Cast Iron vs. Carbon Steel Pans – Which is Better?

Most of us have at least one cast iron pan in our kitchen and use it for everything from searing steaks to frying, roasting, baking, and more.

Carbon steel, (mostly known for its use in woks) is still less popular than cast iron, though it can do almost everything cast iron can – without some of the disadvantages.

cast iron vs. carbon steel pans difference

In this post, you’ll find all the differences between carbon steel and cast iron pans when it comes to health, cooking, heat retention, surface, durability, seasoning, best uses, and more.

What’s the Difference Between Cast Iron Pans and Carbon steel Pans?

The main differences between cast iron and carbon steel pans are that while both pans retain heat very well, carbon steel heats up faster and won’t keep the heat as long as cast iron. Carbon steel is not as heavy and thick as cast iron – without it affecting the cooking experience. The sides of the cast iron pan are usually vertical (great for baking) while the carbon steel sides tend to be angled (best for sauteing).

Ultimately, the differences between the two are not enough to invest in just one of them. Mix and match to enjoy the slight difference in cooking with them.

What is Cast Iron?

Cast iron is an alloy of carbon and iron (like steel), but with more carbon in it, compared to steel. Cast iron contains 2%-3.5% carbon (compared with 1-2% only in steel).

The carbon gives the cast iron its rough feel and makes it more fragile than steel. This is why cast iron pans are heavy and thick. This also means that cast iron pans are slower to heat and cool down, but retain heat longer.

RELATED: The 6 Best 12-Inch Cast Iron Skillets

In reality, cast iron is tough as nails. That’s why you’ll find 50-year old pans at yard sales. It is built to last and is difficult to ruin. However, experts claim that in the past few years, cast iron pans quality has deteriorated, and is not as durable as it used to be.

You can find cast iron skillets, griddles, dutch ovens, muffin pans, and other specialty shapes.

What is Carbon Steel?

Steel is also an alloy of iron and carbon, but it has to have less than or exactly 2% carbon. Carbon steel pans are thinner and lighter than cast iron, and also more responsive to temperature changes. This means that you can use them on all cooktops, including induction, barbecue grill, or campfire.

You can find carbon steel woks, skillets, paella pans, and specialty cookware. 

Cast Iron & Carbon Steel Best & Worst Uses

Cast iron and carbon steel have a lot in common: their high durability, nonstick capabilities, and the special care you need to keep them for years.

However, there are a few important differences to know about, we’ll go over them below:

Carbon steel pans don’t work so well with water-based cooking (stewing or braising) compared with cast iron. Carbon steel loves fat and “hates” water, while cast iron is not a great match for stir-frying because it retains heat and will overcook your vegetables very fast.

Since carbon steel is made from stamped or spun from sheets of metal (instead of cast in a form), they have sloped sides and is thinner and lighter than cast iron. Those two features make them much better suited to tossing foods.

Lodge carbon steel skillet
Lodge carbon steel skillet

Cast iron is the type of cookware you can use on the stove and then transfer to an oven. Also, it is the better choice for searing and giving color to meat, because the surface is not as temperature-sensitive as carbon steel, and won’t change it once you put the meat in the pan.

Le Creuset cast iron skillet
Le Creuset cast iron skillet
Cast Iron best uses – pan-frying, searing, roasting, baking, braising, and stewing (for enameled cast iron)

Carbon steel best uses – Searing, pan-frying, roasting, baking, stir-frying.

Durability

According to experts, carbon steel pans from a reputable company can be more durable than cast iron (which is known for its durability for generations), even though it is usually thinner and more lightweight. It is less brittle than cast iron and there’s a lesser chance it will break when dropped.

Health

Both carbon steel and cast iron pans do not contain toxic chemicals sometimes found in nonstick pans (see the best nonstick cookware without PFOA & PTFE) – that can break down at high temperatures and leach into your food.

Cast iron’s ability to retain heat promotes healthy cooking, including water-based methods such as poaching and braising.

Also, cast iron was proven to impact iron levels in the blood, and there is some evidence that eating food cooked in iron pans increases the hemoglobin concentration of anemic/iron-deficient individuals.

Remember the iron percentage in carbon steel? Yep, carbon steel pans have even more iron in them than cast iron!

Both of these cookware options are safe under extremely high heat and can be used both on the stovetop and in the oven.

Cooking Experience

While both cast iron and carbon steel pans retain heat well, carbon steel heats up and cools down quickly and is more conductive – thus no hot spots are created.

Both types of pans can be used on a stovetop and in ovens, but carbon steel is a better fit for making eggs, crepes, and omelets.

When it comes to seasoning, carbon steel usually requires one more step compared to cast iron – you’ll have to season it yourself. However, some carbon steel pans come pre-seasoned, such as the Lodge carbon steel skillet.

carbon steel skillet seasoning
Lodge carbon steel skillet with pre-seasoning
A Well-seasoned Cast iron naturally creates a nonstick surface, so you can use it with less oil. Carbon steel has a smoother surface, making it more slippery than cast iron, so you can even use it for fish, which is known to stick.

Surface

Carbon steel provides a more even surface than cast iron, which is formed in a cast and created uneven surfaces with bigger pores.

The smoother surface of carbon steel pans makes it a bit easier to season. Just one application of oil is enough to make it nonstick. However, cast iron holds its seasoning better thanks to its rougher texture.

Weight

Carbon steel fry pans and sauté pans weigh only about a half of cast iron pans and skillets – without sacrificing quality and longevity. For example, A 12-inch Lodge cast-iron pan weighs about 8 pounds, while a 12-inch  Mafter carbon-steel pan weighs 4 pounds.

Cast iron pans are manufactured in a process resulting in a much thicker pan compared to carbon steel. That’s why a  cast iron pan weighs more and has more heat capacity.

A common myth is that heavy weight equals sturdiness, but that is not always the case, and carbon steel pans are just as sturdy as cast iron.

However, make sure not to purchase a pan that is too thin because you may find yourself with a warped skillet made with cheap carbon steel.

Handles

Generally, cast iron skillets have shorter handles, to support their weight properly. Shorter handles come in handy for use in the oven and store.

Carbon steel cookware has longer handles, making them great for cooking over an open flame and outdoors.

Cast iron pans are usually a solid piece of iron, including the handles. Carbon steel has a handle riveted on; some handles on carbon steel pans can’t take high oven heat, so check the owner’s manual

Cleaning and Caring for Carbon Steel and Cast Iron

The basic cleaning for both carbon steel and cast iron is the same: cleaning is done with hot water, a gentle scouring pad, and minimal or no soap at all.

You’ll need to wash your pans with soap once or twice a year to keep them in a good shape.

Carbon steel should be cleaned with no soap, harsh chemicals, or scouring pads. The best wash you’ll get is when the pan is still a little warm.

After cleaning, it is important to dry well, and season with your choice of vegetable oil (below you’ll find how to season), let dry, and store in a cool and dry place.

How to Season Cast Iron vs. Carbon Steel Pans

When you purchase a cast-iron skillet, it has a dull, dark grey color. Cooking with it before seasoning it will get your food stuck to it in seconds. However, if you properly season it, it turns to a nonstick skillet or frying pan.

To season a cast iron pan you’ll apply a light layer of oil (Chefs recommend vegetable oils with a high smoke point, including grapeseed oil, and avocado oil), then heat it up to a certain temperature until it is dry.

Carbon steel usually comes with a protective coating to prevent them from rusting (when exposed to moisture).  The first thing to do is to remove that coating and replace it with seasoning, which will both protect it from rusting, and turn it into a nonstick surface.

After removing the coating and washing, dry it right away and then heat the pan. Then season with the thinnest layer possible of your choice of vegetable oil. rub the oil into the pan and buff away any access oil, until it looks dry. This small amount is enough for seasoning – without leaving you with a sticky coating.

What you don’t want to use: lard and shortening.

Cost of Cast Iron vs. Carbon Steel Pans

Generally, carbon steel pans are more expensive due to the material cost and labor required to make them. While you can find good cast iron pieces for as low as $19, a good quality carbon steel pan starts at about $60.

Cast iron is made by pouring the steel/carbon mixture into an existing cast. Carbon steel pans are made by manually pressing and rolling carbon steel into the shape of the pan, which requires more energy and labor. The materials are more expensive as well.

The most popular cast iron manufacturer today is Lodge, which sells their 10” cast iron skillet with handle for just $17.

Lodge pre seasoned 10" cast iron skillet
Lodge 12″ cast iron skillet (pre-seasoned)

Made In, which makes some of the best carbon steel pans on the market (their pans are used in Michelin star restaurants), sells a 12” blue carbon steel skillet for $90. Another popular brand is Misen, which sells their 12″ carbon steel pan for $85.

Made In blue carbon steel frying pan
Made In Blue Carbon Steel fry pan

Premium cast iron skillets, such as Field Company vintage cast iron skillet, and Finex cast iron skillets, cost between $120 – $200.

The Finex 12″ cast iron skillet is made in the US, with a smooth-polished surface, stainless steel handles, and seasoned with organic flax seed oil. The gorgeous design and construction will last a lifetime.

finex cast iron skillets
Finex 12″ cast iron skillet with stainless steel handles

On Amazon, you’ll find good quality cast iron skillets costing between $17 to about $45 (depending on the size), and the most popular brand is Lodge 10″ pre-seasoned cast iron skillet (with handle) – which costs only $17. The highest-rated cast iron set (4 pieces) is Cuisinel Cast Iron Skillet Set – 4-Piece Chef Pan, which costs only $65.

Cuisinel cast iron skillet set
Cuisinel 4-piece cast iron skillet set

Amazon’s choice for the best carbon steel skillet is Matfer Bourgeat 12″ Black Carbon Steel Fry Pan, which costs only $47.

Mafter black carbon steel pan
Mafter carbon steel pan

FAQ

What is Enamled Cast Iron?

Enameled cast iron is a cast iron pan that has an enamel glaze applied to the surface. The glaze prevents rusting and thus the pan does not need seasoning and allows for harsher cleaning. Enameled cast iron is excellent for slow cooking and drawing flavor from foods.

What is Blue Carbon Steel?

“Blue” refers to a heat treatment process known as “blue ironing” which prevents rust and corrosion and has nothing to do with the steel’s composition. Blue carbon steel pans, manufactured only by Made In, are made in France, in a factory that’s been doing this for hundreds of years.

Carbon Steel vs. Cast Iron Skillet for Steak

Carbon steel is slightly better for steaks because you get the same brown crust as you do with cast iron skillets, but cooking time is shorter due to the thinner build of carbon steel – without compromising on durability.

Below is a video demonstrating the steak cooking experience with both skillets (fast forward to 7:20)

Have a delicious day,

The KM Team

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