From Sticking
Whether you already have or are planning to buy either stainless steel or cast iron grates, keeping food from sticking to them is one of the main concerns that we all think about. Here are a few things that can prevent that from happening.
Keep Your Grates Clean
Leftover food particles turn into this gooey carbon residue if you don’t clean your grate often. Keep in mind that food has these tiny, microscopic valleys and crevices. When you put fresh food on the grate, the carbon residue grabs onto those, forming a sticky layer between the grate and the food.
Cleaning your grate will tackle this problem. It also helps protect the grate. Additionally, it’s more appetizing cooking on a clean grate.
Oil Your Food, Not Your Grates
There are two reasons why you shouldn’t oil your grates before cooking. First of all, the oil will eventually drip down to the fire below. The second reason is that the intense heat will burn off the oil, leaving food to stick to the grates again.
A better way is to oil your food instead. Pat dry it first. Then coat it with some cooking oil. When you put your oiled food on the grates, the oil acts as a slippery divider between your food and the grates.
Another trick is to be patient. If you go flip the food and it feels sticky, leave it there for a bit longer. Assuming you oil your food, this is why.
The heat from the grates, stainless steel or cast iron, causes the water in the food to evaporate. As the food caramelizes where it touches the grates, the steam separates the food from the oil on the grates, releasing it as a result.
This whole thing will take some time to happen. So patience is really a virtue here.
Warm Your Food First
One more method to prevent food from sticking is to warm it up first. Cold food will stick to a hot grate more than hot food.
Lay down a sheet of foil or a flat metal pan. Put some oil in it. Then slightly cook both sides of the food. After a few minutes, you can transfer it back to the grates.
This same technique also works for food with sauce on. On the same tinfoil, glaze the top surface of the food first. Then move it to the grates. Once the top glaze hardens, meaning the sauce heats up and adheres to the food, you can flip and do the same for the other side. The crusty glaze will be less likely to stick on the grates.
The Final Verdict
Now that you know the differences between cast iron vs stainless steel grill grates a bit better, which one should you buy?
Cast iron grates cook food fast and deliver great grill marks and flavor. However, you have to maintain a constant upkeep to protect them for years to come.
Stainless steel grates are lighter and more rust-resistant. They also require less maintenance. But they don’t retain and conduct heat very well. Therefore, food doesn’t develop that grill marks you’re after.
Overall, it all comes down to what you’re cooking, how often you want to clean, and your personal preferences.
Which grill grates do you have at home? And how do you like them so far? Are you planning to buy new grill grates anytime soon?