Stainless Steel v Carbon Steel Pans

When looking to buy new cookware for your kitchen, it’s easy to be slightly bewildered by the sheer amount of choice available to you. Not only is there a huge variety of different materials, there’s also loads of different variations within those materials! When doing your research on which cookware to buy, you’ve likely come across pans made from both carbon steel and stainless steel. Depending on your circumstances, both could be a great option for you. In this article we’ll take a look at their positives and negatives and help you decide on the best choice for your kitchen between stainless steel v carbon steel pans.

What is Stainless Steel?

Stainless steel is an alloy of chromium and iron. Chromium reacts with oxygen to create chromium oxide, forming a protective layer that prevents the iron from reacting with the air and rusting. The higher the amount of chromium in the alloy, the more resistant to rust and corrosion the stainless steel is.

Food grade stainless steel, the kind used to make stainless steel pans, must contain a minimum of 16% chromium. Food grade stainless steel also typically contains nickel which increases strength and further improves resistance to rust.

What is Carbon Steel?

Carbon Steel is an alloy of iron and carbon. The majority of the alloy is iron, with carbon making up around 1% of the composition. In the kitchen, carbon steel is intended as an alternative to more traditional cast iron pans. Carbon steel is a lightweight yet durable material with excellent heat conducting properties.

What is the Difference Between Carbon Steel and Stainless Steel Cookware?

The main difference between carbon steel and stainless steel cookware is the inclusion of chromium in stainless steel. This addition give stainless steel its rust resistant properties and on the flip side its absence from carbon steel is one of the reasons why it is important to season carbon steel pans before use.

Pros of Carbon Steel Pans

Non stick. Once a carbon steel pan has been seasoned, it becomes an excellent non stick cooking surface. Because of this non stick quality you don’t need to use as much oil or fat when cooking, making it a healthier cooking option.

Heat tolerant. Carbon steel cookware is often the choice for professional kitchens because of their ability to withstand the highest of temperatures. It can be used for any cooking technique requiring high temperatures and is absolutely perfect for searing meat.

Durability. Just as carbon steel pans can tolerate incredible levels of heat, they’re also really durable and will serve you for a lifetime as long as some basic maintenance tips are followed.

Lightweight. Carbon steel pans offer many of the advantages of cast iron cookware whilst being much lighter and easier to move around the kitchen.

Value. Compared to clad stainless steel pans, carbon steel cookware is often excellent value for money.

Cons of Carbon Steel Pans

Not Dishwasher Safe. Whilst we usually don’t advise putting any of your cookware into the dishwasher, it’s important that you never put carbon steel pans into one. The hot and abrasive wash can severely damage the pan’s seasoning, and significantly speed up the formation of rust.

May react with some foods. Unlike stainless steel, carbon steel is not inert. This means that if there are any gaps in the seasoning acidic foods such as tomatoes can react with the iron in the pan. This reaction means that the taste of your food can be impacted and you may notice a metallic taste when this happens.

Less efficient heat conduction. Whilst it can withstand high levels of heat, carbon steel isn’t the most efficient heat conductor. This means that food may not cook as evenly across the surface of the pan.

Pros of Stainless Steel Pans

Non reactive. One of the main advantages of stainless steel is it’s resistance to rust and corrosion. As well as avoiding rust, stainless steel cookware is also inert. This means that it doesn’t react with acidic foods such as tomatoes, ensuring the taste of anything you cook in your pan is unimpaired.

Conducts evenly (when clad). When clad with a heat conductive material such as copper, stainless steel pans can be very efficient and even conductors of heat.

Easy to clean. Although not non stick, stainless steel pans are relatively easy to clean. Whilst it isn’t absolutely necessary, seasoning stainless steel pans can provide a non stick layer and make cleaning even easier.

Durability. Like its carbon steel counterparts, stainless steel cookware can take a beating! There’s little you can do in a kitchen that these pans won’t shrug off. Because of this toughness, it’s easy to look after and you won’t need to do much to keep your stainless steel pots and pans in good working order for many years.

Looks great. Whilst it might not be on the top of the list of things you should be looking for in cookware, it’s undeniable that here is just something about a high quality stainless steel pan that adds a touch of class to any kitchen. The fact that it’s easy to maintain means you’ll have a shiny, visually impressive set of pans that have the added advantage of working well with any kitchen style!

Cons of Stainless Steel Pans

Not non stick. As mentioned above, stainless steel pans do not have a non stick surface. Whilst they are relatively resistant to food sticking, they are not immune from burnt on food and grease sticking to the pan. If you are struggling with food build up on your stainless steel cookware, be sure to check out our guide for keeping them clean.

Poor heat conduction (when not clad). As a counter point to the benefit we listed above, when stainless steel pans do not have a heat conductive cladding they are very poor heat conductors. We’d actually go so far as to strongly recommend against buying a ‘pure’ stainless steel pan for your kitchen.

Can be expensive. High quality stainless steel pans with a heat conducting classing can be very expensive compared to other materials. If budget is one of your main concerns, carbon steel may be a better option for you.

Not the best for novices. Though you certainly don’t need to be a rocket scientist to properly use one, a stainless steel pan can be quite unforgiving for new cooks.

Which is the Best Option for You?

So which is better, stainless steel or carbon steel pans? The answer to that question is that it very much depends on your personal needs and experience.

Both stainless and carbon steel pans are durable and long lasting. Because of this it makes sense to invest in the best pan available for your budget as it will be serving you for years to come.

Stainless steel pans are the best choice for you if…

You want the lowest maintenance option. As we’ve mentioned, one of the prime advantages of stainless steel is that it doesn’t need any seasoning or special care. You can cook your food, rinse it off and be done!

You don’t want your pan to react with food. If you plan to frequently use your pan to cook with acidic foods such as tomatoes, go for stainless steel.

You want to impress your visitors. The attractive appearance of stainless steel pans make them a great addition to your kitchen, especially if you have a pot rack to show them off on!

Carbon steel pans are the best choice for you if…

You’re planning to cook at high temperatures. If you can see yourself using high temperatures to cook – such as for searing meat, carbon steel pans are your best bet.

You’re conscious about budget. Though it’s fair to say that carbon steel isn’t cheap, you can find some great value high quality pans that will make fine additions to your kitchen.

You have an induction cooktop. Whilst you must still check that the pan you wish to buy is suitable for induction cooking, high quality induction-compatible carbon steel pans are quite common. On the other hand, only stainless steel pans with a clearly advertised magnetic stainless steel base are suitable for induction stoves.

Of course, the choice of stainless steel or carbon steel doesn’t need to be an either/or situation! Depending on your budget, existing cookware and available storage, you may want to pick up a carbon steel pan for searing meat at high temperatures and a stainless steel pot for cooking delicious marinara sauce.