Carbon Steel vs. Stainless Steel Pans: Which Is Better?

Researched & Written by Craig

For many people, cooking is more of a hobby than a chore. They enjoy working with different foods, different cooking methods, and different tools. If you’re looking to expand your culinary horizons like that, then you should understand how and why options like carbon steel exist.

Take pans, for example. There are dozens of different pan materials on the market, and it’s not always clear why they’re used or what’s the difference. Carbon steel pans and stainless steel pans are both made of steel – it’s in the name! I wanted to explore the differences between these steel pans, and here’s what I found:

Carbon steel and stainless are both useful materials that can cook things quickly. Carbon steel is more durable and less sticky than stainless steel, but stainless steel can go in the dishwasher. Carbon steel is great for finishing things in the oven while stainless steel is effective for stovetop-only food.

In this post, we’ll cover:

  • What Is Stainless Steel?
  • What Is Carbon Steel
  • How are they similar?
  • How are they different
  • Which is best for cooking different foods
  • The pros and cons of carbon steel and stainless steel

Ready? Then let’s get started.

Cooking with Stainless Steel vs. Carbon Steel Pans

Both stainless steel and carbon steel pans can be useful. Different cooking methods require different tools. Here’s how carbon steel and stainless steel stack up with different cooking styles.

Frying and Searing

Carbon steel pans can handle much higher temperatures than stainless steel. That makes them the perfect choices for any type of frying. They heat the oil to a higher temperature, helping get the crisp texture that seared and fried food are known for.

Roasting, Baking, and Broiling

Carbon steel can go in the oven, and stainless steel shouldn’t. That makes carbon steel the winner for oven-based dishes, hands down.

Sauces

If you want to make a sauce or anything that involves a “fond,” or the brown bits stuck to the bottom of the pan, stainless steel edges out carbon steel. Sauces involves mixing the brown coating from the pan into the liquid. This can strip the seasoning off of carbon steel.

On top of that, the sticky nature of stainless steel is actually a benefit here. Stainless steel acquires fond more easily than carbon steel, because food sticks to it while cooking. That leads to sauces with more flavor.

Pasta and Acid-Heavy Foods

If you’re cooking with vinegar or tomatoes, you should use stainless steel. The acid in these foods can strip the seasoning from a carbon steel pan almost instantly. Plus, stainless steel is non-reactive, which keeps any metallic flavor from leaking into these acid-heavy foods.

Pros and Cons of Stainless Steel and Carbon Steel

In simple terms, here are the specific pros and cons of each of these helpful kitchen pans.

Pros and Cons of Stainless Steel

Pros:

  • Light and easy to handle
  • Great for getting an even temperature across the pan
  • Dishwasher safe
  • Rust-resistant

Cons:

  • Will dent if dropped
  • Sticky
  • Can’t go in the oven
  • Can rust if scratched

Pros and Cons of Carbon Steel

Pros:

  • Great for frying, sautéing, broiling, and more
  • Easy to move
  • Can go from oven to stove and back
  • Durable

Cons:

  • Not dishwasher safe
  • Handle can get hot
  • Can rust
  • Not for use with acidic food

What Is Stainless Steel?

stainless steel pan 12 inch

A standard 12″ stainless steel pan.

Stainless steel is a modern cooking innovation. When stainless steel was first invented, it didn’t take long for it to enter the kitchen. Stainless steel is actually a blend of metals: it contains at least 10.5% chromium. This prevents it from rusting by keeping the oxygen in our air from reacting with the iron. Home cooks loved this, because it means that stainless steel pans can be put in the dishwasher.

Most stainless steel pans are actually aluminum pans coated in steel, so they have most of the benefits and drawbacks of aluminum. These pans are light and easy to maneuver, and they heat more evenly than many other materials. On the other hand, stainless steel pans require a lot of oil to prevent food from sticking to the surface.

Stainless steel pans can also be expensive. The process of coating the aluminum base with stainless steel increases the cost of just about every stainless steel pan. They range on average from $30 at the very low end to more than $120 for professional-grade equipment.

Stainless steel pans can be found in just about every shape. From straight-side models to woks, there’s a stainless steel pan for just about every purpose.

What Is Carbon Steel

Carbon steel pan 12 inch.

A standard 12″ carbon steel pan.

Carbon steel is similarly modern. Carbon steel is typically 1% to 2% carbon, which helps keep the material sturdy and dent-free. This type of steel is often produced in large sheets to be molded later.

To make a carbon steel pan, these sheets are fed into a large press. The press stamps out the pan body like a cookie cutter, molding it and trimming it at the same time. This is a much simpler method than the stainless steel cladding process.

Carbon steel takes longer to heat up than stainless steel, but it also retains heat better. This makes carbon steel perfect for searing steaks and frying food. Once carbon steel is seasoned, it’s also nearly completely non-stick.

The two big things to watch out for with carbon steel both relate to seasoning. Carbon steel can rust unless it’s seasoned properly. That means that you have to clean it by hand, without soap. It also means that you should be cautious cooking acidic foods, because they can dissolve the pan’s seasoning.

Carbon steel pans are priced similarly to stainless steel. Made In, which makes some of the best carbon steel pans on the market, sells a 12” skillet for $90. Other brands retail for $50 to $60 on Amazon for the same size.

Conclusion

Both stainless and carbon steel pans have their place in a well-stocked kitchen.

Carbon steel cooks foods at high temperatures quickly, while stainless steel cooks evenly. Stainless is easier to clean than carbon steel, but carbon steel is more durable and less sticky than stainless. The choice is a matter of taste.

Using the right tool for the job makes all the difference. I hope that this article has help you understand your cooking tools a little better.

Have a great day, and thanks for reading!

-Craig