Carbon Steel vs Stainless Steel Frying Pan: Which One Is a Better Fit for You?

Can you imagine a kitchen without stainless steel cookware? Most households have at least a few stainless-steel cooking items. In addition to stainless steel cookware, more passionate cooks are likely to have at least one skillet made of carbon steel.

If you are not an experienced chef but spend a lot of time in the kitchen, you probably want to use the right cookware for a particular dish. Some people prefer pans with good cooking performances, some put safety as a priority, while others would rather choose effortless cleaning and maintenance.

If you are in shopping for a new frying pan, you may want to know what material would best fit your needs. Today, we will try to find answers to some questions you might have about two common materials used for making frying pans: carbon steel and stainless steel.  

carbon steel pan on blue table
Carbon steel pan

1. Leaching Issues

Stainless steel skillet is safer for food contact than a carbon steel one.

Stainless steel is iron-based steel alloyed with other metals to minimize corrosion and boost strength. It is a fairly inert metal alloy with a low tendency to leach chemicals into food. When used with acidic foods stainless steel pan can release small amounts of nickel and chromium into your meal. This possibility is lower with the higher qualities of stainless steel such as the 304 and the 316 types. Stainless steel pans with a non-stick coating will not release metals in the food as long as the integrity of the non-stick coating isn’t compromised.

Carbon steel pans are more likely to leach metal into your cooked food. If not seasoned well, this pan can release a small amount of iron during cooking, preparing, or serving food in it. This leaching intensity will significantly increase if you use the pan for cooking or storing acidic foods, like tomato or lime juice.

When the pan is well seasoned, the seasoning layer will keep the acid in foods from interacting with the iron. But I wouldn’t recommend doing this, because acidic food can damage the seasoning.

The conclusion is that you shouldn’t use either stainless steel or carbon steel pan for cooking, preparing, or storing acidic foods.

2. Ease of Cleaning

Stainless steel cookware is by far easier to clean and maintain than carbon steel cookware.

Stainless steel cookware is highly popular among users due to its easy maintenance. The majority of stainless-steel cookware pans and sets are dishwasher-safe. If you like the convenience of machine washing, this cookware is for you. Keep in mind that non-stick stainless-steel pans are not dishwasher safe. Even if the instruction says “dishwasher-safe”, wash your non-stick cookware by hand.    

Opposite to stainless steel, a carbon steel pan is considered a high-maintenance item. Carbon steel cookware must be hand washed with warm water and mild dish soap. You can use only non-abrasive tools for cleaning purposes. Additionally, carbon steel pans must be seasoned before use. The seasoning coating will improve its non-stick properties with regular use. If the seasoning gets damaged, you have to re-season your pan. You also must properly dry the pan after every washing and store it in a dry place to prevent it from corroding.

3. Durability

A carbon steel pan is tougher, but in reality, stainless steel cookware may outlast carbon steel pieces.  

This is possible because stainless cookware is more resistant to corrosion, warping, and chemicals than carbon steel. Stainless steel is corrosion-resistant due to the high percentage of chromium. You can expect stainless steel pan to last for a fairly long time without putting in a lot of elbow grease.

Carbon steel is susceptible to rust in a humid environment and is more bendable than stainless steel. To stay in good condition a carbon steel frying pan needs proper maintenance such as seasoning and proper drying. If maintained properly a carbon steel pan can also last for decades.

4. Aesthetic Appeal

Stainless steel frying pan looks more attractive than a carbon steel pan and keeps its brand-new look for longer.

If you want to display your pans for easy access, you should choose stainless steel. Those pans look elegant and will remain bright and clean after years of use.

A carbon steel frying pan tends to become brown or dark over time. That doesn’t affect the pan’s functionality, but after a while, its surface won’t look shiny and smooth. That is why you may want to keep such a piece of cookware hidden inside your kitchen cabinet.

5. Non-Stick Properties

The cooking surface of a seasoned carbon steel pan is more stick-resistant than a bare stainless-steel pan.

Well-seasoned carbon-steel pan has solid non-stick properties. The non-stick quality will improve with use.

Stainless steel doesn’t make a good non-stick cooking surface itself. However, there are lines with added non-stick coating. Once the non-stick coating becomes damaged or worn off, the pan still can be used as a regular stainless-steel frying pan. This is possible because the stainless steel base is not highly reactive.

6. Heat Conductivity and Heat Tolerance

Both metals have pure heat conductivity, but carbon steel is a better heat conductor than stainless steel.

Heat conductivity is an important feature to consider when purchasing your cookware because you don’t want to wait long to heat up your food. The thermal conductivity of carbon steel is around 45 watts per kelvin per meter, while the thermal conductivity of stainless steel is about 15 watts per kelvin per meter. Once heated carbon steel retains heat better than stainless steel pans.

Since stainless steel is a very pure heat conductor on its own, manufacturers bond another metal, like aluminum or copper between layers of stainless steel.  This multi-ply cookware offers superior heat conduction and more even cooking.

Booth materials are oven-friendly and can withstand high temperatures. However, a carbon steel pan can handle higher temperatures than a stainless steel one and works better for some high-temperature cooking methods like grilling.

Stainless steel pan

7. Versatility

A stainless steel frying pan is more versatile than a carbon steel one.

While stainless steel skillet can be used to cook a wide variety of food, a carbon steel pan is not an ideal choice for every cooking situation. A carbon-steel pan can be perfect for searing, baking, braising, and roasting. You can think about it as a lighter option of cast iron and plan it for similar tasks or those that require a more lightweight pan for easy maneuvering and tossing foods. It can stand high heat and you can use it in the oven, under the broiler, and for outdoor cooking. It is the best choice if you want to cook Spanish paella. However, for cooking liquid meals, carbon steel is not an option as liquids would strip the seasoning.

Stainless steel cookware can be used for cooking liquid meals, and it is a good option for searing when you want to get a crisp golden-brown crust. It is also perfect for sautéeing. The downside is that protein-rich and low-fat foods can be difficult to cook in a stainless-steel skillet without sticking and you may need to use plenty of cooking oil.

8. Pricing

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Stainless steel frying pans are more expensive than their carbon steel counterparts.

The most expensive brands of stainless-steel skillets are Calphalon, Made In, and All-Clad (multi-ply construction).

Cuisinart 422-24 Contour Stainless 10-Inch Open Skillet (with aluminum encapsulated base) is a well-performing and attractive item at an affordable price.

Carbon steel pans are significantly less expensive, and you can get a decent pan at an affordable price point. However, some well-known brands of carbon steel frying pans like Made In, de Buyer, and La Paella are pretty expensive.

For those who are looking for a quality product at an acceptable price, OXO Obsidian Pre-Seasoned Carbon Steel Induction Safe Frying Pan is worth considering.

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