One of the keys to making the perfect Asian dish is how it is cooked. This means to make the best dish, you need the best pan, and for Asian stovetop cooking there is only one pan we need to talk about, and that’s the wok. With the large bowled cooking area and high sides for that simple stirring ability, the wok is where it’s at. But when you’re shopping for a new wok, you see that all the popular ones are either cast iron or high carbon steel.
What does it all mean? What is the difference, the pros and cons, of each type of pan? We’re going to break down all the ups and downs of each style of the pan, what makes them special, and what the benefits and drawbacks to each are going to be. This way, when you go to pick out your new wok, you will be armed with a wealth of knowledge about what it means to cook with each type of wok, and you will be able to make a well-educated decision on which is best for you, your kitchen, and your cooking style.
Comparing cast iron and carbon steel
Cast iron is low in what is referred to as “thermal conductivity”. This means that it takes a lot of heat to make a cast iron wok hot, but it also means that it doesn’t lose that heat very easily either, so it will stay hot for quite some time. This also means that, particularly with older pans and less modern metallurgy, the pan needs to be quite thick to avoid hot spots. The thicker pan helps even out the temperature irregularities that happen while cooking.
A cast iron pan will never be able to provide the even heat distribution of thinner metal pans. This makes them ideal for use in cooking scenarios where there is sufficient time to pre-heat, and then continue to cook at that heat, without the need to readjust cooking temperature. This makes them perfect for cooking things that take a long time and require a relatively even heat the entire time.
One of the drawbacks to cast iron is its relative sensitivity to highly acidic foods or sauces. Since cast iron relies on a build-up of seasoning to take advantage of its excellent non-stick capabilities, highly acidic foods like tomatoes can begin to remove this seasoning layer. This can contribute to “off-flavors” that present during cooking. This can also be mitigated somewhat by having a very solid layer of seasoning on the pan that has been well applied and set for some time. If your cast iron is newer, or fresh, it is not recommended to cook acidic foods or sauces in it until a strong seasoning has been built up.
One final benefit of cast iron is its price point. Often cast iron cookware can be had for very affordable prices, relative to the size of the pan or cookware. Large cast iron woks, skillets, and even dutch ovens can be had for a fraction of what the same pan would cost in another metal or ceramic material. This, in conjunction with their longevity often make them an incredibly attractive option for people looking to expand their cookware without spending thousands on high-end, flashy pans.
Carbon steel is known for heating up even slower than cast iron since it has an even higher specific heat per cubic centimeter and its thermal conductivity is even lower. Because of this, carbon steel cookware is usually no thicker than 2 millimeters thick. This allows it to be incredibly light compared to cast iron since they have very similar metal properties, but carbon steel cookware is manufactured to be much thinner than cast iron.
Even though carbon steel heats with a similar irregularity as cast iron, those irregularities often even out once the pan is preheated well enough. Even still, the pan will never heat up very evenly, and as such, they are useful for quick-cooking tasks where an even cooking temperature is not that critical.
Cast iron is highly reactive to many things, and so it will need to be well-seasoned for best performance. In a difference from cast iron, carbon steel is much softer and much less porous. This means your carbon steel wok might be able to be fully seasoned to a professional kitchen level in only 15 minutes. But this also means that the seasoning layer is delicate, and can be removed much easier. On carbon steel pans, the seasoning can be removed by simply using a scouring pad. While this can be useful for re-seasoning, it can be frustrating if you are used to cast iron pans and having a much more robust seasoning layer.
Since carbon steel cookware is not cast it is rolled out and formed, it can have a much more flexible array of specialty pans that are created for specific cooking tasks. These can include omelet pans, crepe pans, and so on. Carbon steel pans are exceedingly cheap as well, so you can furnish an entire kitchen much cheaper than you could by buying other types of cookware.
Seasoning cast iron vs carbon steel
The performance of your wok definitely has to do with the quality and type of pan you are using, but if your pan isn’t seasoned properly, it doesn’t matter if it was a garage sale find or you spent hundreds of dollars on it.
One of the features many people desire in a pan, woks included, is that it is non-stick. Seasoning your wok makes all the difference in how well it performs.
Seasoning Cast Iron Woks
Cast iron was the go-to material for years, but its popularity has certainly decreased as lighter options have been introduced. However, many people still prefer the classic feel of cast iron.
Traditionally, Chinese chefs would use pigskin or lard to season their woks, but any high-smoking point oil will work just fine.
- Wash your brand new wok in the sink with hot water and soap.
- Heat the wok on the stove to dry any remaining water.
- Spread oil over the wok with a paper towel. Heat until the oil starts to smoke.
- Over a low flame, move the oil around the wok. Once the oil becomes thick, wash the wok with soap and water.
- Repeat this process for a total of 3 seasoning cycles.
Seasoning Carbon Steel Woks
While the traditional Chinese woks were made from cast iron, carbon steel has become pretty popular in recent years due to the fact that it is lightweight and retains heat fairly well. Again, you will be using oil that has a high smoking point, such as canola oil.
- Wash the wok with hot, soapy water. Feel free to use a scrubber on the inside. If the outside needs it, you can use an abrasive cleaner but do NOT use the abrasive cleanser on the inside of the wok.
- Thoroughly rinse and dry the wok.
- Place the wok over high heat, moving it and tilting it so that the entire thing becomes a bluish-yellowish color.
- Remove the wok from the heat. Turn the burner down to medium-low.
- Add about 1.5 teaspoons of oil to the wok. You can do this by oiling a paper towel and rubbing it over the surface (using tongs or your hands, depending on how hot your hands can handle) or you can use a heat-proof basting brush.
- Heat your wok over medium-low heat for 10 minutes.
- Wipe the remaining oil off with a paper towel. You will see black residue on the towel. This is normal.
- Repeat steps 5-7 until you no longer see any black residue on the paper towel. This takes about 3 times. Once the paper towel comes up clean, your wok is ready to use.
Biggest differences between cast iron and carbon steel woks
Cast Iron Woks
- Incredibly heavy for their size. Many people need two hands to nimbly maneuver their cast iron around their kitchen.
- Temperature retention that allows even cooking and consistent results.
- Seasoning is much more resilient and able to stand up to various substances and utensils.
- Metal is not very reactive, and save for highly acidic foods that need extra care, will easily cook anything you can throw at it.
Carbon Steel Woks
- Light and agile pans. But this comes at the expense of not being able to have consistent temperature control.
- No consistent temperature control, best for short, fast cooking jobs that do not require duration or precision.
- Seasoning is light and easy to remove, either by accident or on purpose.
- Metal is highly reactive and may produce some altered flavors if not used carefully.
Which one should you get?
The fancy food flipping of the “Pao Action” looks impressive, but it doesn’t add anything to the food. It is a way to keep the food moving to avoid burning. If consistent cooking results and performance are more important in your kitchen, then cast iron woks like these from Lodge will probably serve you better. They might have a bit more weight, but if taken care of they will last a lifetime.