When your casual enthusiasm for cooking turns into full-blown passion, you may realize that you need the right tools to craft that perfect dish. And, with cookware, not all pots and pans are created equal, especially when it comes to material. While cast iron and carbon steel share similarities when taking on serious heat, these two materials are quite different.
Table of Contents
- Most common materials for cookware
- How are cast iron and carbon steel alike?
- What is the difference between cast iron and carbon steel?
- Recipes that are better cooked with cast iron
- Recipes that are better cooked with carbon steel
- A few last words on carbon steel vs. cast iron cookware
Before we get into the particulars of cast iron vs. carbon steel and offer delicious recipes for each cookware, here's a quick review of the most common cookware materials.
Whether you are a seasoned or amateur cook, the "best" cookware depends largely on what you are cooking, how you are cooking it, and the ingredients you'll use.
Most common materials for cookware
Durable and robust, stainless steel is ideal for cooking just about anything, thanks to its nonreactive nature when in contact with acidic and alkaline foods. Go ahead and whip up a big pot of tomato sauce. Likewise, nothing deglazes and creates beautiful caramelization like stainless steel pans.
However, one thing to keep in mind is that unless the base is bonded with aluminum or copper, which significantly improves heating abilities, stainless steel can be a poor heat conductor.
Stainless steel is relatively easy to clean by hand or in the dishwasher. However, you will need to apply serious elbow grease if you have been honing your browning skills and leaving your pots with stuck-on messes.
A lightweight, malleable metal, it's excellent at distributing heat evenly and quickly. Plus, it's affordable. However, raw aluminum will react with some acidic foods, leaving behind a metallic taste and/or discoloration. To prevent this, look for anodized aluminum (the process by which the metal is hardened and, as a result, made nonreactive) or aluminum surfaces that have been coated with a layer of non-stick, ceramic, or stainless steel interior.
Got a big family or lots of friends for whom you enjoy cooking? You'll definitely want to stock up on a few large aluminum pots and pans. Thanks to aluminum's lightweight, preparing and transporting large portions is a breeze.
Copper's superior conductive properties, which allow for quick and uniform heating, are unmatched, except by silver. While prized by chefs and serious home-cooks, for some, copper is a high-maintenance investment.
Although well-made and beautiful to look at and display, it may not be the best choice for your everyday-use cookware. Considered by some to be a noble metal, copper is expensive. What's more, it requires polishing and careful maintenance.
Like its cheaper cousin aluminum, unlined copper is reactive with certain foods. Not to worry, however—most pots and pans are lined with stainless steel or tin. But, tin-lined pots will eventually need to be retinned (i.e. more expense). Tin linings maintain copper’s superior heat conduction and, with careful use, can even be used on electric ranges. However, you’re limited to using wooden or silicone utensils and have to remember to keep the heat lower on your range than for pots made from other metals.
Nota Bene: neither copper nor aluminum cookware will work on induction cooktops.
Clay and stoneware
The oldest known cookware was made of clay, but looking at this list, you might wonder: why are pots and pans made of metal? Well, the short answer is that metal is more durable and our cooking methods have changed. That doesn't mean, however, that clay and stoneware are inferior vessel options. They do, however, have a few drawbacks.
The main one—clay and stoneware are intended mainly for oven use only. But, if you live off on casseroles, lasagnas, gratins, pizzas, bread, and pies, that should be a problem, right?
You can find gas and electric range-friendly stoneware pots and pans, but you'll need practice using them. Some, like cast iron and carbon steel, need to be seasoned to achieve non-porous interiors.
Blocks of iron are melted together with carbon and poured into a sand, water, and clay mold to create these heavy hitters, which have seen a major resurgence in recent years.
The surface of most cast iron pots is rather porous and uneven (not a bad thing); however, a new class of craft cast iron forges—the Field Company among them—are creating smoother, lighter, and more elegant cast iron skillets.
Cast iron requires seasoning, a worthwhile investment considering you are working to achieve a natural—chemical-free—non-stick surface that won't ruin or impart harmful properties to your food. And unlike tech-coated cookware that needs to be replaced continuously, cast iron's non-stick surface will last a lifetime.
Nowadays, many cast iron pans are factory-coated and require minimal maintenance. If you choose an unseasoned pan, just be patient. Proper seasoning will develop over time with continued use—no need to do anything special.
Cast iron requires time to heat up, but when it does, it keeps things hot! One difference between cast iron and steel pans is the latter's unique ability to retain heat. Cast iron's heat retention is second to none, making it ideal for searing, braising, roasting, baking, and frying.
Unlike cast iron pieces, which are cast from one-use molds, carbon steel cookware is made by cutting and pressing carbon sheets into the shape of a pan. Thanks to this process, carbon steel pans tend to be slightly thinner and lighter. As such, they heat up and cool down faster than cast iron.
Like cast iron, seasoning activates carbon steel's non-stick properties. Most carbon steel pans have sloped edges and longer handles. Coupled with their lighter weight, they are ideal for sautés and stir fry, so you can show off your pan-flip technique.
Carbon steel's range features frying pans, paella pans, and woks. Because carbon steel has a smoother, less porous surface, it's best suited for "delicate" ingredients like flaky fish, for example, that tend to stick to rougher surfaces. The flip side here is that smoother surfaces may not build up the best seasoning; however, as with cast iron, time and patience are your friends.
How are cast iron and carbon steel alike?
Both cast iron and carbon steel require time and some getting used to, but you'll taste the benefits of your efforts in every meal you prepare. And, if you are looking to swap out your "unnatural" non-stick cookware, both carbon steel and cast iron are excellent vessels.
- Both need to be cleaned with warm water, dried well, and coated with oil.
- Both need to be seasoned to build up non-stick properties and prevent rusting.
- Both transfer seamlessly from the stovetop, broiler, oven, grill, or over the crackling flames of a camping fire.
- Neither should be exposed to acidic ingredients for long periods. (Brief and careful use on well-seasoned pans is OK.)
What is the difference between cast iron and carbon steel?
In the end, it all comes down to seemingly minor variants in numbers that make a big difference in both looks, feel, and performance. Carbon steel contains very little carbon (around 1%) and more iron (99%). Cast iron has a slightly higher carbon percentage (2% to 3%) and a somewhat lower iron percentage (97% to 98%).
- Carbon steel heats up and cools down more quickly.
- Cast iron has better heat-retention capabilities.
- Carbon steel pans are slightly lighter.
- Cast iron pans have a thicker layer of seasoning.
- Carbon steel pans usually have longer handles and sloped edges.
- Cast iron usually has more vertical sides and shorter handles.
Recipes that are better cooked with cast iron
Cast iron skillets and Dutch ovens are so versatile that you can prepare an entire meal—from appetizer to dessert, and even bread!
Here are five tried-and-true Field Company favorites:
Whet your appetite with these super easy and super tasty Salt and Pepper Chicken Wings with Crispy Garlic. Fry them up in no time in your cast iron Dutch oven.
Decadent and gooey, this paprika-laced cast iron skillet Mac and Cheese dish is topped with toasted breadcrumbs that give it an extra crunch.
Our Cast Iron Steamed Mussels recipe calls for hard apple cider, tangy mustard, crème fraîche, and tarragon for a unique take on moules marinières.
Don't forget your vegetables! Take Brussels sprouts—a fountain of fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants—to the next level with this recipe. These green gems are first seared, then steamed and drizzled in a delicious honey-glaze. The last step is a generous sprinkle of homemade dukkah.
A meal is not really a meal unless dessert is served. A latticed stunner, this Cast Iron Strawberry Rhubarb Pie tastes as good as it looks.
Recipes that are better cooked with carbon steel
Because of their smoother, almost slippery surface and sloped edges, carbon steel pans are ideal for sautéing a few veggies and cooking delicate proteins, as well as whipping up a stir-fry or authentic paellas.
Up your egg game with the ultimate Fried Eggs recipe by Alton Brown. You’ll likely be eating breakfast for lunch and dinner.
Try Nigella Lawson's super-easy Rib-Sticking Stir-Fry, which combines chicken, beans, vegetables, and fresh herbs for a hearty meal.
Although considered a side dish, these deceivingly simple Pommes Anna will steal the show at your next meal. Take it up a level by adding shallots, garlic, or your choice of fresh herbs.
The traditional metal for a paella pan is carbon steel; try this one, Valencian Chicken and Rabbit Paella, and see how your pan holds up.
A few last words on carbon steel vs. cast iron cookware
Choosing the right material for your culinary adventure is not a competition. It's about understanding the role of various materials and tools to get you the results you want. Still, adventure—culinary or not—is about trial and error, trying different things, and experimenting to see what works best. We hope our simple cookware guide will aid you in your next epicurean endeavors.