Cast Iron vs Carbon Steel --- Which is better for searing thick steaks?

Hi,

If you had to pick one skillet, and only one, for searing thick steaks, which would you choose: cast iron or carbon steel?

Thank you.

Baal, as i find myself frequently saying here, - like most things in life and particularly in the kitchen, it all depends.

Think of what you are trying to accomplish, the rapid transfer of a lot of heat to your thick steaks. While both cast iron and carbon steel will perform well, i would choose heavy cast iron because its greater mass will deliver a greater initial surge of heat.

However, you should first consider your heat source and it’s capacity. It’s what’s under the pan that counts most.

And, are you searing steaks in your kitchen or outside?

If inside, well designed gas burners can pump a lot of heat into a pan, but i’ve recently developed a lack of fondness for most new gas burners because of their wasteful side-firing design. I am too accustom cooking in flame licked pans. I find electric elements, particularly those buried under a wall of glass to be significantly less effective at high temperatures. Most induction hobs are equal or better than gas heat in responsiveness and output.

If you have a high output heat source your choice of pan won’t much matter. Although i would hesitate to put an empty $400 carbon steel pan on extreme high heat.

For me it is cast iron for searing and carbon steel for cooking.

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I’ll be searing in my kitchen, on a fairly powerful dual-ring burner.

I think I’ll go with cast iron. Thanks for your explanations.

My pleasure Baal.

Dry the steaks well, use more seasoning than you think you need, and enjoy.

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As @chatnoir says, there’s a lot if good to be said for cast iron. The air bubbles throughout its matrix means it holds heat well and distribute it evenly. The downside is that it’s brittle and heavy.

Don’t get me wrong, I love cast iron. I have a couple of antique skillets that I picked up for next to nothing at farm clearing sales and brought back to life with some steelwool and elbow grease. But more often lately when I’m tired and hungry and just want to get food on the table I grab the carbon steel one. It’s light and heats quickly. Sure, it doesn’t heat as evenly as cast iron, but hotter or cooler spots can be used to advantage.

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Newbie here, realize I may be cross-posting about searing for which I apologize. Can I use the infrared ‘sizzle zone’ on my gas BBQ for the final sear and avoid the CI / CS / pan preheat and smoking issues?

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Honestly @lima I’d say just give it a try - and let us know your results! You’ve got me curious! :slight_smile:

Oh - and as to the original question, for searing I vote cast iron! I ended up buying a cast iron pan and a portable induction burner so that I could do my searing outside on my deck. (My wife evicted me from the kitchen after my first smokey sear session! :slight_smile: )

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My Nano is wending its way across the country to me as I type this. Will give the sizzle zone a shot and let you know!

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Hi. I’d use cast iron- anytime. It produces the sear you are looking for - if you use it right.

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Anything will, if you use it right.

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Yep.

I have a Chinese wok that is made of quite thin carbon steel. It has no heat capacity to speak of. But I can still get a perfect lightning-quick sear with that wok. That’s because it sits on a professional gas burner that’s more like a flame thrower. (With that burner, I can get the wok from cold to cherry red in about 35 seconds—yes, really.)

A good sear is a function of temperature, not of the material of the pan. The lack of heat capacity of the wok is compensated for by being able to pump in heat more quickly than the meat can cool the metal. It’s just that it’s easier to get a good sear with a cast iron pan because cast iron has high heat capacity and doesn’t cool down as quickly as carbon steel.

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Sure. But… Quality equipment won’t make up for bad technique. I’ve seen it a lot lately. Folk insisting that cast iron is the only way, so noobie goes out and spends silly money on expensive cast iron (when the best is found in grandma’s cupboard or a jumble sale for next to nix). They are still disappointed that they can’t get the result they desire even with their precious new purchase.

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Ember is so correct.

If you can find a Griswold cast iron pan in a used goods sale grab it. They were sold world wide up to about 1960. Made from a particularly dense and smooth iron they perform particularly well, much better than the granular contemporary products. Look for one with the Griswold name in a cross for an early model.

They also made cast iron Dutch ovens whose lids fit so tightly that they sold them as “waterless cookers”.

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For my first cook & sear experiment I tried my little Cuisinart Griddler with the flat plates as someone had suggested. Granted it was only chicken breasts but it seemed to work great for that. They were yummy! Will post again once I try the sizzle zone on the grill with steak.

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Cast iron period! LeCreuset is the best that we have found and would buy one again without hesitation. We also have a Staub 10", which is supposed to be cast iron but surprisingly is vastly inferior to the LeCreuset.

Gene

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I’ve gone through several woks, trying to season properly. I was disappointed until I purchased a cast iron unit. Can say the following:

Pros:
I have an electric glass top stove. Works best to heat on the largest burner so the heat goes up the sides of the wok.
I heat it for 5 minutes, then oil. And I have been super happy with the flavors the cast iron produces.
Weight allows for the pan to stay in place without moving while cooking/stirring.
Cleans up easily. Dry thoroughly - and wipe with oil.

Cons:
It’s heavy - I’ve chosen to keep it on the stovetop because we use it almost daily. But the weight allows for stir-frying without having to hang on to the pan itself. Stays put. And the flavor is amazing. So is this really a con? Not to me.
If you need additional reviews on woks and their types you can check this article https://cookspot.org/best-induction-wok/.