Carbon Steel Vs. Cast Iron Cookware: The Difference, Explained


They say a poor carpenter blames his tools, but when it comes to cooking, working with the right equipment can make all the difference. Take cast iron skillets, for example. They are popular because they are inexpensive, super durable and retain heat well. These qualities make them well suited for everything from sear steaks when cooking biscuits. But scrambled eggs? You’ll mess up your pan in the blink of an eye. Carbon steel pans, on the other hand, have a smooth surface ideal for cooking eggs (although some still prefer to use non-stick cookware). Carbon steel is much lighter than cast iron, although it is generally more expensive.

In short, there are pros and cons with both materials. Below, we’ll cover the differences between the two, where one shines and the other falls flat, and the ins and outs of cooking with both. In the end, you can decide for yourself which one best suits your style of cooking, the types of dishes you like to prepare, and your budget.

What is cast iron?

Cast iron, which is made by reduce iron ore in a super hot blast furnace, is an iron alloy that contains two to four percent carbon. In contrast, steel, another iron-based alloy, has up to two percent carbon. The higher carbon content of cast iron gives it its characteristic rough feel. It also makes it more brittle than steel, which is why cast iron pans are so thick and heavy. A knock against cast iron is that it is a poor conductor and takes a long time to heat up. The bright side ? Once hot, it retains heat for a long time.

What is Carbon Steel?

Carbon steel contains up to 2.5% carbon, more than twice the amount of another type of steel, stainless steel, which has less than 1.2% carbon.

Compared with traditional steel, carbon steel has increased strength, although it tends to be more susceptible to rust. (The chrome is what helps stainless steel kitchen utensils prevent corrosion. It’s done with at least 10.5% fabric, while carbon steel has less.)

Are carbon steel cookware better than cast iron?

The short answer: it depends. If price is a key factor, keep in mind that carbon steel is generally more expensive than cast iron. Carbon steel pans usually start at around $40 and can go up to hundreds of dollars, whereas a Lodge Classic 12-inch Seasoned Cast Iron Skillet will only cost you $25.

But carbon steel pans are much lighter than cast iron pans, which can have a major impact on how you use them. Although both are oven and stovetop safe, the lightweight carbon steel makes it easy to transfer from stovetop to oven and table. Carbon steel also heats up faster than cast iron, but the trade-off is that it also cools down faster. If you’re hoping to serve food straight from the pan (and don’t mind overcooking it), cast iron is a surefire way to keep it warm longer.

What about seasoning? Both carbon steel and cast iron pans need it, although a lot of cast iron comes pre-seasoned these days. Over time, a cast iron skillet will also develop a nice nonstick surface. Yet, as mentioned earlier, the smoother surface of carbon steel makes it ideal for cooking things like eggs or even fishwhich can stick to a cast iron skillet if not seasoned properly.

How to clean cast iron and carbon steel pans

To clean carbon steel, Christopher Arturo, chief instructor at the Culinary Education Instituterecommend using soapy water or scouring with salt, then gently scrubbing a small amount of neutral oil in the surface. For cast iron, he recommends heating the pan, then removing it from the heat and scouring it with salt using a cloth. Once done, gently rub in some neutral oil to season it.

So what kind of pan should I get?

Arturo sees the advantages of carbon steel and cast iron, so much so that he uses both.

“Carbon steel is thinner and therefore lighter than cast iron, and it heats up quickly,” he says. “In a restaurant, you usually don’t have time to wait for the cast iron to heat up.” At home, however, he prefers using a cast-iron skillet “because it heats evenly, holds heat well, and the more you use it, the more seasoned it gets.”

Choosing between the two depends on how you cook. But if you can rock it, why not buy one of each?

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