Carbon steel pans are a well-kept secret for professional chefs, and for good reason. There’s nothing quite like a carbon steel skillet for cooking up delicious home pan fries or whatever else your heart desires. I’ve been coveting carbon steel for a while now but can’t quite justify the purchase given how many cast iron pots and pans I already own. I wonder if my cast iron collection merits certification as its own carbon sink at this point….
If you want to cut to the chase, I recommend the carbon steel cookware made by De Buyer because they have the highest-quality conscientious options. You can read more about De Buyer cookware here.
What’s the difference between cast iron and carbon steel?
Carbon steel is a very tempting choice for non-toxic, eco-friendly cookware. Put simply, carbon steel is like the lighter, less clunky cousin of cast iron and, oddly enough, contains more iron than cast iron! While cast iron is around 97-98 percent iron and 2-3 percent carbon, carbon steel is typically 99 percent iron and 1 percent carbon (R). You wouldn’t think this would make much of a difference, but it does.
While cast iron and carbon steel are pretty similar, the relative lightness of carbon steel makes it easier to move around. A 12” cast iron pan might weight over 7 pounds, while a similar sized carbon steel pan weighs in at around 5 pounds. Despite many years playing badminton, even my wrists struggle to flip a pancake in a cast iron pan.
Carbon steel pans also tend to have sloped sides, which makes them preferable for sautéing as it’s easier to flip food off a sloped edge. Cast iron pans have vertical walls, making them better for pan pizzas, cornbread, frittatas, and for shallow frying, and so forth. Both pans can be moved from stove top to oven, however, and both are suitable for the grill, campfire, and broiler.
Carbon steel is often thinner and smoother than modern cast iron (but similar to vintage cast iron), so is more aesthetically pleasing to some cookware connoisseurs. One downside of this is that carbon steel doesn’t always conduct heat homogenously (because of its relative thinness to cast iron). This can be a positive, however, as you can use a smaller burner ring and move food in and out of the center of the pan (where the heat is focused) according to need.
It’s also best to avoid cooking acidic ingredients for long periods of time in carbon steel as it is, like cast iron, very reactive. So, tomato sauce and a wine reduction might be best suited to a ceramic pan instead.
Carbon steel and cast iron both have an unfinished, industrial quality that contrasts with more light and colorful porcelain enamel, glass, or ceramic cookware. Made from raw, heavy-gauge steel, carbon steel cookware is tough, durable, and… prone to rust.
Seasoning carbon steel vs. seasoning cast iron
As with cast iron, seasoning is essential for carbon steel cookware. The good news is that because carbon steel is less porous than cast iron, it takes on seasoning quickly. The bad news is that it can also lose seasoning quickly. In commercial kitchens, it’s not unheard of for chefs to season a carbon steel pan several times in an evening.
One other thing to note when buying new carbon steel is that manufacturers will normally use a beeswax or mineral coating to prevent the cookware from rusting on its journey from the forge to your kitchen. It is essential to remove this coating before seasoning, otherwise your seasoning simply won’t take. Beeswax and other coatings can be removed by scrubbing with steel wool and hot water. Then season as you would with cast iron. Seasoned pans are available, but such seasoning is often irregular and needs repeating at home anyway.
Carbon steel is very cost effective compared to other types of cookware. New carbon steel cookware is often cheaper than ceramic, porcelain enamel, and anodized aluminum, but last for generations. This makes it particularly eco-friendly. Avoid very cheap carbon steel pans, though, as these are typically far too thin for good heat distribution.
All in all, if you already have cast iron pans and are happy with them, there’s probably not much point in purchasing carbon steel cookware. If you’re replacing other types of cookware, however, or are passing on your cast iron to the next generation and want pans that are a little lighter, carbon steel pans are an excellent eco-friendly option.