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In this comparison, I break down the similarities and differences between two of the most popular types of pans: carbon steel and stainless steel.
You’ll learn how they compare in terms of:
- Cooking performance and versatility
- Ease of use and maintenance
- Options and price
- And much more
So, if you’re shopping for new cookware but can’t decide whether to buy carbon steel pans, stainless steel pans, or both, keep reading.
Use the links below to navigate:
- Quick Summary
- Materials and Construction
- Heat Distribution
- Heat Retention
- Heat Tolerance
- Bottom Line
Carbon Steel vs. Stainless Steel: Quick Summary
If you’re in a rush, here’s a quick summary of the differences between carbon steel and stainless steel pans.
I break down each of these topics in detail (with lots of pictures) throughout the comparison.
Materials and Construction: Carbon steel pans are made of just carbon steel (99% iron and 1% carbon), so the performance is similar across brands. Stainless steel pans have a heat conductive core (i.e., aluminum or copper) bonded between the exterior and interior steel layers. The construction varies significantly across brands; therefore, the performance varies too.
Appearance: The appearance of carbon steel pans changes over time, and they quickly become discolored and rusty. Stainless steel contains more chromium, which helps maintain the pan’s original beauty, even after thousands of uses.
Heat Distribution: Stainless steel pans, especially ones with fully-clad construction, distribute heat more evenly than carbon steel pans, providing greater control and consistency while cooking.
Heat Retention: Carbon steel and stainless steel pans both retain heat well. But, with stainless steel pans, heat retention can vary. For example, 5-ply stainless steel pans retain heat better than 3-ply stainless steel pans.
Heat Tolerance: Carbon steel pans can withstand much higher temperatures than stainless steel without damaging. Most stainless steel pans can handle between 500 and 600 degrees Fahrenheit, while carbon steel pans can handle between 600 and 800 degrees. Some brands, such as Made In, are safe up to 1200 degrees.
Responsiveness: Both carbon steel and stainless steel pans respond quickly to temperature changes. But a stainless steel pan with a copper core layer provides the ultimate responsiveness due to the superior thermal conductivity of copper.
Versatility: Stainless steel and carbon steel pans are well-rounded and versatile; however, stainless steel is a better all-purpose pan. Carbon steel pans have two significant limitations. First, they react with acidic food. Second, boiling or simmering liquids can degrade the seasoning.
Durability: Carbon steel and stainless steel pans are built to last forever, but carbon steel pans can handle higher heat and withstand a bit more abuse without damaging.
Maintenance: Carbon steel pans must be seasoned regularly and are not dishwasher-safe, but they’re easier to clean due to the slick cooking surface. Stainless steel pans don’t need to be seasoned, and you can wash them in the dishwasher, but they can be more challenging to clean because food tends to stick.
Options: Stainless steel cookware is everywhere, and you have virtually endless options in terms of brand and type of cooking vessel. Carbon steel is easy to find, but you might not recognize the brands that make the top-rated pans.
Price: One of the most notable advantages carbon steel pans have over stainless steel pans is that they’re significantly less expensive. Skip ahead to the Price Section to compare the costs of most popular carbon steel and stainless steel pans.
Bottom Line: If you’re buying one pan, I highly recommend stainless steel because it has no limitations in terms of ingredients and cooking techniques. If you’re purchasing a set, I recommend stainless steel, but you should complement it with a single carbon steel pan for high-temperature cooking, searing meat, frying eggs, and grilling.
Materials and Construction
Before I get into the performance, versatility, and durability of carbon steel and stainless steel pans, you need to understand what they’re made of and how they’re constructed.
Carbon steel is an alloy made up of approximately 99% iron and 1% carbon. The carbon hardens and strengthens the steel, but it makes it less malleable and more brittle.
Most manufacturers make their carbons steel pans the same way:
- First, they start with a flat sheet of carbon steel that’s been heat-treated to resist corrosion.
- Next, the sheet is cut into a circle and punched by a machine into the shape of the pan.
- Finally, they use rivets to attach the handle to the base of the pan.
On the flip side, stainless steel cookware can be constructed in a variety of ways with many different materials, and the process is a bit more complicated.
Because stainless steel doesn’t conduct heat well on its own, most brands create their pans by bonding exterior layers of steel with a heat-conductive core layer, such as copper or aluminum.
This process of bonding different metals together is often referred to as cladding, and the resulting cookware is marketed as multi-clad.
For example, All-Clad D3, one of the most popular multi-clad cookware collections on the market, is constructed with three layers (tri-ply):
- An interior layer of 18/10 stainless steel, which provides a durable, non-reactive cooking surface
- A core layer of heat-conductive aluminum for quick and even heating
- And a shiny exterior layer of 18/0 stainless steel that’s durable, attractive, and compatible with all cooktops
All-Clad Copper Core, another popular multi-clad cookware collection, is constructed with five layers (5-ply):
- An interior layer of 18/10 stainless steel
- A layer of heat-conductive aluminum
- A core layer of copper, which conducts heat even faster than aluminum
- Another layer of aluminum
- Finally, a shiny exterior layer of 18/0 stainless steel
When you compare All-Clad D3 versus Copper Core, the additional layer of aluminum and copper in the Copper Core collection makes the cookware more responsive (reacts quickly to changes in temperature).
One other thing about stainless steel cookware; premium brands layer the heat-conductive core material throughout each pan (i.e., fully-clad), while cheaper brands only layer it at the base of the pan (i.e., impact-bonded base).
Pans with just an impact-bonded base don’t heat as evenly since the walls lack a conductive layer.
The key takeaway is that most carbon steel pans are made of just carbon steel, so the performance is similar across brands. The materials and construction of stainless steel pans can vary significantly across brands; therefore, the performance varies too.
When you first buy a carbon steel pan, you’ll love how classy and sleek it looks. But, over time, it’ll get a bit ugly, and it’s not the type of pan that can double as a serving platter.
On the other hand, Stainless steel pans come out of the box with a gorgeous polished exterior, and they can maintain their original beauty for years after purchase.
Whether you choose a shiny or matte finish, stainless steel pans are more of a design piece, the type of pan you can take from the stove and place it right on the dining room table for serving.
Several high-end restaurants, including Boston’s Trattoria Il Panino, use stainless steel pans instead of dinner plates to serve their guests.
The notable difference between carbon steel and stainless steel pans is the level of chromium in the steel. Chromium creates a passive layer on the surface that protects the steel from rust and corrosion caused by exposure to moisture and acidic foods.
Carbon steel, unlike stainless steel, does not contain enough chromium to be corrosion resistant. Therefore, it’s prone to becoming rusty and discolored, especially when the protective layer of seasoning on the cooking surface (more on this later) is wearing thin.
Although carbon steel doesn’t maintain its original beauty, you can minimize rust and discoloration by keeping the pan seasoned, cleaning it according to the manufacturer’s instructions, and drying it thoroughly.
The key takeaway is that the appearance of carbon steel pans changes over time, and they can get a bit ugly with heavy use. Stainless steel contains more chromium, which helps maintain its original beauty, even after thousands of uses.
Stainless steel pans, especially ones with fully-clad construction, distribute heat much more evenly than carbon steel pans.
In other words, when you place a stainless steel pan on the stove and turn the knob, the heat travels evenly throughout the entire cooking surface with no hot or cold spots.
With carbon steel, the heat doesn’t distribute as evenly, so you don’t have as much control over the outcome of your cooking.
As I mentioned previously, stainless steel is not a conductive material on its own. But, since stainless steel pans are made with a highly conductive aluminum or copper core, they heat up fast and evenly.
Sure, carbon steel heats up quickly because of its thinner design, but it has a lower thermal conductivity than aluminum and copper. So stainless steel pans will always transfer heat better.
Uneven heat distribution of carbon steel is a significant drawback to consider.
First, this can affect the seasoning process, making some parts of the pan more protected than others.
Secondly, when it comes to cooking, some parts of your food—especially meat—might cook at different paces.
Carbon steel and stainless steel pans both retain heat well enough to keep food warm while you prepare another dish or set the table.
And both will maintain their temperature when you slap a cold piece of food on the cooking surface, which is vital for searing steaks, burgers, and other juicy meats.
However, neither pan will retain heat as well as cast iron. Cast iron is the king of heat retention because of its ultra-thick walls.
The walls of carbon steel pans are much thinner than cast iron, making it lightweight, but reducing its ability to retain heat.
The thickness of the pan has the most significant impact on heat retention. Because carbon steel pans are generally all constructed similarly, they’ll all retain heat to a similar degree.
Heat retention varies with stainless steel. Thicker pans with more bonded layers can hold heat better than cheaper, thinner pans. For example, a 5-ply (five-layer) pan will retain heat better than a 3-ply pan.
The key takeaway is that carbon steel and stainless steel pans retain heat well, but with stainless steel pans, heat retention varies due to the different construction types.
One of the advantages that carbon steel has over stainless steel is its heat toleration. In other words, carbon steel pans can withstand much higher temperatures than stainless steel without damaging.
Most carbon steel pans, like the BK skillet, can tolerate heat up to 600 degrees Fahrenheit, but some can go even higher.
Stainless steel pans are no slouch in the heat tolerance department. Most can withstand up to 500 degrees Fahrenheit, but some can go higher.
You might be thinking:
When am I ever going to cook with 800 or 1200 degree temperatures?
You probably won’t, but the fact that carbon steel could handle those temperatures provides extra reassurance that your cookware is always safe.
Plus, when cooking on a hot stove, over an open flame, or in an oven for extended periods, it can be hard to keep track of the exact temperature.
Responsiveness is the ability of a pan to quickly react when you change the heat from low to high or from high to low. A responsive pan gives you control over your cooking.
Good news—both carbon steel and stainless steel pans respond quickly to temperature changes.
But the underlying factors that make each responsive are different.
Carbon steel heats and cools quickly due to its thin walls and lightweight construction. Stainless steel, on the other hand, gets its responsiveness from the aluminum or copper core, two highly conductive materials.
If you’re looking for the ultimate responsiveness, go with a stainless steel pan with a copper core layer, or a copper exterior.
Copper has a significantly higher thermal conductivity than aluminum, carbon steel, and any other materials used to make cookware. In fact, the only materials that conduct heat more efficiently than copper are silver and diamond.
One of the best aspects of both stainless steel and carbon steel pans is their versatility.
They’re both compatible with all cooktops, even induction, and you can use them safely in the oven, under the broiler, and on the grill.
You can use both types of pans for searing, browning, sauteing, broiling, braising, and baking. However, carbon steel pans have a couple of limitations.
First, you can’t cook acidic foods with carbon steel pans. A squeeze of lemon won’t hurt, but prolonged exposure to acidic foods, like tomato sauce, will strip the layer of seasoning right off the looking surface.
Don’t believe me? Check out my pan after cooking just a small amount of tomato sauce.
Second, you can’t simmer or boil liquids in a carbon steel pan. The hot liquids will degrade the seasoning, and bits of it will likely melt into the liquid.
Also, the stainless steel cooking surface is non-reactive, meaning it won’t have a reaction that causes a metallic flavor when exposed to acidic foods. Another benefit of stainless steel’s non-reactivity—the appearance of the surface remains in mint condition for many years.
The one major downside to stainless steel pans is that delicate foods like eggs and fish can stick to the surface. With carbon steel, this isn’t an issue because the layer of seasoning acts as a non-stick coating.
Bottom line—stainless steel and carbon steel pans are well-rounded and versatile. With carbon steel, avoid cooking acidic foods and boiling liquids, and, with stainless steel, avoid cooking eggs and other delicate foods.
Both pans are very durable and, if you maintain them properly, should last a lifetime.
Although a carbon steel pan needs to be reseasoned from time to time, the surface itself won’t wear down.
If you drop it, bang it against another pan, or expose it to high heats, the probability of it breaking, scratching, or warping is low.
Stainless steel pans are also a winner in this category. Steel is incredibly durable, and when you bond multiple layers of it together to make a pan, it becomes even more durable.
With that said, if you’re looking for the ultimate workhorse pan, it’s carbon steel.
Carbon steel can handle higher heat, and you can leave it on the hot burner for longer.
Some carbon steel pans, like the Made In 12-inch Frying Pan, can handle double the temperature of stainless steel pans. It’s why many many professional chefs are opting for carbon steel these days.
Bottom line—carbon steel and stainless steel pans are both built to last forever, but carbon steel pans can handle higher heat and withstand a bit more abuse without damaging.
Carbon steel pans require more maintenance than stainless steel.
Similar to cast iron skillets, carbon steel pans need to be seasoned to become non-stick. Seasoning isn’t difficult, but it takes time, and you need to redo it whenever the pan becomes sticky, rusty or discolored.
In terms of cleaning, carbon steel cannot go in the dishwasher, and you can’t use soap to scrub it—the harsh detergents will ruin the layer of seasoning.
However, hand washing a carbon steel pan is a breeze. Its non-stick surface releases food quickly, so a soft cloth and warm water will usually do the trick.
Stainless steel pans can go in the dishwasher and tolerate soap, but they can actually be harder to clean because they’re not non-stick.
You have to be careful when cooking with stainless steel. If you don’t grease the pan properly and cook on low to medium heat, food can easily stick to the surface and be difficult to remove.
So, this category is a bit of a draw. Stainless steel pans don’t need to be seasoned, and you can wash them in the dishwasher, but they can be more challenging to clean because food tends to stick.
Stainless steel is widely available, and you can find it in a range of cookware types. You’ll find stainless steel pans, pots, woks, sauciers, dutch ovens, grills, stockpots, and much more. No matter which brand you choose, they’ll likely have a stainless steel collection.
Carbon steel pans, on the other hand, are much less prevalent. Many well-known cookware brands, including All-Clad, Anolon, and Calphalon, don’t even offer carbon steel.
Another thing to note is that carbon steel is generally limited to frying pans, skillets, and woks. But, that makes sense since boiling, and liquid-based recipes are off-limits.
The key takeaway is that stainless steel cookware is everywhere, and you have virtually endless options in terms of brand and type of cooking vessel. Carbon steel is easy to find, but you might not recognize the brands that make the top-rates pans.
One of the most notable advantages carbon steel pans have over stainless steel pans is that they’re significantly less expensive—in some cases, up to 70% cheaper.
However, the price of stainless steel pans varies by brand, the core materials, and the number of plys (bonded layers).
To get a better idea of how the cost compares between carbon steel and stainless steel pans, check out the current prices of the following popular options.
Carbon Steel Pans:
- Made In 12-inch Carbon Steel Frying Pan (MadeInCookware.com)
- De Buyer 12.5-inch Carbon Steel Frying Pan (Amazon)
- BK Cookware 12-inch Carbon Steel Skillet (Amazon)
Stainless Steel Pans:
- All-Clad D5 12-inch Stainless Steel Frying Pan (Amazon)
- Le Creuset Tri-Ply 12-inch Stainless Steel Frying Pan (Amazon)
- Calphalon Signature 12-inch Stainless Steel Frying Pan (Amazon)
You’ll notice a wide variety in prices amongst stainless steel pans, while carbon steel pans all fall into a similar price range.
Bottom Line: Should You Buy Carbon Steel or Stainless Steel Pans?
Now that you know all the critical facts about carbon steel and stainless steel pans, which should you buy?
Before I give you my recommendation, let’s quickly recap the pros and cons of each.
Carbon Steel Pros:
- Extremely durable
- High heat tolerance (Made In is oven-safe up to 1200 degrees Fahrenheit)
- Lightweight and easy to maneuver
- Retains heat well
- Responds quickly to temperature changes
- Compatible with all cooktops
- Naturally non-stick when seasoned
- Easy to handwash
- More affordable
Carbon Steel Cons:
- Rusts and discolors over time
- Uneven heat distribution
- Not compatible with acidic foods
- Not suitable for boiling or simmering liquids
- Needs reseasoned often
- Not dishwasher safe
- Fewer options
Stainless Steel Pros:
- Usually made with a highly conductive core material
- Maintains its quality appearance over time
- Distributes heat evenly
- Retains heat well, especially pans with 3+ bonded layers
- Reacts quickly to changes in temperature, especially pans with a copper core.
- You can cook anything with stainless steel; it’s non-reactive
- Compatible with all cooktops
- Durable, and even if charred, you can clean it up well
- Many options on the market
Stainless Steel Cons:
- Only oven-safe up to 600 degrees Fahrenheit
- Difficult to clean if food sticks
- Not non-stick
- More expensive
Okay, now for my recommendation.
If you’re only planning to buy one piece of cookware and need it for all types of meals, you have to go with stainless steel.
If it’s in your budget, I recommend All-Clad, which you can check out on Amazon. If you’re looking for a less expensive, but high-quality option, I recommend Made In, which is sold exclusively on MadeInCookware.com.
The fact that you can’t cook acidic foods without ruining the seasoning on a carbon steel pan is a deal-breaker for me, and likely for you too.
However, if you’re planning to pick up a few pieces of cookware, or invest in a complete set, I suggest buying a set of stainless steel cookware and complementing it with one carbon steel pan.
The stainless steel pots and pans will be able to handle your acidic foods and any recipe that involves simmering or boiling. The carbon steel pan can be your workhorse for high-temperature cooking, searing meats, frying eggs, and grilling vegetables.
Whichever way to decide to go, feel confident knowing you have all the facts.
What Are Your Thoughts on Carbon Steel and Stainless Steel Cookware?
Which type of cookware do you prefer and why? Let us know in the comments below!
If you found this article helpful, you should also check out:
- Stainless Steel vs. Non-Stick Cookware: What’s the Difference?
- Ceramic vs. Teflon Cookware: What’s the Difference?
- Carbon Steel Cookware Pros and Cons: 17 Things to Know Before You Buy
- Why Do Pans Warp? 6 Common Causes (and How to Unwarp)
- Best Space-Saving & Stackable Cookware (Top 5 Compared)
- Made In Carbon Steel Cookware (In-Depth Review)
- Cast Iron vs. Stainless Steel Cookware: What’s the Difference?