Which is Best? Carbon Steel vs Stainless Steel Pans

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Deciding between carbon steel vs stainless steel pans depends on your cooking needs and preferences. In general, carbon steel is better suited for stir-frying, high-heat cooking, and sautéing. Stainless steel is an all-purpose pan that can handle boiling, simmering, searing, and frying.

Carbon steel and stainless steel are both popular cookware materials. Even though they both have steel in their name, they’re quite different. Both materials make for high-quality cookware, but their distinct properties make them suited for different cooking tasks.

In this article, you’ll find the advantages and disadvantages of carbon steel and stainless steel pans. You’ll learn which material is best for different types of cooking, and you’ll get the answers to some frequently asked questions.

Ready to get cooking? Keep reading to learn more.

What Are Carbon Steel Pans?

Carbon steel is an alloy consisting of iron and carbon. It can range anywhere from 0.5% to 2% carbon. Carbon steel cookware typically has 1% carbon and 99% iron. Carbon steel is an extremely strong material used in cookware and kitchen knives.

Most manufacturers make their carbon steel pans by using a flat sheet of heat-treated carbon steel. The sheet is cut into a circle and punched by a machine into the pan’s shape. Then, they attach the handle to the base using metal rivets.

Carbon steel has been around for at least a few centuries. It’s beloved by French and Chinese cooks, and it’s a popular material for woks. It’s incredibly durable, lightweight, highly affordable, and perfect for high-heat cooking.

Carbon Steel vs Cast Iron

I’m comparing carbon steel versus stainless steel in this article, but I should note that carbon steel is closer to cast iron in terms of composition, durability, heating performance, and price.

I mentioned that carbon steel typically contains 1% carbon, but cast iron contains 2-3% carbon. The higher carbon content makes cast iron pans more brittle than carbon steel. That’s why cast iron pans are heavier and thicker. Thin cast iron would be too brittle to make pans that would last.

Carbon steel’s thinner walls make for a lighter-weight pan. Generally, a carbon steel skillet weighs about half as much as a cast iron skillet of the same size.

The browning and searing capabilities are similar, but you essentially make a trade-off. A carbon steel skillet will heat faster, but a cast iron skillet will hold in heat longer.

What Are Blue and Black Carbon Steel?

Blue and black carbon steel are variants of carbon steel that have been treated to harden the cooking surface and resist rust and corrosion. You can think of it sort of like anodized aluminum. The treatment darkens the steel, so it looks blue or black.

A black or blue carbon steel pan will heat the same as an untreated carbon steel pan. The treatment helps to prevent rusting and improve corrosion resistance, but it does not make the pan rust-proof.

You must still season your blue carbon steel pan, hand wash it, and dry it immediately and thoroughly after washing.

What Are Stainless Steel Pans?

stainless cookware with glass lid

Stainless steel is an iron alloy that contains at least 10.5% chromium and less than 1.2% carbon. Chromium makes the steel rust- and corrosion-resistant by forming a thin layer of oxidation on the surface. Thus, it’s “stainless” steel.

There are many types of stainless steel. These metal alloys can contain nickel, aluminum, molybdenum, copper, titanium, and more.

When it comes to stainless steel cookware, that type of steel typically contains chromium and nickel. These varieties are corrosion-resistant and are some of the highest grades of stainless steel. They’re commonly referred to as surgical stainless steel.

You might see numbers associated with stainless steel, such as 18/0, 18/8, or 18/10. These numbers refer to the percentages of chromium and nickel in the steel, respectively. So for instance, 18/10 stainless steel has 18% chromium and 10% nickel.

Nickel makes steel non-magnetic, so 18/0 steel is typically used on the exterior of stainless steel cookware to make it compatible with induction cooktops. The interior usually features 18/10 steel, which is more corrosion-resistant than 18/0.

The quality of stainless steel cookware varies significantly. This is due to the brand, the number of layers (plys) in the cookware, the type of stainless steel used, and more.

Stainless steel made in the USA or Europe is generally superior in quality to stainless steel made in China. Most of the high-end stainless steel cookware is manufactured in the U.S. or Europe. All-Clad and Le Creuset are two notable examples.

If you want to know the best stainless steel cookware out there, visit my guide to stainless steel pots and pans.

Stainless clad cookware is one of the best types of stainless steel pans. This cookware has multiple layers of metal bonded together. Tri-ply cookware features three layers, and it’s the most common.

Stainless steel is non-reactive and won’t impart a metallic flavor, which is great. But it has poor heat conductivity on its own. Therefore, many manufacturers add an aluminum or copper core to increase the heat conductivity. This gives you the best of both worlds.

Full-clad cookware has layers throughout the base and walls of the pan. This is the best quality and the most expensive. Some pans are “impact-bonded,” which means they have additional layers in the base only. This improves the heat conductivity, but it doesn’t heat as well as full-clad stainless steel cookware.

Bottom line–Stainless steel is durable, stable, and won’t rust. So even though stainless cookware is more expensive than other types of cookware, the lifetime cost is low because it will last for decades.

FeatureCarbon SteelStainless Steel
Metal CompositionIron and Carbon (0.5-2% carbon)Steel alloy with chromium and less than 1.2% carbon(May contain nickel and other metals, as well)
ConductivityExcellentPoor (unless paired with aluminum or copper, both of which have excellent conductivity)
Heat RetentionPoorExcellent
WeightLightweight (thin walls make it lighter)Heavier (not as heavy as cast iron)
MaintenanceSeasoning requiredNo seasoning required
Max TemperatureGenerally up to 800°FGenerally up to 600°F (315°C)
Best UsesStir-fry, omelets, crepes, sautéing, browningAll-purpose: sautéeing, browning, searing, braising, simmering, 
What to AvoidAcidic foods; simmering and boilingSticky, delicate foods like eggs

Carbon Steel Vs. Stainless Steel at a Glance

Before you buy carbon steel or stainless pans, you should know about their pros and cons. Below are the basic features of both metals (and the pans made with them.

Stainless steel has poor heat conductivity, but it’s usually bonded with aluminum or copper to increase conductivity and distribute heat evenly across the entire cooking surface.

Carbon steel can withstand high temperatures and heats quickly, but is more uneven in how it heats. Carbon steel also is not dishwasher-safe and must be seasoned.

For more important features, see the chart below:

Carbon Steel vs. Stainless Steel: At a Glance

Below are the basic features of stainless steel versus carbon steel pans. Both are metal alloys that are incredibly durable and able to withstand a high temperature.

A Comparison: Carbon Steel vs. Stainless Steel Pans

Let’s take a closer look at carbon steel pans vs. stainless steel pans by comparing their properties and key differences.


Both carbon steel and stainless steel pans are very durable. If you care for them properly, they should last a lifetime.

Carbon steel pans can withstand high heat without warping. They are unlikely to scratch or break through contact with other objects. It does require occasional seasoning, but the surface won’t break down.

Stainless steel pans are also extremely durable. Some stainless steel cookware is multi-ply (a.k.a. clad), meaning multiple layers of metal are bonded together to form the body of the pan.

Full-clad stainless steel cookware is even more durable. It’s resistant to scratching, warping, and breaking. That’s great for me because I’m notorious for being hard on my cookware.

However, if you want the heartiest pan, go for carbon steel cookware. It can withstand high temperatures for longer periods of time.

Both carbon steel and stainless steel pans are built to last, but carbon steel pans can hold up under harsher conditions without damage, so they get a slight advantage.

Winner: Carbon Steel

Heat Retention

Both carbon steel and stainless steel pans retain heat well enough to keep food warm while you finish preparing another dish. Even better, these materials will hold their temperature when you place cold food on the cooking surface, which is a must for searing steaks or burgers.

It should be noted that neither pan material retains heat as long as cast iron. If you want the ultimate heat retention, cast iron is the way to go, due to its ultra-thick walls.

The thinner walls of carbon steel pans make for a lightweight construction. This is great for usability and heat responsiveness, but it’s not so good for retaining heat.

Of course, the thickness of the pan is an important part of heat retention. For that reason, stainless steel pans vary in their ability to retain heat. Thicker pans or those with multiple bonded layers generally have excellent heat retention. Single-ply pans? Not so much.

The more layers a stainless steel pan has, the better it will retain heat. With that said, stainless steel has better overall heat retention than carbon steel. If I want to cook foods that need to simmer or stay warm longer, I would go with a stainless steel pan.

Winner: Stainless Steel

Heat Distribution

The heat distribution refers to how evenly the heat travels throughout the cooking surface. Hot spots or cold spots can overcook food or, even worse, undercook it. Even heating is essential for the best cookware.

Stainless steel pans have excellent heat distribution, especially those with full-clad construction. Stainless steel has lackluster heat conductivity on its own, but when paired with a heat-conductive core like aluminum or copper, stainless steel pans heat evenly.

I love how well my tri-ply stainless steel sauté pan distributes heat. I never have to worry about hot spots or unevenly cooked food.

Carbon steel pans don’t distribute heat as evenly as stainless steel, which means you might have inconsistent results.

This is one reason carbon steel is a popular material for woks. When stir-frying food, you want to cook the food rapidly as it moves through different heating zones.

It’s okay if the pan is hotter toward the bottom. You want it to be that way. Carbon steel’s rapid heating and high heat tolerance also make it perfect for stir-frying.

If you’re cooking larger pieces of meat, specifically steak and chicken, you’ll get more even results with a stainless steel pan. You don’t want to mess with uneven heating when it comes to meat. For even heat distribution, stainless steel pans outpace carbon steel cookware.

Winner: Stainless Steel


One of the best things about carbon steel and stainless steel pans is their versatility. Both can be used for a variety of cooking techniques, such as searing, browning, broiling, braising, sautéing, and more.

Carbon steel and stainless steel pans are also compatible with all cooktops, including induction. They’re oven-safe. and broiler-safe. You can even use them safely on the grill.

Carbon steel does come with some caveats. The first is that you should avoid cooking acidic foods in a carbon steel pan. Simmering foods like tomato sauce will break down the seasoning on the cooking surface.

You also can’t simmer or boil liquids in carbon steel cookware. Hot liquids will also strip the seasoning, which will then come off into the liquid. Gross.

Stainless steel pans serve better as all-purpose cookware. You can use them for practically any cooking technique and any recipe. From boiling and simmering to searing and sautéing, stainless steel pans can handle it.

The stainless steel cooking surface is non-reactive, so it won’t react with acidic food or impart a metallic flavor when exposed to things like tomatoes, vinegar, or lemon juice. This also preserves the shiny cooking surface of the pan.

The one exception is sticky, delicate foods like eggs and fish. I recommend a non-stick skillet for frying eggs. You can technically cook these foods in a stainless steel pans, but it’s precarious.

Carbon steel skillets can be used to fry eggs or cook fish. The thin layer of seasoning acts as a quasi-nonstick coating, so you shouldn’t have issues with food sticking to the pan.

Stainless steel and carbon steel pans are both highly versatile. You can use either on induction cooktops, and you can put either one in the oven. However, if you want the most versatile option, a stainless steel pan is your best bet.

Winner: Stainless Steel

Heat Responsiveness

Cookware with good heat responsiveness means the pan reacts quickly to heating changes, giving you more control over your cooking. Heat responsiveness is crucial for cooking delicate foods like fish, caramel, and sauces.

Of course, a pan can’t simultaneously have good heat responsiveness AND good heat retention. It’s a trade-off, and the type of food you cook should determine which type of pan you go for.

Carbon steel pans heat and cook quickly. The thin walls and lighter-weight construction mean carbon steel responds quickly to heat changes.

Stainless steel pans can be slower to heat and cool if they’re single-ply. With that said, multi-ply or fully-clad stainless steel pans feature an aluminum or copper core, both of which are highly conductive.

A tri-ply stainless steel pan with a copper core is the best option. The reason is that copper has more thermal conductivity than any other cookware material.

Since carbon steel is more responsive on its own, however, I give carbon steel cookware a slight edge.

Winner: Carbon Steel

Heat Tolerance

One of the best aspects of both stainless steel and carbon steel pans is their ability to handle high heat.

Most stainless steel pans can withstand up to 500°F (260°C), although some can handle even higher temperatures.

However, carbon steel has an edge in its temperature tolerance. Carbon steel pans can withstand much higher temperatures than stainless steel without getting damaged.

Most carbon steel pans can tolerate heat up to 600°F (315°C), but some can even surpass 800°F (427°C).

Are you ever going to cook with temperatures that high? Unlikely. But it’s nice to know that your carbon steel pan could handle an open flame or oven temperatures for extended periods without breaking down.

Winner: Carbon Steel


Carbon steel pans require more maintenance than stainless steel.

Carbon steel pans require seasoning, similar to cast iron skillets. Seasoning makes the pan non-stick and protects the carbon steel from rust and damage. The seasoning process isn’t difficult, but it does require some time and effort.

Read more about how to season carbon steel.

When it comes to cleaning, you must hand wash carbon steel. It can’t go in the dishwasher, and it’s best to avoid soap so you don’t ruin the layer of seasoning.

The good news is that washing a carbon steel pan is super easy. The non-stick surface can be cleaned with warm water and a wipe with a soft cloth.

It’s important to dry the carbon steel pan immediately to avoid rust. Store the pan in a single layer.

Stainless steel is great because it doesn’t require seasoning. You can also put stainless steel pans in the dishwasher or wash them with soap. However, hand washing a stainless steel pan can be more difficult since it’s not non-stick.

Even though food sticks to stainless steel, I find myself spending way less time maintaining my stainless steel pans versus carbon steel.

Of course, it helps if you know how to cook properly with stainless steel. It’s different from a non-stick frying pan. You must preheat the pan, grease it properly, and cook on low to medium heat. Deglazing is another way to lift residue (a.k.a. the “fond”) while adding delicious flavor to your dish.

Martha Stewart explains in this short video how to deglaze a pan:

Winner: Stainless Steel


Carbon steel pans have a beautiful, sleek appearance at first. They have a smooth, usually darker finish. Over time, however, carbon steel pans will look worse for the wear.

Let’s just put it this way: You won’t be using a carbon steel pan as a serving dish anytime soon.

On the other hand, stainless steel pans can maintain their beautiful appearance for several years. Stainless steel pans come in two finishes: matte or shiny. The shiny, mirror-finish is more reflective and sparkly, while the matte finish is smooth and subtle.

Regardless of which finish you choose, stainless steel has a timeless look that fits in with a wide range of kitchen styles and designs. You can even serve food in stainless steel cookware.

So why exactly does stainless steel cookware maintain its appearance longer than carbon steel cookware? You can thank chromium for that. Chromium creates a protective layer on the steel, helping it resist corrosion and rust caused by moisture and acidic foods.

Most cookware manufacturers use 18/10 stainless steel, which means the steel contains 18% chromium.

Carbon steel has a lower chromium content. It’s not high enough to be corrosion-resistant. It’s prone to rusting, especially when the seasoning layer wears off or is thin.

For this reason, it’s important to towel dry your carbon steel pans immediately after washing them. Regular seasoning also helps prevent rust and discoloration.

Carbon steel cookware may lose its luster over time, but stainless steel’s corrosion resistance helps it stay beautiful for years to come, with proper care, of course.

If you want something that will look beautiful in the kitchen for the course of its lifetime, go with stainless steel pans.

Winner: Stainless Steel


In a perfect world, you could purchase whatever cookware you wanted without regard to the cost. But for most people, the cost is an important consideration.

In general, carbon steel pans are significantly less expensive than stainless steel pans. But stainless steel cookware varies in price, depending on the brand and the number of layers in the cookware.

Most carbon steel cookware falls within a similar price range. These thinner pans don’t require as much raw material or as many layers. The best carbon steel pans won’t be cheap, but they’ll still be much less costly than the high-end stainless steel cookware.

Stainless steel pans have a wide range of price points. This is influenced by the brand, the materials used, and the number of layers in a pan.

For instance, an All-Clad D5 pan with a copper core is going to cost you a pretty penny. Same goes for a Le Creuset tri-ply pan. However, Cuisinart stainless steel pans are much more affordable.

If you’re watching the budget, carbon steel pans are easier on your wallet than stainless steel.

Winner: Carbon Steel


Does Carbon Steel Work on Induction Cooktops?

Yes, carbon steel is compatible with all cooktops, including induction. Plus, you can use them safely in the oven, under the broiler, and on the grill.

Is Carbon Steel Non-Stick?

Think of a carbon steel pan sort of like a cast iron skillet. On its own, carbon steel is not non-stick. However, you must season your carbon steel pan before using it.

This layer of seasoning essentially acts as a naturally non-stick coating on the cooking surface that releases food and makes it easier to clean. That’s good, too, because carbon steel pans are not dishwasher-safe.

Is Carbon Steel Good for Baking?

Carbon steel can be used for baking. It’s oven-safe, with a high temperature tolerance. You don’t have to worry about overheating carbon steel in the oven. Plus, carbon steel is lightweight, so you can easily lift dishes out of the oven.

You can use carbon steel skillets for frittatas or other stovetop-to-oven dishes. Use carbon steel cake pans for bread, cakes, and more.

What Are the Downsides of Carbon Steel Pans?

Carbon steel frying pans and woks have a lot of advantages, but there are a few downsides. For starters, carbon steel will rust and discolor over time. Seasoning your carbon steel frying pan or wok will help slow down that process, as well as proper care.

Speaking of, carbon steel requires seasoning from time to time. It’s not an especially difficult task, but if you’re like me, that’s just one more thing to remember.

Carbon steel is not dishwasher safe, so you’ll have to wash it by hand. You should dry carbon steel frying pans and other cookware immediately to avoid rust.

You should avoid cooking acidic foods in a carbon steel skillet. It’s reactive, so it could impart a metallic taste into your food. You can’t boil or simmer foods, either.

Despite those drawbacks, a carbon steel skillet or pan is a solid investment. If you enjoy cooking with high temperatures, sautéing, or stir-frying, you can’t go wrong with carbon steel.

What Are the Downsides of Stainless Steel Pans?

Stainless steel pans have a lot going for them, especially the multi-ply pans. They’re durable, oven-safe, non-reactive, and super versatile. But there are a couple of cons to a stainless steel pan.

The biggest drawback is that stainless cookware can be difficult to clean if food sticks to the pan. When that happens, it’s a bit of a pain. I recommend using hot water and baking soda to make a paste and let that sit on the cooking surface for a few minutes before cleaning.

You have to know how to cook with stainless cookware, too, because it doesn’t have a nonstick coating or a seasoning layer to release food. Read more about the dos and don’ts of how to cook with stainless steel.

Additionally, steel pans can be more expensive. The best quality stainless steel pans are going to be a lot pricier than the average carbon steel frying pan.

Finally, stainless steel cannot withstand temperatures as high as carbon steel. I wouldn’t call this a drawback, since it still has a high heat tolerance. But if you’re comparing the two, carbon steel will handle hotter temps than stainless steel.

Stainless Steel vs. Carbon Steel Pan: Final Thoughts

There you have it. You can’t go wrong with either type of pan. If I had to choose just one type of cookware to use for everyday cooking, I’d go with stainless steel. There isn’t much I can’t do with my stainless steel pans.

However, you can use carbon steel pans for stir-frying, making eggs, crepes, and cooking with high heat. It’s like cast iron cookware in that it releases food well when seasoned.

Ready to find more? Look for the best carbon steel pans, the best carbon steel wok, and a comparison of All-Clad versus Cuisinart stainless steel cookware