It can be daunting trying to choose the right type of cookware for your cooking needs. You don’t know much about carbon steel cookware. Is carbon steel cookware safe? How do you look after carbon steel cookware properly?
Here we’ll answer these questions and cover a lot more. You’ll learn all about carbon steel cookware pros and cons. You’ll then be in a good position to know whether they’re worth the investment or not.
What is Carbon Steel Cookware?
Carbon steel cookware is made from 99% iron and 1% carbon.
It has a low heat conductivity and so doesn’t heat as efficiently as copper or aluminum cookware. But, this can be beneficial for larger pots where one part needs to be kept at a different temperature to the rest. Such as paella pans or woks.
Carbon steel cookware is not made in a casting process. It’s formed when sheets of carbon steel are pressed or rolled into thin sheets and then made into the required shape. So it’s ideal for cookware manufacturers who can design pans specifically for different types of dishes. This could be omelet pans, crepe pans, woks, or frying pans.
Keep it mind
As these pans have a thicker surface, they will also season more like cast iron cookware.
Finally, another type of carbon steel cookware is enameled. These are pans with a thin layer of carbon steel and an enamel coating both on the interior and exterior. But, they are more prone to warp, and then the enamel can chip off. So enameled carbon steel cookware is mostly found as saucepans.
Carbon Steel Cookware Pros
Let’s look at the carbon steel cookware pros.
Carbon steel is ferrous – i.e. made of iron – and this means that it has excellent durability. And it also has 1% carbon; by comparison, most other types of steel have just 0.05% to 0.3%. The iron is made stronger by the addition of carbon which distorts the iron’s crystal lattice. So it’s an alloy where both elements have combined to make it very strong.
Carbon steel is therefore very hard. It’s less likely to bend or break under pressure than other steel types. So it’s ideal for cookware. It offers a very durable cooking surface as well as a very sturdy base.
This also means that carbon steel cookware is built to last and you won’t wear it out. It should last you a lifetime. You could even say that this cookware is indestructible!
This is why professional chefs rely time and time again on this type of cookware in their kitchens. And if it’s been annealed, the cooking surface is even thicker and harder.
Pro: Scratch Resistant
Carbon steel cookware has a good resistance to wear and tear, warping, and scratching. This is due to its high strength and durable exterior.
There may be some smaller scratches that appear after a while – but these are normal and to be expected. In fact, the annealing process involves a vegetable oil being baked onto the surface of the metal. And the blue vegetable oil that is left can start to show marks during the manufacturing process.
These marks may even develop further when the cookware is shipped. But they’re only cosmetic and actually act as a benefit to your carbon steel pan – they help fats and oils to set in when you season your cookware.
Pro: Easy to Maintain
It’s easy to season your carbon steel pan. This is because carbon steel isn’t a very porous material; it’s less porous even than cast iron. You can season it in just 15 minutes!
Plus, you don’t need to season carbon steel cookware that is enameled or has been annealed (1).
You should also be aware that all carbon steel cookware will darken over time as you use it.
But you don’t need to be concerned. This is normal and shows that your pans are building up a seasoned surface. This can be achieved naturally by cooking and using oil.
The more you use your pans, the more seasoned they’ll become – and the more nonstick.
Carbon steel cookware is light and easy to maneuver. Think about your traditional cast iron skillet and how it can be a challenge moving it around. Carbon steel is around 50% of the weight of cast iron so a lot easier to handle!
But, comparing the density of carbon steel and cast iron, carbon steel is in fact denser. So if two pans were made in each material with the exact same thickness, the carbon steel pan would be the heavier one.
So manufacturers make carbon steel cookware thinner. This also suits their low heat conductivity. If they were made any thicker, they would take far too long to heat to work as efficient cookware! Carbon steel cookware is normally made in a medium gauge of about 2mm.
If you compare a carbon steel pan with a cast iron pan of the same size, the carbon steel will weigh less.
- See this 12-inch carbon steel frying pan from Merten & Storck: Carbon Steel Black Frying Pan. It weighs 3.44 pounds.
- Whereas this 12-inch cast-iron skillet from YACOOK weighs 7.91 pounds: Pre-Seasoned Cast Iron Pan.
Pro: High Heat Retention Capacity
Carbon steel has a high heat capacity. The heat capacity of a material determines how well it holds heat for the whole of the cookware. So carbon steel pots should retain heat well.
And they should have good resistance to changes in temperature like stainless steel cookware.
But as we’ve said above, you should also consider the thickness of the pots and pans. Cast iron cookware retains heat better than most other cookware types. This is because they are much thicker, around 6mm to 7mm than carbon steel cookware, around 2mm.
The reality is that carbon steel pans do tend to heat up and cool down fairly quickly.
Pro: Oven and Broiler Safe
You can safely use your carbon steel cookware in your electric and gas ovens and broilers. This material has a very high melting point, slightly higher even than stainless steel (2). This means that the use of high heat won’t damage your carbon steel pan or cause it to warp.
Compare stainless steel pans with carbon steel pans. Most stainless steel cookware is safe in an oven up to around 600oF, like this BK Black Carbon steel. But some carbon steel cookware is oven safe up to around a massive 1,200oF — Check this Made In carbon steel set.
You’ll also find that a lot of carbon steel cookware is safe in your broiler up to the maximum temperature that the pot or pan can handle. To be absolutely sure, check what the manufacturer’s recommendations are.
Pro: Induction Ready
Induction cookers require a magnetic material to work. As carbon steel is an alloy made of 99% iron and 1% carbon, it’s classed as a ferromagnetic material. So it’s compatible with induction stovetops.
Carbon steel is made of two materials that are safe for cooking: iron and carbon. So it isn’t toxic. Plus it doesn’t have a coating. So no nasty chemicals will leach into your food whilst cooking.
But cooking with carbon steel cookware, as with cast iron cookware, can result in some iron being transferred into your food and then into your body.
Unfortunately, too much iron can be harmful. The body can’t get rid of it and sometimes the iron can produce free radicals. And excessive levels of iron are linked to Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, and colorectal cancer (3).
But these are quite extreme cases. And on the flip side, men and women need a certain amount of iron in their diets every day. Using cookware that contains iron can benefit people with anemia.
Your daily iron intake might be exceeded, and this depends on what you cook. Iron is more likely to leach into your food if you’re cooking highly acidic foods, such as tomato sauce. The best way to prevent leaching is to make sure it’s seasoned well (4).
As we mentioned earlier, the formation of carbon steel cookware from sheets of alloy allows manufacturers to produce a variety of pans for different purposes. So you can use them for cooking omelets or crepes. And carbon steel is often used for woks and paella pans where the evenness of the heat distribution isn’t a big concern.
Plus, carbon steel cookware can be used on any kind of stovetop, and in your ovens and broilers up to very high temperatures.
The combination of carbon steel being both lightweight and magnetic means that you can even use them if you have a portable induction cooker.
And carbon steel cookware is so versatile, you can use it outdoors! BK Cookware has designed a skillet that can be used on a BBQ: Black Steel Seasoned Carbon Steel Skillet. And Merten & Storck’s product can be used on a campfire:
Carbon Steel Cookware Cons
Now let’s check out the cons of carbon steel cookware.
Con: Low Thermal Conductivity
Compared to other cookware materials, carbon steel has low thermal conductivity. It has 51 W/m*K, whereas cast iron has 80 W/m*K, and aluminum conducts heat over four times better with 237 W/m*K (5).
But unlike stainless steel, carbon steel can be used on its own in cookware without adding a metal core. Stainless steel pans need an aluminum core to balance out their low thermal conductivity.
And as carbon steel pans are made thin, they don’t take that long to heat up in the first place and then cool down later on.
Con: Prone to Rusting
Compared with other types of steel, carbon steel is more vulnerable to rusting.
Stainless steel, for example, has around 10% to 12% of chromium. This metal helps to protect stainless steel from rusting as it forms a barrier over the steel. Moisture can’t then interact with the material so there’s no rust.
Carbon steel doesn’t have any chromium to help its defenses against rust. So if your carbon steel cookware is exposed to moisture regularly, the result is rust.
Make sure to dry your cookware thoroughly after use. If rust does develop, don’t panic. It can be removed with simple soap and water, and should then be reseasoned.
Con: Not Dishwasher Safe
Carbon steel cookware shouldn’t be put in a dishwasher. As we’ve said above, it’s prone to rusting. And leaving it in your dishwasher when the dishes and pans are clean but still wet will encourage rust to develop.
Dishwashers would also remove the natural seasoning that has built up on your carbon steel pan over time. It’s much better to wash by hand. Steel wool can be used if you can’t shift rust or any harder stains.
Con: Heats Unevenly
The heat will even out on carbon steel cookware as long as it’s sufficiently preheated, just like it does on cast iron cookware. But, it’s not the best cookware material if you cook dishes that rely on even heat distribution.
Carbon steel cookware is best suited to tasks that require quick-cooking and where you don’t need to worry about evenness of heat. Combined with the fact that they can handle extremely high temperatures, these pots are ideal for dishes such as stir-frys in woks.
Con: Reactive to Acidic Food
Carbon steel is reactive as it’s made of 99% iron. So if you cook a lot of acidic food, this would result in the seasoning being stripped from the pan’s surface. And some highly acidic foods react with the carbon steel and can leach into your food. You could then get an unpleasant metallic taste in your food.
However, if your carbon steel skillet is properly seasoned, the less chance there is of it not reacting with acidic food. And if you do cook with this type of food a lot, you can reseason your pan before its next use.
The annealing process also makes the surface of carbon steel less reactive. So if you invest in black or blue carbon steel frying pans, you don’t need to be as concerned about chemical reactions between your food and the pans.
Con: Food Tends to Stick
Carbon steel cookware doesn’t have a nonstick coating. So it’s normal for food to stick to it, especially for the first few times you use it.
But as you cook more and more with your carbon steel pots, the oil and fatty proteins will help a patina (smooth, seasoned coating) to develop.
So at first, it’s best to avoid cooking things like eggs, fish, or pancakes. However, once you have a natural non stick seasoning built up on your pan, you should be able to cook anything on it without sticking.
Con: Requires a Learning Curve
As explained above, carbon steel cookware isn’t necessarily that easy to cook with straight away. Foods tend to stick and this might put you off if you’re a beginner cook.
But with some thought and care, you can use this type of cookware without being a professional chef. If you learn how it responds to changes in temperature and how to season it properly, it’ll provide a good nonstick option for your kitchen.
Con: Requires Regular Maintenance
The key is seasoning carbon steel pots and pans regularly. Then you’ll be able to use this cookware type effectively. The seasoning stops the carbon steel cookware from rusting and helps to keep its cooking surface nonstick.
This requires more time and effort than for a naturally nonstick pan, or a Teflon coated pan.
But the seasoning process is relatively easy and quick. So if you’re willing to put in some regular maintenance, carbon steel cookware could be a good option.
Con: Its Appearance Can Change
Carbon steel cookware might not be the choice for you if you like your cookware to remain “as new”. The more you cook with these pans, the more they can change color and patterns can form. Your pans might darken and then even out to a new color, different to the one you started with.
Some might see this as the pan looking ugly. But with a carbon steel pan, it’s normal and expected. If you do want a more constant look to your cookware, try cooking with fattier foods.
Chew Over our Carbon Steel Cookware Pros and Cons
There are lots of cookware options out there for you to choose from. And you’re wondering whether carbon steel cookware is worth the investment. And whether it’s a good fit for your kitchen and the type of cooking you like to do.
There are many pros to carbon steel cookware. Most carbon steel pans are really durable, easy to handle and move around, and non toxic. They have a very high heat tolerance and if you like cooking dishes like stir-frys, a carbon steel wok would be a great asset to your cookware collection.
You do need to consider some disadvantages to carbon steel cookware. Your carbon steel pan could be prone to rust, it won’t conduct heat that well, and can react to acidic foods. It can also take you some time to learn how to maintain your carbon steel cookware well. But once you have, you can use this cookware type efficiently.
We’d love to hear your feedback, so please comment below. And share this article with anyone else you know who needs to brush up on carbon steel cookware pros and cons!
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