Although it has been produced for thousands of years, steel is one of the defining materials of the modern era. The invention of more efficient production methods in the mid-19th century made steel stronger, more affordable, and more versatile than ever before. Steel is one of the most frequently produced materials in the world, and we manufacture more than 1.6 billion tons every year.
The modern era also brought a series of grades and standards for different types of steel, which allows the creation of different steel alloys for different purposes. For cookware, carbon steel and stainless steel are two of the most popular materials available, but they are very different from each other. Let’s examine the differences between carbon steel and stainless steel pans.
Carbon Steel Pans
Carbon steel is a favorite for chefs and foodies all over the world, and is particularly prized in France, like these amazing pans handcrafted in France by De Buyer. Professional cooks from Europe to Asia swear by their carbon steel pans, so is it worth all the hype?
Carbon steel is a steel alloy that is mostly iron, with .05-2.1% carbon. This high iron content makes carbon steel pans perform much like cast iron pans; with proper care and seasoning, they become nonstick. They tolerate extremely high heat and can go from the cooktop to the oven.
They are rugged, durable, heat quickly and evenly, and retain heat very well. In the same way that you find people who love their cast iron pans, cook absolutely everything in them, and can’t live without them, you will find fans of carbon steel.
Carbon steel is lighter in weight than cast iron, heats up more quickly, and is faster and easier to season, but the two materials are very similar in care and use.
Carbon Steel Pan PrOS
- Light weight and maneuverable
- Rugged and durable, capable of lasting a lifetime
- Endures very high temperatures, so can be used in the oven
- Conducts heat quickly and evenly
- Retains heat well to keep foods warm
- Naturally nonstick (when properly seasoned) with no harmful coatings or additives
- Usually affordably priced
Carbon Steel Pan Cons
- Most carbon steel pans do not have handle coverings to protect your hands from the heat of the pan
- Requires seasoning
- Cannot be washed in a dishwasher
- Needs to be washed carefully to protect the seasoning
- Can rust when exposed to water
- Can react to acidic ingredients like tomatoes and citrus
- Bottom of the pan may not be completely flat
Stainless Steel Pans
Stainless steel is an incredibly popular material in cookware, and some of the highest quality, most beautiful pans available are made of stainless steel, like this stunner from All-Clad. There are a huge variety of alloys that can all be called “stainless” steel, but what sets them apart is that the alloy is made of iron with approximately 11% chromium.
Chromium (and other minerals in the alloy) prevents the steel from rusting or staining in the presence of water and liquids. It is also non-reactive and won’t alter the flavor of acidic foods. It is strong, durable, easy to clean, and easy to use. Stainless steel is not a very good heat conductor, so it heats slowly and unevenly.
Many high-quality stainless steel pans include aluminum or copper in the pan, to improve the heat conductivity and bring it to temperature faster, but these layers can add weight to the pan.
Stainless steel is a bit more sensitive to high temperatures than carbon steel, and also often has a coated handle to protect your hands, so these pans may not be able to go from the cooktop to the oven: read and follow the manufacturer’s instructions. Stainless steel is also a porous surface, so stainless steel pans are not nonstick.
In fact, they are known for being “sticky,” and it’s important to use the right oils and cooking techniques if you want your food to release cleanly. Stainless steel pans can be seasoned but seasoning stainless steel won’t create as durable or as effective a nonstick coating as seasoning other types of pans.
Importantly, because it’s easier to form stainless steel into sheets, many stainless steel pans have perfectly flat bottoms, which makes them work better with electric, glass, and induction cooktops.
Stainless Steel Pans PROS
- Nonreactive with acidic foods
- Easy to clean (some are dishwasher safe, but follow the manufacturer’s instructions)
- Strong and durable, capable of lasting for decades
- Usually has a protective handle to prevent burns
- Can be seasoned
- Very flat bottom
Stainless Steel Pan Cons
- Not a very good heat conductor by itself
- Can be heavy when sandwiched with other metals
- Not nonstick
- May not be able to go into an oven
- Usually more expensive than carbon steel
Carbon Steel vs. Stainless Steel Pan: Other Considerations
When you are considering which type of pan you want to buy, you may be thinking about performance, durability, ease of cleaning, and so forth, and those are important considerations. However, when you are choosing between carbon steel and stainless steel pans, the most important thing to consider is your cooktop. What you are cooking with makes all the difference in what kind of pan you should choose.
Carbon Steel vs. Stainless Steel Pan: Type of Cooktop
Gas: Choose Carbon Steel Pans
One of the reasons that chefs all over the world prefer carbon steel is because they are cooking on gas ranges. Gas produces very high temperatures very quickly, and they need a pan that can withstand that abrupt high heat without damaging. Carbon steel may eventually develop a slightly uneven bottom but will withstand these temperatures and abrupt temperature changes for decades without serious damage.
Electric Burners: Choose Either, With a Slight Preference for Carbon Steel Pans
Either carbon or stainless steel pans will work on electric burners. Stainless steel pans have bottoms are usually very flat, so they make contact with the entire surface of the burner, but carbon steel is more conductive, so it distributes heat more evenly even in areas that aren’t directly touching a burner.
Stainless steel pans have very flat bottoms, so not only do they make contact with the entire surface of a smooth cooktop, but they also won’t wear or rub on a particular spot.
Induction: Choose Either, With a Preference for Stainless Steel Pans, if They are Magnetic
Both carbon steel and stainless steel have high iron content and should work on induction cooktops. As with smooth tops, the flat bottom of a stainless steel pan is an advantage with induction. However, not all stainless steel is magnetic: it depends on the exact alloy, so check that the stainless steel pan is induction-safe.
Heat Tolerance and Handles
Another reason chefs love carbon steel is not just that it can withstand high heat, but that it can withstand high heat for long periods of time. If you are cooking meals back-to-back all night for a dining room full of people, you need a pan that can go the distance. And if you need a pan that can go seamlessly from the stovetop to the oven, carbon steel might be a better choice.
Stainless steel can withstand extremely high temperatures, but stainless steel pans often have additional layer of other metals that react differently to heat, so it’s important to read the manufacturer’s instructions.
Stainless steel pans also usually have some form of covering over the handle, which makes cooking safer and more comfortable, but those handles are often not oven-safe. People who want more comfort when working with a carbon steel pan may want to get their own heat-resistant handles, like these to make cooking safer.
There’s no doubt that stainless steel is so much easier to care for. Many stainless steel pans are dishwasher safe, although hand washing is usually safest. If you have burnt-on mess, you can soak stainless steel pans in water, without worrying about rust.
You can even season a stainless steel pan, which will help to reduce the stickiness of foods, although it won’t ever build up a nonstick surface like carbon steel or cast iron. People who are comfortable using seasoned pans don’t find them difficult to clean, and point out that a seasoned pan is nonstick, and therefore needs less cleaning than a non-seasoned pan.
Reactivity is the way a pan interacts with the foods you cook in it, and is never a good thing. Over time, a very well-seasoned carbon steel pan will become less reactive to acidic foods, but there’s always the possibility that a carbon steel pan will affect the flavor of acidic foods.
Carbon steel will also potentially leach small amounts of iron into acidic foods, but iron is an essential mineral that isn’t harmful to people. If you want a pan that can cook your grandmother’s marinara sauce, your favorite chicken piccata, or fry green tomatoes, choose stainless steel.
Pans are essential in our kitchen. We use it almost everyday; for frying, sautéing, simmering, etc. With all of these cooking techniques, you can choose to purchase whether carbon steel pan or stainless pan. When considering buying one, assess these factors: performance, durability, and cooktop.
If you are looking for a pan that is effortless to clean, durable, won’t affect and react to any acidic food that you are cooking, consider purchasing a stainless pan. It can be cleaned using a dishwasher and it has a non-heat handle to make your cooking more efficient.
However, if you are looking for a pan that can be used in an oven, affordable, light-weight, naturally non-stick, great heat conductor, that can retain heat, and keep your food warmed; you should absolutely get a carbon steel pan. This can go miles even if it was exposed to the heat for a long time and if you’re continuously cooking food for a room full of people.
These two pans work well in different cooktops so you should consider buying a kind of pan that can take your cooking to the next level. If you have a gas stove, get a carbon steel pan since it can withstand high amounts of heat. Yet, if you have smooth cooktops, a stainless pan works best for you because it doesn’t wear or rub particular spots on it. Still and all, if you own an electric burner and/or induction cooktop, you can use either of the two pans but magnetic stainless pan works best on them.
Your purchase depends on your cooking techniques and owned cooktops. With the given factors, you can decide what pan you’re going to use in your everyday cooking.