Carbon Steel Pan vs. Stainless Steel Pan – Which One is Better?

I am buying new cookware for my kitchen. I have recently moved in, and I want a few essentials that will help me prepare delicious food. 

I need a cooking pan and am considering getting either a carbon steel pan or a stainless steel pan.

I wonder what’s the difference between carbon steel pan and stainless steel pan and which one would be a better choice for me.

During my research, I learned a lot about these two pans, and if you’re in a similar situation as mine, this article should help.

Let us get into details and find out about each pan up close.

What is a Carbon Steel Pan? 

Carbon steel is an alloy containing 99% iron and 1% carbon. 

These pans are made from a single alloy sheet that is treated with heat to make them corrosion-resistant. 

Merten & Storck Pre-Seasoned Carbon Steel Induction 12" Frying Pan Skillet, Oven Safe, Black

Once heat treated, they are then given a pan shape and attached with a handle (with the help of rivets). 

In the beginning, these pans have a smooth blue or gray finish. With usage, the appearance becomes similar to used cast iron pans.  

Carbon steel pans must be seasoned to protect them from corrosion and rusting. Think of them as lightweight cast iron pans.

Although carbon steel pans are dishwasher safe, hand-washing the pans is best to protect the seasoning layer.

Use a soft cloth to rub salt and wash with warm water. You can also use mild detergent and soft scrub.

What is a Stainless Steel Pan? 

Stainless steel pans are made up of an external and an internal stainless steel layer with an inner layer of copper or aluminum sandwiched between the two layers.

Cuisinart 722-24 10-Inch Chef's-Classic-Stainless-Cookware-Collection, Open Skillet

There are different construction styles of stainless steel pans regarding the number of layers added to the pan.

Depending on the style, the pan could be a Tri-ply or a 5-ply construction. 

The multi-cladding makes stainless steel superior to all when it comes to fast and even heat distribution.

I guarantee you will not be troubled with hot or cold spots. Even the level of heat retention will be the same across the pan. 

18/10 Stainless steel pans have a good amount of chromium (18%) that makes them corrosion-resistant. 

They have a smooth and mirror-polished shine of metal that can last for years. 

Stainless steel pans are gorgeous enough to be served on the dining table directly from the stovetop/oven. 

You can cook all sorts of food with this pan and easily wash them in the dishwasher.

Now that I have covered the basic construction difference between the carbon steel pan and stainless steel pan, lets now get to some other differences.

Carbon Steel vs. Stainless Steel 

Let us now compare both carbon steel and stainless steel pans.

I am taking into consideration all the characteristic features that are needed for cooking in a pan,

The Appearance of the Pans

If you have ever come across stainless steel cookware, you will know how shiny it looks.

Carbon steel has a much smoother appearance compared to cast iron. It is mostly grey, blue, or black and looks quite classy. 

Merten & Storck Pre-Seasoned Carbon Steel Induction 12" Frying Pan Skillet, Oven Safe, Black

Carbon steel does not maintain its appearance with time. It starts discoloring just like a bare cast iron pan.

You have to season the surface after each wash, or else it will start corroding and forming rust. 

Stainless steel can remain shiny and mirror-like for years. The polish never corrodes or strips away.

This is because it contains chromium (18%). Chromium protects the stainless steel layer against corrosion. 

The Construction Material 

As I mentioned, a Carbon steel pan consists of 99% Iron and 1 % carbon. It is similar to a cast iron pan, except it has more iron and less carbon. 

The Stainless steel pan consists of stainless steel layers on the exterior surface and an aluminum or copper core layer in the middle.

The inner layers can be one or two, or three. Depending on the number, the stainless steel pan can be a 3-ply construction or a 5-ply construction.

Example: All-clad copper core is a five-ply construction, and All-Clad D3 is a tri-ply construction.

All-Clad D3 Stainless Steel Frying pan cookware set, 10-Inch and 12-Inch, Silver

Good Quality stainless steel pan will have cladding all across the pan’s surface. Such a pan is called an All-clad pan.

Some cheaper brands do cladding only at the base of a pan. The rest of the body remains stainless steel. Such a base is called an impact-bonded base.

Versatile Nature 

Both carbon steel and stainless steel are equally amiable on all stovetops. 

You can use them on gas, ceramic, induction, and even oven. 

Stainless steel can be used for broiling, braising, baking, and grilling. It has a non-reactive surface and can cook all sorts of food. 

However, sensitive foods like eggs or fish can stick to the base due to the high thermal conductivity of the pan.

Carbon steel can withstand temperatures much higher than stainless steel. This is why you can comfortably leave it for hours on the grill or in the oven. 

However, you cannot cook acidic foods like lemon, tomatoes, and wine in a carbon steel pan. It strips away the non-stick coating of the carbon steel pan. 

Also read: Will Gotham Steel Pan Work on an Induction Cooktop?

Heat Tolerance 

Both metal pans have a high tolerance to heat. 

However, carbon steel takes away the cake for higher temperatures. While stainless steel pans are heat tolerant up to 600° F, carbon steel can withstand up to 1200° F.

You can use the pan on coals, wood, campfires, and outdoor grills. 

Example: All-Clad D3 stainless steel pan can tolerate temperatures up to 600F, while Made In carbon steel pan can withstand up to 1200F.

Due to their original shine, stainless steel pots can be used to cook and serve directly from the stove to the table.

Heat Distribution and Retention 

Carbon steel pans have low thermal conductivity, so they take a few mins to distribute heat. However, once heated, they retain the heat well. 

Stainless steel, as such, does not have good thermal conductivity. However, as the pan contains a core of aluminum or copper, these pans are aces when it comes to heat distribution and retention.

The more the cladding of layers, the better the heat retention.

As you can see, after a few minutes of cooking, both pans are equally good at heat distribution. This is why hamburgers, steaks, and patties sear well in both pans. 

As far as heat retention is concerned, while a carbon steel pan retains heat well, the retention of heat in stainless steel depends on the layers of cladding. 

Sensitivity to Temperature Change

Regarding sensitivity to temperature changes, carbon steel is more sensitive and adapts well to quick changes in temperatures. 

Stainless steel sensitivity depends on the construction. If it a is five-ply construction, it will take time to heat and cool down.

If it is a 3-ply construction, it will be more sensitive and adjust to temperature changes quickly.

Stainless steel pans having copper become highly temperature sensitive due to the high thermal conductivity of copper. 

Care and Maintenance 

Carbon steel pans need more care than stainless steel pans. They are best washed with hands, dried up naturally, and seasoned properly before storing. 

Do not use any harsh cleaning chemicals to wash carbon steel pans as they might strip away the seasoning. Store them in a dry place, away from moisture or they might start rusting. 

Stainless steel pans are easier to clean and maintain. They are dishwasher-safe and can also be washed by hand.

You don’t need any seasoning for this pan. However, due to high thermal conductivity, food might stick to the base at high temperatures. 

Availability and Price 

Stainless steel pans are more easily available in terms of size, shape, and brand. You will find a pan of your choice easily. 

Carbon steel pans are not available from many known cookware brands. It isn’t easy to always find the pan of your choice. You may have to opt for lesser-known or unknown brands. 

When it comes to price, carbon steel pans are much cheaper compared to stainless steel pans. 

Let me summarise the above points as strengths and weaknesses of each pan 

Pros and Cons of Carbon Steel Cooking Pan

ProsCons
Versatile nature It needs to be seasoned 
High heat Tolerance Slow heat distribution 
Sensitive to temperature changes Cannot be washed in the dishwasher
Cheaper compared to stainless steel pan It cannot be used to cook acidic foods 
Natural Non-stick after seasoningDiscolors with time 
Good heat retention Not easily available in known brands

Pros and Cons of Stainless Steel Cooking Pan

ProsCons
Excellent Heat distribution Costly 
Corrosion resistant Heavy due to cladding
Good heat retention It cannot be used to cook delicate food like eggs and fish
Does not react to foodOnly safe up to 600° F
Dishwasher safe Difficult to clean as not a non-stick

So, Which One is Better? Carbon Steel Pan or Stainless Steel Pan

Now you know the difference between carbon steel and stainless steel pan. I have mentioned in detail the difference in characteristic features of both pans. 

As far as my opinion is concerned, I would highly recommend stainless steel as it can cook in types of food in all cooking styles used generally at home.

My recommendation will be to go for All-Clad or Le Creuset if you have the budget. 

If you like making delicate foods like eggs or fish often and prefer searing food at high temperatures, opt for a carbon steel pan.

My recommendation would be Made In pans.

Choose wisely according to your requirements.

Buy both if you can afford the luxury. There is nothing more exotic than having more than one option at your disposal. Especially if you have a family. All the best!

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