Cast iron is a tried and true type of cookware, but other options are available on the market. If you’re looking for a cookware with the perks and benefits of cast iron, but is more lightweight, has better heat control, and has a smooth surface, then we have the solution! If you love cast iron, consider upgrading to carbon steel. At first, cast iron and carbon steel seem to be very similar. Both are made with heavy-duty metal that can conduct heat very well. However, there are differences in their cooking surfaces, cooking functions, and seasoning processes. Let's look at the similarities and differences to see if carbon steel might be a better option for your kitchen.
Need high-quality carbon steel pans to add to your at-home kitchen? At de Buyer, we carry professional-grade products that have been designed and manufactured in France.
What Is Carbon Steel?
Carbon steel is considered an alloy of iron and carbon. Most carbon steel cookware consists of 99% iron and 1% carbon. Unlike stainless steel pans with shiny surfaces, carbon steel will have a matte finish and eventually darken over time due to the natural seasoning process. That flat surface is the perfect option for searing delicate meats or fish, cooking up a French omelette that will slide right out of the pan.
You will find carbon steel in many kitchens, especially in France. These carbon steel pans heat up and cool down quickly. Carbon steel pans are durable and more lightweight than cast iron, making them a great choice to use inside your home, outside on the grill, or over a campfire.
Carbon steel will heat up faster than cast iron, and cool down more quickly, so you have better control over the foods you’re cooking. Since carbon steel has a smoother surface than cast iron, its natural nonstick properties are more effective, so you don't have to worry about food sticking to the pan once you have proper seasoning on the pan. While carbon steel is heavier than aluminum or stainless steel pans, it is lighter than cast iron making it easier to use and for cooks to handle in the kitchen, especially when it comes to flipping and sauteing. De Buyer Carbon Steel pans are made with a thicker gauge metal than many other pans on the market, so they tend to be a bit heavier. This is a benefit, as the thickness of the pan makes it warp resistant and even more durable than the average carbon steel pan.
Carbon steel can be used on various cooktop surfaces, including gas, electric, and induction tops. If you want a durable and versatile option, you cannot beat carbon steel. Plus, our signature stainless steel handle on our Mineral B PRO series will stay cooler than those found on cast iron pans, so it can be a safer option. Not to mention, the signature handle allows the Mineral B PRO to be entirely oven, grill, and open fire safe.
Cast iron requires a lot of care and maintenance. If you don't dry the cast iron, it can easily rust. Like cast iron, if you don't properly care for your carbon steel pan, it is susceptible to rust. This is why it is important to always thoroughly dry out your pan. Rust will not ruin the pans, but it will require re-seasoning by you. Rust is easily removed from carbon steel since it has a smoother surface, so don’t be alarmed if you see some developing on your pan! With some simple steps, you can remove the rust from your carbon steel pan, touch it up with a re-seasoning and get back to cooking in no time!
Both carbon steel and cast iron react with acidic foods like lemon, tomatoes, wine, and others. These acidic foods can strip the seasoning on either cast iron or carbon steel pans. If you have a very well-seasoned pan, it is less likely that your pan will be affected, but if this happens, there is no need to worry, as seasoning can always be built back up.
Carbon Steel vs. Cast Iron
Some of carbon steel’s best features are its durability and its super smooth and slick cooking surface. Like Carbon Steel, Cast iron is another alloy of carbon and iron. Cast iron does have more carbon than carbon steel, with most levels at 2 to 3.5 % per pan. The cast iron pan will have a bumpy textured surface with its extra carbon content and from the rough grooves of the casting mold. Cast iron also tends to be more fragile and brittle than carbon steel, as they are more susceptible to cracking if it falls or is dropped. Since it is thick and formed by being pressed from metal sheets rather than being formed in a cast, carbon steel pans will not break, regardless of the wear and tear that they are put through and are virtually indestructible. As an added bonus the smooth cooking surface makes the natural nonstick features even better than cast iron, as foods will easily slip and slide around in it.
Related: Cookware Materials Guide
Cast iron does hold heat longer than carbon steel, but it also take longer to heat up. While you might think that is an advantage, it makes it more difficult to control the temperature of the foods you are cooking and can lead to burned or overcooked food. With carbon steel, the thinner metal heats up and cools down more quickly than cast iron, giving you better control over the cooking temperature without any hot spots.
Cast iron pans and skillets are extremely heavy. In fact, they can be twice as heavy as carbon steel. While carbon steel overall can be heavy, it is more lightweight than cast iron, and with longer and more ergonomic handles, carbon steel offers more movability and ease of use in the kitchen. A cast-iron handle is short and straight, leading to less maneuverability and potential strain on the wrist.
Which One Is Better?
In your kitchen, cast iron and carbon steel both have their place. Both materials require seasoning, retain heat well, and have naturally nonstick properties. Let’s compare them side by side with each feature:
- Seasoning: Both materials will need to be seasoned in order for them to perform their best. Carbon Steel can be seasoned on the stove top or in the oven with a high smoke point oil in order to build up the naturally nonstick surface. The same goes with cast iron, and while many cast iron pans can be purchased pre-seasoned, you won’t have control over what type of oil is used or how it is seasoned initially. With de Buyer Carbon Steel, you have control over the entire process.
- Maintenance: Carbon Steel is easy to care for. Often times, after cooking it just needs to be wiped down with a paper towel before being stored away. If any food gets stuck to the pan, it can be deglazed with hot water to loosen up any stuck on bits, then scraped or scrubbed to remove it. Anytime the pan gets wet it is important to dry it thoroughly, and it is always a good idea to rub a light coating of oil on it before storing it away. Because of its grooved surface, foods might be more likely to stick to the surface of cast iron, which also prevents a simple wipe down with a paper towel from being enough to clean the pan. Like carbon steel, it should always be thoroughly dried and wiped down with oil, but the cleaning process might be a bit more strenuous.
- Heat retention and control: Carbon Steel has the best of both worlds between cast iron and stainless steel. Like stainless steel, it heats up and cools down more quickly than cast iron, but it still has some great heat retention properties. Cast iron is good when it comes to retaining heat for longer periods of time, but it can lead to burnt or overcooked food.
- Nonstick properties: With a proper seasoning, both carbon steel and cast iron have naturally nonstick properties, which is ideal for those who do not want to use nonstick coated aluminum pans with chemical coatings. Because of its smoother surface, carbon steel’s nonstick abilities really shine through and let things like fried eggs slide around the pan.
- Weight: it is no secret that cast iron is very heavy. Carbon steel is also heavier than many other materials, but it is more lightweight than cast iron, making it easier to maneuver and cook with.
If you want to take these pans outside, they can both handle the high heat. Carbon steel pans are lighter in weight, and they are easier to move from the stove (or campfire) to the oven, and to the table. Many professional chefs love using carbon steel pans, mainly due to the ease of use and heat retention and control abilities of these products.
Choose the Best Cookware for Your Kitchen
Carbon steel is an excellent choice due to its heat conduction, lightness, and durability. You can use carbon steel for sauteing, frying, braising, and more. There may be room in your kitchen for both cast iron and carbon steel. But if you want a chef-approved and versatile piece of cookware, think about carbon steel pans. These pans have all of the best attributes of cast iron and take them up a notch. Once you have cooked with carbon steel, you will not want to use anything else.
Are you interested in adding high-quality, professional-grade carbon steel to your kitchen? We have a full line of carbon steel products at de Buyer, including bakeware, cookware, and utensils!