Carbon steel vs stainless steel pans side by side

Carbon Steel vs Stainless Steel Pans

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Maybe I’m alone in this, but the first time I was shopping for cookware and heard about “blue steel”, I thought someone was making a Zoolander reference. (PS If you haven’t seen the iconic 2001 comedy movie you’re missing out.) 

But as it turns out, it’s not just a face made by the really, really, really, ridiculously good-looking – blue steel is actually marketing-speak for treated carbon steel.

Being the type of person who can’t learn new information without going down the proverbial rabbit hole, this silly little detour had me wanting to know more about carbon steel. 

ESPECIALLY because it seems to fly under a lot of people’s radar. Browse any list of cookware materials, and there’s a 50/50 chance it’s not even mentioned.

And as I learned more, it got me wondering: in a matchup between carbon steel vs. stainless steel pans (my favorite), which would take the win?

If you made it here, you’re probably wondering the same thing. Lucky for you, you’re in the right place! Stay tuned for all the juicy carbon steel vs. stainless steel secrets I learned on my deep dive.

What Is Carbon Steel?

I’m going to start on a little bit of a confusing note, but it’s important, so stay with me. To put it in simple terms, carbon steel is like cast iron … but with less carbon. 

“But if that’s true, why isn’t cast iron called carbon steel, instead?”

No clue, to be honest. It’s kind of like how a skillet is actually better for sauteing than a saute pan. (If I’ve learned anything about cooking, it’s that you can’t always trust common sense.)

Carbon steel is made of 99% iron, and 1% steel; cast iron is anywhere from 97 to 98% iron and 2 to 3% carbon.

Since carbon is what makes iron more brittle, Carbon steel is more durable than cast iron. That means carbon steel cookware can be a whole lot thinner (and lighter!) than cast iron cookware and just as durable.

Blue carbon steel is the same substance, just treated to help prevent corrosion.  This gives it its signature blue sheen.

The same goes for black carbon steel.

While you won’t find that blue and black carbon steel cookware performs better than plain old carbon steel, maintenance is a little bit easier.

And, as an added bonus, blue/black steel shows wear less. Which is nice because I like to keep my cookware looking its best to maintain that Pinterest-perfect aesthetic.

Detail of the inside of a carbon steel skillet.

What Is Stainless Steel?

Stainless steel is also an iron and carbon hodgepodge, but it has some chromium thrown in there for good measure. Well, not just for good measure – the addition of chromium to an iron alloy is actually what gives stainless steel its namesake! 

Also called surgical steel, food-grade stainless steel is rust and corrosion-resistant … in other words, stainless. Chromium creates a layer of oxidation on the surface of the metal so you won’t have to worry about a layer of rust later on down the line. 

Of course, it’s not just chromium we have to thank for stainless steel pans’ corrosion resistance. Its partner in crime, Nickel, plays a big part in keeping stainless steel cookware free of rusty blemishes, too. Together, they become an unstoppably low-maintenance duo.

One thing they’re not great at though? Heating up quickly and staying that way.

Because chromium and nickel are so nonreactive, any Stainless Steel cookware worth its salt has cladding: an interior layer of other heat-reactive substances like copper, aluminum, or both. 

Cladding also keeps stainless steel cookware lighter. Without that light inner layer, a stainless steel skillet would be almost as heavy as a cast iron skillet.

Detail of a stainless steel skillet interior.

Carbon Steel Pans vs Stainless Steel Construction

The manufacturing of carbon steel pans is a pretty idiot-proof process – as far as forging goes, anyway.

You won’t see me whipping them up in my she-shed, but for those with the tools and knowledge to make cookware, there’s not much artistry involved. Most manufacturers stick to the same tried and true formula. 

  1. Cut a circle from a pre-treated sheet of carbon steel.
  2. Punch it into the shape of a pan using heat. 
  3. Attach a handle with rivets, or weld one on if you’re feeling fancy. 

As you can see, there aren’t many ways that you could make that process your own.

That’s why carbon steel pans are relatively inexpensive. At first, you may see marginal improvements in quality the more money you spend, but those will plateau as you climb higher up on the price ladder. 

Stainless steel cookware couldn’t be further from carbon steel in this regard. With stainless steel, you get exactly what you pay for. 

The more complicated the process to make it, the better the performance of the pan…and the higher the price tag. It all comes down to its cladding. 

Lower-end stainless steel cookware is typically constructed like this:

  1. A layer of stainless steel on the cooking surface of the pan
  2. A thin layer of aluminum or layer of copper under that
  3. A layer of stainless steel on the exterior of the pan
  4. All stainless steel sidewalls (pans without cladding on their sidewalls are called disc-cladded. All-cladded pans have cladding throughout the entirety of the pan. 

Stainless steel pans without thick enough cladding won’t heat up very evenly or effectively.  Since you need to get stainless steel pretty hot to keep food from sticking to it, cooking with a pan like this is going to be a frustrating experience. 

Higher-end stainless steel (like Heritage Steel) is a whole different ball game. While it can be disc-cladded or all-cladded and it’s not all constructed exactly the same, the components follow a general outline

  1. A layer of stainless steel coating the cooking surface of the pan and sidewalls
  2. 1 to 3+ layers of conductive materials such as Aluminum or copper, either on just the bottom of the pan or the bottom and sides
  3. A layer of stainless steel coating the exterior of the pan

With cladding, it’s not so much the material used or whether it’s disc cladded or all-cladded that makes it effective. It’s more about the proportion of the aluminum or copper core to the stainless steel. The thicker the material layers inside it are, the more evenly and quickly a pan will heat up. 

Carbon Steel Vs. Stainless Steel Pan: At A Glance

Carbon SteelStainless Steel
ProsConsProsCons
Nonstick propertiesCorrosionDurableNot Non-stick
High Temperature ResistanceHeavier than Stainless SteelNon-Corrosive and Non-ReactiveWeaker Heat Retention
Nickel-FreeNeeds to be SeasonedThermal ConductivityMore Expensive
Good Heat RetentionNot Dishwasher SafeDishwasher Safe
InexpensiveHeats SlowlyLightweight

Carbon Steel: The Pros

Now that you have the basics down, let’s jump into the pros and cons of stainless steel and carbon steel in a little more detail! Here are all of the traits that make carbon steel some cooks’ preferred cookware material.

A carbon steel skillet on a granite countertop.

Nonstick properties

Of all of the qualities on this list, this is probably the clincher for a lot of people!  Like cast iron, carbon steel is naturally non-stick once it’s well-seasoned and builds up a patina.

No need for Toxic teflon coatings to make everything from eggs to salmon to one-pot meals a breeze. Carbon steel can do the heavy lifting for you – toxin-free. 

High-Temperature Resistance

Carbon steel has a hefty upper limit for temperature. Coming in at anywhere from 600 to 800 degrees Fahrenheit, its heat resistance is much higher than you’ll realistically ever need it to be

Nickel-Free

If you have a nickel allergy, carbon steel is the way to go, as it’s nickel-free by nature. You can find nickel-free stainless steel, but your options will be much more limited. 

This is also a handy feature if you have an induction cooktop. The nickel in stainless steel demagnetizes it, rendering it incompatible with induction ranges. Again, induction-compatible stainless steel cookware exists, but you’ll have to search harder to find it.

Good Heat Retention

If you’ve got a drafty kitchen and your recipe says “remove from heat, then…”, you’ll be grateful for carbon steel’s heat resistance. Nobody likes half-melted cheese. 

Inexpensive

Cheapness is relative, and compared to stainless steel, carbon steel cookware won’t break the bank. If bang for your buck is important, carbon steel cookware might be right for you.

Carbon Steel: The Cons

It’s hard to believe that in our era of electric cars and artificial intelligence, we still haven’t engineered the perfect cookware material. But I can personally testify to the fact that we haven’t. 

Hopefully, that last section didn’t lead you to believe carbon steel is flawless – it still has its weaknesses just like everything else. 

Corrosion

This is the #1 thing that stainless steel has over carbon steel, in my opinion. Carbon steel is reactive with moisture and lacks the corrosion safeguards of stainless steel. It’s nothing a few proactive steps can’t prevent. But it still bears mentioning.

Heavier than Stainless Steel

Even though stainless steel itself is heavier than carbon steel, stainless steel cookware is usually lighter, since it’s not actually wall-to-wall stainless steel. And even though carbon steel is lighter than cast iron, it’s still not light by any stretch of the imagination. 

Needs to be Seasoned

If you thought you could use a carbon steel skillet right out of the box without half your meal getting stuck to its sides and bottom, think again. Like cast iron, carbon steel needs to be seasoned before its non-stick properties take effect. 

Not Dishwasher Safe

Unless you want to turn your new carbon steel wok into a rusty disaster, you’ll want to avoid the dishwasher at all costs. 

Heats Slowly

Carbon steel retains heat well but is not quick to heat. The Tortoise and the Hare is a cute story and all, but slow and steady doesn’t win the race when you’re hangry.

Stainless Steel: The Pros

Stainless steel is the most popular type of cookware material in the world (and a personal favorite), and it’s easy to see why. With a little bit of technique under your belt, there’s nothing stainless steel can’t do!

sTAINLESS STEEL PAN PROS AND CONS

Durable

Even though carbon steel is less brittle than cast iron, stainless steel blows both of them out of the water. Less prone to warping and breakage alike, a set of good stainless steel pans should last you a lifetime and then some. 

Non-Corrosive and Non-Reactive

Try to make a stainless steel pan rusty, I dare you! You can leave it in a sink full of water, cook any kind of food on it, go absolutely wild on it with a scrub daddy…it doesn’t matter. It’ll still look as good as the day you bought it.

Thermal Conductivity

Cladded stainless steel cookware is some of the most responsive on the market. If it’s well-made, it should heat up quickly and evenly.

Dishwasher Safe

Not every stainless steel pan is dishwasher-safe, but a lot of them are. If that’s important to you (like it is to me), you have options. On the other hand, carbon steel is never dishwasher safe. No options there!

Lightweight

Stainless steel pans aren’t known for being superbly lightweight like ceramic-coated pans (like the Alva Maestro) or copper pans are, but they’re lighter than they look thanks to their layers of cladding. And they’re certainly much lighter than carbon steel.

Stainless Steel: The Cons

Stainless steel is my personal fave of these two, but I’ve done my best to reign in my bias and give it to you straight (as always). As much as I love it, there are some areas that you might find a little lacking.

Not Non-stick

Stainless steel pans aren’t inherently non-stick. If you’re used to non-stick cookware, you’ll have to adjust your technique a little bit to compensate. I don’t think it’s anything extremely hard to learn how to do, but it’s something to keep in mind. 

Weaker Heat Retention

If your family takes forever to sit down after you call them to dinner, you might be better off cooking with carbon steel. Failing that, dinner might be less than warm by the time you go to serve it up. (Although to be fair…it’s kind of their fault for keeping you waiting.)

More Expensive

Good stainless steel pans ain’t cheap, and cheap stainless steel pans ain’t good. Enough said. 

Side by side images of a fried egg sliding out of a stainless steel skillet and in a carbon steel skillet.

What Can I Cook in Stainless Steel vs Carbon Steel?

Carbon steel and stainless steel both dominate as far as versatility goes, and there aren’t many foods you can’t cook in them. But there are some that every home cook should be aware of.

Like we mentioned earlier, carbon steel is corrosive. As such, you’ll want to avoid any acidic foods: lemon juice, vinegar, etc. 

Since it also reacts poorly to excess moisture, boiling water or making stock in it is a big no-no. 

Stainless steel is a little more flexible. You can boil water to your heart’s content or make that chicken piccata as lemony as you can stand, and it won’t react a bit. 

The main thing you should be mindful of with stainless steel is its temperature limit, which hovers around 500 degrees Fahrenheit. 

Oh, and I’ll also give you a little heads up: proteins tend to stick more to stainless steel than other kinds of foods, so practice your technique a little bit before you go making a complicated dinner for your in-laws.

Which Is Healthier to Cook With: Carbon Steel or Stainless Steel?

Both carbon steel and stainless steel are considered totally safe to cook with, so you can rest assured your health is in good hands no matter which you choose. 

The only health risk in using either lies in the nickel in stainless steel. If you’re cooking for someone with a nickel allergy, it’s possible for the nickel to leach into their food

. According to a study by the University of Oregon, “…we can conclude that in addition to dietary exposures, stainless steel comparable to cookware is a source of nickel. Nickel exposure from stainless steel is variable, and dependent on grade of steel, cook time, and number of cooking cycles.”

If nobody in your life has a nickel allergy, though, stainless steel is fine to use. The amount of nickel that actually gets into your food is well below problematic levels, and cookware is thought to stop leaching materials after 7-10 uses.

Side by side of handle details of two skillets.

Carbon Steel vs Stainless Steel: Rust, Maintenance, and Durability

These are three differences between carbon steel and stainless steel where I can definitively say stainless steel wins – no bones about it. Stainless steel won’t rust, it’s more durable … and maintenance? What’s that? 

On a serious note, though, carbon steel isn’t too much of a diva – it’s just far from maintenance-free. 

Carbon Steel Care Tips

  • Season, season, season. You don’t need to drop your pan into a dunk tank of oil every time you use it, but seriously: season it. 
  • Don’t soak to clean. If you like to pull the old “I’ll just let the pan soak for a while and wash it later” trick, just know that won’t fly with carbon steel. That’s a one-way ticket to Rust City.
  • Don’t use abrasive materials to clean it. If crusty bits of food are really stuck on there, simmer water in it to gently loosen up the stubborn spots.
  • Hand wash it and dry it right away. Don’t put your carbon steel pan in the dishwasher, and don’t let it air dry. Washing and drying by hand will keep rust from forming. 
  • Let the pan cool before washing so it doesn’t warp. Never mix cold water and a hot pan…of any kind really. 

Stainless Steel Care Tips

  • Try to hand wash it when possible. The stakes aren’t as high here as they are for carbon steel, but it’ll keep your pan nice and shiny.
  • Don’t wash a hot pan with cold water. I know I said this already, but I thought I should say it again. Any pan can warp if you do this.

Do Chefs Prefer Carbon Steel or Stainless Steel?

Carbon steel pans are the cookware of choice for some chefs. Chefs trained in classic French cuisine are very fond of them. And if you want to make a stir fry to rival your local favorite restaurant, a carbon steel wok is your best bet.

Other chefs would wholeheartedly prefer stainless steel, though. 

Above all else, it’s important to remember that restaurant kitchens are much different environments than your average home kitchen. Their choice of cookware depends more on what’s efficient for the high volume of food they have to prepare than it depends on what’s “best”. After all,  what’s best is subjective, anyway. 

Focus on choosing the best pan for you, and you’ll always feel like a professional chef.

Side by side of a top view of a stainless steel skillet and a carbon steel skillet.

Is Carbon Steel Better than Stainless Steel? It depends!

Carbon steel is a good introductory option for someone looking to dip their toes into the water of cast iron. It’s also great if you find cast iron too clunky, but you still want something with its natural non-stick powers

But I wouldn’t necessarily put it above stainless steel due to its reactivity and maintenance demands. 

Ultimately, the answer will come down to the person who knows your cooking and cleaning habits best: you!

About Author

TiaGoodnight

Hey! I'm Tia, and I started this site to bring you the best information on all things kitchen so you can enjoy and elevate your everyday life.

I love trying new techniques and tools, living for the thrill of pulling off a new skill. On weekends you'll find me at the local farmer's markets or hosting friends and family for an evening of yard or card games and delicious food.

If you're looking for honest, real-world advice on all things kitchen and cooking, you're in the right place!