Skip to main content

Carbon steel vs. cast iron frying pans: Which cookware is better?

One of the greatest questions among home cooks is whether they should use cast iron or carbon steel pans in their kitchens. While both have unique benefits, it can be challenging to discern which meals call for which pans. The sleek and stylish appeal of carbon steel can entice many home cooks looking to make light and flavorful dishes. On the other hand, some home chefs favor the traditional feel of cast iron for savory and hearty meals. However, when it comes down to choosing between the two, many homeowners are unsure of which will best suit their needs. Are these pans interchangeable? Or is one better than the other?

In this article, we’ll cover the benefits and drawbacks of both carbon steel vs. cast iron to decide which pan is genuinely the best for you.

cast iron pan cooking food on the stovetop
RODNAE Productions/Pexels

Everything you need to know about cast iron frying pans

Most people assume cast iron is made of pure iron. However, cast iron is actually made of an alloy of iron and carbon, much like steel. Cast iron has a higher concentration of carbon than steel, with about two to 3.5 percent more carbon content.

The greater amount of carbon is what gives cast iron that bumpy and rough texture. This makes cast iron brittle, meaning the pan requires more material to make it heavier and more durable.

Bake, braise, or roast with your cast iron pan

Cast iron pans are well known for their versatility and ability to retain heat. While they take longer than other pans to heat up, they can reach higher temperatures, making them great for the stovetop or the oven.

While cast iron pans are durable kitchenware, they are also quite heavy, making it difficult to sauté vegetables or maneuver around the kitchen. However, many chefs favor these pans since they can use them in many other situations, including baking, grilling, and broiling.

Be sure to season your cast iron pan

Seasoning a cast iron pan is fairly simple. Apply a coat of light oil and bake in the oven to create a natural non-stick coating. The advantage of this is that you can avoid the harsh chemicals that come with non-stick pans that use a synthetic coating like Teflon.

It’s also important to remember that cast iron pans should never drip-dry; otherwise, they will rust. Additionally, metal spatulas and harsh soaps can break down the oil coating that gives the cast iron pan its non-stick qualities. For some people, this extensive care can be deterring. Cooking with acidic foods can be challenging as well since the acid breaks down the layer of oil coating your pan, meaning your food may become slightly metallic in flavor.

carbon steel frying pan on wood table
Jaimieandkyleshootstock/Shutterstock

What you need to know about carbon steel frying pans

Carbon steel frying pans are made with a higher concentration of iron than cast iron. Instead, they contain two percent carbon, making them qualify as steel while still retaining a matte finish. Due to its makeup, carbon steel is often less brittle than cast iron and is nearly half the weight.

While the pan is light to carry compared to the traditional cast iron, it is just as durable, making it an excellent cookware item. Unfortunately, carbon steel has the ability to rust and corrode, unlike stainless steel, requiring proper care to be long-lasting.

Great for cooking eggs, fish, and sautéed veggies

Since carbon steel pans are lightweight and easy to carry, they are perfect for sautéing and tossing vegetables or stir fry. Additionally, unlike cast iron, cooking eggs, omelets, and fish is made easy thanks to the smooth, non-stick surface of carbon steel.

Carbon steel is well-known for its ability to heat quickly and retain its temperatures, allowing for a more even sear on foods. However, since carbon steel also requires seasoning to create a non-stick coating, it is recommended to avoid cooking acidic foods.

How to care for carbon steel

Depending on manufacturer instructions, seasoning a carbon steel pan can look similar or different from seasoning a cast iron pan. You can often apply a thin layer of oil and heat the pan on the stovetop to burn on the natural coating. A few layers will result in a light brown stain on your carbon steel and provide a slippery coating for your foods.

hanging pots and pans in a kitchen
Andreas von Einsiedel/Alamy

Which is better? Carbon steel or cast iron frying pans?

Depending on your needs, cast iron and carbon steel are both remarkable materials for your kitchen pans.

Cast iron is a great all-around kitchen tool that allows you to cook on the stovetop, in the oven, or on the grill. Thanks to its heat retention, you can sear and cook anything so long as it isn’t too acidic. Caring for your cast iron pan can take some work, and you have to be careful not to allow water to sit on the pan to prevent rust. However, many people have enjoyed cast iron for generations, and thanks to its durability, you can ensure that your pan will be long-lasting.

Alternatively, carbon steel pans are a standard tool in professional kitchens since they can perform many of the same functions of cast iron while also doing more. They are quick to heat up and create an even sear on your food. Additionally, contrary to cast iron, carbon steel’s lightweight quality makes it easy to be more mobile in the kitchen or to sauté foods as needed. While their care differs based on manufacturer instructions, they are relatively easy to work with.

While both pans are undoubtedly impressive, we have to conclude that in the debate between carbon steel vs. cast iron pans, carbon steel is our preference. Its versatility, mobility, and sturdy material are impressive. We value the even heat distribution and its ability to cook eggs and fish without sticking. While it isn’t as well known as cast iron when it comes to home cooking, we’d argue that it is a favorable choice and will one day become a more popular choice for cooking delicious meals.

Editors' Recommendations

Amelia Wilson
Amelia Wilson (author pen name Amelia J. Wilson) is a content writer in Greenwood, IN. She often enjoys topics on…
Good, better, best: Stand mixers that will level up your kitchen
Red stand mixer with strawberries

If you're an avid baker without a stand mixer, odds are you've experienced your fair share of cramps from hand mixing. So if you've had any hesitations about investing in this handy kitchen gadget, rest assured your tired arms will thank you. Even if you already own a stand mixer, it might be time for an upgrade, anyway.

We scoured the internet to find the best stand mixers on the market that are durable, easy to use, and full of enhanced features that will amaze amateurs and pro chefs alike. Read on to learn more about our three favorite stand mixers that are sure to level up your kitchen.

Read more
Nonstick cookware could pose health risks — this is why
best aluminum cookware man tossing clams in pan

Ease in the kitchen is a goal among home chefs and professionals alike. Non-stick pots and pans have climbed to the top of every cook's list of essential kitchen items, as the non-stick Teflon coating makes cooking and clean-up a breeze. Unfortunately, the coating may pose a danger to your health. Ready to learn more? Let's dive into the ins and outs of this nonstick coating and see what experts have to say about keeping Teflon-coated products in your home.

What are the health risks of nonstick cookware?
Teflon is a trademarked name for Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), a fancy name for the chemical on cookware that makes it non-stick. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, "at normal cooking temperatures, PTFE-coated cookware releases various gases and chemicals that present mild to severe toxicity." Many researchers maintain that, while PTFE isn't dangerous to humans on its own, the risk can increase when it's used improperly. When PTFE coating is heated to high temperatures, the substance begins to break down and release gasses that can cause a condition called polymer-fume fever, which presents with flu-like symptoms.
Tips for using nonstick pans safely
Using non-stick pans is not necessarily a dangerous practice, but taking a few precautions can go a long way to prevent the release of harmful gasses.
Avoid the high heat setting
As previously mentioned, high temperatures can break down the non-stick material and release potentially dangerous gasses into the air. Experts agree that the highest temperature Teflon should be heated to is 500°F, which is generally around the medium to medium-high heat setting on many stoves. If you need to cook something at a higher heat setting, use cookware that does not have a non-stick coating, and instead, use butter or oil to prevent sticking.
Buy heavier non-stick cookware
The more lightweight your cookware, the faster it will heat up. This means that the non-stick coating will start to break down quickly, even while it's still preheating. While they may be pricier, bulkier non-stick pots and pans take longer to heat up so it's easier to monitor them and adjust the temperature as needed.
Don't sear meat
Searing meat requires high temperatures in order to trap in the meat's juices quickly. If you do need to sear your meat, do so in an uncoated pan or cast-iron skillet.
Don't pre-heat a pan that's empty
When heating a pan, ensure there is oil or food coating the bottom. An empty pan heats quickly, and the Teflon will pass the safe temperature threshold faster than you think.
Cook in a well-ventilated kitchen
Most of us can't tell the exact temperature of the pan simply from looking at it, so it can be difficult to know for sure whether it's overheated or not. Stay on the safe side, and cook in a kitchen that's well-ventilated. Opening a window or blowing a fan in the room will remove any harmful gasses from the air, ensuring you don't inhale them while you cook.

Read more
Good, better, best: Countertop grills perfect for a BBQ party
grilled steak with asparagus and gravy

July is National Grilling Month, and you don't have to be left out of the festivities just because you don't have an outdoor grill. Even in the dead of winter or on a rainy summer day, you can still enjoy your favorite barbequed foods. Get ready for seared steaks, grilled hamburgers, and tasty brats all season long from the comfort of your clean, dry, temperature-controlled kitchen. We set out to find the finest indoor grills and ranked our top picks based on their quality construction, effective cooking methods, and convenient features. Start your marinade now, because you'll be grilling your favorites in no time.

Good
Hamilton Beach Steak Lover's 100 sq. in. Black Indoor Grill with Lid
The Steak Lover's Indoor Grill by Hamilton Beach is made to perfect your favorite filet. This grill has a hefty cooking surface of 100 square inches that leaves you enough room to grill two standard-sized steaks or four large burgers. The grill rapidly pre-heats to the highest sear function at 500 degrees Fahrenheit to lock in those flavorful juices. The non-stick grilling surface also prevents stuck-on pieces of charred fat and seasonings, making it super easy to wipe clean after using. To make clean-up even easier, the drip tray is removable and dishwasher safe. Made with aluminum materials, this grill is highly durable and will last for years to come.
What to grill
This indoor countertop grill is ideal for searing both meats and veggies, so pile on the steaks, burgers, pork chops, chicken breasts, and brats, but don't forget the veggie kebobs. This grill is also super versatile, as the grill's hinge floats to accommodate a bit of height for pressing paninis,

Read more