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Lynne liked my last article, comparing cast iron and copper cookware, so much that she asked me to write another comparing cast iron vs carbon steel frying pans.
Until the mid-twentieth century, cast iron cookware was just about the only variety you would find in most American kitchens
Okay, yes, this was largely due to the reality that it was pretty much the only worthwhile option for the common folk, but its sturdiness and heat retention means it has always been and remains an excellent choice for cooking up just about anything.
By the 1960s, Teflon and other nonstick skillets gained popularity and had essentially taken over the cookware world until the early 2000s, when more traditional cooking vessels like cast iron and ceramic started making a comeback into the mainstream.
After living in a world of fast food and microwave dinners, many people decided to get back to their roots and throw out all Teflon and prepare real food from scratch.
It’s been found that Teflon and other nonstick products can leach chemicals into food and the coating can be toxic at high temperatures (above 500°F). You also don’t generally have the option of going stove-top-to-oven with nonstick cookware.
With natural materials like cast iron and carbon steel, there aren’t these kinds of problems, making them excellent options for home chefs who want multipurpose cookware and who want a healthier lifestyle.
Both of these metals form a key choice when comparing natural cookware options and you’ll find classic skillets made of both materials. While cast products are certainly better-known, carbon steel (known best for its use in woks) can do nearly everything its sister can do without some of the drawbacks.
A good argument can be made for buying either! And both work great on inductions stoves so you’ll definitely be future proofed.
Iron is actually a relatively poor heat conductor in comparison to other metals like copper. But once it heats up, it maintains temperature, can withstand very high temperatures, and spreads heat evenly without any hot or cold spots.
This makes this thicker metal is a great option for searing and giving color to meat, like steak, because the surface of the skillet isn’t going to change temperature once you’ve placed the cold meat in the pan. Check out Foodal’s recommended skillets and pans for searing steak and other cuts of meat.
Want a more grill like surface to sear on? Try a Lodge 10 1/2 in Pre-Seasoned Cast-Iron Square Grill Pan for under $20!
In addition, because cast does just fine in the oven, you can use that very same pan to bake a pineapple upside down cake. The downside is that they do take some time to heat up and cool down, which can be annoying.
Conversely, this built in heat radiator effect can benefit you – especially when using a dutch oven to keep stews and other similar meals warm.
Carbon steel doesn’t retain heat quite as well, but most people say they don’t notice a significant difference and in return, your frying pans will heat up and cool down much more quickly.
Some users say that they find hot spots in their carbon steel frying pans, but this can be avoided by buying them a little thicker and from a reputable seller.
Need to feed a neighborhood or a small army? Then the Lodge CRS15 Pre-Seasoned 15-inch Carbon Steel Skillet may be just what you need!
Iron skillets are well known for their durability and are often passed down for generations, building an even better seasoning as time goes on. Carbon steel is also very durable; in fact, it’s less brittle than its counterpart, so there’s less risk of it breaking when dropped or smashed.
Both types of cookware require maintenance to make them last, though. This is done through a process called seasoning, which entails applying oil and baking the cookware.
Carbon steel skillets have a smoother surface, making them quite a bit easier to season. Just one application of oil should be enough to make them nonstick. Newer cast cooking vessels, however, hold their seasonings better because of their rougher texture.
This may not be the case if you are looking at pre-WWII US made examples which were ground smoother and a bit thinner.
Ultimately, cast iron may survive a bout with the occasional spaghetti sauce recipe or even submersion into soapy water while the acids in the food or a judicious soaping and scrubbing session would definitely strip the oil right off carbon steel cookware.
Most people who use iron skillets consider their heavy weight a fair trade off for such a sturdy product. What they don’t know is that carbon steel frying and sauté pans can be made at about two thirds the weight of cast iron ones, taking a substantial load off without sacrificing longevity.
Both materials have about the same density, but carbon steel frying pans are typically made thinner. Be careful, though: buy a product that’s too thin and you can find yourself with a warped skillet, a common complaint from users of cheaper carbon steel.
Pros and Cons of Carbon Steel and Cast Iron
|Low cost - even huge 16" frying pans (the biggest they make) are reasonably priced.||Lots of weight. Don't drop it on your toes!||Faster reaction to adjustment to heat (although not nearly that of copper or even aluminum).||About double the price of cast.|
|Natural non stick finish due to the cooking oil based seasoning.||Although very hard, the metal is somewhat brittle and can shatter if dropped on concrete.||Oil based, natural non stick finish.||Very cheap and very thin pans can bend - this is not the case with the brands I recommend.|
|Can keep your food warm for a long time.||Doesn't cool done nearly as fast as carbon steel skillets.||1/2 to 2/3rds weight of iron (depends on thickness).||Can't handle repeated use with acidic foods or soap.|
|Induction ready. Models (Lodge) available that are made in the USA.||Handle can get extremely warm - use a dish towel or oven mitt to handle. Alternatively, use a silicon slip on handle holder.||Works superbly with Induction. Models available that are made in the USA and Western Europe.||Handle can get very hot - however, it is very easy to slip on a silicon handle cove.|
|Searing meat at high temperatures is not a problem.||Can't handle repeated use with acidic foods or soap.||If well treated, will last for years.|
|Can go from stove top to oven due to their deep sauté pan like sides. Great for deep dish pizza.||Should last several lifetimes if it is used and not abused.|
|Deeper pores on the metal's surface allow the seasoning to stick really well.||Smaller pores make for very smooth surface.|
Both are ultimately very similar products. When it comes down to it, I think that an iron frying pan is the better bargain for my needs, but it’s a close call. Carbon steel sends to run about double the price of cast products.
The difference in weight and capacity to heat up and cool down more quickly aren’t quite worth the price to me, and I appreciate that cast iron skillets are a little lower maintenance and more traditional to the American kitchen.
However, example of both types of these pans are low enough cost (at least until you get into enameled examples) that they won’t break the bank and it may be worth it to add both to your arsenal – you may find that you prefer doing certain tasks more with one over the other.
We’ll get another take in an upcoming feature, when Lynne’s Kitchen contributor Ashley digs deeper into the saga of carbon steel. Until then you can read more about the various types of cookware available.
May your foodie dreams come true!
About Chelsea Miller
Chelsea Miller, born and raised in Portland, Oregon, graduated from the University of Oregon where she discovered both her love of football and cooking great food. She's the founder of the food blog "A Duck's Oven" and began writing for Foodal in 2014.