Carbon Steel vs Stainless Steel Pans

There are four distinct types of steel, but only carbon steel and stainless steel are used for cookware (and knives, for those of you who, like me, love your kitchenalia). I will say right off the bat that I prefer my carbon steel fry pan, but there are many things to consider. For many, stainless steel is the material of choice.

Carbon Steel Vs Stainless Steel Pans

What is carbon steel?

Carbon steel is an alloy of iron and carbon. Carbon makes up between 1 and 2% of the alloy. It is less brittle than cast iron (which contains a bit more carbon). Carbon steel is heavy enough to retain heat, but because it is thinner, it heats up quickly. Carbon steel is relatively smooth and therefore it is easier to season than cast iron. Once well seasoned, carbon steel pans are essentially non-stick.

What is stainless steel?

Stainless steel (often referred to simply as “stainless”) is an alloy consisting of chromium (usually between 10 and 30%) and iron. Unlike the other forms of steel, stainless does not rust or corrode. Solid stainless steel pans (those that are not clad, or sandwiched with other more conductive metals) can be downright cheap but should be avoided at all costs. Stainless steel pans that are cladded (especially with copper or a mixture of copper and aluminum) are a much better choice, as they will heat evenly and not scorch food. They can also be expensive.

Pros and cons of carbon steel

Pros of carbon steel:

Once seasoned, carbon steel becomes non-stick. It can be heated to higher temperatures than stainless steel, and it does an AMAZING job of searing fish, steak, and chicken. It also requires less fat for cooking, and is cheaper than high-end clad stainless steel.

Cons of carbon steel:

Carbon steel requires seasoning. It cannot be used for highly acidic foods like tomatoes, as the acid leaches iron out of the pan and imparts a metallic taste to the food. It cannot be put in the dishwasher, and the heating surface may not be as uniform as that of a good clad stainless steel pan. As well, it needs to be carefully washed, dried, and oiled to prevent rust.

Pros of stainless steel:

Stainless steel is rust free. Although it can theoretically be put in a dishwasher, it is ill advised – I would never put any cookware in the dishwasher. Stainless steel is also a much prettier material than carbon steel – heck, All-Clad stainless steel pans are downright gorgeous!

Cons of stainless steel:

Although stainless steel does not require seasoning, it is NOT a non-stick cooking surface. Even very experienced cooks who use the rule of “hot pan, cold fat,” can have trouble with food sticking to the cooking surface.

Leave it to the French (and the Chinese)!

The French have been manufacturing carbon steel pans for ages. In fact, omelette pans and crepe pans (two of the most delicate foods in the repertoire) are traditionally made of carbon steel. So are woks in Chinese kitchens. The French use carbon steel because it becomes nonstick when seasoned. The Chinese use carbon steel woks because of their ability to cook at very high temperatures (a key element in stir-fries). And if that isn’t enough, professional chefs do almost all of their searing in carbon steel pans.

Other considerations:

If you are considering purchasing a new fry pan and are trying to decide on carbon steel or clad stainless steel, there are some other things to consider.

The first (and most important of which) is your heat source. If you have a natural gas or liquid propane (LP) cooktop, carbon steel might be your best option. If you have a flat top (halogen) stove, stainless steel may be the better option because the bottom of the pan has to be ABSOLUTELY flat for even heat distribution. Carbon steel pans may or may not be flat enough, and they can warp slightly. This is not an issue for gas cooking but could make the pan all but useless on an electric cooktop.

Carbon steel can be used on induction cooktops. Stainless steel cannot be used on induction cooktops unless it is labeled “magnetic stainless steel.” I find this highly suspect.

One other important consideration is the handle. Carbon steel pans tend to have carbon steel handles, and as a rule do not have helper handles. This means that they can go into the oven or under the broiler, but it also means that they can get very hot. Some manufacturers offer a silicone or neoprene handle cover that can be purchased separately.

Stainless steel pans can have stainless handles, plastic handles, or silicone/neoprene coated handles. Before you choose, think about the way you cook and if you will ever want to put your pan in the oven or under the bro

Some top contenders

Since the French love their carbon steel cookware, and have been making it for such a long time, it is no wonder that my favorite carbon steel pans are all made in France!

Tramontina clad stainless steel pans have been favorably compared with All-Clad pans. A fraction of the price of an All-Clad pan, this one is downright cheap at around $35.00. It boasts “magnetic stainless steel” compatible with induction cooktops.

Whichever pan you choose, remember that all good cookware requires care if it is to last and perform at its best. And since a pan at any price is an investment, it pays to treat it properly!

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