Carbon Steel vs. Cast Iron Cookware: 10 Differences You Need to Know

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If you’re in the market for a new skillet but can’t decide between carbon steel and cast iron, you’ve come to the right place.

In this comparison of carbon steel vs. cast iron, you’ll learn how these popular cookware types measure up in terms of cooking performance, ease of use, maintenance, durability, and much more.

By the end, you’ll have a complete understanding of their similarities and differences, so you can decide which is the best option for your needs.

Let’s get started!


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Similarities Between Carbon Steel and Cast Iron Cookware

Carbon steel and cast iron skillets have quite a lot in common.

Before I dive into their differences, let’s take a quick look at all the ways they’re similar.

Versatile

Both carbon steel and cast iron skillets show versatility in both the ingredients and cooking techniques they can handle.

Most ingredients are suitable for both carbon steel and cast iron cookware, and you can use them on the stove, in the oven, under the broiler, and on the grill. They’re the ideal cookware for campfires, too.

Affordable

Compared to stainless steel or copper cookware, carbon steel and cast iron skillets are very affordable. You can get a quality cast iron skillet for under $50, and carbon steel skillets typically range from $60 to $70.

Below are the current prices on Amazon for the top-selling carbon steel and cast iron skillets:

Prices and images pulled from the Amazon Product Advertising API on:

Durable

One of the greatest advantages of carbon steel and cast iron cookware is that they’re both extremely durable. They’re nearly indestructible. Unlike non-stick pans that only last a few years, this type of cookware can last a lifetime.

High Heat Tolerance

Stainless steel and non-stick pans are usually oven-safe up to 450°F or 500°F.

With carbon steel and cast iron, you never have to worry about temperature restrictions. Both boast incredibly high heat tolerance.

It’s why these materials are often used in high volume professional kitchens; they can sit on the burners for hours without overheating or warping.

Made In carbon steel cookware is oven-safe up to 1200°F, and the ICON carbon steel pan can handle heat up to 800°F. Most cast iron skillet makers don’t even mention a maximum safe temperature because they can tolerate a much higher temperature than your oven is capable of reaching. 

Requires Seasoning

Carbon steel and cast iron skillets require seasoning.

Seasoning is the process of coating the cookware in fat, typically vegetable oil, lard, or shortening, and heating it so that the fat bonds to the surface, creating a protective non-stick layer.

Seasoning a carbon steel pan
Seasoning a carbon steel skillet

Although the seasoning process is simple, and you only need to do it on occasion, it’s a necessity for both carbon steel and cast iron. If you skip it, the pan will rust and corrode, and food will stick to the surface.

Not Dishwasher-Safe

Carbon steel and cast iron skillets are not dishwashers safe. Both need to be hand-washed with water and a gentle sponge. Soap, harsh scouring pads, and stiff bristle brushes will remove the layer of seasoning.

After you clean the skillet, you’ll need to dry it thoroughly because carbon steel and cast iron are both susceptible to rusting with even the tiniest exposure to moisture.

Reacts With Acidic Foods

Carbon steel and cast iron are both reactive, meaning the metals interact with acidic foods.

A well-seasoned skillet can handle some exposure to acidic ingredients, such as a spritz of lemon or a splash of wine, but if you’re cooking tomato sauce or braising short ribs in red wine, avoid carbon steel and cast iron. Heavy exposure to acidic ingredients will completely strip the seasoning.

Trust me, I’ve tried it, and you can see the results below.

Tomato sauce stripping the seasoning off carbon steel cookware
Tomato sauce stripping the seasoning off carbon steel cookware

Differences Between Carbon Steel and Cast Iron Cookware

Now that you understand the similarities between carbon steel and cast iron, let’s dive into their differences.

Materials

Carbon steel and cast iron skillets are made primarily of iron. Carbon steel is made of 99% iron and 1% carbon, and cast iron is made of 98% iron and 2% carbon. Sometimes, cast iron products can be made of up to 3% carbon.

It may seem strange due to its name, but cast iron actually has more carbon content than carbon steel.

Carbon adds strength to the alloy, but it also makes it more brittle. Because of this, cast iron skillets are made with thick walls by pouring the melted iron and carbon mix into molds.

Cast iron skillets’ thick walls counteract the material’s brittleness, making this cookware type nearly indestructible.

carbon steel versus cast iron_thickness
Cast iron (left), carbon steel (right)

With lower carbon content, carbon steel is more ductile than cast iron, meaning it can bend without breaking.

To make carbon steel skillets, manufacturers roll out sheets of carbon steel, cut the dimensions, and bend the sides into shape. This forging process results in cookware that’s thinner and less bulky.

Handles

Since cast iron skillets are made in molds, the skillet and handle are all one piece. In most cases, the handle is short, just long enough for one hand.

carbon steel versus cast iron_handles
Cast iron handle (left), carbon steel handle (right)

Carbon steel skillets are two pieces; the carbon steel base and the handle, usually stainless steel. In most cases, carbon steel skillet handles are much longer than cast iron handles and are attached to the base with rivets.

Weight and Maneuverability

Cast iron skillets are much heavier than carbon steel, thanks to their thick construction.

Cast iron skillets weigh between 4 and 12 pounds, but the actual weight varies by size. A standard 12-inch skillet weighs 8 pounds, while most carbon steel skillets weigh around 4 pounds.

how much does a cast iron skillet weigh

As such, carbon steel cookware is easier to handle and offers better maneuverability.

The heavier cast iron is also more likely to damage counters and stovetops.

To give you a better idea of the difference in weight between cast iron and carbon steel cookware, here are a few examples:

Cast Iron Cookware Weight:

Carbon Steel Cookware Weight:

  • Lodge 12-inch carbon steel skillet (view on Amazon): 4.45 pounds
  • BK Cookware 12-inch carbon steel skillet (view on Amazon): 3.84 pounds
  • De Buyer MINERAL B 12.5-inch carbon steel fry pan (view on Amazon): 5.79 pounds

Cooking Techniques

Carbon steel and cast iron skillets excel in searing, browning, sauteing, broiling, frying, grilling, and just about any other cooking technique.

However, they each have their own set of strengths and weaknesses.

Since carbon steel skillets are lighter, smoother, and have longer handles and flared sides, they’re better for stovetop meals that require a lot of manipulation. This includes scrambled eggs, stir fry, and sauteed vegetables.

With their shorter handles, steeper sides, and superior heat retention, cast iron skillets are better for baking in the oven. For example, pizza, cornbread, and pies are much better suited for cast iron.

Cookware Types

Another significant difference between carbon steel and cast iron is the type of cookware available. 

Carbon steel cookware consists mostly of frying pans, skillets, woks, and sauté pans.

With cast iron, you can find heavy-duty skillets, wedge pans, griddles, Dutch ovens, casseroles, grill pans, and pots.

When most people think of cast iron, they think of the bare, black skillets. But several cookware brands offer enameled cast iron cookware, too.

Enameled cast iron cookware is made just like regular cast iron, but it’s finished with several coats of smooth material, making it resistant to rust and corrosion without the need for seasoning.

Le Creuset Dutch Oven_Blue
Le Creuset enameled cast iron Dutch oven

The most famous example is Le Creuset. The company’s famed enameled cast iron Dutch ovens are used in millions of kitchens globally.

Heat Retention

Carbon steel and cast iron both retain heat well, but cast iron is the clear winner in this category.

As I mentioned, cast iron skillets are made with thick walls to counteract brittleness. These thick walls have another advantage; they absorb heat and hold onto it really well.

Heat retention is important for a few reasons.

First, when you put a cold piece of meat on a hot skillet, the cookware’s temperature drops. With cast iron, that drop in temperature is minimized due to the heat retention of its thick walls. As a result, you can get a nice crispy sear and lock in the juices.

Secondly, cookware with good heat retention keeps food warm, even after you turn the burner off. This comes in handy when you’re entertaining or preparing a multi-course meal.

In truth, carbon steel has excellent heat retention, too. But, because the construction is thinner, it cools down faster than cast iron.

Responsiveness

The responsiveness of a pan or pot refers to how quickly it responds to changes in temperatures. Carbon steel is thinner than cast iron and, as a result, heats up and cools down faster.

Responsiveness is important when you’re making stir fry, fried rice, or one-pan meals. You can adjust the heat frequently without risking over or undercooking.  This is great for cooking fish, eggs, and other delicate ingredients that tend to overcook when the temperature gets too high.

Cast iron is one of the least responsive cookware types. Due to its thick construction, it takes a while to heat up, and when you turn the heat down or off, it takes a long time to cool down.

If you’re cooking a meal that requires several changes in heat, or you’re in a hurry, avoid cast iron.

Discoloration

Be prepared for some discoloration after multiple uses if you’re using carbon steel. It can turn blotchy and begin to look unappealing.

Rust happens because carbon steel doesn’t contain enough chromium to create a corrosion-resistant barrier. Therefore, oxygen can bond with the material to form rust.

However, the rusting does not mean the cookware can no longer make delicious food — your pans will work as well as it did before they started to change color.

It’s also possible that preparing acidic food or using too much oil for seasoning can result in discoloration.

carbon steel versus cast iron_appearance
Cast iron (left), carbon steel (right)

Cast iron, however, is more resistant to rust when taken care of properly. To prevent rust spots, make sure to dry your cast iron cookware thoroughly. If they do occur, try to remove it with a mild abrasive. Make sure to keep it well-seasoned at all times.

Texture

Carbon steel features a smooth cooking surface ideal for techniques that involve moving the food around—for example, stir-frying and making omelettes. This flat, uniform surface makes it much easier to mimic a non-stick pan with proper seasoning.

carbon steel pan smooth cooking surface
carbon steel pan smooth cooking surface

On the other hand, cast iron has a rough and bumpy texture, thanks to its higher carbon content.

cast iron skillet bumpy cooking surface
cast iron skillet bumpy cooking surface

This uneven surface grips food, maximizing the surface contact and making it the perfect cookware for searing meats.  However, it may not be the best texture for sliding eggs and flipping pancakes.

Popularity

Carbon steel and cast iron cookware have been around for quite some time.

Due to its ease of use, rugged performance, and constant praise from celebrity chefs and cooking shows on TV, cast iron has surged in popularity worldwide—especially in the last 15 years.

Carbon steel is a favorite among professional chefs, but most home cooks haven’t caught on to its benefits the way they have with cast iron—at least not yet.

If you do a quick search on Amazon, the difference in popularity is apparent. Cast iron skillets rack up tens of thousands of reviews, while the numbers are much lower for carbon steel skillets.

Bottom Line: Should You Buy Carbon Steel or Cast Iron Cookware?

Carbon steel and cast iron are kind of like cousins. They’re both made of iron and carbon, and they’re both versatile, durable, and affordable.

But they also have many notable differences.

  • Carbon steel is made of 99% iron and 1% carbon, and cast iron is made of 98% iron and 2% carbon.
  • Cast iron skillets are molded, and the handles and base are one piece, while carbon steel pans feature riveted handles.
  • On average, cast iron skillets weigh twice as much as carbon steel.
  • Both are excellent for searing and browning meats, but cast iron is also great for pizza and breads, while carbon steel excels with eggs and stir fry.
  • Both retain heat well, but cast iron retains heat much longer.
  • Carbon steel responds to temperature changes faster than cast iron.
  • Carbon steel has a smooth texture, while cast iron is bumpy.

Cast iron has more mass appeal, but carbon steel is gaining popularity.

So, the question is: should you buy carbon steel or cast iron?

If you’re a serious chef, buy both. Although there’s significant overlap, there’s much you can do with one that you can’t with the other. Plus, both are relatively inexpensive.

If you don’t have the storage space for both or want to simplify your cookware, I recommend cast iron.

It’s easier to maintain and doesn’t discolor and rust as easily as carbon steel. It is excellent for searing, stove-to-oven recipes, and baking, too.

When I need cookware that is non-stick or more responsive, I’ll grab my stainless steel or non-stick hard-anodized aluminum pans.

Regardless of which option you choose, you’re in for a great experience. For cast iron, I recommend Lodge, which you can find on Amazon. For carbon steel, I recommend Made In, which you can find on MadeInCookware.com, or check out my in-depth review to learn more. 

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