Are you shopping for cookware but can’t decide between carbon steel and non-stick?
While non-stick pans have become a staple in kitchens globally, carbon steel is just starting to gain the attention of home cooks.
So, which cookware type is better? What are the key differences?
In this comparison of carbon steel vs. non-stick cookware, you’ll learn how they differ in durability, design, performance, versatility, maintenance, price, and more.
By the end, you’ll have all the key information to decide which cookware type is right for you.
Use the links below to navigate the comparison:
- Carbon Steel vs. Non-Stick: Comparison Chart
- Difference 1: Materials
- Difference 2: Durability
- Difference 3: Design
- Difference 4: Maintenance
- Difference 5: Reactivity
- Difference 6: Food Release
- Difference 7: Heat Tolerance
- Difference 8: Cooktop Compatibility
- Difference 9: Availability
- Difference 10: Price
- Bottom Line: Should You Buy Non-Stick or Carbon Steel Cookware?
Carbon Steel vs. Non-Stick: Comparison Chart
If you’re in a hurry, I’ve outlined the major differences between carbon steel and non-stick cookware in the chart below. I explain each difference in more detail in the sections that follow.
|Base Material||99% Iron and 1% Carbon||Aluminum, Hard-Anodized Aluminum, Stainless Steel, or other|
|Cooking Surface||Natural seasoning layer made from oil||Non-stick coating made from PTFE (Teflon), or Ceramic (sand-derived silicon)|
|Durability||Up to a lifetime||1-5 years|
|Design||Utilitarian design, grey color that turns brown with seasoning||Variety of designs, exteriors range from black to bright colors to stainless steel.|
|Maintenance||High-maintenance, requires frequent seasoning and hand washing||Low-maintenance, should only be hand washed|
|Food Release||Good release with proper seasoning||Great release until the non-stick coating wears down|
|Heat Tolerance||Up to 1200°F (varies by brand)||Up to 500°F (varies by brand)|
|Cooktop Compatibility||All cooktops||Pans with an aluminum base are not induction-compatible|
|Availability||Primarily available online||Widely available in-store and online|
|Price||Relatively affordable (view prices on Amazon)||Wide range of prices, relatively affordable (view prices on Amazon)|
Difference 1: Materials
Carbon steel is 99% iron and 1% carbon. The carbon content makes the cookware ultra-hard and durable.
To make carbon steel cookware, sheets of carbon steel are heat-treated to resist rust and corrosion. Then, the sheets are cut into circles and forged (or punched) into the pan’s body. This quick video provides a behind-the-scenes look at how carbon steel pans are made.
Non-stick cookware is made from a variety of materials. The most common base materials include aluminum, hard-anodized aluminum, and stainless steel.
The cooking surface is coated with either PTFE (also known as Teflon) or sand-derived silicon called “ceramic” due to its glossy, ceramic-like appearance.
While there’s lots of debate around which type of non-stick coating is better, both give the cookware a slick, stick-resistant cooking surface.
Here are a few examples of non-stick materials used in popular brands:
GreenPan cookware is made with hard-anodized aluminum covered in a ceramic coating.
Calphalon cookware is also made of hard-anodized aluminum but is coated in triple-layer PFOA-free non-stick.
Made In offers 5-ply bonded stainless steel pans with a PTFE non-stick coating.
Difference 2: Durability
One of the main downsides of non-stick cookware is that the PTFE or ceramic non-stick coating will degrade over time. On average, non-stick coatings only last between 1 and 5 years.
Although the base materials of non-stick cookware are very durable, the coating doesn’t last forever. And, when the coating wears away, you’ll need to get a new pan.
You can prolong the life of non-stick pans by handwashing, using wood or plastic utensils, avoiding stacking other cookware on top, and keeping the temperature below 500°F. However, no matter what you do, non-stick pans eventually need to be replaced.
While durability is non-stick cookware’s weakness, it’s one of carbon steel cookware’s greatest strengths.
Because carbon steel cookware doesn’t have a synthetic coating, it can last a lifetime. Its superb durability is one of the primary reasons carbon steel has always been a staple in professional kitchens.
Difference 3: Design
Carbon steel pans tend to have a simple utilitarian design. The pans start with a dark gray color, which turns brown and darkens the more the pan is used.
When you first start using a carbon steel pan, the seasoning can look blotchy and unsightly. But, after the seasoning builds up, it will look more uniform.
Even well-seasoned carbon steel pans are not the most attractive-looking cookware. They’re not going to brighten up your kitchen with color, and they’re not sleek like stainless steel.
Non-stick cookware is much more attractive than carbon steel, and there’s a range of aesthetics available.
While many brands opt for the classic dark gray or black exterior and matte black cooking surface, others feature steel or painted exteriors with gray or copper-colored cooking surfaces.
For example, this Misen non-stick pan features a sleek steel exterior and black interior.
And, this Calphalon non-stick pan has a classic dark exterior and interior.
Lastly, this Rachel Ray pan provides a pop of color with its bright red exterior and light gray interior.
Also, non-stick cookware will continue to look the same as it ages. While the coating will eventually fade and wear down, it’ll never look blotchy like carbon steel.
Difference 4: Maintenance
Carbon steel cookware requires more maintenance and care than non-stick. It has to be seasoned before use, and it will need to be re-seasoned periodically.
In addition to seasoning, carbon steel is more difficult to clean. After cooking, you need to wash it with warm water right away to keep food from sticking. After you clean your pan, dry it immediately. Residual moisture left on the pan will cause it to rust.
You also can’t wash carbon steel with dish detergent because it will cut through and remove the seasoning. Most cookware brands recommend washing with only warm water and a soft sponge.
In contrast, non-stick cookware is ready to use right out of the box; it never requires seasoning.
And, while you should always wash it by hand, non-stick cookware will hold up to dish detergent better than carbon steel.
While non-stick cookware requires less maintenance than carbon steel cookware, don’t use an abrasive brush or sponge on either. And never scrape the surface with metal utensils or abrasive sponges.
If you use something like steel wool on carbon steel, it will remove the seasoning. If you use it on non-stick cookware, it will scratch the coating and ruin your pan.
Difference 5: Reactivity
Carbon steel is highly reactive, which means acidic ingredients (like tomatoes, wine, and lemon juice) will strip the seasoning from the pan and cause microscopic bits of iron to leach into your food. That reaction will give your food a metallic taste and can be harmful to your health.
Here’s a look at what happens when you cook tomato sauce in a carbon steel pan:
Non-stick cookware is thoroughly coated, so you don’t have to worry about food reacting with the metal underneath. You can cook tomatoes, wine, or lemon sauces, or any other acidic food without fear of ruining the cookware.
Difference 6: Food Release
Carbon steel must be seasoned properly to keep food from sticking.
When you first get your carbon steel pan, you’ll need to wash it thoroughly. Some manufacturers apply a wax layer to the surface to protect the cookware during transit. In those cases, make sure to scrub the wax off completely.
Then, you’ll need to heat the pan in your oven. Next, liberally apply oil with a kitchen towel and return the pan to the oven. Repeat this process until you’ve baked on a good layer of seasoning.
I recommend seasoning at least twice before the first use and then three to five more times as you continue to build up the coating.
While a well-seasoned carbon steel pan is stick-resistant, non-stick cookware’s core feature is food release.
The coatings are designed and engineered with one main goal: to keep food from sticking. As long as the coating on non-stick cookware isn’t scratched or worn off, the food release will be unmatched.
When it comes to food release, non-stick is superior.
Difference 7: Heat Tolerance
Carbon steel boasts a significantly higher heat tolerance than non-stick cookware.
Carbon steel manufacturers recommend maximum temperatures far above the capabilities of most residential ovens. That means that no matter your home setup, you’re unlikely to overheat a carbon steel pan.
Here are a few maximum temperature recommendations from carbon steel cookware manufacturers:
- Misen’s carbon steel pan is oven-safe up to 900°F, but you have to remove the silicone handle.
- Made In’s carbon steel pan can withstand temperatures up to 1200°F.
- ICON’s carbon steel pan can handle temperatures up to 800°F.
Non-stick coatings have a low heat tolerance, so you need to be careful putting non-stick cookware in the oven. Most non-stick cookware is oven-safe between 400 and 500°F.
When heated above 500°F, PTFE starts to break down and can release dangerous fumes that contain microscopic carcinogens. That’s why you should never put a non-stick pan in the oven above its maximum rated temperature.
Ceramic non-stick coatings can withstand slightly higher temperatures but are still nowhere near carbon steel.
Difference 8: Cooktop Compatibility
Carbon steel cookware is compatible with all cooktops, including induction. Most carbon steel cookware can even be used on a grill, over a campfire, and under the broiler.
Due to its high heat tolerance and durability, carbon steel is difficult to damage.
Non-stick cookware works on most cooktops, but not all. Most manufacturers caution against using non-stick cookware on a grill or over an open flame and never use a non-stick pan under a broiler. The temperatures can be inconsistent, and the coating can get burnt and damaged.
Most non-stick cookware will work on induction burners, but it depends on the manufacturer. Non-stick cookware made with an aluminum base won’t work on induction cooktops.
For non-stick pans to be compatible with induction, they need to have a steel baseplate. Steel contains iron, which is highly magnetic, so it is compatible with induction cooktops.
If you have an induction cooktop, check out my guide to the best non-stick cookware for induction.
Difference 9: Availability
Non-stick is one of the most widely available types of cookware. You can find it online and in almost every department store across the United States. Most cookware brands offer at least one non-stick collection.
Although professional kitchens have been using carbon steel for years, it’s relatively new to the consumer market. Because of that, it’s harder to find in person than non-stick, and you may need to shop for it online.
If you want to buy online, I recommend starting your search with Made In or Misen carbon steel cookware. Both brands are relatively new (Misen launched in 2018 and Made In launched in 2016) but are already getting high praise from home cooks and professional chefs.
Difference 10: Price
Carbon steel cookware is relatively affordable. It’s much cheaper than stainless steel or copper cookware and can be more affordable than some non-stick cookware.
Prices for non-stick cookware vary significantly by brand and collection. The materials and finishes drastically affect the price. A non-stick frying pan can cost anywhere from $20 to well over $100.
Check out the chart below to get a better idea of how carbon steel and non-stick cookware prices compare.
|Lodge 12-Inch Carbon Steel Skillet||Amazon|
|BK 12-Inch Carbon Steel Skillet||Amazon|
|Merten & Storck 12-Inch Carbon Steel Fry Pan||Amazon|
|de Buyer 12-Inch Carbon Steel Fry Pan||Amazon|
|American Metalcraft 12-Inch Carbon Steel Fry Pan||Amazon|
|Blue Diamond 12-Inch Non-Stick Fry Pan||Amazon|
|Cuisinart 12-Inch Non-Stick Fry Pan||Amazon|
|Calphalon 12-Inch Non-Stick Fry Pan||Amazon|
|All-Clad HA1 12-Inch Non-Stick Fry Pan||Amazon|
|All-Clad D5 12-Inch Non-Stick Fry Pan||Amazon|
Bottom Line: Should You Buy Non-Stick or Carbon Steel Cookware?
Carbon steel and non-stick cookware both offer excellent food release at relatively affordable prices. However, there are some significant differences:
- Carbon steel can handle much higher temperatures than non-stick cookware.
- Non-stick pans will only last 1 to 5 years. Carbon steel cookware can last a lifetime.
- Carbon steel cookware is reactive, so you can’t cook acidic foods in it. You can cook anything with non-stick cookware.
- Non-stick cookware is available in various designs and finishes, while most carbon steel pans have a utilitarian look.
- Carbon steel cookware requires maintenance and care (i.e., seasoning), while non-stick cookware is about as low maintenance as cookware gets.
Both carbon steel and non-stick cookware have advantages and disadvantages. Ultimately, the right one for you comes down to your culinary needs.
If you are looking for cookware that will last a long time, has high heat tolerance, and you’re willing to take care of it, then go for the carbon steel.
If you want cookware with superior food release that’s easy to clean up, non-stick is the better choice.
Most kitchens could benefit from both. So, if you can afford two pans, I recommend getting one of each.
Use the non-stick pan for quick meals and delicate foods that tend to stick like eggs. Use the carbon steel pan for roasting, broiling, searing, and high-temperature cooking.
You can also learn more by reading my ultimate guide to the best cookware brands, where I break down my top picks across all cookware types.
- Carbon Steel Cookware Pros and Cons: 17 Things to Know
- Carbon Steel vs. Stainless Steel Pans: What’s the Difference?
- Carbon Steel vs. Cast Iron Cookware: 10 Key Differences
- Stainless Steel vs. Non-Stick Cookware: What’s the Difference?
- Hard-Anodized vs. Non-Stick Cookware: What’s the Difference?
- The 5 Best Alternatives to Non-Stick Pans