Carbon Steel vs Stainless Steel Pan

carbon steel and stainless steel pans are containing the yummy omelette

Cooking enthusiasts have been extolling the virtues of carbon and stainless steel pans for years. That's because steel pans are built to last, even when they're used on a regular basis. Here, we'll take a closer look at carbon steel vs stainless steel to see how these popular choices compare.

Carbon Steel Pan Features

Carbon steel pans have a somewhat misleading name: They're actually composed of iron, with only a fraction of carbon in the formula. When you cook on a carbon steel surface, a small concentration of iron is secreted into the food. Since iron is an essential mineral that should be consumed as part of a healthy diet, using carbon steel pans can actually contribute to your health.

frying egg on the carbon steel pan

This type of cookware is slightly heavier than stainless steel, with excellent heat retention and distribution. Most carbon steel pans are equipped with a natural nonstick coating that can withstand extremely high temperatures--unlike Teflon, which begins to break down if it's heated beyond a certain point. They're also corrosion- and rust-resistant, which contributes to their longevity.

Advantages of Carbon Steel Pans

Here are a few of the best reasons to invest in a carbon steel cookware set:

  • Pans can be transferred to the oven, even at high temperatures
  • Nonstick coating requires less fat and oil, which translates into healthier cooking
  • Superb heat retention makes them ideal for searing, grilling, or frying foods
  • Can be re-seasoned after the natural nonstick coating has worn off

Disadvantages of Carbon Steel Pans

On the other side of the coin, here are a few caveats that might give you pause:

  • The material is not dishwasher safe
  • They require frequent seasoning if you want to retain the nonstick properties
  • Not suitable for acidic foods, such as tomatoes or citrus-based sauces
  • Pans may rust if they're not dried and oiled properly after being washed

Stainless Steel Pan Features

Stainless steel cookware is made using a chromium-iron alloy that allows the metal to resist corrosion and rust damage. In this way, they're similar to their carbon steel counterparts.

fried salmon on the stainless steel pan

Despite its advantages, solid stainless steel is not a good choice for cookware when it's used on its own. The best stainless steel pans will be clad with a blend of copper and aluminum, both of which are superior heat conductors.

When these conductive metals are placed between two layers of steel, they create a cooking surface that heats evenly and can last a lifetime with the proper care. Stainless steel is also the most used material for induction cookware.

Advantages of Stainless Steel Pans

If you're in the market for a set of stainless steel pans, here's what you should know about their benefits:

  • They require no seasoning
  • The pans can be recycled when they've outlived their use
  • The material is dishwasher safe, making cleanup that much easier
  • Stainless steel is extremely versatile and can be transferred easily from the stove top to the oven
  • They're resistant to rust and corrosion

Disadvantages of Stainless Steel Pans

Is there any reason why you shouldn't go with stainless steel? Aside from the basic rule of choosing clad stainless steel over the pure version, here are some well-considered arguments against the material:

  • They can be heavy and difficult to manage while sauteing, particularly the copper-clad versions
  • Food may stick to the surface at high heat
  • If the surface is damaged, the metal may leach into foods during cooking

Carbon Steel vs Stainless Steel Pan: Health Concerns

Carbon steel cookware is non-toxic, and one of the safest options on the market. While it might sound concerning to have bits of iron leaching into your food, these trace amounts can actually benefit your health. When it's properly seasoned, it will be rust-resistant, but even small amounts of rust won't do any harm. It's also possible to eradicate the rust and re-season the pan before you use it again.

steak in the stainless steel cookware

Stainless steel is also safe to use for cooking as long as it contains a chromium level of at least 16 percent. Chromium and nickel, which is also present in the material, are safe when consumed in moderation; however, over-consumption of either of these elements can pose a health risk.

Proper treatment of the cookware is key, since scratches and dings in the surface can cause more nickel and chromium to leach into the food.

Carbon Steel vs Stainless Steel Pan: Cooking

Carbon Steel

When cooking with carbon steel pans, it's best to steer clear of acidic ingredients, such as vinegar or citrus. Not only will the acid eat away at the seasoning, the carbon will impart a bitter, metallic flavor to the food.

Speaking of seasoning, it's a good idea to season the pan by preparing a high-fat ingredient like bacon for the first use. The natural fat will seep into the material, giving it an added layer of protection.

Similarly, after the pans have been washed and dried, they should be treated with oil before they're returned to the cupboard. The best way to do this is to apply a thin layer neutral oil, such as canola, using paper towels. Place the cookware upside down on a sheet pan, then set the pan in the oven. Heat at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for about 45 minutes. Allow the carbon steel pans to cool completely before putting them away.

Stainless Steel

Use these pans for everything from sauteing to braising and frying steaks. Because clad stainless steel is excellent at retaining and distributing heat, it's ideal for both high- and low-heat cooking applications. You can even make a no-fuss beef stew by browning the meat on the stove top, adding broth or stock, and placing it in the oven to finish cooking.

cooking chicken thigh in the stainless steel frying pan

Because they lack a nonstick coating, food can easily stick to the surface, particularly at high temperatures. You can make this work in your favor by deglazing the pan with wine, stock, or broth, then using the resulting juices to create a delicious pan sauce. This isn't an option with nonstick surfaces, so stainless steel is really the only choice for dishes that call for a pan sauce or gravy.

When cooking with stainless steel, test the pan before adding the food to ensure that it's reached the proper temperature. Flick a few drops of water onto the heated surface. If the water dances around the surface before evaporating, then the pan is ready. Also note that ingredients will cook more evenly if they're brought to room temperature before being added to the pan.

Because of their versatility, stainless steel pans work well with most ingredients. Eggs are the lone exception to this rule, as they tend to adhere unpleasantly to any surface that isn't treated with a nonstick coating. This will both ruin the eggs and make the pan more difficult to clean (see Durability & Cleaning, below).

Carbon Steel vs Stainless Steel Pan: Durability & Cleaning

Both types of steel are exceptionally durable, which is the key to their appeal. Both can be exposed to high heat over long periods of time, and the materials won't chip or crack if you drop them or bang them together. The main difference is that carbon steel's nonstick surface wears off after a short period, which translates into higher maintenance.

carbon steel and stainless steel pans are being cleaned

When it comes to cleanup, stainless steel pans are the clear winner. They don't require any seasoning, and they can be put in the dishwasher without suffering any ill effects. Further, soap isn't recommended for carbon steel, as the chemicals will destroy the seasoning you've worked so hard to create.

Fortunately, the task of hand-washing carbon steel with hot water doesn't take all that long, but it's enough to give many people second thoughts about choosing these pans over their stainless cousins. To be fair, however, we should point out that stainless steel surfaces tend to require a lot more elbow grease, especially after a high-heat cooking application that caused bits of food to stick to the pan.

Carbon Steel vs Stainless Steel Pan: Which is Best?

Is carbon steel better than stainless steel, or vice versa? It's a close race to call. Carbon steel is lightweight, inexpensive, and can last a lifetime if you treat it right. However, it's a no-go for acidic ingredients and requires a great deal of care to boot.

For these reasons alone, we would give the edge to stainless steel, which is just as durable and far easier to find. 

If you're having a hard time choosing between the two, we would suggest purchasing a set of stainless steel cookware and complementing it with one high-quality carbon steel frying pan. That way, you'll get the best of both worlds without cluttering up your kitchen.

Sean Bennett
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