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Jun 24, 2012 04:12 AM

Carbon steel vs. cast iron

So I bought myself a new tiny carbon steel pan (my first!) to use for morning eggs. I left it on the kitchen table while I made my coffee and my dad saw it, picked it up, and said, "Whoa! This is some metal! They make swords out of this!" He then asked me why I chose carbon steel instead of cast iron, and I told him it was slightly lighter. He argued that no, the density was the same, and by the way, why don't they make dutch ovens--like my "Kroo-say" out of carbon steel? Or woks out of cast iron?

I really couldn't have this conversation before my first cup of coffee. I'm not sure I know the answer, anyway. What are some qualities that differentiate the two, and why are some preferred over the other?

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  1. "Or woks out of cast iron?" Yes, WOKs are available in cast iron.

    "and I told him it was slightly lighter." This really depends on the thickness of the pan, assuming they are essentially the same general size. Weight per volume of material is going to be effectively the same.

    To me, the slightly rougher texture of cast iron (Lodge Mfg. in my case) seems to "hold" oil, fact, seasoning, etc a little more so food tends to sit on top or float a little while I cook. Raw steel cookware (DeBuyer in my case) seems provide a smoother surface so, I guess there is less surface contact for things to stick to and more direct contact with the pan seems to sear a little better - to me at least. In raw steel, a small amount of oil or fat really goes a long way to making the that stick free cooking surface everyone wants.

    In the end, I don't think there is enough difference to really be concerned with. Cast iron typically has more weight so it won't "cool off" as fast when I drop that steak on to it but, I also find cast iron is less forgiving careless handling and will rust easier then my raw steel. Raw steel is generally lighter so it is more responsive to heat changes (it doesn't make as much smoke when I overheat it because it will cool off faster) and I like the smoother surface for pancakes and similar items (just add a touch of butter and enjoy them).

    1. Your dad knows cookware for sure. I think a lot of younger generation people won't know what a carbon steel cookware look like, let alone about the swords comment. He is also correct that the density of carbon steel is the same as that of cast iron. However, you are correct that carbon steel cookware is lighter than cast iron cookware because carbon steel cookware are usually made thinner. There are carbon steel Dutch Oven but rare. Many woks are indeed made of out cast iron though not as common as carbon steel.

      In my experience, possibly mirrors Sid's, it is easier to season a carbon steel pan, but the rough texture on a cast iron pan able to hold more of the seasoning material thus more stable. For example, I was able to season my carbon steel pan in one day and made it nonstick like, while it took me a month of cooking before my cast iron skillet become nonstick like. Now that my cast iron skillet has been fully seasoned (the surface is smooth to touch, the cast iron skillet rarely need re-seasoning, while my carbon steel pan does.

      A major difference between carbon steel and cast iron is that carbon steel is more ductile than cast iron, while cast iron is more brittle than carbon steel. It is this reason that carbon steel can be made much thinner than cast iron. Technically speaking you can make cast iron cookware thin, but they would be easy to crack. This difference simply is the root cause of other differences: cast iron cookware are made thicker and heavier (due to its brittleness), cast iron cookware have better heat capacity and more even heating surface (due to its being heavier and thicker).... On the flip side, carbon steel cookware are lighter and thinner, and are more responsive to heat.

      Depending on the applications, one material may be better than the other. For a Dutch Oven, you will rarely need it to have a quick heat response, but heat retention may be important for you, so cast iron is good. For a wok which you want to toss and slip food, then a lighter and more ductile carbon steel one makes more sense -- you don't want to bang the wok and have it crack on you .

      1. Hi, E-M: "[W]hy don't they make dutch ovens--like my "Kroo-say" out of carbon steel?"

        They do. All you have to do is look past the coatings. See, e.g., Graniteware and other enameled steel has been around for a long time. Tinned steel pans even longer. But they are all thin.

        The better question is why there seem to be no heavy, bare carbon steel dutch ovens. Here, I think there are at least two factors at work. First, I think they would require extremely powerful presses to produce in quantity (The presses Falk uses on much more malleable copper bimetal exert somewhere around 80T/sqin, and their larger stewpans still have a production failure rate of 40%). I'm not sure, considering the capitalization involved, it would be cost effective to tool up to make such things.

        Second, if you did, what would you have when you're done? I'll tell you: A pan with virtually the same performance as cast iron. The only application I can think of offhand where a thick steel DO would be necessary would be for teaching line cooks or other great apes to cook--flinging the pan against the wall all day, every day would probably not destroy it.


        1. Carbon steel and cast iron are both mostly iron; in fact carbon steel is purer (less carbon).

          The iron produced by basic smelting (pig iron) still has impurities, mainly carbon. It is hard, but somewhat brittle. The easiest way of making durable cookware with this iron is to cast it in wet sand molds. That technology goes back several centuries, and set expectations for cast iron cookware (including the shapes, thickness, and weight).

          If you remove most of the carbon you get wrought iron, which is quite workable (malable) but also a bit soft. That's what blacksmiths worked. (High) carbon steel is between these, with a good balance between workability, strength, and hardness. In fact in days when good steel was hard to produce and expensive, blacksmiths would weld a strip of steel onto wrought iron, so that the steel served as the edge of the tool, and the softer iron its backbone.

          Now good quality steel is easily produced by steel mills in large rolled sheets. A carbon steel pan is cut and shaped from such a sheet. Because of the uniform thickness (from the mill) and high strength, a carbon steel pan can be thinner than cast iron, and hence lighter (but not less dense).

          A wok is a shape than can easily be made from plate steel; in fact it can be done by hand, though most are made by machine now. It is also easy to make steel woks in a wide range of sizes. Same goes for Spanish paellas, and Mexican comales (griddles).

          As Kaleo noted, carbon steel is often coated with enamel, making it rust proof, and suitable for wet (non frying) applications. I have a number items in that category, including small sauce pans, paellas, and 'dutch ovens' (stew pots). Broiler pans that come with stoves are usually enamel steel, as is the stove itself.

          10 Replies
          1. re: paulj

            Now this is why I love you guys. Honestly. CK, Kaleo, and paulj - you guys rock. Thank you for all your great info over the years.

            1. re: breadchick


              Don't undersell yourself. You have been a treasure for providing various information regarding carbon steel cookware.

              1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                Thank you. I guess when something works for me, I want to share! :-)

                1. re: breadchick

                  And of course, I personally owe you a thank you for suggesting the DeBuyer cookware. Thank you.

              2. re: breadchick

                I, the OP, second this. I got my answer. You rock. (You oughta see the egg pan. It was made in Spain.)

                I left the pan on the table while I ran errands, as dad promised to wipe it with acetone to get rid of the lacquer. Unbeknownst to me, while I was gone, someone emptied the dishwasher and placed all the odds and ends next to my pan. When my dad went to de-lacquer the pan and found all the OTHER cookware next to it, he figured I wanted them done too. We're talking some non-stick, plastic, stainless...needless to say, there is nothing left on any of those pans.

                Sometimes I wonder about the people in my household.

              3. re: paulj

                I have been reading up on woks and remain a bit uncertain about a couple of things.
                People keep saying to get a cast iron wok or a carbon steel wok. Some where I read that a cheap wok is not likely to be carbon steel, somewhere else I read that if the wok started out black it was NOT carbon steel. There seems to be an implication that some woks are carbon steel and some are just steel. Now to my mind high carbon steel is the stuff to make cutlery out of.
                Hard but brittle. High carbon stainless is a description I have seen often, I have a couple of such knives. High carbon steel would seem to be a poor choice for a wok.

                I just bought this wok which started out black:

                Is it the type of wok, Carbon steel, that I have seen recommended in so many places?
                PS my first post and you guys are great

                1. re: wavywok

                  When talking about pots and pans and woks you can ignore the distinctions between carbon steel, high carbon steel, and steel. For knives the details about hardness v sharpenability do matter, but those details don't matter with pans. All woks, except cast iron and aluminum, are made from the same steel. And as Chemicalkinetics found, even claims about being hand hammered are largely cosmetic.

                  I'm not even sure there is much difference in steel thickness (in contrast to some DeBuyer pans).

                  1. re: paulj

                    <And as Chemicalkinetics found, even claims about being hand hammered are largely cosmetic.>

                    I bought 3 hand hammered woks. I think one of them is hand made, while two of them are machined made and finished with hand hammering for cosmetic effects.

                    1. re: paulj

                      Well thanks for the replies, I am feeling better about my wok. It did season nicely and is very light and easy to flip. I have used it once and have been pleased with the results. I had two woks that I gave to the Salvation Army shortly after I moved in to my condo with its electric stove. The electric wok I bought was useless. After more that a decade I started thinking that the side burner on my propane grill could be used, that led me to the Idea of a stand alone burner ( a Kahuna from eastmanoutdoors). I think that is worthy of another thread..

                    2. re: wavywok

                      <Some where I read that a cheap wok is not likely to be carbon steel>

                      I disagree. Of course, it really depends on the definition of cheap. If you pay between $10-25 for a wok, then it is likely to be a carbon steel wok. Carbon steel is probably the cheapest construction for a wok, and yet it is also the best, although thin cast iron woks are also inexpensive too. A stainless steel cladded wok or an enameled cast iron wok will be much more expensive.

                      <somewhere else I read that if the wok started out black it was NOT carbon steel.>

                      I also disagree. While most carbon steel woks start out sliver shiny, some carbon steel woks are start off as black or bluish black.

                      <High carbon stainless is a description I have seen often, I have a couple of such knives. >

                      This will take a paragraph to set it straight.

                      <Is it the type of wok, Carbon steel, that I have seen recommended in so many places?>

                      Yes, it is a carbon steel wok. Have fun.

                  2. I'm still trying to find the best use for each. I just bought a couple of carbon steel skillets by Paderno. They're quite heavy. They do a great job of browning/searing. Does anyone know if they, or my cast iron skillet, would be better for searing, say, a steak? And of course, the ubiquitous "why"?

                    4 Replies
                    1. re: Jessiet

                      <would be better for searing, say, a steak? And of course, the ubiquitous "why"?>

                      Possibly for the cast iron assuming the cast iron skillet is heavier and thicker -- because great heat capacity and therefore ability to store heat.

                      1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                        Hey, Chem? Was it here on Chow that I saw a tip to overcome heat loss in CS? I think the advice was to start the steak off-center, then flip it to the other half of the skillet before popping it in the oven to finish.

                        Of course, this presumes it's a 'steak for one' kind of night. It would take a big honking pan to do that with two steaks, unless they be tiny filets.

                        1. re: DuffyH

                          <I think the advice was to start the steak off-center>

                          That would certainly help a bit. Not sure if it is from this site or not. I simply heat my carbon steel pan a bit more than I would for my cast iron pan to make up the difference. It really does not matter for most steak, unless it is pretty big and thick.

                          1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                            Thanks, Chem. I've only cooked steak a few times indoors, because Dude likes to grill, which he does about 3-4 times a week (more in summer) here in Tampa. I'll sure keep in mind your advice about heating the pan a bit longer.

                            Now me, I like a nice pan sauce with my steak from time to time, but since he's the GrillMaster, I just keep my mouth shut and let him do his man thing. I've got to admit, prepping some veg for the grill or tossing a quick salad doesn't suck nearly as much as prepping and cooking some of the food I cook indoors. :)