What People Who Love Cast Iron Should Know About Carbon Steel

updated May 1, 2019
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(Image credit: Keith Freeman / Blanc Creatives)

For the converted, carbon steel cookware inspires devotion, heaps of praise, and soliloquies of joy. Its fans crow about how quickly and evenly it heats, about the Zen-like experience of gradually building a nonstick patina over the course of months and years.

The thing is, most of the faithful are professional cooks. Which is too bad, because if you haven’t yet cooked with carbon steel, you’re missing the best pan no one’s really talking about. Just add one of these pans to your daily repertoire and reap the fruits of fried eggs that glide onto your breakfast plate, burnished-brown roasted potatoes, crusty seared steaks and pork tenderloin, and frittatas that wear the telltale tan lines of a lovingly seasoned, evenly heated pan.

Yes, we think it’s high time to bring carbon steel home. Here’s what you should know about carbon steel, especially if you’re a devotee of cast iron.

(Image credit: Keith Freeman / Blanc Creatives)

What Is Carbon Steel?

First, what is carbon steel? For those who aren’t familiar, carbon steel is an alloy of iron and less than two percent carbon, which is why you’ll sometimes find carbon steel pans referred to as iron pans.

Whether a pan is made in a factory or on a blacksmith’s anvil, it starts as a disc of metal that’s rolled, stamped, and forged into shape. In a factory, the work is done entirely (or almost entirely) by machine; in a studio, it’s shaped by hand. The process is essentially the same, though: The metal is heated until it becomes malleable and can be pounded into shape.

Carbon steel pans come in one basic silhouette: a flat bottom with outwardly flared sides. From this elemental form, manufacturers craft shallow and deep skillets, paella pans, woks, and crepe pans. You won’t see carbon steel fashioned into saucepans or stockpots — the material won’t hold that 90-degree angle — and other components, like handles, are forged separately and attached with rivets.

(Image credit: Keith Freeman / Blanc Creatives)

How Chefs Cook with Carbon Steel

Carbon steel pans lend themselves best to high-heat, dry-cooking methods. Think searing, pan-frying, baking, roasting, and stir-frying.

Rachael Narins, cofounder of the Chicks with Knives collective, churns out a constant stream of quesadillas and grilled cheese sandwiches in the carbon steel crepe pan that lives on her Los Angeles stovetop.

Caryn Badgett of Blu Skillet Ironware likes to roast potatoes in a new carbon steel skillet. She swears this is also a great way to season a skillet. The potatoes slowly develop golden, crisp skins, and the skillet gets a nice bath of fat from the oil coating the food — win, win. And for Patrick Maher, the other half of Blu Skillet Ironware, eggs are the real test. “The holy grail was coming up with the perfect egg pan,” he says. “I swear to God, eggs taste better in this pan.”

Corry Blanc, who makes carbon steel pans in Charlottesville, VA, bakes frittatas in his cassoulet pan and sears steaks and pork chops in the skillets.

Spanish chefs rely on the broad bottom of a carbon steel paella pan to develop the socarrat — the thin, crackle-crisp layer of caramelized rice — that characterizes a great paella.

Wok experts like Grace Young make carbon steel into the ultimate utility player, employing the bottom and sides of a wok as cooking surfaces and churning out food as varied as stir-fries, steamed dumplings, deep-fried spring rolls, smoked duck, and even popcorn (wokcorn, as it were).

But what does carbon steel want more than anything? Chefs agree: Bacon is the perfect food for the skillet — and for the cook.

(Image credit: Keith Freeman / Blanc Creatives)

Why Carbon Steel Is Better than Cast Iron

If you own a cast iron pan, you might be thinking, so what makes it so different from cast iron? And, if I have a cast iron pan, do I also need a carbon steel pan?

It’s helpful to think of carbon steel and cast iron as cousins. Like cast iron, carbon steel is crazy versatile, impossible to ruin, and easy to care for. But, by our measure, carbon steel comes out on top on several counts.

For starters, there’s the matter of weight. If you’ve ever tried to single-handedly lift your cast iron off the stovetop or out of the oven, you know they can be heavy — not to mention very, very hot.

“Cast iron holds the heat, but it holds so much that the moment you’re done with a stir-fry, if you don’t get it out of the pan quickly the food will overcook,” explains Young. “It’s also so heavy and clumsy which is not ideal when you’re stir-frying. You can’t lift a cast-iron wok with one hand. You need potholders to pick it up with two hands and then how do you get the food out? It’s just not practical.”

A carbon steel wok, on the other hand, is light enough to allow for agility and loses heat just quickly enough not to ruin that flash-fast stir-fry you just accomplished.

Carbon steel is also less brittle than cast iron, so there’s no risk of the pan shattering if it’s dropped, and, according to Blanc, carbon steel offers “a slicker, more readily nonstick surface” than cast iron. That’s because cast iron pans start as liquid metal poured into molds, which makes them more porous than their carbon steel cousins.

In terms of cost, you can spend as much or as little on carbon steel as you like. While hand-crafted pans by Blanc and the folks behind Blu Skillet Ironware in Seattle can cost more than $200 — and the likes of Cook’s Illustrated say they’re totally worth the investment — you can get a starter pan from a manufacturer like Lodge for about $50. And Young’s favorite carbon steel wok sells for $24.95 at The Wok Shop in San Francisco.

Do you own a carbon steel pan? Do you love it?