Carbon steel and cast iron have a few things in common. First, they're extremely popular with home chefs. Second, they form a natural nonstick coating if they're seasoned regularly. Most importantly, they're versatile enough to be used for various cooking applications. But is one of these materials better than the other? Let's take a look.
Carbon Steel vs Cast Iron - What's the Difference?
Although cast iron and carbon steel are both iron alloys containing a small percentage of carbon, there is a slight difference in their makeup. Cast iron is about 97 percent iron to 3 percent carbon, whereas carbon steel is typically 99 percent iron and 1 percent carbon. In fact, if the material contains more than 2 percent carbon, it's not considered carbon steel at all.
Carbon Steel vs Cast Iron Pans
Carbon Steel Pans
When they're used properly, carbon steel pans form a nonstick coating that makes them the perfect choice for scrambled eggs, omelets, and frittatas. They're usually designed with sloping sides, allowing you to reach every corner of the pan while stirring. Because they don't retain heat as well as cast iron, they're best suited for quick-cooking applications, such as sauteing and stir-frying.
Cast Iron Pans
Cast iron has a porous surface that allows the seasoning to adhere naturally, giving it a nonstick quality of its own. The material is sturdy and can take a great deal of punishment, so if the pan is well-seasoned, it can last indefinitely.
Because of their high sides and thick walls, cast iron skillets are one of the best choice for frying steaks. They're also a good vehicle for homemade corn bread or biscuits. Depending on the depth of the pan, it can be used for deep-frying. A large cast iron pan with a tight-fitting lid is the best option for turning out authentic Southern fried chicken.
Related: The Best Grill Pans Reviewed
Carbon Steel vs Cast Iron Woks
Carbon Steel Woks
Carbon steel woks do a fabulous job with stir-fries and other Asian-inspired dishes. If you're trying your hand at homemade fried rice, this is a great option.
Woks that come with a matching lid can be used to make wonderful oil-popped popcorn. The lid forms a seal that holds in the kernels while allowing steam to escape, creating the perfect environment for light, fluffy popcorn. As a bonus, these pans are very easy to clean (see Carbon Steel vs Cast Iron: Maintenance, below).
Cast Iron Woks
Cast iron is the preferred choice for many commercial kitchens because it holds its shape indefinitely. Carbon steel can warp when it's exposed to high heat over long periods of time, which is an essential function of a wok. Although some fragile cast iron woks may shatter if they're dropped, they won't warp or dent with regular use.
Because it retains heat so well, cast iron can also be used to make authentic stir-fries and fried rice. The key to success is to season the pan before the first use and every time the wok is used after that. If the ingredients are sticking, the material hasn't been seasoned properly.
Be forewarned that cast iron woks tend to be heavier than their carbon steel counterparts. This can be prohibitive when it comes to stir-fried dishes that require a great deal of stirring and flipping. The material also doesn't react well when cornstarch slurry is added to the dish—it won't ruin the taste, but the texture of the dish may be off.
Carbon Steel vs Cast Iron: Weight
Many chefs are under the impression that cast iron is much heavier than carbon steel. In fact, the opposite is true. Carbon steel contains more iron, and iron is the element that gives these materials their weight and heft.
The reason why cast iron cookware tends to weigh more than carbon steel is because the pieces are designed to be thicker. A sturdy cast iron skillet will usually weigh more than a carbon steel pan of similar size, but only because the latter has thinner walls and a less substantial base.
Does it matter which one is heavier? For most cooking methods, the answer is no. If you're using the cookware for deep-frying, baking, or pan-searing, you won't need to move the pan around much. On the other hand, if you're making scrambled eggs or stir-fried vegetables, a lighter pan would be preferable.
Carbon Steel vs Cast Iron: Heat Induction
Cast iron has excellent heat retention, making it a great choice for both high heat and low-and-slow cooking applications. Although it may take a while to warm up, it takes just as long to cool down, so it's suitable for stews and braised dishes.
On the other hand, carbon steel heats quickly, but it isn't as effective when it comes to heat retention. While it works well with induction ranges, it's not the best option for electric burners, especially on older stoves where the heating might be uneven.
Both carbon steel and cast iron are a popular choice for paella pans.
Carbon Steel vs Cast Iron: Maintenance
There's no clear winner here, mainly because both materials require a great deal more care than most chefs are willing to provide. That's what led to the surge in popularity for nonstick coatings such as Teflon—until people realized that the chemicals used in those materials could pose serious health risks (this is mostly true for older Teflon pans).
By contrast, cast iron and carbon steel are both perfectly safe. However, in order to achieve that prized nonstick surface, the material needs to be seasoned regularly. The procedure is simple enough—just heat the pans over medium-high heat and apply a thin coating of a neutral oil, such as canola. This process should be repeated after each use for best results.
Because the seasoning won't react well with overly acidic foods, we would recommend staying away from tomato-based dishes when cooking with cast iron or carbon steel. For the same reason, citrus fruits should be avoided as well.
When it comes to cleanup, both of these materials require hand-washing. The harsh chemicals of the dishwasher will destroy the seasoning and ruin the pans. Similarly, the pans should be cleaned under a steady stream of hot water, and never fully submerged. Using soap isn't recommended either—hot water and a good scrubbing should be sufficient.
Speaking of scrubbing, resist the urge to use abrasive materials on either carbon steel or cast iron. Steel wool or Scotch-Brite pads will strip the seasoning from the surface. Use a sponge or a damp cloth instead. If there are any stubborn bits left behind, add a bit of water to the bottom of the pan, then put it back on a hot burner to loosen them. When the pan has been thoroughly cleaned, dry it with a clean towel and re-season the surface as needed.
Carbon Steel vs Cast Iron: The Verdict
While both materials have their strong points, we would award the top prize to cast iron over carbon steel. They require the same amount of maintenance, and both can last for years if they receive the proper care.
However, cast iron offers more versatility and better heat retention, which means you're more likely to get your money's worth in the long run. As a bonus, it usually costs less to begin with, making it a better value overall. The only downside is that the pans tend to be heavier, but for most cooking applications, that shouldn't be a major issue.
Is it safe to cook with carbon steel?
Yes. As a cooking surface, carbon steel is perfectly safe. When heated, it leaches small amounts of iron into the food, but since iron is an essential mineral, this is considered to be a benefit.
It's true that the material may rust if it isn't treated properly. However, as long as it's been thoroughly cleaned and seasoned after each use, a carbon steel pan can last a lifetime.
Is carbon steel better than stainless steel?
Cast iron is considered one of the safest non-toxic cookware materials on the current market. Carbon steel has similar properties, but we wouldn't say that it's better.
Carbon steel pans are typically constructed with thinner walls, so they're lighter and easier to handle than their cast iron cousins. They form a nonstick surface that's great for scrambled eggs. However, the material doesn't retain heat very well and is prone to hot spots, which can lead to uneven cooking. In short, carbon steel works well for specific cooking methods while cast iron does many things well.
Which is harder: cast iron or steel?
The composition of cast iron gives it the edge in terms of strength. The material is slightly harder than steel, so it would technically be the winner in this category.
That said, there are two sides to every coin. Steel may not be as strong or as hard as cast iron, but it also isn't as brittle, which means it's technically a tougher material.
How can I tell if my wok is carbon steel?
It can be difficult to tell if a wok is made of carbon steel or if the surface has been treated with chemicals to give it a nonstick coating. If you've purchased the cookware at an auction or estate sale, this can be worrisome. Fortunately, there are simple tests for determining which material you're dealing with.
The seasoning on a carbon steel wok will come off when it's exposed to abrasive or acidic materials. To find out if this is the case, soak a paper towel in a bit of neutral oil and rub a small amount of kosher salt into the bottom of the pan. If the surface is carbon steel, tiny black or brown flecks will come off on the paper towel. If it's Teflon, the surface might gain a few light scratches, but the paper towel will be clean.
Alternatively, you can add an ounce or two of white vinegar to the wok and heat it over a burner until the liquid comes to a boil. The vinegar will eat away at the seasoning, giving the bottom of the pan a cracked and mottled appearance. On the other hand, if the surface is made of Teflon, the test won't have any effect. Because you'll need to work hard to re-season the pan if it does turn out to be carbon steel, we would recommend using the salt method first and saving the vinegar test as a last resort.