Carbon steel is the new cast iron

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My kitchen essentials list is not extensive and when it comes to cookware, I am surprisingly spartan. At the top of my list is my Matfer Bourgeat carbon steel pan.

I have been cooking with carbon steel pans for a couple of years and never looked back to the Cast Iron Age. The versatility of carbon along with the ability to control high temperatures makes it a far superior choice to cast iron. It was a discussion at dinner a few nights ago that got me thinking more about this.

Cast iron is a fine instrument but it does have a property that works against it in two important dimensions. The mass of cast iron is significant, a 12″ Lodge skillet, arguably the most popular size, weighs 8 1/2 lbs. This is two and a half times the weight of a comparably sized stainless steel or carbon steel pan. The reason this is important to me is that I like to move the pan when I am cooking, not just on/off heat but also popping it to flip whatever I am cooking. Matfer Bourgeat pans have high sides and a large handle, which make them a pleasure to handle on your cook surface. As an added benefit, the handle is spot welded to the pan rather then riveted, which leaves the interior area of the pan free of any protrusions.

In addition to poor handling ability, cast iron has high thermal mass. Ironically, this is exactly why people like cooking with cast iron, it gets hot and stays hot. My criticism of cast iron is that it gets hot unevenly and the inability to “dump off” excess heat at will is a negative. I cook with my burners on high and move my pan on/off the heat rather than relying on burner a different burner setting. Carbon steel is an excellent conductor, much like copper, and in addition to not requiring extensive pre-heating it drains heat quickly; when I remove it from heat, the pan comes off the high quickly. Cast iron will sear meats well but, in my experience, carbon steel is going to give you a more intense sear because it is so effective at heat transfer, the process of heat coming off the cooking surface into whatever touches it. Check out the sear on my sous vide tri-tip, a beautiful char right on top of medium rare center and no grey line, which is only possible with extremely high surface heat.

Let’s talk non-stick properties. Cast iron will, with proper seasoning, become non-stick because the fat you use to season the pan will break down, oxidize, and polymerize in the pores of the cast iron. With enough seasoning the surface will become non-stick because it is hydrophobic – it hates water – and it is the water soluble proteins in food that makes them stick to a cooking surface. Cast iron is not unique insofar as having a non-stick property, carbon steel has the same ability and it doesn’t take more than a simple coating of oil to develop it. Non-stick is a binary property, something is or it is not. Carbon is non-stick with much less effort to achieve than cast iron.

Lastly, the care of carbon steel is pretty much in line with cast iron, meaning you should not clean it with regular use. Simply wipe it down and if anything does stick to the surface, scrape it off. Carbon, like cast iron, will rust so it is essential to allow a surface coating to build up. The pan will blacken like cast iron.