Cast iron pans and carbon steel pans are quite similar, but do you know exactly what the differences are? Both materials are very tough, durable, and perform great in various situations.

Some chefs swear by carbon steel pans, while others prefer cast iron. Today, we’ll explain everything you might want to know about carbon steel and cast iron pans and how to use them.

See also our review of the best carbon steel woks.

Cast Iron

Cast iron has been traditionally used to make cookware for centuries spanning many cultures. Cast iron pans were common in Asia and Europe alike. It is no wonder since cast iron is really tough and durable.

However, this is not the only advantage of cast iron. Heat retention is actually where it excels the most. Once cast iron gets hot, it will stay hot which is perfect for dishes that require slow cooking over long periods of time. Cast iron is commonly used for pans, roaster, and specialty pans like woks.

When it comes to cast iron, you basically have two options – bare cast iron or enameled cast iron. There is one thing you need to know about bare cast iron – it can react with the food you are cooking, especially with acidic foods.

Namely, small amounts of iron can actually leach into the food. This is not necessarily bad for your health, but it can also change the taste of the food that you are cooking which is usually not desirable. Luckily, this kind of reaction is easily prevented by seasoning a cast iron pan (more on that later). However, it still doesn’t make it suitable for long cooking processes.

The other option that prevents the cast iron from reacting with the food is enameled cast iron. To make enameled cast iron, a glassy glaze called porcelain enamel is applied to the surface of the pan.

Enameled cast iron is great for braising and baking, for example, but it’s essentially different than bare cast iron. While bare cast iron can withstand searing hot temperatures, this is not recommended for enameled coating.

On the other hand, bare stainless steel is not dishwasher-safe, and shouldn’t be washed with soap whatsoever, while you can often put your enameled steel pan in the dishwasher.

One of the biggest drawbacks of cast iron is that it is quite heavy. Because of the weight, cast iron pans need to be handled carefully. For this reason, not many chefs use cast iron cookware in restaurants.

However, a good cast iron pan can certainly be useful for home cooking.

Carbon Steel

Carbon steel is basically a cross-over between cast iron and stainless steel. It’s a material very similar to cast iron, but a bit better, at least when it comes to using it in a modern kitchen.

Carbon steel actually contains more iron than cast iron – around 99%. The remaining 1% is carbon. Cast iron, on the other hand, contains up to 98% of actual iron. Why does this difference matter? It results in a uniform grain structure.

Carbon steel cookware has all the performance characteristics of cast iron cookware, but it’s also lighter, harder, and has a smoother surface. Carbon steel pans are lighter than cast iron pans and they are just as durable as stainless as steel versions.

Just like cast iron, carbon steel can react with acidic foods which means it doesn’t really work for long cooking processes. However, seasoned carbon steel pans are great for stir-frys, sauteing, and browning.

Finally, carbon steel pans are very popular with professional chefs. If you want to cook like a pro, you should definitely consider the option of getting a stainless steel pan or two.

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Read our review on the Top 5 best cookware sets.

Carbon Steel and Cast Iron Pans: Seasoning and Maintenance

Both uncoated cast iron and carbon steel pans usually require seasoning before use (although some pieces come pre-seasoned). Both types of pans can be seasoned in the same way.

There are multiple seasoning methods that you can use, but they are all based on the same principle – baking the oil into the surface of the pan. This creates a permanent coating on the cooking surface that prevents food from sticking.

The basic ingredient you’ll need is some kind of vegetable oil or grease. You can choose almost any kind of oil, but we recommend using an oil with a high smoking point like peanut oil. Flaxseed, grapeseed, and canola oils also work well.

Before seasoning, make sure to clean your pan really well using warm water and soap. Once the pan is dry pour a bit of oil into the pan, put it on the stove, and let it heat up slowly over medium heat.

Once the oil starts smoking, the seasoning process is done. You can also do the same thing in the oven. After the initial seasoning, you can start using the pan, and the more you use it, the more seasoned it will become, which also means it will become more non-stick. Seasoning a pan is really a way to create your own chemical-free non-stick coating and we love it!

After the initial seasoning, cast iron and carbon steel pans should not be washed with soap. Just wash your pan with hot water and a scrubbing brush. If you do decide to use soap, it’s not the end of the world, but you will need to season the pan again.

Final Thoughts

Both cast iron and carbon steel pans can be real workhorses in the kitchen. They are both durable, heavy and suitable for cooking at high temperatures. They both need to be seasoned too (at least in the case of bare cast iron).

Furthermore, both materials retain heat really well too. However, there are some differences. Most importantly, carbon steel is essentially the lighter version of cast iron, which makes it much easier to handle while maneuvering around the kitchen.

Carbon steel is also slightly more responsive to heat changes than cast iron. In any case, both cast iron pans and stainless steel pans are very functional and versatile pieces of cookware. Which one you choose depends on personal preference, but no real chef can live without at least one of these.

See also:
Best Cookware Sets Reviewed
Ultimate Cookware Buyers Guide