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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 pours. 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!

9 comments

  • Richard Hopla

    I use SS, Teflon® coated, cast iron, and carbon steel. I have a 10 inch Mafer Bourgeat carbon steel pan that is great for bacon and anything for which I want a good sear. I use an 8 inch cast iron pan for searing and oven roasting for steaks, salmon, etc. with wonderful results due to the superior heat retention of the cast iron. I would appreciate your comments comparing carbon steel with SS for routine searing/ browning – I can get similar results, though a high sear is easier with carbon steel or cast iron.

  • Yogi

    How thick is the blue steel? I have a blue steel pan that is twice as thick as normal blue steel.
    That pan is better in everyday than a cast iron one. You need to season them the same way.

  • David S

    I have used my DeBuyer carbon steel pans daily for more than 20 years! They are workhorse pans but do require a fairly big adjustment compared toall aluminum or clad cookware. And they may weigh less than cast iron pans but quite a bit more than the average clad fry pan. Seasoning the pan is more frequent than cast iron as they tend to be heated to a higher temp and the smooth non porous surface does not hold the seasoning layer like a cast iron pan. I use a thin metal scraper from a pop off can lid to scrape them down a couple of times a year and then they look almost new again. Saves the scrub brushes from clogging with seasoning varnish. Used as a comal for tortillas is a perfect fit! Flatbreads and pancakes / crepes is also their design use as DeBuyer calls them crepe pans if they have the shallow lips and sides. There are people with claimed nickel sensitivities so these pans eliminate that metal and they are free of chromium as well. Really, everyone should have at least one as part of the batterie for those tasks they excell at.

  • Graham

    This is a difficult choice. I own both types of pans but I don’t use them interchangeably. Currently my best use of cast iron these days is a pan to toss in the grill for a high heat sear and heat soak for meats. But my go-to pan for most types of seafood is clearly the mild steel. That amazing ability to handle very high heat and remain non-stick wins the day.

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