July 27

Carbon Steel Vs. Stainless Steel: Which Is Better for Cookware?

By trk

Last Updated: August 11, 2021

carbon steel, cookware comparisons, stainless steel

Carbon steel and stainless steel sound similar, but they are actually very different cookware materials. Both make useful cookware, but they have unique properties that cooks should understand before deciding which to buy (and for what).

Here we will talk about each metal's strengths and weaknesses, explain the tasks each is good at, and share some of our favorites. 

Carbon Steel Vs. Stainless Steel at a Glance

Here are the basic features of both metals at a glance. Don't worry about where we get technical because you don't have to remember the numbers or the terms, just what those numbers tell you, which is:  

1) Stainless steel heats extremely slowly and unevenly, which is why it's clad to aluminum and/or copper in cookware, which makes it fast and even heating. 

2) Carbon steel heats better than stainless steel, but is still slow and uneven compared to aluminum and copper. However, once heated carbon steel hangs onto heat better than most clad stainless cookware.

These are important features to think about so you can pick pans based on what each metal is best at. The other important features to consider are also listed in the table. 

Feature

Carbon Steel

Stainless Steel

Metal Content

iron and carbon (0.5-2% carbon)

Steel alloy with at least 10.5% chromium and less than 1.2% carbon. Can contain 10, 8, or 0% nickel.

Cookware Construction

100% carbon steel

Stainless steel clad with aluminum and/or copper. Can vary from 3 layers up to 7 layers (more not always better)

Thermal Conductivity* (speed/evenness of heating)

51 W/m-K

16 W/m-K (steel)

237 W/m-K (aluminum)

401 W/m-K (copper)

Density

approximately 7.85 g/cm3 (varies slightly by carbon percentage)

approximately 7.85 g/cm3 (varies by alloy content)

Specific Heat (Heat Capacity)**

500 J/kg-K

500 J/kg-K

Weight

Heavier than stainless steel***

Lighter than carbon steel***

Heat Limits

Usually up to 800F or more

Usually up to 600F

Durability

Extremely durable; will last forever

Extremely durable; will last forever

Stability

Must be seasoned to avoid rusting and reacting with acidic foods

Extremely stable; won't rust, corrode, or react with foods

Ease of Care

Must be seasoned but virtually nonstick when it is; must be hand washed and dried

Easy to care for but foods can stick to it; most stainless can go in the dishwasher

Budget

$-$$

$$-$$$$

Uses/Versatility

Best for skillets, omelet pans, crepe pans, woks, and enameled cookware

Good for all types of cookware 

* Thermal conductivity measures how fast a material absorbs and transmits heat. It is measured in watts per meter Kelvin (w/M-K). The higher the w/M-K number, the better the thermal conductivity.

** Specific heat is the amount of energy needed to raise or lower the temperature of a material. When multiplied by a material's density, it measures heat capacity, or a material's ability to hang onto heat. Specific heat is measured in Joule per kilogram per Kelvin (J/kg-K). The higher the number and the thicker the material, the longer the material will stay hot.

***Though the two metals have nearly the same density, stainless pans are typically clad to aluminum (density: 2.7 g/cm3). This makes a clad stainless pan lighter than a carbon steel pan of the same size. Copper is more dense than stainless, but is found in thinner layers in clad cookware, so is also usually lighter than carbon steel.

Note: Technical information taken from cookingforengineers.com.

Carbon Steel Pans

Matfer Bourgeat Carbon Steel Pan

Matfer-Bourgeat carbon steel skillet with welded handle.

First, let's look at carbon steel, which is an older and more traditional cookware material. It's been around for at least a few centuries and is loved by French and Chinese cooks especially for its durability, low cost, and semi-nonstick properties.

What Is Carbon Steel?

Carbon steel is an alloy made of iron and carbon. It can range from 0.5% carbon up to 2% carbon. Carbon steel used in cookware is typically 99% iron, 1% carbon. Carbon steel with a carbon content of 0.6-1% is called "high carbon steel." It is a very strong material used in many industrial applications as well as in cookware and high-end kitchen knives.

Carbon Steel vs Cast Iron

Yes, we're comparing carbon steel to stainless in this article, but we also compare to cast iron because it's what carbon steel is closest to in composition, durability, stability, price, and heating performance. 

Cast iron contains 97-98% iron and 2-3% carbon; remember that carbon steel pans contain about 1% carbon. The higher carbon content in cast iron makes it more brittle than carbon steel, which is why cast iron is always thicker and heavier: thinner versions of it would be too brittle to make durable cookware. 

It depends on the gauge (i.e., thickness), but typically a carbon steel pan weighs about half as much as a cast iron pan of the same size. Fans of carbon steel will claim that it sears and browns every bit as well as cast iron, but the physics of the materials make this wishful thinking: the thinner walls and lighter mass of carbon steel can't retain heat as well as the thicker, heavier cast iron. 

Carbon steel does a good job searing, but cast iron will always be better. 

What Are Blue and Black Carbon Steel?

Blue Carbon Steel Pan

Blue carbon steel pan from Northwest Skillet Company (a gorgeous but high-priced brand).

Blue and black carbon steel are variants of carbon steel seen often in cookware. "Blue" and "black" refer to carbon steel that has been heat treated to harden the surface, which helps to prevent rust and corrosion (sort of like anodized aluminum). The treatment darkens the steel so instead of being silver, it looks blue or black even when new. 

Blacking and bluing carbon steel are technically different processes, but the end result is the same as far as cookware goes. That is, the treatments help prevent rust and do not affect heating properties.

Also, as you add layers of seasoning to your pan, the colors will darken to the same deep brown color whether your original pan was blackened, blued, or untreated carbon steel.

Blue and black carbon steel will resist rust, but they are not rust-proof. You still have to season them, hand wash, and dry thoroughly after use to prevent rust. 

Are blue or black carbon steel better options than untreated carbon steel? They look great, but as we said, the performance is not affected, and seasoning makes it kind of a non-issue. 

Is Carbon Steel Nonstick?

Some companies today are marketing their carbon steel pans as nonstick, but the truth is a little more complicated than this.

Well-seasoned carbon steel comes close to true nonstick, but it will never be as slippery a new PTFE pan. Some people swear they are, as do the makers who are selling "nonstick" carbon steel pans, but they can't compare to PTFE (Teflon), which is the most slippery substance known to man.

Even so, you can get excellent results from carbon steel and cast iron both. For food to not stick to carbon steel (or cast iron), pans need to be seasoned--at least a few times before first use, even if bought pre-seasoned.

For best results, you also need to use enough cooking oil to coat the pan well. This doesn't mean you need to use a ton of oil. Just enough to thinly coat the entire pan. (When you use enough cooking oil, all pans are nonstick.) 

Even though carbon steel isn't as nonstick as Teflon, there are good reasons why you should use it instead of Teflon: no potentially toxic chemicals, the ability to use high heat and metal utensils, and a smaller carbon footprint on the planet are the biggest reasons we can think of.

Your carbon steel pan will last for decades, while you have to replace nonstick pans every few years. This not only gets expensive, it is a landfill issue, too, since most recycling centers do not take coated cookware.

If you learn how to use a carbon steel pan, you won't miss your nonstick. Seasoning is easy to do and rarely necessary once the pan has built up several layers of it.

Read more about the chemicals in nonstick cookware

France and China: The Original Users of Carbon Steel

Use of carbon steel cookware is growing in the US for its many excellent features (and perhaps because of recent marketing campaigns proclaiming it a nonstick alternative to Teflon). But French and Chinese chefs have been using carbon steel for a couple of centuries.

The French have long used carbon steel for their omelet and crepe pans. They are cheap, durable, and nonstick (enough), with none of the issues of PTFE nonstick (such as toxins, heat restrictions, no metal utensils, and mediocre browning). Most importantly, they consistently turn out excellent results.

Carbon Steel crepe pan

French carbon steel crepe pan.

The Chinese also love carbon steel, but for different reasons. Carbon steel is the traditional material used for woks, and we believe it is the best type of wok you can buy. Wok cooking is done at extremely high temperatures (in fact, you can buy special wok burners if you're really into stir-frying because most regular cooktops don't get hot enough to achieve the results seen in Chinese restaurant kitchens).

Carbon steel can withstand high temperatures and is considerably lighter than cast iron--an important consideration if you want to toss the wok like a professional chef does (the standard wok size is 14 inches, so even carbon steel ones are heavy). 

Add in that it is inexpensive, will last forever, and develops a near-nonstick, easy-to-clean cooking surface, and you can see that carbon steel makes an excellent wok. 

Carbon steel wok with stir fry and fire

Carbon steel wok hard at work.

Why Don't Carbon Steel Pans Come in Sets?

We scoured the Internet for an answer to this question and couldn't find anything definitive. So, we will just share our thoughts, knowing they may not be 100% accurate.

Weight: Carbon steel is lighter than cast iron, but it's still heavy. Most people prefer their saucepans and stockpots to be lighter than what carbon steel can offer. The one exception is the Dutch oven, which is simply superb in enameled cast iron and worth the extra weight (click the link to find out why).

All-Clad Fusiontec 7pc set

All-Clad Fusiontec: their new enameled carbon steel cookware comes in 3 colors.

The Seasoning issue: Liquids, even water, can strip the seasoning you've worked so hard to build up on your carbon steel and cast iron pans. Since sauce pans and stock pots are used primarily for liquids, you rarely see them in bare (that is, un-enameled) carbon steel or cast iron. 

Enameled carbon steel is becoming more popular, as evidenced by All-Clad's Fusiontec cookware, a full line of enameled carbon steel cookware. One source, an ex-employee of All-Clad, told us this is All-Clad's foray into "colored" cookware, which has gained popularity recently. Enameled carbon steel doesn't need seasoning, and can be made in a huge array of colors.

Carbon steel pots can be thin enough to not be overly heavy, but you have to wonder how well they'll perform. Remember that carbon steel's best property is its heat retention, and the thinner it is, the worse it will retain heat. 

For now, cast iron reigns in the enameled cookware category, but this may change as carbon steel--and colored cookware--both gain popularity in the US. People may be willing to trade in slightly worse heat retention for lighter cookware, especially if it's available in many beautiful colors.

Are Expensive Carbon Steel Pans Better Quality?

Boutique brands of carbon steel and cast iron have become quite popular in the past few years, with several artisan makers popping up all over the US. 

These pans are high quality, and some are also very beautiful (like the blue carbon steel pan from the Northwest Skillet Company shown above). 

You may get some features you won't find in lower-priced carbon steel, such as different pan shapes and fancier handles. But as far as performance goes, expensive carbon steel is going to be about the same.

You can get better performance from clad stainless steel and copper cookware as you go up in price, because high-priced brands tend to have thicker layers of aluminum and/or copper. But all carbon steel heats pretty much the same: a thicker gauge will provide better heat retention, while a thinner gauge will be lighter and more responsive. But paying boutique prices for carbon steel won't get you a higher grade of it, because there really is no such thing. 

High-end carbon steel cookware brands are extremely durable and will probably last forever, but so will their cheaper counterparts. If you fall in love with a fancy brand and can afford it, there's no reason not to buy it--but there's also no practical or scientific reason to go with a higher-end brand.

Just know that the performance, durability, and longevity of an expensive pan is going to be about the same as a less expensive one.

Pros and Cons of Carbon Steel Pans

Pros
  • Good heat retention so great for searing
  • Great for high heat cooking (800F+ upper heating limit)
  • Nearly nonstick when well-seasoned
  • Safe to cook on (contains no toxins or nickel like stainless steel)
  • Can use metal utensils
  • Lightweight (compared to cast iron)
  • Durable (will last forever)
  • Naturally induction compatible
  • Sloped sides of skillets make them easy to toss pan and to move food with a turner
  • Inexpensive (compared to clad stainless).
Cons
  • Heats slowly and unevenly 
  • Needs seasoning to prevent rusting and reacting with food
  • Even pre-seasoned pans should be seasoned before use (but most are not sold pre-seasoned)
  • Heavier than most clad stainless cookware
  • Must be hand washed and dried
  • Heat retention isn't as good as cast iron because it's thinner
  • Hard to find entire cookware sets unless enameled
  • Unseasoned carbon steel pans are coated with wax which must be removed before use/seasoning.

Tips for Cooking with and Cleaning Carbon Steel Pans

  • Make sure to season pan before using, even if pre-seasoned when purchased (see this Serious Eats article for how to season). 
  • Heat for several minutes before using to distribute heat evenly throughout pan, especially for high-heat searing.
  • Do not add cooking oil until pan begins to smoke.
  • Use more cooking oil with new pans than with well-seasoned pans (a well-seasoned pan will have a dark brown or black patina over the entire cooking surface).
  • Best for high heat tasks like stir fries and searing steaks, and also an excellent substitute for nonstick pans if you're trying to move away from PTFE.
  • Avoid liquids and acidic foods, which will ruin the seasoning.
  • To clean, use a scrubber if necessary and dry thoroughly afterwards to prevent rusting. Do not use soap unless you absolutely have to; too much soap will strip the seasoning.
  • After drying, rub the pan with a few drops of cooking oil to further protect from rusting.

What to Look for When Buying a Carbon Steel Skillet

  • Pan weight: Carbon steel comes in different gauges (thicknesses). Thicker pans are heavier (of course), and they have better heat retention and heat more evenly (though slower) than thinner pans. The primary advantage to thin carbon steel is that it's light, but its heat retention won't be as good as thicker, heavier pans (and heat retention is carbon steel's best quality).
  • Other than gauge (thickness), carbon steel is largely the same material no matter how much you pay--so don't pay too much. Affordable options on Amazon will last just as long as more expensive boutique brands.
  • Some handles are riveted and some our welded. Our favorite option, the Matfer-Bourgeat skillet, has welded handles, which means no rivets to clean around.
  •  Blue and black carbon steel aren't necessarily better options than untreated carbon steel, so buy based on pan shape, gauge, reputation, price, or other considerations that matter to you.
  • "Quick to heat up" may be code for a too-thin pan. Unless weight is an issue for you, opt for a thicker pan if you want the best heat retention.

Some of Our Favorite Carbon Steel Pans

Matfer Bourgeat Black Carbon Steel Pan
  • Best gauge (thickness) for good heat retention; about 3mm thick (9 gauge)
  • Welded handle (no rivets to clean around)
  • Good shape for all-purpose skillet
  • Almost nonstick when seasoned
  • 11-inch skillet weighs about 4 pounds
  • Available in several sizes
  • Unseasoned and waxed when new; must clean wax off and season before using
  • Affordable
  • A favorite of America's Test Kitchen
  • Made in France.

Buy matfer-bourgeat black carbon steel skillet on amazon:

Amazon buy button
Lodge Pre-Seasoned Carbon Steel Skillet
  • Comes pre-seasoned, but will require more seasoning for best (nonstick) performance. Bonus: pre-seasoned means no wax to strip before using.
  • Rough surface, but will become smoother and more nonstick with use
  • Available in four sizes: 8", 10", 12", 15"
  • Good shape for all-purpose skillet
  • 14 gauge carbon steel--about 1.6mm thick (half as thick as the Matfer-Bourgeat skillet above)
  • 12-inch skillet weighs about 4 pounds
  • Affordable
  • Thin, so best for people who want a light pan (the heavier M-B pan above has better heat retention)
  • Made in USA.

buy lodge pre-seasoned carbon steel skillet on amazon:

Amazon buy button
Joyce Chen 4pc Carbon Steel Wok set

Whatever you do, please do not buy a nonstick wok. Woks are designed to be used on high heat, and high heat is the public enemy number one of nonstick coatings. Carbon steel woks are cheap, designed for high heat, and will last forever. Our Joyce Chen pick comes with a lid, bamboo spatula, and recipe booklet (though you rarely need a lid for wok cooking, so you may prefer one without: here's a flat-bottomed wok with no lid for about the same price).

Woks are different than skillets or egg/crepe pans in that you want them to be thin. Heat retention is less important in wok cooking because it's done quickly, and the thin carbon steel will heat faster and make the large wok easier to handle (standard wok size is 14" across the top, which is a big pan).

If you have a wok burner and want a round-bottomed wok, we like this one best and this one for a more affordable option.

Don't buy a round-bottomed wok for use on a regular cooktop.

Here are the details on the Joyce Chen 4 piece set:

  • Includes 14-inch wok, stainless nonstick lid, bamboo spatula, and recipe booklet
  • 1.5mm (14 gauge) thick for fast heating (this is what you want in a wok)
  • Bamboo handle with ring for hanging (but you can't hang the lid)
  • Must remove wax coating and season before use
  • Helper handle (essential in a pan this large)
  • Weighs about 5.5 pounds
  • Made in Taiwan.

buy joyce chen 14 inch wok set on amazon:

Amazon buy button

Stainless Steel Pans

Clad stainless steel is one of the most popular types of cookware on the market. It is also one of the most expensive types, with some brands costing as much as high-end copper cookware. Yet many cooks are willing to pay more because cooking on stainless steel is worth it to them. 

Stainless steel is durable, stable, and won't rust. So even though the initial cost of good stainless cookware is more than other types of cookware, the cost-per-year-of-use is low because it will last for several decades.

Most stainless cookware also has a lifetime warranty, so if you have any issues, manufacturers will replace a piece free of charge.

What Is Stainless Steel?

According to Wikipedia, stainless steel is an iron alloy that contains a minimum of 10.5% chromium and less than 1.2% carbon. Chromium prevents rusting and corrosion by forming a thin layer of oxidation on the metal's surface; this is what makes it "stainless."

There are hundreds of types of stainless steel that can contain nickel, aluminum, titanium, copper, molybdenum, manganese, selenium, silicon, and more, depending on the application it's used for.

Stainless steel used in cookware usually contains chromium and nickel. These are corrosion preventatives and create some of the highest grades of stainless steel. They are sometimes called "surgical" stainless steel for their use in the medical industry. 

The numbers 18/0, 18/8, or 18/10 refer to the percentages of chromium and nickel in the steel. 18/8 is 18% chromium and 8% nickel, 18/10 is 18% chromium and 10% nickel. 

18/0 is 18% chromium and 0% nickel; nickel makes steel non-magnetic, so 18/0 is typically used on cookware exteriors to make it compatible with induction cooktops (which require magnetic cookware).

You may see 18/0 steel called "magnetic stainless" in reference to cookware, as in this All-Clad D3 configuration diagram: 

All-Clad D3 configuration diagram

Since 0% nickel steel is less corrosion resistant than steel with nickel, it is usually used only on the exterior, with the cooking surface being 18/8, 18/10, or something similar. 

There is much more to know about stainless steel as it applies to cookware. Probably the most important thing to understand is that quality can vary greatly even among the same types of stainless steel. This can account for the price differences you often see in the cookware market.

For example, 18/10 stainless steel made in China is often inferior to 18/10 stainless steel made in the USA or Western Europe, and many brands of Chinese clad stainless cookware are priced accordingly. If you want to buy on the budget end, there are only a few brands of Chinese-made clad stainless cookware we recommend. They are Cuisinart Multiclad Pro and Tramontina Tri-Ply Clad. (You can also check out our Cuisinart Clad Stainless review and our Tramontina Tri-Ply Clad review.)

The more you know, the better decision you'll make when buying clad stainless cookware. Our Stainless Steel Cookware Set Buying Guide goes into more detail about stainless steel if you want to learn more.

Is Stainless Steel Cookware Safe?

Yes: clad stainless steel is one of the safest types of cookware on the market.

Stainless steel is durable: a good brand won't rust or corrode. Though it may show some discoloration with use, the steel itself will remain intact indefinitely.

Stainless steel is also stable: it reacts minimally with food (mostly with acidic foods). This is not the case with many other cookware materials, including aluminum, copper, cast iron, and carbon steel, which can sometimes impart metallic flavors. In the case of aluminum, it can even create a potential health risk as some studies have linked aluminum with Alzheimer's disease (though these have been mostly debunked). 

Stainless steel can leach small amounts of nickel, chromium, and iron. While some leaching has been detected in scientific studies, the amounts are extremely small and generally considered safe for humans.

The one possible exception is people with nickel allergies (a common type of allergy): stainless steel may leach enough nickel to cause a reaction, so may want to be avoided.

The same studies show that new stainless steel leaches the most, and that after several uses, the amount of leaching decreases to almost zero. 

Other than nickel, the chemicals that leach from stainless steel are mostly required by the human body and thus are not dangerous. Even nickel does not leach in amounts unsafe to anybody other than people with an allergy to it. (For these people, there is nickel-free stainless steel cookware such as Chantal Induction 21.)

Every type of cookware has some drawbacks and possible safety concerns. The overall stability of stainless steel makes it one of the safest cookware choices on the market.

Why Is Stainless Steel "Clad" with Other Metals?

As we already mentioned, stainless steel has terrible heating properties: it heats slowly, unevenly, and does not hang onto heat well. In fact, it's so poor that it is considered to be more of an insulator than a conductor of heat.

If you go back to the table above, you can see that the thermal conductivity of stainless steel is only 16 W/m-K, compared to carbon steel's 51 W/m-K and aluminum's 237 W/m-K (never mind copper's W/m-k of over 400!).

You don't need to know what these units mean to see that stainless steel has a much lower heat conductivity rating than other metals used in cookware. 

This terrible rating explains why stainless steel is clad to other metals: both aluminum and copper have excellent thermal conductivity, but are reactive with food. Stainless steel is durable, non-toxic, stable and non-reactive. 

When All-Clad founder John Ulam invented the metal cladding process, he revolutionized the cookware industry. Clad stainless cookware offers durability and stability along with the excellent heating properties of aluminum and/or copper. 

Most people also think stainless steel is easier to care for than carbon steel (and cast iron) because it doesn't need to be seasoned. We talk more about ease of care below.

Stainless steel is not completely without risks, but if you don't have a nickel allergy, it is one of the safest cookware choices on the market.

Does Stainless Steel Heat Better than Carbon Steel?

If you compare the two metals, carbon steel has better thermal conductivity than stainless (though nowhere near that of aluminum or copper), and they have roughly the same heat capacity (i.e., heat retention).

However, there's more to the story if you want to fully understand how the two types of cookware perform.

Thermal conductivity: Because stainless steel is clad to aluminum and/or copper, it takes on the excellent thermal conductivity of these materials. Thus, clad stainless steel heats faster and more evenly than carbon steel.

Heat capacity/retention: Carbon steel and stainless steel retain heat at about the same rate. However, because stainless steel cookware is clad with aluminum and/or copper, it actually has a much lower heat capacity than carbon steel--that is, clad stainless cookware does not hang onto heat for as long as carbon steel. Put another way, clad stainless cookware is more responsive to temperature changes than carbon steel.

This makes clad stainless cookware excellent for cooking tasks where you want speedy heating and responsiveness to temperature changes. This includes sautéing, pan frying, steaming, making sauces, making grains, boiling potatoes and other vegetables, boiling water, making eggs, fish, pancakes, and more. 

Add to this that the aluminum/copper layers in clad stainless cookware heat faster and more evenly than carbon steel, and the result is cookware that most people believe is superior to carbon steel.

There are exceptions. The Demeyere Proline skillet has almost 4mm of aluminum, which is enough to retain heat very well (the more mass, the better the heat capacity no matter what the material is), making it a good choice even for high-heat searing. 

But most clad stainless is thinner than this, and will gain and lose heat faster than a carbon steel pan.

Does this mean you need both stainless steel and carbon steel in your kitchen? It depends on your cooking style, budget, space, and other considerations. You can certainly make either pan work for any task. But stainless steel is the more versatile material (and no seasoning required), and is our number one choice for best all-around cookware material.

Even so, many chefs who prefer clad stainless like to have a cast iron or carbon steel skillet in their collection for high-heat searing (us included), as well as a carbon steel wok for stir fries. If you want to get away from nonstick egg pans, carbon steel is also an excellent option.

If you want a versatile, multi-purpose pan responsive to temperature changes, good quality clad stainless steel is the right choice. 

If you want a pan for high-heat searing, deep frying, and other tasks where heat retention is needed, carbon steel or cast iron is the right choice. 

If you want nonstick properties without the dangerous chemicals, carbon steel is a great choice.

You can use both pans for all types of tasks, but you will have better results if you choose the right pan for the job you want it to do. 

Is Stainless Steel Lighter than Carbon Steel?

No, but stainless steel cookware is lighter than carbon steel cookware.

Why? 

Once again, it's about the cladding. Carbon steel and stainless steel have roughly the same density, thus roughly the same weight. However, stainless steel is typically clad to aluminum, which is much lighter and less dense.

Therefore, clad stainless steel pans tend to weigh less than carbon steel pans of the same size.

And even though copper is actually more dense than steel, the layers are usually thinner--it takes half as much copper to get the same heating performance as aluminum--so stainless clad with copper is usually lighter than carbon steel, too. 

Stainless steel and carbon steel weigh about the same, but aluminum is much lighter, so clad stainless is typically lighter than carbon steel pans of the same size. True also for stainless clad with copper even though copper is heavier because less copper is needed for excellent performance.

Is Stainless Steel Nonstick?

As you probably already know, no: stainless steel is not nonstick. 

Well-seasoned carbon steel is way more nonstick than stainless steel.

However, you may be surprised to learn that all cooking materials easily release food when used properly. Therefore, having gunky, messy cookware to clean up is more an issue with technique than with material.

So if you use stainless steel "wrong," you can have sticky messes to clean up. But if you use stainless steel right, the pans clean up almost as easily as nonstick--even if you don't use a ton of butter or oil.

The secret is getting the pan to the right temperature before adding oil or food. When you get it to the right temperature, an air pocket forms between the food and the pan--and nothing sticks! 

You know the pan is the right temperature when water forms balls and dances across the surface like mercury. Some people call this the "mercury test." It takes some practice to get it right, but when you do, you will be rewarded with stainless steel pans that behave almost like nonstick.

This 6 minute video from Demeyere (our favorite stainless steel cookware brand) shows the technique:

This is a new discovery for us. We have always told people to heat the pan, then add the oil, then add the food, and to let the food form a crust before trying to stir or turn.

While this method works, too, the "mercury test" method is exciting because it means you can cook on stainless steel without fat if you don't want to use it.

That's a game changer! 

We tested it, and it really works. How exciting is that?

And even though the video is from Demeyere, the method should work on all stainless steel cookware.

Stainless steel cookware is not nonstick, but with the right cooking technique, it behaves almost like nonstick, and is easy to clean.

Is Stainless Steel Cookware Easy to Care For?

Now that we've shown you how to cook on stainless steel without sticking, we can honestly answer this question with an enthusiastic "yes": stainless steel cookware is easy to care for.

Even when you get do get a sticky mess, which is bound to happen occasionally--especially as you're trying to get the hang of the "mercury test" method--there's no drama involved in cleaning a stainless steel pan. You can use abrasive scrubbies to lift the gunk, you can use cleansers like Barkeeper's Friend, or you can let pans soak and let the hot soapy water do the work. 

Stainless steel cookware is durable, so you can clean it however you want to with no worries about damaging the pan. 

Whatever method of cooking you use, stainless steel is easy to care for. 

When you use the right technique, clad stainless steel cookware cleans up easily, with none of the heat or utensil restrictions of nonstick.

Pros and Cons of Stainless Steel Cookware

Pros
  • Extremely durable (a good brand will last forever)
  • Doesn't react with food
  • No seasoning required
  • Heats quickly and evenly when clad with enough aluminum and/or copper
  • Can use high heat (usually up to 600F)
  • Can use metal utensils and usually can put in the dishwasher
  • Most is induction compatible (but verify before buying)
  • Lighter than carbon steel (because clad with lightweight aluminum)
  • Most is available in sets, and popular brands have many open stock pieces available (e.g., woks, pasta pots, stock pots, roasting pans, etc.)
  • Usually comes with lifetime warranty (don't buy a brand with a warranty less than 30 years).
Cons
  • Terrible heating properties alone (which is why it's clad with aluminum and/or copper)
  • Is not nonstick (but is easy to clean when used correctly)
  • Heat retention depends on amount of aluminum and/or copper, but typically not as good as carbon steel (or cast iron)
  • Can be tricky to buy well because information can be hard to find (few makers include data on aluminum/copper thickness)
  • Tends to be expensive, and you don't want to buy too cheaply because poor quality is an issue (e.g., too-thin layers, low quality steel).

Tips for Cooking with and Cleaning Stainless Steel Pans

  • Stainless steel cookware is versatile and good for most kitchen tasks, with carbon steel or cast iron the better choice for high-heat searing.
  • Use the method in the video above to prevent sticking
  • If you don't want to use the mercury test (or can't get the hang of it), do this: 1) Heat the pan empty; 2) When hot, add enough oil to coat the pan in a thin layer; 3) Let oil heat just until it begins to shimmer (if it starts to smoke it's too hot); 4) Add your food; 5) Let food cook until it develops a crust before trying to move or turn it. The crust will allow food to pull away from the pan naturally without sticking (and also add flavor); 6) Use the bits left in the pan to make a delicious pan sauce.
  • Let pans cool before washing or they may warp from the abrupt temperature difference.
  • Though most stainless cookware is dishwasher safe, we recommend hand washing. Dishwasher detergents can ruin the exterior finish. 

Do You Need to Season Stainless Steel Pans?

Seasoning cookware has become all the rage of late, and now many pans, including nonstick and stainless steel, come with instructions to "season before use." 

You can season stainless steel cookware, but you don't need to. Here's an easy seasoning method from Epicurious if you want to give it a try. 

Note, however, that this is not the same process as seasoning cast iron. You aren't really building layers of polymerized oil as you do on cast iron or carbon steel. You're just coating the pan with a thin layer of oil, which may help food to stick less. 

Rather than go to this trouble, ruining the pan's shiny cooking surface in the process, we suggest you follow the mercury test method in the video above, or the heat pan/add oil/heat oil/add food/let food form crust before moving method. Both will result in easy-to-clean pans, no seasoning necessary.

You do NOT need to season stainless steel pans, but some people find it makes them easier to use and clean.

What to Look for When Buying Stainless Steel Pans

There's a lot to consider when buying stainless cookware. We'll cover as many of the basics as we can here.

  • Quality varies greatly, so be sure to buy a reputable brand. It doesn't have to be an expensive brand (though there are perks to going with a top brand), but it should have a 300 grade stainless steel cooking surface and a known amount of aluminum and/or copper (that is, you should know the thickness of the layers before buying). You can read more about brands and stainless cookware in general in our Stainless Steel Cookware Buying Guide
  • We recommend looking at the following features: 1) Heating properties, 2) Durability, 3) Ease of Use/Design, and 4) Budget. Thus, stainless cookware should have enough aluminum/copper to heat well, good quality steel for durability and stability, a design that you like and find easy to hold and maneuver, and it should fit into your budget. This is very high level and you can find more detail in our other articles. But if you consider these features, you should end up with good quality cookware that you can be happy with. 
  • You should also look at sets vs open stock, full cladding vs. disc cladding, and how to determine the cookware's quality (e.g., how much aluminum/copper it contains). We discuss all of these in more detail below. 

When buying stainless steel cookware, there are several features to consider. One easy way to know what you're getting is to buy a reputable brand--there are good brands at every budget level, except for the very lowest (we recommend that you don't spend less than about $200 on a 7-piece set). 

You also have to decide whether you want a set or open stock and whether you want full cladding or disc cladding; we discuss this more below.

Should You Buy Sets or Open Stock?

Stainless steel cookware is good for most cooking tasks, so you can find almost any type of pan you want in it. This is great, but can make it hard to decide which pieces you need and whether you want a set or individual pieces ("open stock").

Advantages to buying sets:

  • You get a lot of cookware at once
  • Usually a better price than if you buy each piece individually
  • Your cookware matches.

Advantages to buying open stock:

  • You buy only what you need, as you need it.
  • Since you don't need the same quality level for every piece, you can invest in pieces that need it (like a skillet or sauté pan and sauce pan), and go with cheaper options for other pieces (like stock pots and roasting pans). 
  • You can buy the size pieces you want; sets can sometimes contain pieces that are too small to be useful (or sometimes too big, but that is less common than too-small "filler" pieces).
  • You don't have to "make do" with a set piece when you really want a different piece. For example, if you buy a set of stainless cookware that has a 6-quart Dutch oven, you may put off buying an enameled cast iron Dutch oven, which is what you really want.

Our general recommendations for buying cookware are:

  • Even if you need a lot of cookware, buy a small set; 5-7 pieces is a good size for most people. There are exceptions, but this way you can be sure you'll use all the pieces and can expand with the exact pieces you want.
  • No set is going to have every piece you want, so plan a bigger cookware budget than for just a set; even a very large set probably won't have everything you want.
  • Verify the piece sizes in a set before buying--sets can sometimes have "filler" pieces that are too small to get a lot of use from (e.g., 1 quart saucepans and 8 inch skillets are not as useful for many people as larger pieces).
  • Decide which pieces you want to invest in, and put your money there. For example, a Demeyere Proline skillet is an excellent investment piece. Spend less on stock pots, roasting pans, and nonstick skillets. And speaking of nonstick skillets...
  • Don't buy a stainless set with a nonstick skillet. The nonstick doesn't last, so you don't want to pay clad stainless prices for it.
  • Be sure the cookware meets your criteria for heating performance, durability, design/usability, and budget. 

Is Full Cladding Better than Disc Cladding?

Clad stainless cookware comes in two basic configurations: full cladding and disc cladding (also called impact-bonded or encapsulated cladding).

Full cladding is just that: the internal layers of aluminum and/or copper go all the way up the sides of the pan, as shown in this All-Clad diagram:

All-Clad D3 ply diagram

Disc cladding has the aluminum and/or copper layers only on the bottom of the pan. The sides are stainless steel only, as you can see in this Demeyere Atlantis diagram:

Demeyere Atlantis Disc cladding diagram

The Demeyere diagram also shows the "seam" which is a telltale sign that cookware is encapsulated and not fully clad. 

Which type is better quality? High quality cookware comes in both types, as does low quality cookware. So you need to understand more than just if cookware is fully clad or disc clad: you need to understand the configuration of the cladding. 

In general, you want enough cladding to provide fast, even heating. For fully clad cookware, that typically means a layer of aluminum at least 1.5mm thick or a layer of copper at least 1mm thick. For disc cladding, you need thicker cladding to get good heating: Atlantis and other top brands can have up to 5mm of aluminum, copper, or both. (As you can see above, Atlantis even has silver in its disc cladding.)

Lower quality brands can have encapsulated bases barely thicker than the walls of fully clad pieces and that don't fully cover the bottom surface, like this:

Encapsulated disc cookware diagram

The thin, small disc can result in poor heating. These types of pans are alright for liquids, but we do not recommend them for skillets, which perform best with either full cladding or a thick disc cladding that covers the entire cooking surface (as in the Demeyere diagram above). 

If you come across an incredible "deal" on clad stainless cookware, there's a good chance that it's disc-clad with too-thin cladding that won't provide good heating. If you're not sure, look for the seam

We have more information in other articles. Check out our Best Stainless Cookware article for more details on sets, cladding, and more.

Full cladding vs. dis cladding is less important than the actual quality of the cladding. You have to do the research to figure out if the cookware is good quality or not.

How Do You Know How Much Aluminum or Copper a Stainless Pan Contains?

It can be hard to know what you're paying for when buying clad stainless cookware because makers often do not disclose the information you need: How thick is the heating core of aluminum and/or copper?

The thickness of the heating core determines how fast, how even, and how responsive your cookware is going to be. It also determines, in large part, how heavy the cookware will be.

Both are important considerations. 

We don't know why makers don't provide this information, as it's crucial to your buying decision. However, we at TRK, as well as some other independent reviewers, have actually cut pans open and measured their configuration. 

So the best way to know this information, if the maker does not supply it, is to find an independent reviewer who has measured it. 

Another way is to go by weight: if cookware is too light, it almost certainly has a too-thin layer of aluminum and won't heat evenly. 

We recommend buying only a brand with a known configuration. (This is where we come in.)

It's up to you to decide what's more important to you: weight or performance. If you don't mind heavy cookware, you should go with a premium brand like Demeyere, which has up to 75% more aluminum than All-Clad D3. If you want good performance but also want something lighter, then you should go with All-Clad or an All-Clad knockoff with nearly the same configuration (Tramontina Tri-Ply Clad or Cuisinart Multiclad Pro).

There are some other good options, but these are the most dependable brands we've found that fit the budgets of most buyers.

It can be hard to know what you're paying for in terms of heating core configuration because makers don't supply this information. To buy wisely and know exactly what you're getting, it's best to rely on independent reviewers who have the information (like us).

Don't buy clad cookware without knowing the cladding configuration.

Some of Our Favorite Stainless Steel Cookware

Demeyere Proline skillet ($229-$289)

Demeyere Proline Skillet
  • All Demeyere cookware is excellent quality, but it's heavy. The Proline skillet is one of the best pieces of cookware on the market.
  • Heavy enough to do high-heat searing, versatile enough to do everything else in the kitchen.
  • 75% more aluminum than All-Clad D3.
  • Welded handle, so no rivets on cooking surface.
  • Buy if you want the best performance and don't care how heavy it is.
  • Don't buy if you have ergonomic or weight issues. (Go with All-Clad or one of its knock-offs instead.)
  • Made in Belgium, 30 year warranty.
  • If you want heavier than All-Clad but not this heavy, go with the Demeyere Industry line instead (also called Industry 5 and 5 Plus).

Buy demeyere proline skillet on amazon now:

Amazon buy button

All-Clad D3 (All pans and sets)

D3 12 inch skillet with lid (a great deal!)

All Clad D3 10 piece set
All Clad D3 skillet with lid

Check out our detailed All-Clad review (find out the reasons behind our choices)

  • Excellent all-around cookware. 
  • Lightweight enough to be easy to maneuver yet provides fast, even heating.
  • Many set sizes and open stock pieces available.
  • We prefer it to D5 (which is more expensive and has an extra layer of stainless steel).
  • Copper Core provides similar performance and is also a good option, but it's more expensive for a small jump in responsiveness. (See our Copper Core review)
  • Made in USA, lifetime warranty.

Buy all-clad d3 cookware on amazon now:

Amazon buy button

Tramontina Tri-Ply Clad (Best budget pick)

Tramontina Tri-Ply Clad 12 piece set
Tramontina Tri-Ply Clad skillet
  • Almost identical configuration to All-Clad, but made overseas, so less expensive.
  • Lightweight yet provides great heating.
  • Many set sizes and open stock pieces available.
  • The 12-piece set from China has the best pieces, with 10"/12" skillets, large sauce pans and a huge stockpot; this set is the exception to our rule to buy small sets because all the pieces are great.
  • The Brazilian Tramontina is the same quality, more expensive, and doesn't have the large skillets in the sets.
  • If you're on a budget, this is as close as you're going to get to All-Clad D3. Some testers actually prefer it to D3, or can't tell the difference.
  • Be sure you buy the "Tri-Ply Clad" line. Tramontina makes several clad stainless lines. Tri-Ply Clad is the best quality.
  • Made in China or Brazil, lifetime warranty.

Buy tramontina tri-Ply clad cookware on amazon now:

Amazon buy button

Cuisinart Multiclad Pro (Also great budget pick)

Cuisinart Multiclad Pro 7 pc set
  • Very close to All-Clad D3 in configuration and performance.
  • The best option for people on a tight budget.
  • Stainless steel is lower quality than All-Clad, though still durable.
  • Many set sizes and open stock pieces available.
  • Cuisinart makes several lines of stainless steel cookware; Multiclad Pro is the best quality at the best price; French Classic is also a good line, more expensive, and made in France.
  • Some users complain the skillet warped but we had no problems in testing. If yours warps, Cuisinart should replace it free of charge.
  • Made in China (or France), lifetime warranty.

Buy cuisinart multiclad pro cookware on amazon now:

Amazon buy button

Final Thoughts: So, Which Makes the Best Cookware, Carbon Steel or Stainless Steel?

Matfer Bourgeat Carbon Steel Pan

Vs:

Demeyere Proline Skillet

Both carbon steel and stainless steel make great cookware, but they have different strengths and weaknesses. 

Carbon steel requires seasoning, so is not good for acidic foods or liquids (both of which can strip seasoning). But its excellent heat retention makes it great for high heat cooking. When well-seasoned, a carbon steel pan is an excellent replacement for a nonstick skillet if you're trying to get away from Teflon or other nonstick cookware chemicals.

Carbon steel is usually available only as a skillet-type pan or wok, so if you're looking for a matching set, your best bet is clad stainless.

Carbon steel comes in different thicknesses. If you want a light pan, go with a thinner pan (like the Lodge). If you want cast-iron like heat retention, go with a thicker pan (like the Matfer-Bourgeat). For best performance, we recommend the thicker gauge for skillets. Thin carbon steel is fine for woks.

Stainless steel is a little more complicated because its heating performance depends on how much aluminum and/or copper it's clad with. When clad with a good amount of aluminum and/or copper, stainless steel makes versatile, durable cookware great for many cooking tasks. It is also usually lighter than carbon steel because of the aluminum, and available in many more pieces, as well as sets.

However, good quality stainless cookware is more expensive than most carbon steel cookware, often by a lot. But if you're looking for your forever cookware, stainless steel should fit the bill. 

In summary, we recommend clad stainless for your daily use, all-around cookware and a carbon steel skillet and/or wok for searing, stir frying, and as a replacement for nonstick pans if you want to move away from those nonstick chemicals. 

Thanks for reading!

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