Love Cast Iron Pans? Then You Should Know About Carbon Steel

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Carbon steel pans, the under-appreciated sibling of cast iron. Photographs: Daniel Gritzer

Serious Eats has become an amazing resource for cast iron cookware. From recipes to seasoning instructions, myth busting to vintage restoration, we've got you covered. But there's another type of pan with similarities to cast iron that we haven't written much about, and it's made from carbon steel.

Kenji and I love our carbon steel pans, but since they're far more common in restaurant kitchens than homes, we've tended to keep mum on them. I'm changing that today, because if you love cast iron cookware as much as we do, you'll probably want to know about carbon steel pans.

What's the difference between carbon steel and cast iron? Honestly, not all that much. While I could tie myself in knots trying to parse their relative thermodynamic properties, the bottom line is carbon steel and cast iron are remarkably similar. They're both very good at retaining heat, so that once they get hot, they stay hot. This makes them ideal for tasks like searing steaks or crisping up chicken skin. Like cast iron, with proper seasoning—the process of heating the pan up repeatedly with a thin layer of oil until it builds up into a layer of shiny black polymers—they acquire near non-stick qualities. They can both be taken directly from the stovetop into the oven, and they're both tough materials that will last longer than a lifetime.

They also share a few of the same downsides. They're poor conductors of heat as far as cookware materials go, making them prone to uneven heating patterns: hot in the spots right over the heat source, significantly cooler just a short distance away. They're both also reactive metals that aren't suited for long-cooking acidic or alkaline ingredients. You wouldn't want to reduce a whole bottle of wine or make a tomato sauce in them.

So why am I even bothering to mention carbon steel if it's basically the same as cast iron? There are a few things that actually do differentiate it, making it a worthwhile type of cookware to consider.

First, if you're at all a fan of vintage cast iron, with its thinner build and smoother surface than the new stuff sold today, carbon steel will appeal to you: It's stamped or spun from sheets of metal, not cast like cast iron, which gives it a smooth surface similar to vintage cast iron. This also means that a perfectly seasoned carbon steel pan will have better non-stick properties than a perfectly seasoned modern cast iron pan.

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The sloped sides of carbon steel pans make tossing foods while sautéing easier.

Second, there's a form-factor consideration. Carbon steel and cast iron are mostly interchangeable as far as the metals themselves go, but their shapes are different enough to be a significant factor: most cast iron skillets have vertical sides, making them great for tasks like shallow-frying chicken or baking things like cornbread or pan pizza.

Most carbon steel pans, on the other hand, have sloped sides, making them much better suited to sautéing. As I explained in my how-to on tossing foods in a skillet, if you want to launch something skyward, you need to send it off a sloping ramp, not crash it into a wall. Carbon steel shapes are perfect for that.

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There are some other more subtle differences that I could formulate into an argument about when to use one versus the other. I could point out that cast iron pans tend to be thicker and heavier than carbon steel of the same diameter* and therefore end up heating slightly more evenly than carbon steel. I could say that this difference makes cast iron better for searing meats, while carbon steel, being lighter weight, is better for sautéing foods: the pan is easier to lift and shake with one hand,** and since the contents move around the pan constantly during cooking, hot and cold spots don't matter as much.

*I happen to have two 12-inch skillets at home, one made of cast iron, the other carbon steel. The cast iron one weighs 7 pounds 4 ounces, while the carbon steel is 5 pounds 10 ounces.

** Carbon steel is generally lighter than comparably sized cast iron pans, but it'd be a mistake to think they're light: Back in my restaurant cooking days, I developed a nasty case of trigger finger from lifting heavy carbon steel pans all day long. Don't worry though, there's not much risk of developing a repetitive-use injury like that at home.

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Cast iron and carbon steel pans: while there are some differences, both work well for searing meats and sautéing.

But the truth is, even if there's merit to those arguments, they only go so far. As someone who owns multiple cast iron and carbon steel pans in multiple sizes, I can attest that in most cases, they're pretty interchangeable. Kenji concurs. "I use both for both—whichever I grab first," he told me when I asked him about his own habits. Frankly, if you already own plenty of cast iron, I wouldn't try to convince you that you must also invest in carbon steel.

Like cast iron, carbon steel is also pretty cheap. Prices online can range quite a bit, though I'd steer clear of the cheapest ones unless you can verify in person that they aren't made of extra-thin metal (good carbon steel pans are thinner than cast iron, but not by a lot). Even at the more expensive end, you're unlikely to go over $100 for the larger sizes, and can spend quite a bit less than that.

Carbon steel pans aren't strictly better than cast iron, and they aren't a necessity if you already have a lot of cast iron in your kitchen. But if you're still building your cookware collection, or if you enjoy compulsively buying kitchen gear whether you need it or not like I do, it's worth considering some carbon steel pieces.

I suspect you'll love them.