Should you buy a grill with cast iron or stainless steel grates? That is a question many people face when shopping for a new grill and the answer is even trickier than they think!
If you are short on time then the answer is, “You want a grill with stainless steel cooking grates”.
The caveat is that you need to make sure that the grates are actually stainless steel and not simply designed to look like stainless. You will be better off buying a grill with a cast iron grate than a fake stainless grate but that is only true if you are dealing with cast iron that has been properly treated.
Good grief! I told you this was tricky!
Keep reading, we will get this all sorted out and I promise that it will make perfect sense 🙂
Why Stainless Steel is Better Than Cast Iron for Grill Grates
I absolutely love cast iron cookware including my cast iron skillet and cornbread pan. For a few years I made that assumption that since I loved cast iron cookware in my kitchen that I would also love it on my grill.
I was wrong.
It turns out that I prefer stainless steel grill grates over cast iron grill grates for three reasons:
- Rust Resistant
- Better Grill Marks
- Easier Cleaning
Let’s take a closer look.
Stainless Steel Will Not Rust Like Cast Iron
Anytime you are dealing with cast iron you have to be concerned about rust. Period.
There are ways of preventing cast iron from rusting that include:
- Use of a protective porcelain enamel coating
- Avoiding abrasive cleaners
- Making sure the cast iron is well seasoned
- Keeping the cast iron dry
These methods of rust prevention are easy to utilize for kitchen cookware and a nightmare to utilize on an outdoor grill. If you are diligent in taking care of your cast iron grates then you will be able to hold off the rust for 4-5 years but eventually the rust will show up and start eating away at the grates.
In contrast, stainless steel does not want to rust in the first place. You will eventually get some rust pitting on stainless grates after many years of exposure to high heat in combination with the salts and acids that are typically found in marinades but we are talking more about discoloration than significant corrosion.
If you dislike the idea of grilling on rusty grates then you want to stick with stainless steel.
Stainless Steel Gives Better Grill Marks than Cast Iron
I share this tidbit after years of experimentation but can’t provide a good explanation for why it is true.
Engineering data says that cast iron is 3.6X better at transferring heat than stainless steel. I would expect better heat transfer to result in better searing (aka, grill marks) but that is not what I have found in my years of grilling.
It could be that the amazing grill marks I get with stainless steel grates are a direct result of the shape of the grates which is almost always in the form of cylindrical rods. In contrast, cast iron grates typically have larger, flatter surfaces and the resulting grill marks simply do not “pop”.
Grill marks are for appearance only and don’t effect the flavor of your food. That being said, we eat with our eyes first.
By the way, if grill marks are super important to you then check out this article on the one piece of equipment you need to get the best grill marks in the world.
It is Easier to Clean Stainless Steel Grates than Cast Iron Grates
After I am done grilling on grates made of stainless steel rods I can grab a damp paper towel with my tongs and wipe off almost all of the crud and gunk on the grates while they are still warm.
In contrast, to get cast iron grates clean I almost always have to grab a brush to scrub the grate clean. If I am being honest, I find it such as hassle to clean my cast iron grates that I usually just leave them dirty until it is time for the next grilling session.
To a degree, I also let the cast iron grates stay dirty as a way of keeping them “seasoned” and preventing them from rusting. After all, if the cast iron is covered in grease then water and oxygen can’t reach the metal and start the corrosion process.
By the way, once you start talking about grates made from expanded metal, or other designs with irregular or diamond shaped patterns, then the cleaning discussion becomes irrelevant as that type of design makes cleaning difficult regardless of the material of construction.
What Size Stainless Steel Grate Do You Need?
I believe that when it comes to stainless steel that there is possible to have too much of a good thing.
For example, many Weber Genesis gas grills come with grates made from stainless steel rods that have a diameter of 7mm. In contrast, Weber’s higher end grills like the Summit S 670 have grates made from stainless steel rods with a diameter of 9mm.
The 9mm rods on the Summit grills take longer to heat up than the 7mm rods on a Genesis. The larger rods also make the grate heavier and more awkward to handle when you need to remove them to clean your Flavorizer bars or if you need to take them out to cook a rotisserie turkey.
Personally I think grates made from stainless steel rods in the 5-7mm range are just about perfect and anything larger is overkill.
Watch Out for Fake Stainless Steel Grates
As the old saying goes, “All that glitters is not gold.” The same is true for grill grates as you need to remember that “All that is shiny is not stainless steel.”
Specifically there are two situations you need to watch out for:
- Grates made from Stainless Steel Wrapped rods
- Grates made from Chrome Plated rods.
Here is some more detail.
Stainless Steel Wrapped
Some brands of grills, like the KitchenAid grills at Home Depot, look like they have stainless steel grates but that is only partially true.
This type of grill have grates that are made of carbon steel (or other low grade material) that are wrapped in a thin layer of stainless steel. Eventually the stainless steel layer chips or flakes off and the base material corrodes.
There are three ways to spot a grate that is wrapped in stainless steel instead of being constructed or 100% stainless steel.
A true stainless steel grate will have a warranty of 10-15 years. The things never wear out so manufactures love to advertise their longevity. A grate made of wrapped stainless steel will typically have a 3-5 year warranty.
Many manufactures will use the term “wrapped stainless steel” on their marketing material. Read the labels and stickers on the grill and see what it says.
Lastly, if you are shopping in Home Depot or Lowes, go over to a Weber gas grill and pick up one of their stainless steel grates. Then go over and pick up the grate on the cheap grill. Chances are that you are going to notice the grate on the cheap grill feels a whole lot lighter.
While I usually hold up Weber as the premier brand in quality, when it comes to their charcoal grills they go cheap on the grates and use chrome plated steel.
Chrome is just as shiny as stainless so you can’t tell the difference by looking.
You best bet here is to read the labels and look at prices. The raw material for stainless steel grates is expensive so if the entire grill is cheap it is highly likely that the shiny grate is chrome plated.
If you already have a kettle and need to upgrade the grate then here are some nice Weber Charcoal Grill Grate Options to consider.
What to Look for in a Cast Iron Grill Grate
Just because stainless steel grates are better than cast iron does not mean that cast iron grates are bad.
My Weber Q1200, Q3200 and Weber Traveler all have cast iron grates and they are fine grills.
However, before you buy a grill with a cast iron grate make sure the stickers or manual states that the grate is made of Porcelain Enameled Cast Iron. The porcelain enamel is a protective ceramic/glass coating that will prevent corrosion as long as it remains intact. The coating will usually stay intact (unless the grate is seriously abused) for about 5 years before it starts to chip and crack.
Cast iron grates that do not have a porcelain enamel coating are just waiting to turn into rust buckets that will make you unhappy.