Carbon Steel vs. Cast Iron

The show-down between carbon and cast is coming to your kitchen. What do you need to know?

When it comes to cooking up something delicious in a frying pan, the pan's material is almost as important as the ingredients in your recipe. Carbon steel and cast iron are great options if you want a frying pan that's durable enough to revive from an antique shop and keep in the family for generations to come. But what else do they have in common and what differences help you choose between the two?

cast iron pan

Cast Iron 

carbon steel pan

Carbon Steel 

How Are Carbon Steel and Cast Iron Alike?

They're manufactured from similar materials, which gives them similar function, abilities, limitations and care requirements. Here are some of the most notable similarities:

  • Both cast iron and carbon steel can easily and safely transition from stovetop to oven or from oven to stove top. This means both can be used either to fry up a breakfast on the burner or to bake a berry cobbler that crumbles to perfection.
  • Both contain ferromagnetic metals, which means they will function on an induction stove top. So, they will not suddenly become obsolete when you decide to update your kitchen appliances.
  • Neither cast iron or carbon steel is good for an acidic sauce. In fact, both have reactive cooking surfaces and acid will break down their seasoning and slick surfaces.
  • Both types of pans function best when well seasoned (a process of saturating the cooking surface with an oil or fat). Seasoning a cast iron or carbon steel pan will reduce the reactivity of its surface and will also create an almost non-stick texture. Check out our article on seasoning to make sure you're seasoning your carbon steel pan the right way. 
  • Neither pan should be washed in the dishwasher or exposed to harsh detergents - it'll totally break down the pan's age-earned seasoning. Hot water with a scouring pad works best. If absolutely necessary, mild washing soap is OK.

How Do Carbon Steel and Cast Iron Differ?

Even though carbon steel and cast iron both contain a combination of about 99% or 98% iron and 1% or 2% carbon, their differences, although subtle, are enough to create a difference on the stovetop.

  • Durability - Carbon steel is slightly more durable than cast iron. Cast iron's heavy fabrication makes it fairly brittle in comparison, which means it can fracture or shatter if dropped.
  • Fabrication and Cooking Surface - Cast iron cookware is formed in a cast, which creates pocked, uneven surfaces with bigger pores. Since carbon steel is much more malleable, sheets of the material are pressed or hand-formed into cookware with smoothly curving sides and a much more even cooking surface.
  • Weight - Cast iron weighs significantly more than carbon steel. Cast iron has a much thicker, denser body. Carbon steel is similar to stainless steel in terms of its weight.
  • Heat Retention - If a hot cooking surface is what you want, then a cast iron pan is the right choice because cast iron retains heat extremely well. A cast iron pan is slow to warm up and slow to cool down, but at its peak, it will remain very hot. On the other hand, carbon steel retains heat quite well when compared to other cooking materials, but not as well as cast iron. However, carbon steel heats up and cools down more quickly than cast iron, making it a good option for more delicate ingredients.
  • Cooking Process - The differing heat retention qualities of the two types of pans predispose them to different types of cooking. While both do well baking inside the oven, they cook quite differently on the stove top. Cast iron's ability to retain heat lends it grill-like cooking tendencies. This makes it perfect for hamburger patties or anything which requires lots of intense heat for the perfectly juicy meal. Carbon steel is better for stir-frying vegetables or searing chicken, which could easily burn in a pan that doesn't cool quickly enough. Carbon steel's smoother surface also makes it a better choice for delicate meals containing fish or scallops which could easily catch and tear on the rough surface of a cast iron pan. (We compiled a list of our favorite carbon steel fry pan recipes for added inspiration!) 

Whatever your preference, there's always room for experimentation. Adding new pans and surfaces to your cooking arsenal is never a bad thing. More pans = more food!

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  • Robert Papier

    I am just looking for a pan to sear steaks with. I understand that cast iron is superior for this but carbon steel does seem to offer greater flexibility of use. Also I am 66 next birthday so the weight may become an issue as I get older. So my question is, just how much better is cast iron for searing? If it is only a little then I will settle for carbon steel, but if it is considerably superior at the sear then I will buy cast iron.

  • Rich Dahlgren

    I am interested in your carbon steel pans. Otherwise I wouldn’t be here! Hate to be nit picky, but it might help since some people are sensitive to spelling errors in ad copy: in the Fabrication and cooking surface entry above it should read “pores” not “pours”. No need to publish my comment. Cheers!

  • EP

    You are confusing material properties (density and heat capacity) with thickness of different pans. Cast iron does NOT “weigh more than carbon steel.” In fact the opposite is true: If you have cast iron and carbon steel pans of equal thickness, the cast iron weighs LESS because cast iron is less dense than carbon steel. The thermal properties of iron and steel are very similar as they are both about 98% iron. So when you say that cast iron “retains more heat” than carbon steel, again that is not true. The bottom line is this: Cast iron pans are manufactured in a process resulting in a much thicker pan compared to carbon steel. Thus, the cast iron pan DOES weigh more and has more heat capacity – not because it is cast iron, but because it is THICKER.

    Another example is comparing Woks: Japanese iron woks are hammered to a thin 1.2 mm, and generally weigh significantly LESS than carbon steel woks which are manufactured in a spinning process resulting in a thicker (1.9 mm) wok.

  • Ron Mackley

    I enjoy using your cookware. Your skillet and saucier have been great. I have not yet invested in carbon steel as an everyday pan, but your arguments are compelling. My go to cast iron as a venerable enameled cast iron pan and it, as your blog post describes, has excellent heat retention, much like the same brand’s dutch ovens. I’d certainly consider carbon steel for cooking that needs to cool quickly when it’s finished cooking, but I need to leave it in the pan. I may have found my next purchase.

    One question, you say “uneven surfaces with bigger pours.” Do you mean “pores” or are you talking about something other than pits and divots in the surface of the pan.

  • Mary

    My husband had been using his grandmother’s cast iron since he inherited it. After using thin stainless I found it highly superior. I have a popover/muffin pan, small and medium frying pans, a grill pan: all can be used on the gas or charcoal grill in addition to the stove. I also have a Lodge fajita pan which I find not as good. The only problem is that I am having difficulty lifting them as I get older. I have heard of carbon steel but have not tried it. I would like to “test-drive” it to see what it’s like.

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