Carbon steel is sort of a brother from another mother to cast iron — they have a ton in common, but they also have their distinct characteristics, strengths, and weaknesses.
Cast iron: Used for more than 1,000 years in construction, tool-making, and ornamentation, cast iron is pure iron alloyed with more than two percent carbon (which, ironically, means cast iron contains more carbon than carbon steel). Cast iron isn't malleable, so it can't be hammered into shape. It's also a fairly brittle metal, making it susceptible to breakage.
Carbon steel: An alloy of iron and less than two percent carbon, carbon steel is a more modern invention, having developed alongside steel, stainless steel, and aluminum in the 18th and 19th centuries. It can be rolled, stamped, and forged into shape and is less brittle than cast iron.
Heat Distribution and Retention
Cast iron: Heats relatively slowly, but retains heat like a champ, in large part because of its thickness.
Carbon steel: In comparison to cast iron, carbon steel is much more responsive to heat. It also cools faster than cast iron.
Cast iron: Searing, pan-frying, roasting, baking, braising, and stewing (for enameled cast iron).
Carbon steel: Searing, pan-frying, roasting, baking, stir-frying.
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