Home chefs and seasoned pros alike have long hailed cast iron as the heavyweight champion of the kitchen, while its close cousin carbon steel is a choice often overshadowed. Nonetheless, carbon steel shines in specific cooking methods, such as stir-frying, where precise heat control and rapid adjustments are crucial. So, the question arises: Which of these stalwarts aligns best with your culinary aspirations and repertoire?
UNDERSTANDING CAST IRON AND CARBON STEEL
Both cast iron and carbon steel cookware are celebrated for their durability and aptitude for high-heat applications like searing and stir-frying. Unlike their nonstick counterparts, cast iron and carbon steel evolve with time and use, naturally acquiring a nonstick patina through proper maintenance.
Cast iron cookware takes shape through the casting of molten iron and carbon alloy in sand moulds, while carbon steel cookware typically emerges from sheets of iron and carbon, the latter in a proportion less than that found in cast iron.
The pros of cast iron
Ideal for searing steaks and sizable cuts of protein, thanks to its substantial thermal mass and lower conductivity, which minimises temperature drop.Retains heat admirably, making it a fitting choice for serving dishes (assuming overcooking is not a concern).
The pros of carbon steel
Heats up and cools down swiftly due to its superior conductivity, offering precise cooking control and the ability to whip up successive stir-fried dishes in mere minutes.Lighter and more manoeuvrable with one hand, an asset in the art of stir-frying.Boasts a smoother surface, perfect for the likes of fried eggs, omelettes and delicate fish, all prone to sticking on cast iron pans unless very smoothly finished and extremely well seasoned.
The cons of both carbon steel and cast iron
Require initial seasoning and ongoing maintenance to stave off rust. Seasoning is the process of heating up the pan or wok with a thin layer of oil at a high enough temperature such that the oil polymerises and bonds to the surface, yielding a natural nonstick surface.Not ideal for cooking acidic liquids or ingredients for prolonged periods, such as reducing a bottle of wine or tomato sauce, as acids can react with the iron and compromise the seasoning.
The good news is that some manufacturers now offer pre-seasoned or heat-treated carbon steel and cast iron cookware, making initial use more accessible. However, regular care remains essential.
For those in pursuit of quality American, French and Japanese-made carbon steel and cast iron cookware, we present a curated selection from Amazon.sg. Discover options that not only prove cost-effective compared to local stores but also include unique finds unavailable in Singapore.
UNCOATED CAST IRON FRYING PANS: THE SEARING SPECIALISTS
Uncoated cast iron frying pans stand as the quintessential choice for searing meat. These culinary workhorses rely on a well-maintained seasoning to thwart rust and unveil their natural non-stick patina over time.
If the weightiness of traditional cast iron gives you pause, try the Lodge Blacklock Skillet series. Engineered to be approximately 25 per cent lighter, these skillets are more ergonomic and feature slimmer handles, a smoother finish and are designed to resemble vintage-style pieces. A triple-seasoned finish ensures they’re ready for action without rust concerns. For an even better deal, consider the two-piece set with lid at S$209.28.
ENAMELLED CAST IRON FRYING PANS: A SPLASH OF COLOUR WITH LOW MAINTENANCE
Coated with a vitreous (glass) glaze, enamelled cast iron pans sidestep the need for seasoning to fend off rust and can be washed with the ease of conventional cookware. However, they forgo the development of a natural non-stick surface, a hallmark of bare cast iron. The trade-offs include a higher price tag and susceptibility to chipping. Not recommended for cooking eggs.
From a brand that requires no introduction, the Le Creuset range of French-made skillets is ready to use and requires no seasoning. Its durable enamel coating resists staining and cracking. Available in a spectrum of colours to complement your Le Creuset collection.
Best known for their beautiful and correspondingly pricey copper cookware, Normandy-based Mauviel also crafts equally remarkable yet relatively more affordable stainless steel and carbon steel cookware that graces professional French kitchens.
Made of 2mm-thick carbon steel with riveted steel handles, this pan requires seasoning and thrives amid searing heat, allowing for extended preheating and impeccable searing. Sizes ranging from 8 to 14 inches cater to various culinary needs, and a value-for-money three-piece set is available at S$267.98.
If kitchen mishaps are a familiar theme, a pan with a wooden handle can mitigate the risk of accidents. This robust Japanese-made pan, crafted from extra-thick (3.2mm) heat-treated carbon steel, champions rust resistance while steadily building a non-stick patina with repeated use. Its substantial thickness suits induction hobs, minimising warping and elevating cooking outcomes through enhanced heat retention. The wooden handle can be conveniently unscrewed for seasoning in the oven. For those desiring a lighter alternative, thinner versions of the pan are available.
CARBON STEEL WOKS: THE STIR-FRYING MAESTROS
Unlike their pan counterparts, carbon steel woks are forged from thinner-gauge carbon steel, typically ranging from 1.2mm to 1.6mm. This lightweight construction allows for the flicks and tosses integral to the stir-frying technique.
For those yearning to master the art of tzechar stir-fries, the Yamada Kogyosho factory in Kanagawa offers a collection of double-eared woks well finished with smooth edges. Also known as Guangdong or southern-style woks, the woks are prized for their capacity and lightness – ideal for Chinese-style stir frying. Seasoning is part of the deal, and they are best suited for gas stoves equipped with an appropriate wok stand due to their round bottoms. Available in an array of sizes.
Yamada Kogyosho Yamada Iron, Chinese Single Hand Pot, 11.8-inch (S$41.78; usual price: S$47.01)
Yamada Kogyosho woks are also available with a wooden handle in various sizes. While these handles provide ease of use without the need for dishcloths, they may char when exposed to extreme heat over time.