Cast Iron vs. Carbon Steel - What's the Difference?

carbon steel wok

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For many people, part of the joy of cooking is cultivating seasoned cast iron skillets that give every dish you make a unique and rich flavor. It is the kind of thing that can only happen after countless cooking sessions with your pots and pans as they absorb the flavors of dozens of meals.

But of the two more traditional materials for cookware, cast iron cookware or carbon steel pans, which is right for you while performing what tasks? And what is the difference between them?

Let me be clear right from the start: The differences between cast iron cookware and carbon steel are key to this discussion, yet it is still worth mentioning that many of the same tasks are possible with both forms of cookware with only minor differences. With that said, let’s dive in.

 

Different Metals

First and foremost, it is essential to discuss how cast iron and carbon steel cookware are made to establish why they might work differently while cooking.

 

The Making of Cast Iron

cast iron skilletThe Lodge Foundry details their process of melting down a mixture of pig iron and recycled steel to make their skillets.

Pig iron, recycled steel, and other alloys get melted down at a temperature of two thousand degrees and cast into molds of the skillets we all know and love.

The casting process ensures the highest level of durability for every skillet produced as the metal is made from one integral block.

It also leads to a thicker, and therefore, heavier pan.

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Manufacturing Carbon Steel

On the other hand, carbon steel cookware has more in common with a medieval sword in how it’s made than with cast iron. While it’s rare, some companies even still hand forge pots and pans that they sell.

Whereas cast iron cookware is melted down and molded, carbon steel is often made by combining a high-carbon substance such as graphite or coal with an iron alloy. The steel is then worked over in a forge until impurities are beaten out of the metal.

Not all carbon steel cookware is hand forged, only the higher-end products, but the quality difference is worth it. The key with carbon steel is that it is beaten or pressed into shape instead of being cast.  This leads to a smoother surface than cast iron and a thinner, lighter pan.

Because carbon steel is thinner, it heats up and cools down much faster than cast iron.

 

Differences In Use

Carbon steel cookware is much lighter and easier to manage; that is an undeniable fact of using it. Cast iron cookware could stop a bullet if it needed to; the first thing anyone says when someone gets one is, “you will have it forever.”

Stuff like this mainly comes down to your personal preference. But there are some aspects of using one or the other that we can explore more in-depth.

cooking vegetablesTo stay on weight for a moment longer, some cookware such as woks require a more significant amount of physical manipulation, such as to flip stir fry. In this case and others like it, the lighter the wok is, the better. This situation is where a carbon steel wok is the better option to save yourself the strain on your arms and back.

However, cast iron’s sturdy nature tends to make it a more versatile piece of cookware in the long term. For instance, many cookbooks geared toward cooking with a cast iron skillet will have you cooking with it on a stovetop, baking with it, and frying things in it.

A cast iron skillet is durable enough and built so that it can do all three. While it is less common, it is even possible to use any cast iron pot or pan like a dutch oven so long as you have a lid on hand.

With all of this said, the appeal of both is similar in that both need seasoning, and you can achieve this partly through repeated use.

Cast iron is undoubtedly more famous for this trait, however, and there is some evidence that the iron absorbs more flavor and cultivates a more flavorful coating in the long term.

 

Difference In Cleaning and Maintenance

red and black roaster oven

Anyone with cast iron cookware has no doubt heard that they should not, under any circumstances, be scrubbed or put in the dishwasher: clean cast iron and carbon steel with water and gentle detergents.

Always dry completely afterward. Any rough scrubbing will strip away the seasoned film and run the risk of rusting either type of cookware as both are made of iron-based alloys that are susceptible to rust.

It would be remiss not to mention here that some cast iron comes with enamel to make cleaning easier. You still need to treat the cookware gently, but rusting is much less likely. Enameled pans are easier to maintain but more likely to be damaged by chipping.

If anything, carbon steel is even more susceptible to rusting, and the thinner metal means that this can become even more of a problem in a much shorter period. The key is to minimize the time the carbon steel is wet, then immediately dry and re-oil the pan.

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Conclusion

Cast iron cookware and carbon steel pans are both excellent cookware materials, providing pans that can last a lifetime.

If you prefer one or the other – then get it.  If you want to avoid something very heavy, go for carbon steel.  On the other hand, if you prefer something hefty and reliable, then cast iron rules.

 

About The Author

You can find Beatriz Garcia at Clan Kitchen, where she regularly blogs about cookware and healthy cooking.  She loves some of the traditional cookware materials like cast iron, carbon steel, and copper.

 

 

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