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Feb 15, 2009 10:57 AM

Skillets: Carbon steel or cast iron?


I'm in the process of buying cookware for a new kitchen. I've always used Lodge cast iron skillets, for as long as I can remember, and absolutely adore them, even if proper seasoning takes a few years. They just get better and better...

However, when I was in the store the other day, a sales person recommended De Buyer carbon steel skillets, considerably more expensive but much more reactive as a heat conductor. That is to say, they'll heat up and cool down much faster than the cast iron, so you have more control. I've read that the seasoning process is quite similar.

I'm also concerned about health and safety. I'm a purist in this department and try to use only the less reactive cookware. I prefer glass and enamel. Cast iron and stainless steel are where I draw the line. [They are both reactive to differing degrees, but probably not enough to have any negative long-term effects (remains to be seen...).] So I'm wondering where carbon steel fits in, same levels of leaching as stainless?

Thanks for your advice!

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  1. I have no experience with the carbon steel pans, but my guess would be to have both.
    the Cast Iron pans hold the heat and the Carbon Steel is more responsive to changes. Seems to me you should have both.

    PS Thanks for the info on the coffee maker.

    1. I use cast iron and stainless for almost everything. I do have 2 non sticks, Emeril and calphalon. I have to have at least 1 - 2 non stick pans, I have no comment on carbon steel. Although have a friend who has them and raves. Just passing along good reviews but not from a personal reference.

      1. Tina,

        Like you, I have cooked with cast iron for years and love it. My favorite frying pan is one I found rusted and abandoned in some apartment or garage over thirty years ago. Reseasoned it has served me faithfully ever since. Recently a friend who is a chef came and cooked in my kitchen bringing his carbon steel skillets. I was knocked out by their (relative) lightness and responsiveness and bought a DeBuyer 10" and a 12" to replace the nonsticks I no longer will use. Unfortunately I am not frying in a lot of fat every day, the way my friend is, and my carbon steel just does not hold its seasoning the way my cast iron does (or for that matter my carbon steel woks). I can't figure it out. I season them all the same. Use them all virtually the same and no matter how much oil I use in the carbon steel De Buyers and how well I reseason it after every use, it sticks. About all I find them really useful for are Dutch Baby pancakes which require their ability to handle high heat both on stop of the stove and in the oven. I keep trying to love them and retry them over and over again but I think they will never replace cast iron.

        1. Steel is iron with added carbon, which makes it tougher. Stainless steel has added metals like chromium and nickel which give it corrosion resistance (by forming a tough oxide layer).

          Because carbon steel is tougher, it can be rolled into sheets, and formed into pans, and be thinner than cast iron. Cast iron is thick, in part, because it is brittle, and would break too easily if cast any thinner.

          Heat conductivity of carbon steel is about the same as for cast iron, but because it is thinner, heat passes through faster, and it holds less heat (lower total heat capacity). Hence the 'faster response'.

          Reactivity is about the same as for cast iron.

          Regarding seasoning. My best carbon steel pan is a shallow crepe one. Since I've used it exclusively for crepes and omelets, its seasoning is pretty good. Still, when I tried scrambled eggs it, they did stick. A crepe pan may be a good way to test the water. You can also get Mexican carbon steel griddles for around $10.

          prompted by Caroline's comment I checked cast iron and carbon steel on Wiki. Carbon steel is lower in carbon (less the 2.5%) and cast iron higher (more than 2.5%). In any case, cast iron is more brittle, and carbon steel more malable.

          1. Tina, traditional woks are carbon steel and have been used in Asia for generations, so if you have a traditional wok, you do have a carbon steel pan! Like cast iron, you cannot run carbon steel through the dishwasher, and it does require the identical methods of curing and care. As you say, carbon steel pots and pans do give faster heat control than cast iron simply because they have less mass. And for the record, cast iron really is not "iron." It is also steel. It is very expensive to produce pure iron. Open hearth methods of smelting allows carbon bonding with the iron which creates steel. Whatever you decide on, enjoy!