Carbon Steel vs Cast Iron Pans: Differences Explained!

Comment author avatar
Krishia Modified: September 23, 2022
Table Of Contents
'

Do you have some excellent steak dinner ideas but can’t choose which pan to use between carbon steel vs cast iron? Well, worry no more. In this article, we curated a list of their differences so you can make a more informed decision when cooking. Read on and learn about what sets these two cooking tools apart!

Carbon Steel vs Cast Iron Pan

Characteristics Carbon Steel Pan Cast Iron Pan
Material Made of iron and 2 to 2.5% carbon Made of iron and 2.5 to 4% carbon
Design Lightweight, less porous, and smooth surface

Riveted handles on base pans

Heavy, thick, and porous surface

One piece from base to handle, seamless

Heat Retention Heats up and cools down quickly Takes too long to heat up but has high heat retention
Care May use mild soap with water Use salt and water
Cost More expensive than cast iron (price starts at $50) Cheaper than a carbon steel pan (price starts at around $20)
Use Best for sautéing, stir-frying, and pan-frying Best for deep-frying, stovetop grilling, and baking

Cooking tools come in different forms and sizes. Manufacturers also use other materials to create them, including stone, ceramic, clay, and so much more. And among all types of cookware, pans are the most common equipment that we use in the kitchen.

Two prominent materials used in making pans are carbon steel and cast iron. But what exactly are they? What’s their difference?

Material They’re Made With

Carbon steel and cast iron pans are both alloys or metals made from a mixture of metal types. In this case, it’s iron and carbon. However, the carbon percentage in a cast iron pan is higher than that of a carbon steel one.

A carbon steel pan is a mixture of iron and 2 to 2.5% carbon. Manufacturers stamp a mold on a sheet of carbon and iron to create the base of the pan. After this, they add the pan’s handle.

Cast iron, in contrast, is not made of pure iron. It is also a mixture of iron and 2.5 to 4% carbon. Unlike carbon steel pans, where manufacturers create handles separately from the pan’s base, a cast iron pan is created in one piece. They use a mold for the whole pan where the carbon and iron mixture is placed.

Appearance and Design

A carbon steel pan is lighter and has a smoother, less porous surface compared to cast iron pans. 

Carbon steel pan on wooden table

Carbon steel pan on wooden table

Aside from being lightweight, carbon steel pans also have a smooth and less porous surface, making

them almost a non-stick pan. You may also notice tags like “blue steel” and “black steel” when you buy them. These refer to the treatment carbon steel pans undergo that gives them a smooth and shiny surface.

Carbon steel pans are also durable compared to other cookware made of steel. Aside from pans, there are also carbon steel woks, casseroles, and other cookware made with this material that are also available in the market.

Additionally, do keep in mind that not all carbon steel pans are oven safe, so check their tag or manual before popping them in the oven.

cast-iron-pan

Cast iron pan

Meanwhile, cast iron pans are way heavier compared to carbon steel. Also, its high carbon content makes it less durable and more delicate. That is why they made these pans thicker and more compact. In that way, it becomes sturdier. Aside from that, cast iron’s high carbon content is the reason behind its rough and porous surface.

Now, if you are wondering if cast iron is non-stick, the answer is dependent on whether it’s seasoned or not. But it is good to note that most cast iron pans nowadays come pre-seasoned. Seasoning or coating your pan with heated fat or oil gives it a non-stick surface.

Aside from pans, you can also avail yourself of a cast iron skillet and cast iron wok. These are all stovetop and oven safe, making them so convenient. 

Which Retains Heat Better?

cast iron pans in different sizes

Jo Zimny Photos | Flickr

Cast iron pans have better heat retention compared to carbon steel pans. 

Carbon steel pans may not have high heat retention, but they heat up and cool down very quickly. In contrast, because of their thicker and compact design, cast iron pans are poor conductors of heat. But, they can retain that high temperature for an extended period once it becomes hot.

Tip

  • A cast iron pan's handle is directly connected to its base. That is why it heats up along with the whole pan. So, don't forget to wear your best oven mitts when holding or touching its handle as it could be scorching.

Caring for Carbon Steel vs Cast Iron Pan

Salt on cast iron pan

It is a no-no to use scouring pads or steel wool in cleaning both pans as these can damage their seasoning. But, you can use mild soap or mild dishwashing cleanser when cleaning carbon steel cookware, unlike when cleaning cast iron pans.

Cast iron’s porous surface can trap or absorb soaps, which may affect the flavor of the food that you are going to cook. To clean it, you can use salt and water. Also, don’t forget to dry it well after rinsing to prevent rusting.

Cost of Carbon Steel vs Cast Iron Pan

Carbon steel is more expensive than cast iron pans. It is because carbon steel pans are more costly to make, particularly material-wise. Lodge carbon steel pans have prices starting from $50 to $75. Meanwhile, you can buy a Lodge cast iron pan for as low as $20.

Cooking With Carbon Steel vs Cast Iron Pan

cast iron skillet pork chops recipe

Though you can use them interchangeably, carbon steel pans are best for searing, stir-frying, and pan-frying. On the other hand, cast iron pans are best for deep frying, stovetop grilling, and even baking.

Because carbon steel pans can quickly heat up and cool down, we recommend this pan when whipping up quick meals. Though you can use either pan, cooking steak (mainly if you like rare or medium rare) using a carbon steel pan is more effective. It heats up quickly, giving your steak an excellent crust with a red and juicy inside when searing. Its smooth surface also makes cooking eggs and fish easy as it helps them avoid sticking to the pan.  

Meanwhile, a cast iron pan takes quite a while to heat up and also heats up unevenly. But you can use it when cooking deep-fried foods as it is excellent for retaining heat. You can also use it in baking as it is also oven-safe. If you want to cook meat all the way through, like this cast iron skillet pork chops recipe, this cookware is also ideal.

Now, if you are outdoorsy and love camping, you may use any of these two cookwares. Go with a cast iron pan if you want to keep your food warm for an extended period. But suppose you prefer cooking equipment that is handy to bring around; the lighter-weight carbon steel pan is for you.

Have you decided which pan to use for your next camping trip? Now, why not try some easy camping breakfast ideas?

Cast Iron vs Carbon Steel vs Stainless Steel

stainless steel pans on a counter

Stainless steel pans
d2fang | Flickr

Stainless steel is lighter than cast iron. Also, it is less prone to rusting when compared to carbon steel pans.

Like carbon steel and cast iron, stainless steel also contains carbon (less than 2%). And because of that, it is lighter than a cast iron pan. On the other hand, though carbon steel pans are stronger than stainless steel, they are more susceptible to rust. This is because stainless steel has chromium that helps protect it from corrosion.  

How to Season Carbon Steel and Cast Iron Pan

Cast iron pan with oil

Unlike most cast iron pans, most carbon steel pans come unseasoned when you purchase them. It is essential to learn how to season your pans to keep them protected and last a lifetime.

Want to learn how? Here are easy steps you can follow to season or reseason your carbon steel and cast iron pans!

1. Thoroughly wash your pan. Follow the correct procedure for cleaning your pan as per the care instructions that come with your newly bought pans.

For carbon steel pans, you need to remove their coating (usually black) to allow the seasoning to stick to your pan entirely. Different pans use different chemical coatings, so removing these may be tricky. 

2. Dry your pan. Water and oil don’t go well together, so ensure that your pan is dry to coat your pan properly.

Pat it dry using an absorbent cloth (or a kitchen towel), then place it over your stovetop or pop it in your oven (make sure it’s oven-safe) to allow the remaining moisture to evaporate. Heating the pan also allows you to oil your pan as thinly as possible, so don’t skip this step. 

3. Oil your pan. Put some oil on a piece of cloth and use it to grease the pan. You can use any cooking oil like canola and grapeseed to season your pan.

Apply a thin layer of oil as much as possible to avoid blotchy coating. Grease the inside and the outside of your pan. 

4. Burn the oil. Put your pan back on the stove or in the oven. Heat the pan.

This process may be very smoky, so make sure to open your exhaust fan and kitchen windows. Once the smoke dissipates, you’ll notice a brownish coating on the pan, a signal that you were able to season it properly. Repeat the oiling and burning process until you achieve a dark brown coating.


Frequently Asked Questions

How long do cast iron and carbon steel pans last?

Both pans, especially cast iron pans, may last a lifetime. You can even pass it down to the next generation. But do note that it takes proper caring and maintenance to avoid corrosion or damage that may affect your cookware’s performance.

Between cast iron and steel pans, which do chefs use the most?

Most professional chefs prefer using carbon steel pans as they heat up quickly and can easily control the pan’s temperature compared to using cast iron pans.

Can you leave leftovers in a cast iron pan?

Nope. We do not recommend you leave leftover food on your cast iron pans. After eating, store your leftovers in airtight or freezer containers. Wash your cast iron pan and thoroughly dry it to prevent rust.

What food should not be cooked in a cast iron skillet and carbon steel pans? 

Avoid cooking highly acidic food like tomatoes, vinegar, and lemon-based food or sauces using these pans. They may ruin your pans’ seasoning and may give your food a metallic taste. It may also lead to rusting.

Is a carbon steel pan safe for cooking?

Cooking acidic food in a carbon steel pan causes it to release metallic particles like iron. However, consuming a small amount of it is not that lethal, nor will it significantly affect your health.


Carbon Steel vs Cast Iron Pan: Which Should You Get?

Use carbon steel if you like a pan that requires less maneuvering, heats up fast, and will help you cook a dish quickly.

But a cast iron pan is the one if you are looking for cookware that can withstand high temperatures. It may be heavy, but this cooking pan can do wonders — like keeping your food hot for an extended period. 

These two have pros and cons, so pick the one that matches your lifestyle. But if you have the budget, why not get both? These cookwares both come in handy when cooking in the kitchen!

Read Next: 45 Best Crepe Fillings (From Sweet to Savory)

Krishia

KC is a writer, an artist, a theatre enthusiast, and a food lover. She believes in the saying, “a jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one.” That is why she has myriads of interests—from photography, cooking, designing, journaling, and the list still goes on. She dreams of traveling the whole country on her own someday to satiate her eyes, her curiosity, and of course, her stomach.