Carbon Steel vs Stainless Steel Pan

Pans and other flatware items are typically made of either a carbon steel or stainless-steel material. Both have a steel-base, making either option durable, lightweight, and non-porous. 

Despite their similarities, each type has varying differences, distinct features, advantages, and disadvantages.

Carbon Steel Pan

Carbon steel pans are made up of a combination of iron and carbon. Actually, carbon only makes up around 1-2% of the alloy. The other 98-99% is made from iron. These types of pans contain slightly more carbon compared to a cast iron skillet, making it less harsh, thinner, and easier to clean. Although slightly thinner, a carbon steel pan is still a heavy-duty product. 

Carbon steel is able to heat up quickly and withstand high temperatures without warping or sustaining damage. These pans can handle temperatures ranging between 600- and 800-degrees Fahrenheit. They also retain the heat quite well. However, carbon steel struggles to evenly distribute heat and can often lack in consistency when cooking. 

Similar to cast iron skillet, a carbon steel pan should be regularly seasoned to help maintain the pan’s natural coating. This will create a sleek, nonstick cooking surface. They are not dishwasher safe and should not be exposed to too much water. 

A carbon steel pan will change in appearance significantly over time. They can quickly rust and may endure discoloration in certain areas. This process can be avoided if you regularly season the pan. 

Overall, this is a durable product that should last for many years and it’s often sold an affordable price.

When to Use a Carbon Steel Pan?

  • Broiling pork chops, chicken cutlets, steaks, and potatoes
  • Braising brisket, beef bourguignon, short ribs, and chicken thighs
  • Stir-Frying vegetables, chicken, and beef
  • Searing meats like steaks and beef tenderloin

Fallbacks 

  • Carbon steel negatively reacts to acidic foods. High acidity food can damage the barrier of the pan, causing discoloration and other harm.
  • As a heavy-duty pan, carbon steel is not good for cooking delicate foods like fish.
  • This type of pan requires a lot of maintenance, including a light wash, thorough dry, and regular seasoning.

History

Several decades ago, French chefs started using carbon steel-based pans for cooking crepes and omelets. Although these are more delicate foods, they choose to use this type of pan for the seasoned nonstick coating. 

The Chinese have also been using carbon steel pans for many years now. It’s mainly used for stir-fries, which require extremely high temperatures in order to sear the vegetables and meats.

Stainless Steel Pan

Stainless steel is made from a combination of steel and chromium. The name comes from its unique ability to avoid any stains, which is common with other steel-based items. In addition, this material will not tarnish or oxidize over time. The chromium element is what prevents the iron component of the pan from rusting or warping. Stainless steel typically contains around 10-30% of chromium.

Stand-alone stainless steel is a poor heat conductor. They need an additional aid to help create and maintain heat. Certain stainless-steel pans are made with other, less conductive metal types. These hybrid pans are considered not clad and they’re typically on the cheaper side. These pans are not made of quality, long-lasting materials. 

Cladded stainless steel pans, on the other hand, are combined with copper or aluminum, which will help to distribute heat evenly and effectively. An aluminum or copper heat conductive core ties the interior and exterior steel layers together. 

While stainless steel is able to retain heat quite well, the material cannot tolerate high temperatures. Most pans can only handle temperatures up to 600 degrees Fahrenheit, compared to carbon steel which can handle up to 800 degrees. They can, however, respond to heat quickly, changing in temperature in a matter of minutes. Pans with a copper core layer, especially, can perform thermal conductivity changes extremely fast. 

Overall, stainless steel is a good multi-use pan. It can be used to cook all different types of foods, including highly acidic ingredients. It’s a versatile product that will hardly wear over time, making it a high-quality kitchen staple.

When to Use a Stainless-Steel Pan?

  • A stainless-steel pan can be used to cook just about anything unless it requires high-temperature heat.
  • Stainless steel is a good material for cooking crispy outer layers of foods, like when searing fish or browning meats.
  • It contains non-reactive properties, meaning it will not react to acidic foods. The appearance of the pan will not change, and the cooked food will not have an added metallic flavor.
  • This pan will also work great when frying, poaching, steaming, sauteing, and braising.

Fallbacks 

  • Stainless steel pans generally do not have a non-stick surface.
  • This pan cannot withstand temperatures above 500- or 600-degrees Fahrenheit, depending on the brand.

Things to Consider Before Buying

Cooktop Type

The type of heat source available to you may help to determine whether a carbon steel pan or stainless-steel pan will work best in your kitchen. 

Carbon steel pans work much better on natural gas stovetops. They are often unable to distribute heat evenly, which also happens to be an issue with electric stovetops. The combination does not make for a good cooking experience. Because stainless steel pans have no issue distributing heat, they will work great on electric stoves. 

Finally, carbon steel pans can be used on induction stovetops, while most stainless-steel pans cannot.

Price

Carbon steel versus stainless steel pans vary in price quite significantly. While the price of stainless-steel pans varies based on the materials used and the brand, carbon steel pans maintain a steady, affordable price. They are sometimes 70% less expensive than stainless steel.

Availability

Stainless steel pans are more widely available to purchase, and therefore more popular to use. There are various options, materials, and brands to choose from. This material type is also used for dutch ovens, grills, pots, and more. You can build a stainless steel kitchen appliance and accessory lineup. 

Carbon steel pans are actually much harder to find, with hardly any varying options available. In fact, many major brand names do not make a carbon steel-based pan. 

Popular Options

Carbon Steel
  • De Buyer Carbon Steel Frying Pan
  • Made In Carbon Steel Frying Pan
  • Lodge Carbon Steel Skillet
  • Matfer Bourgeat Frying Pan
  • BK Cookware Black Carbon Steel Skillet
Stainless Steel
  • Le Creuset Tri-Ply Stainless Steel Frying Pan
  • All-Clad D5 Stainless Steel Frying Pan
  • Blue Diamond Frypan
  • HexClad Commercial Fry Pan
  • Cuisinart Chef’s Classic Stainless Steel Open Skillet
Conclusion

Stainless steel pans are good as an everyday kitchen staple. They can cook just about every kind of food but come with a heavier price tag.

Carbon steel pans are better for specific types of foods and cooking methods. A thick piece of meat, for example, will cook well on a heavy-duty pan. However, there are limitations when it comes to cooking with acid-based ingredients. Additionally, the heat levels often vary throughout the pan, which could cause food to cook irregularly.

There are pros and cons to a stainless-steel pan and a carbon steel pan. Your cooking preferences and the kind of stovetop you plan to use it on are the major influential factors when making a decision.