What makes one type of pan better than the other? We break down the differences between carbon steel and stainless steel pans so you know exactly what you’re getting yourself into.
A frying pan can be made of a variety of materials, and no two are alike.
Two very popular options, especially for mid-range and high-end frying pans, are carbon steel and stainless steel.
Choose well; the material of your pan will affect what you can and cannot cook with it, and determine how you need to care for it if you want it to serve you well for many years, perhaps even decades.
What Are Carbon Steel Pans?
Carbon steel pans are made of carbon steel, an alloy of roughly 99% iron and 1% carbon that heats quickly and retains heat well, but that must be seasoned and can only be washed by hand.
A carbon steel pan sears steaks, sautées mushrooms, and fries eggs just as deliciously as a cast iron skillet, but it has the advantage of heating up faster and being lighter, making it easier to lift, carry, and handle.
Like cast iron, carbon steel pans have the tendency to corrode, rust, and react with acidic foods. So they must be seasoned before first use and they are not suitable for recipes that require the addition of lemon or lime juice, tomatoes, vinegar, and wine.
The seasoning gives carbon steel pans a slick, slippery cooking surface that feels very much like you’re cooking with a ceramic-coated or non-stick pan. This allows you to cook eggs, fish fillets, or crêpes and pancakes without the risk of them sticking irreparably to the bottom and sides of the pan.
Carbon steel pans cannot be washed in a dishwasher—the harsh chemicals and long rinses will strip the seasoning. Instead, they should be washed by hand with warm soapy water and a soft sponge.
What Are Stainless Steel Pans?
Stainless steel frying pans are made of stainless steel, an alloy of iron, carbon, and varying amounts of chromium and nickel to make it resistant to corrosion and rust.
These pans heat slowly and conduct heat poorly compared to other metals. Delicate and tender foods, such as eggs and fish fillets, tend to stick to the bottom and sides (although you can counteract this somewhat by preheating the pan for long enough and using plenty of cooking oil).
On the flip side, stainless steel pans don’t need to be seasoned, can cook acidic foods without leaching, and can safely be cleaned in the dishwasher, which is why you will find them in many professional and well-equipped home kitchens.
Another great use of stainless steel pans, Stuart Farrimond writes in The Science of Cooking, is for preparing pan sauces. He says the gray, metallic surface of these pans makes it easy to see when the food is browning so you can deglaze the pan to prepare a sauce.
Carbon Steel vs. Stainless Steel Pans
Carbon steel pans heat faster and more evenly than their stainless steel counterparts. However, they need to be seasoned, can’t be used for cooking acidic foods, and can only be cleaned by hand.
Stainless steel pans brown meats and vegetables as well as carbon steel pans, and are also suitable for acidic foods and deglazing. They don’t need seasoning and can be washed in the dishwasher, but tender and delicate foods tend to stick to their cooking surface.
Which type of pan to choose is ultimately a matter of personal preference.
A good carbon steel pan costs almost as much as a good stainless steel pan, and both pieces of cookware can serve you well for decades—if not a lifetime—of cooking at home.
For non-stick cooking…
Food has the tendency to stick to stainless steel. Although there are ways to make a stainless steel frying pan less sticky, nothing can beat the slick, slippery surface of a well-seasoned carbon steel pan.
For recipes with acidic ingredients…
Carbon steel pans are not suitable for cooking acidic foods. They react to the acid and leach dietary metal into your dish, imparting it with a metallic aftertaste. Not only that, but the acid strips off the seasoning you’ve worked so hard to build. For recipes that call for lemon or lime juice, tomatoes, vinegar, and wine, choose stainless steel.
For hassle-free cleanup…
Carbon steel pans can only be washed by hand. That said, because food doesn’t stick to them, washing is relatively easy. Stainless steel pans are more difficult to clean because they are sticky. But unlike carbon steel, they can be cleaned in the dishwasher.