For any home cook, proper cookware is an investment. Yes, it can be pricey, but if you go for something cheap, you’ll just wind up spending more to replace it in the long run. That’s why many people seek out cast iron or carbon steel frying pans.
But what’s the difference between them?
Is one better than the other?
Keep reading to find out!
Why Not Cast Iron?
Cast iron cookware is pure tradition. It will last as long as you remember to take care of it and season it (more on that shortly). However, the thing with cast iron pieces is that they are heavy. So heavy that they can be cumbersome.
You may opt for one key piece in cast iron, but a Dutch oven for example feels like lifting the heaviest dumbbells at the gym. And that’s when it’s empty!
Cast iron is very difficult to move around and requires you to take extra care to avoid damaging it. Plus, when you have it full of food and piping hot, you must take more precautions to keep from burning yourself.
Here are the pros and cons of cast iron pans:
- Lower cost even at a large size
- Naturally non-stick (when seasoned properly)
- Keeps food warmer longer
- Induction ready
- Easy to sear meat at high temperatures
- Can be taken from stove into oven for making your favorite dishes
- Deeper pores on the surface allow seasoning to stick well
- Very, very heavy
- Can shatter if dropped on hard surface
- Takes a long time to cool
- Handle gets hot
- Acidic foods and soap can wear it down
Why Choose a Carbon Steel Frying Pan
When you go out to your favorite restaurant, do you think the chef uses cast iron? Nope! The easier, more affordable solution is carbon steel. Most home cooks opt for non-stick skillets that warp or lose their non-stick layer over time.
When you think about it, it’s far better to buy the better quality of a carbon steel skillet than to have to go out and replace your pans every few years. Carbon steel frying cooking pans are made to last, hence why professional chefs choose them.
Here are the pros and cons of a carbon steel frying pan:
- Faster reaction to heat adjustment
- Oil-based, natural non-stick finish
- Weighs much less than cast iron
- Superb induction
- Lasts a long time when treated well
- Very smooth surface
- More expensive than cast iron
- Cheap, thin brands can bend (see below for quality recommendations)
- Acidic foods and soap can wear it down
- Handle gets hot
Recommendations for Carbon Steel Cooking Pans
As is the case with cast iron, you must season your carbon steel pan. You bond the oil to it as a layer of protection. Even when pre-seasoned, you should season it yourself though the best are ones that arrive protected with a sheath to keep rust from forming.
As each manufacturer will have their own set of instructions for seasoning and care, it’s important that you follow as directed to enjoy your carbon steel skillet for years to come. By doing so, you’ll have eggs that slide right of the pan rather than stick, steak that sears quickly without being difficult to lift the pan (as with cast iron), and cleans with a wipe of a paper towel.
Acidic recipes (like those with tomato-based sauces) should be made with care as they will remove the patina, but heating and wiping the skillet with oil over several rounds (roughly 10 minutes of your time) will restore it.
Carbon steel frying pans overall have the best features and most versatility out of other cookware options. The heat retention is on-point without the heavy weight of cast iron. They’re easy to care for and remain quite durable. If you’re not able to commit to a full set of carbon steel cookware, try getting one carbon steel frying pan to add to your cooking arsenal.
Carbon Steel Pans Do It All!
Why should you buy a carbon steel frying pan? You can do everything in it. You can sear, stir-fry, bake, broil, and you can cook on any surface. Trying to make a delicate fish dish or eggs? No problem! No sticking here! This is exactly why carbon steel frying pans are the top choice of busy head chefs. Who has time for stuck-on eggs or to redo an order because it stuck to the pan? They certainly don’t and neither do you.
As long as you re-season your pan after using acidic ingredients, your carbon steel frying pan will be there for you meal after meal. It sears just like cast iron, browning your food deep and even, and doing so faster. Plus, it’s so much lighter!
If you’ve considered stainless tri-ply, carbon steel frying pans heat as evenly but can brown more deeply. And they cost less. And if you want non-stick, carbon steel frying pans are slippery like a non-stick pan when it’s brand new.
The difference is the coating isn’t synthetic and toxic, can be safely used in the oven, and it lasts for ages.
We list 5 of our favorite options for you below, all of which have tested exceptionally well in professional and home kitchen circumstances. Generally, a 12-inch carbon steel frying pan or skillet will be a good choice for most needs and is ideal to start with.
You should also know that carbon steel pans can handle any heat source (even if you took them camping!) so they’re even more versatile than you expected!
1. SOLIDTEKNICS AUS-ION™
This is a non-toxic and sustainable carbon steel frying pan, available in a host of sizes. They’re solid and made from Australian wrought iron.
Pricey, yes, but one of the pinnacle designs out there.
It’s like cast iron but is half that in weight. If you want a carbon steel frying pan that doesn’t stick and doesn’t infuse your foods with chemicals, it’s a brilliant choice.
2. SOLIDTEKNICS NÖNI™
Nöni™ is the first of its kind – seamless, produced in one piece of wrought stainless steel, something that has never existed before now. Like the other line from SolidTeknics, it’s going to set you back some, but both of them are the kind pans that will stay in your family for generations. You can pass them down the lineage for all of time. In fact, both Nöni™ and AUS-ION™ come with a multi-century warranty!
3. Matfer Bourgeat 62005 frying pan, 11 7/8-Inch, Gray
Now, let’s talk about an entry that’s a little easier on the price. The Matfer Bourgeat is very affordable yet has it all. The construction is thick and solid. The interior is smooth, free of those typical rivets that tend to catch food all around them. With a handle designed for comfortable ergonomics at just the right angle and flared sides, it’s easy to work with.
It’s one that cooks will adore because of its ease of use and ability to make a wide array of dishes without sticking.
4. Mauviel 3651.32 M’Steel Carbon Steel, nonstick Fry pan, 12.5 Inch, Black
Looking for something spacious? Mauviel is a great choice. The sides are lower than the Matfer Bourgeat, but it has a nice, slick surface.
The low sides give more potential for splash but the pan browns very evenly for perfect cooking all around.
It is a little bit heavier though the handle helps you manage the weight.
5. De Buyer MINERAL B Round Carbon Steel Fry Pan 12.5-Inch – 5610.32
A big pan that browns foods well and easily wafts them around the surface, De Buyer is an outstanding choice.
You just have to season it extra well on the sides.
With instructions that only call for the coating of the surface, it’s advised you take the extra step and coat the sides for a perfectly blissful cooking experience.
The handle has a bit of an angle and the weight is a bit more than the others on this list, but it’s still a worthy carbon steel frying pan that stands up to the heat in your kitchen.
Again, all of these carbon steel frying pans can endure from all heat sources and you can find them in a variety of sizes for your needs. While it is an investment to buy a whole set, you can buy one piece and opt to add these must-have pieces of cookware into your kitchen over time.
They’ll all last through every busy weeknight dinner to your Thanksgiving sides, and for many years to come!