Carbon Steel Cookware Pros and Cons: 17 Things to Know Before You Buy

Pros and Cons of Carbon Steel Cookware

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Carbon steel cookware has the durability and heat tolerance of cast iron, the slick cooking surface of non-stick, and heats up fast like stainless steel cookware.

Despite these perks, it’s not ideal for every cooking situation, and it comes with some important downsides.

Carbon steel cookware doesn’t heat as evenly as stainless steel, it requires seasoning, it’s susceptible to rust, and it reacts to acidic food.

In this quick guide, I break down the pros and cons of carbon steel cookware in detail, so you’ll know all the facts before you buy it.

Let’s get into it!


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What Is Carbon Steel Cookware?

Carbon steel cookware functions quite similarly to cast iron but think of them more like cousins, rather than twins.

Picture a cast iron skillet, but lighter, easier to maneuver, and thinner.

Made In Carbon Steel Frying Pan
Made In Carbon Steel Frying Pan

Carbon steel is an alloy conducted of 99% iron and 1% carbon. By contrast, cast iron generally contains 2% carbon and 98% iron.

Carbon adds hardness and strength but also makes the material more brittle and less malleable. Therefore, to increase durability, cast iron skillets are made with thick, heavy walls.

Carbon steel, with it’s lower carbon content, is more malleable (bendable) than cast iron, which is why it can be manufactured with thin, lightweight walls.

Skillets and woks are the most common types of carbon steel cookware, but pots, roasters, and other types of pans are available too.

You can use it for many different recipes, ingredients, and cooking methods, but not all (more on that in a minute).

Although this type of cookware is more common in restaurants than home kitchens, you don’t need to be a professional chef to qualify for carbon steel.

These products are great for home use, and an excellent complement to a more extensive stainless steel set.

Now that you know the basics of carbon steel cookware, let’s jump into its pros and cons.

The Pros of Carbon Steel Cookware

Carbon steel cookware is an excellent choice for daily cooking because it’s lightweight, easy to use, versatile, and durable—but the advantages don’t end there.

If you’ve heard rave reviews of carbon steel cookware, but aren’t quite sure what benefits to expect, here’s the comprehensive list.

Pro: Lightweight and Easy to Maneuver

Cast iron cookware has become a staple in home kitchens, but it comes with an undeniable downside—it’s incredibly heavy.

Cast iron skillets typically weigh between 4 and 12 pounds. With that much weight, taking it out of the cupboard, transferring it from the stove to the oven, and cleaning requires two hands and some muscle.

But that’s where carbon steel cookware triumphs. It’s generally much lighter and, therefore, easier to use.

Since carbon steel is more malleable than cast iron, it can be rolled into thin sheets during manufacturing, making the walls of the cookware thinner and lighter, while maintaining strength.

In the picture below, you can see that the walls of the carbon steel pan (left) are much thinner than the walls of the cast iron skillet (right).

Carbon steel and cast iron pan
Carbon steel pan (left) and cast iron skillet (right).

To give you a better idea of how much lighter carbon steel cookware is compared to cast iron, let’s take a look at a few examples. 

In contrast, the Lodge 12-inch cast iron skillet weighs 8 pounds, the Victoria 12-inch cast iron skillet weighs 6.7 pounds, and the Le Creuset 11.75-inch cast iron skillet weighs 6.8 pounds.

When comparing carbon steel to non-stick aluminum and stainless steel pans, there’s not much of a weight difference. Most aluminum and stainless steel 12-inch pans weigh between two and five pounds.

Pro: Versatile

If you only have the cupboard space for a few pots and pans, you want something that you can use for all sorts of recipes.

And, one of the greatest benefits of carbon steel cookware is its versatility.

Whether you’re scrambling eggs, grilling steaks, stir-frying vegetables, or roasted chicken, you can get it done with carbon steel.

Roasting chicken in a carbon steel pan

You can use it for nearly every cooking method, including searing, browning, sauteing, broiling, braising, and even baking.

What makes it so versatile?

It’s safe on the stove, in the oven, under the broiler, and on the grill. It heats up fast like stainless steel, it can tolerate high heat like cast iron, and is naturally non-stick.

So, if your tired of cluttering your cabinets with single-use pots and pans, a quality carbon steel pan is the way to go.

Pro: Durable

Ever heard your parents or grandparents say: I’ve had this frying pan since I got married!

Well, with carbon cookware, that could be you.

As I mentioned upfront, carbon steel consists of 1% carbon and 99% iron. This composition makes it incredibly strong, yet malleable and ductile, meaning it can be layered and pressed into cookware during manufacturing without cracking.

The point is; if you drop your pan on the floor, bang it against another pan in the cupboard, or mistakenly overheat it, the chances of it breaking, scratching, or warping are slim.

Also, since carbon steel cookware is naturally non-stick when seasoned, you don’t need to worry about the coating wearing down or peeling off. When it starts to lose its non-stick ability, just re-season it.

Pro: Affordable

Pro chefs and cooking enthusiasts love carbon steel for its affordable price point.

You can get a beautiful carbon steel frying pan that will last a lifetime for under $50.

Prices of carbon steel pans are similar to a cast iron, but when comparing it to high-end stainless steel frying pans, they’re a fraction of the cost.

So if you’re on a budget, but still want professional-grade cookware, I recommend carbon steel.

To see the actual prices of carbon steel pans, below is a list of some best-sellers and links to where you can buy them.

Pro: High Heat Tolerance

Have you ever heard the phrase: if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen?

Well, another benefit of carbon steel cookware is that it can stand the heat.

In other words, it can handle extremely high temperatures for long periods.

This superior heat tolerance is why most high-volume restaurants keep an array of carbon steel pans on hand. Chefs can leave them on the burners for extended periods without worry.

How much heat can carbon steel cookware tolerate?

Most carbon steel pans can handle up to 600 degrees Fahrenheit, but some can go even higher.

For example, the ICON 12-inch carbon steel pan can handle up to 800 degrees F, and the Made In carbon steel set is oven-safe up to 1200 degrees F.

The high heat tolerance of carbon steel is especially useful when cooking burgers and steaks and other meats that require intense heat to get a good sear.

You can crank the heat up on the stove, oven, broiler, or grill without damaging your pan (Be careful! You can still burn your food).

Carbon steel pan on a stove

By comparison, most stainless steel cookware can handle up to 500 degrees.

Some high-end brands, such as All-Clad, make cookware that’s oven-safe up to 600 degrees. But, I’m yet to find stainless steel cookware that can handle 800 degrees, let alone 1200 degrees.

Non-stick cookware is hit-or-miss in terms of heat tolerance. Some low-end, discount pans are not safe in the oven at all, while mid to high-end brands, like Calphalon, can handle up to 500 degrees.

Cast iron cookware, like carbon steel, has a high heat tolerance, but it doesn’t heat nearly as fast (more on this in a second).

Bottom line—carbon steel cookware can handle the heat, and won’t get damaged if you leave it in a hot oven or on the stove for a little too long.

Pro: Heats Up Fast

Happiness in the kitchen comes from getting the recipe made faster so you can do the fun part—eating it.

Compared to cast iron, carbon steel cookware heats up much faster. Its thin design allows heat to transfer from the stove to the surface quicker.

So, if you don’t have five extra minutes (who does?) to wait for a cast iron skillet to heat up, you’ll be happy with carbon steel.

One more bonus—carbon steel cools down quickly, which comes in handy when you’re cooking delicate ingredients, but also saves you time since you don’t have to wait too long for it to cool before cleaning.

Pro: Responsive

Carbon steel cookware responds quickly to changes in temperature, giving you the ultimate control when cooking.

In other words, when you turn the nob from high to low or from low to high, you don’t need to wait for minutes for the cooking surface temperature to change. It responds quickly, helping you avoid overcooking or undercooking your meal.

Responsiveness is a huge bonus, especially if you’re a fan of one-pot recipes; it allows you to adjust the temperature quickly as you add or remove ingredients.

Pro: Compatible With All Heat Sources and Cooktops

No matter what kind of heat source you’re using—stove, grill, broiler, oven, or even a campfire—carbon steel cookware is adaptable.

Also, carbon steel cookware is compatible with every type of cooktop, including gas, electric, and even induction.

Induction cooktops only produce heat when they come in contact with magnetic metals.

Fortunately, carbon steel is a ferromagnetic material, which makes it compatible with induction cooktops.

Why is this a big pro? Because you can switch it between different cookers depending on the recipe, and you can take it on the go.

If you use a portable induction cooker, for example, as well as an oven, then carbon steel cookware is a fantastic option for you.

Or, if you go camping, you can stick your pan right over a fire and enjoy a nice meal among nature.

Cast iron and stainless steel pans work with most heat sources and cooktops, but since aluminum is not magnetic, most non-stick pans are not compatible with induction cooktops. 

There are a few exceptions, including the All-Clad HA1 non-stick collection, which is made with a magnetic steel base.

Pro: Safe

Is carbon steel cookware safe?

This is a frequently asked question, but one with a simple answer—yes, carbon steel cookware is completely safe.

It’s made from iron and carbon, which are both non-toxic, safe materials.

Plus, you create the non-stick cooking surface when you season the pan with lard or vegetable oil, two non-toxic, natural substances.

There are no chemicals coatings, no pigments, no nothing—just carbon and iron.

The Cons of Carbon Steel Cookware

While there is a considerable list of carbon steel cookware pros, I’m not going to leave you in the dark about the cons.

When purchasing new cookware, it’s important to know some of the downsides so you can decide whether it’s right for you.

Here are the negatives that come with carbon steel cookware.

Con: Requires Seasoning

Carbon steel cookware needs to be seasoned to make it non-stick.

Seasoning also prevents it from rusting and protects against general wear and tear.

Seasoning a carbon steel pan

Although it requires more work compared to stainless steel and non-stick cookware, seasoning a carbon steel pan is pretty simple.

Follow these steps:

  1. Put your carbon steel product over medium-high heat until it gets hot.
  2. The pan should start smoking and change to a brownish color.
  3. Add a little bit of vegetable shortening or lard to the pan. Spread it around with tongs and a clean cloth.
  4. Once coated, turn the heat high.
  5. Do this until the fat becomes liquid. Then remove the pan from the heat, wipe away excess oil and let the carbon steel cookware cool.
  6. Once cooled, wipe with a dry paper towel.
  7. Repeat two or three times for a quality season.

When food begins to stick to the surface again, it becomes rusty or changes to a grey color, you’ll know it’s time to re-season your pan.

Con: Susceptible to Rusting and Discoloration

Unfortunately, carbon steel cookware is more likely to rust than, for example, stainless steel.

Like cast iron, carbon steel cookware will rust if left un-seasoned. Even one use without a proper layer of seasoning can cause it to rust quite severely.

Rusting Carbon Steel Pan
Rusting Carbon Steel Pan

Rust occurs because carbon steel doesn’t contain enough chromium to form a corrosion-resistant layer, allowing oxygen to bond with the material, creating rust. 

Besides rust, carbon steel pans easily become blotchy and discolored.

Unlike stainless steel cookware, this type of cookware is not going to impress any house guests with its beauty.

But that’s not the purpose of carbon steel. Its purpose is to be a versatile, everyday workhorse in your kitchen, and you should expect some bumps and bruises along the way.

I recently reviewed the Made In carbon steel frying pan, and it comes with an insert that explains the various imperfections you’ll see while using it.

For example, Made In explains that:

  • Ripples of discoloration are due to adding a bit too much oil while seasoning,
  • Spotting can be a result of a reaction with acidic food.
  • A rainbow of blue, black, brown, and yellow are typical. Over time, the pan will develop the black patina that you see in professional kitchens.
Made In Carbon Steel Frying Pan Insert
Made In Carbon Steel Frying Pan Insert

Con: Hot Handles

Beware! Carbon steel cookware handles are prone to getting hot.

Sometimes, the handles on stainless steel pans are hollow or connected to the base with a two-pronged, fork-like design to disperse the heat.

But, most carbon steel pans have a flat handle attached directly to the base of the pan with rivets. This basic design doesn’t disperse heat well, which means the handles get extremely hot. 

Carbon steel pan handle

If you read reviews for different pans, you see that some customers claim the handles stay cool, while others claim they get piping hot.

When you’re cooking on the stove, the angle of the flame and the height and length of the handle will determine whether the handle gets hot and how hot it gets.

When you’re cooking in the oven, the handle will get hot, no matter what.

The best way to avoid a nasty burn is to wear oven mitts when cooking. Another option is to use one of these inexpensive silicone handle holders that you can buy on Amazon.

Con: Not Dishwasher-Safe

It’s nice to put cookware into the dishwasher and let the machine do all the hard work. Unfortunately, carbon steel cookware is not dishwasher-safe.

The dishwasher can ruin the pan and the seasoning, causing it to rust and lose its non-stick ability.

Thankfully, carbon steel cookware is a breeze to wash. Because of the non-stick ability, food easily comes loose from the surface.

All you have to do is wash in warm water and wipe it dry. Use a scrubber to scrape off stubborn bits of food, but avoid soap and harsh scouring pad—both will wear down the seasoning.

Con: Reacts With Acidic Foods

The most significant limitation of carbon steel cookware is the fact that it reacts with acidic foods.

So, despite its versatility, you need to avoid cooking tomatoes, wine sauces, dishes that call for lots of lemon juice, and other acidic foods.

A squeeze of lemon or splash of vinegar won’t ruin your pan, but prolonged exposure to highly acidic foods will take the seasoning right off the surface.

My advice—when its time to cook that slow-simmering tomato sauce, grab a stainless steel or enameled cast iron pot, both materials are non-reactive, which makes them tolerant of acidic foods.

Con: Food Sticks Unless It’s Properly Seasoned

You might be surprised after unboxing your new carbon steel cookware to find that food sticks to it.

Eggs sticking to the Made In carbon steel frying pan

The cookware makers claim it’s naturally non-stick—what happened?

Well, it is. But only after it’s properly seasoned.

Every pan is a little different, so I recommend following the manufacturers’ instructions on seasoning.

But, if if you acquire a pan second-hand, or the one you bought doesn’t come with instructions, follow the steps I covered previously.

Con: Not as Prevalent as Other Cookware Types

Another downside of carbon steel cookware is that it’s not as prevalent as stainless steel or hard-anodized aluminum non-stick.

When you browse the cookware section of your local department or kitchen supply store or search online, you won’t find as many carbon steel options.

Many well-known cookware brands, including All-Clad and Calphalon, don’t even offer carbon steel.

Unlike stainless steel and non-stick cookware, which is you can find everywhere you look, you have to seek out carbon steel and be willing to explore a few unfamiliar brands.

That’s not saying that finding carbon steel cookware is impossible, but it’s not as common, and there aren’t as many options as there are with other materials.

If you’re looking for quality carbon steel cookware and don’t know where to start, check out the following options:

  • De Buyer is committed to culinary wear, and they make top quality carbon steel cookware (view on Amazon).
  • Lodge has been in the cookware industry since 1896, so they have over a century of experience behind them. Most people recognize Lodge as the leading cast iron skillet brand, but they make excellent carbon steel cookware too (view on Amazon).
  • BK Cookware is another solid choice. They invented the Dutch oven and have been pioneering an innovative movement since 1851 (view on Amazon).
  • Finally, I recommend checking out Made In, a new and innovative cookware brand that creates high-performance pots, pans, and knives, designed for professional or home use. Made In carbon steel cookware is sold exclusively on MadeInCookware.com. If you want a closer look, check out my in-depth review of their carbon steel offerings (with lots of pictures).

Con: Uneven Heat Distribution

Although carbon steel cookware heats more evenly than cast iron, it’s inferior to multi-clad stainless steel in this department.

Why?

Because multi-clad stainless steel pans have a core layer of aluminum, which is highly conductive, spreading heat fast and evenly.

The thermal conductivity (the rate at which heat passes through a specified material) of carbon steel is significantly lower than aluminum.

Although carbon steel heats up quickly, it has decreased heat retention because of its thinner design—there’s less mass to hold and distribute heat. Therefore, you might find that some parts of the pan get hotter than others.

Uneven heat distribution is a definite drawback when cooking things like meat. Different parts of the meat might cook at different paces, leaving you with burnt edges or an uneven sear.

Also, this can pose an issue during the seasoning process. If the layer of seasoning heats unevenly, parts of the pan can be slicker and more protected than others. 

Bottom Line: Should You Buy Carbon Steel Cookware?

Like most products, carbon steel cookware has its fair share of pros and cons.

The advantages that stand out to me are:

  • It’s lightweight and heats up fast, making it more convenient to use than cast iron.
  • It’s more affordable and can handle higher heat than stainless steel.
  • With a seasoned non-stick surface, it’s more durable and versatile than non-stick.

But, before you go out and buy a carbon steel set, consider the downsides:

  • You have to spend extra time seasoning it.
  • It can get rusty, discolored, and spotty over time, especially if it’s not properly seasoned.
  • It’s versatile but reacts to acidic food, so you have to avoid cooking tomatoes, wine, vinegar, citrus, etc.

So, should you by carbon steel cookware?

The short answer: it depends.

If you’re looking for affordable new cookware that you can use for most foods, speeds up your cooking time, and lasts for years—then yes, you should buy carbon steel cookware.

If you already have a cast iron skillet, you won’t gain as many benefits. However, if you’re looking for a lighter version that’s easier to use and heats up faster, carbon steel is a great alternative.

There’s a reason why pro chefs use this unique type of cookware in kitchens across the globe. It’s performs well, it’s durable, and it’s cheap.

And, in most cases, one carbon steel frying pan is enough—you don’t need to buy a whole set.

If you’re looking for a recommendation, you can’t go wrong with the Made In 12-inch frying pan for all the reasons I explain in my review on the Made In Cookware range.

But, there are several other quality options on Amazon from brands like BK Cookware and Lodge.

What are your thoughts on carbon steel cookware? Did I miss any pros or cons? Let me know in the comments below.

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