Carbon steel and non-stick pans are two popular cookware options.
Non-stick pans have been around for years and are loved for their ease of use.
However, the use of chemicals in creating some non-stick coatings and their potential negative health implications has seen attention shift towards carbon steel pans. This cookware has a natural non-stick quality with no risk of chemical release.
But coatings aside, what other differences are there between carbon steel vs non-stick cookware? And which is best for your home kitchen?
Here are run through six differences to help you shop for the best cookware possible.
Differences Between Carbon Steel vs Non-Stick Cookware
1. Base material
Carbon steel pans are made from 99% iron and 1% carbon. This differs from regular cast iron pans which contain around 3% carbon.
Although it doesn’t sound like much, the marginal amount of extra iron in the base metal means carbon steel pans are incredibly lightweight. They’re also extremely durable and designed to last a lifetime.
On the other hand, non-stick pans refer to any type of cookware that has a non-stick coating applied over the top of the metal.
Therefore, these pans can be made from almost anything, with aluminium or stainless steel the two most popular options. The characteristics of the pan can vary dramatically depending on which base metal you choose.
2. Non-stick coating
The cooking surface of non-stick cookware is coated in another material to give it non-stick qualities. Most non-stick pans are coated in polytetrafluoroethylene.
This chemical is also known as Teflon and is the substance used to produce the non-stick property of all Teflon-branded cookware.
On the other hand, some non-stick pans are coated in ceramic which gives a smooth non-stick cooking experience.
Comparatively, carbon steel pans do not have any type of coating. But despite this, carbon steel cookware is still non-stick.
The exact combination of carbon and iron means these pans have natural non-stick properties following a “seasoning” process:
- Wash your new carbon steel pan to remove the protective coating
- Dry the pan and put it over a burner to heat the metal and remove any remaining moisture
- Rub and buff vegetable oil into all surfaces of the pan using a clean tea towel
- Heat the oiled pan on a burner or in the oven until the surface turns a brown colour
- Beware that the oil will smoke during this process so have fans on and windows open!
- Remove from the heat and repeat until the entire pan is a dark shade of brown
After you have seasoned your carbon steel pan, you should be able to use it without the contents sticking. The more you cook in it, the better the seasoning becomes.
The base material of both carbon steel pans and non-stick pans is very durable. They are both made from strong metals designed to withstand high temperatures so you can cook using them repeatedly.
As carbon steel does not have a coating, its non-stick properties also last a lifetime.
However, synthetic non-stick coatings are far less durable. Through washing the pan, scratching the cooking surface, and cooking on high heat, these pans gradually lose their non-stick qualities over around five years.
This can be prolonged by only handwashing your cookware and using silicone utensils to prevent scratching. But these pans are not as durable and will need to be replaced.
4. Metal Reactivity
Whenever you cook there is a chance for metal ions to leach into your food from the base material.
This generally happens when cooking acidic food such as tomato-based dishes or foods that contain wine and lemon in their recipes.
Carbon steel is a highly reactive metal, meaning that iron will leach into certain foods as you cook them.
Thankfully, this does not have any negative health consequences and many people are deficient in iron, thus it could bring some health benefits. However, it can end up adding a metallic taste to your food and ruining your meals.
On the other hand, non-stick cookware is coated in a synthetic layer, meaning that no ions from the metal beneath will leach into your food.
Therefore, you can cook acidic dishes in these pans without worrying. With that said, non-stick coatings do wear away over time.
When this happens, the base metal can then leach into your food. This may or may not be detrimental to human health depending on the material the pan is made from.
5. Aesthetic design
If you’re concerned about the aesthetic appeal of your cookware, you’ll probably want to purchase non-stick pans.
Many non-stick pots and pans will have a generic design with a black surface inside and out. However, ceramic cookware comes in a variety of colours and patterns, so you’re sure to find one that matches your kitchen décor.
On the other hand, carbon steel pans aren’t the easiest on the eye. Newly-seasoned pans typically have an uneven colouration and blotchy appearance, making them look older than they are.
Even well-seasoned pans are bland and always have a characteristic unsightly brown colour.
6. Price & availability
Price and availability are another big difference between carbon steel vs non-stick cookware. Carbon steel cookware is generally pretty affordable and a great option for anyone on a tight budget.
Non-stick pans are more expensive, but this does depend on the brand, base metal, and coating of the pan in question. If you want to shop for non-stick pans on a budget, you can.
With that said, the availability of both types of pans might also affect your shopping decisions. Non-stick pans are a home-kitchen favourite and are found in almost every cookware shop.
However, carbon steel pans are only just finding their way into the home and you might have fewer options or limited availability are your local department store.
Which is Better – Non-Stick or Carbon Steel?
With all the differences between carbon steel vs non-stick cookware, which is best for your kitchen? It is partly down to personal preference.
If you want a brightly coloured pan and aren’t bothered that it might need replacing within a few years, non-stick pans are undeniably convenient, easy to cook in, and straightforward to clean.
However, if you are looking for a durable pan more like something professional chefs use, carbon steel pans should be your go-to.
The right cookware also depends on what you’re wanting to cook. Non-stick cookware is great for delicate items such as fried eggs or thin cuts of fish.
However, searing meat and deep-frying food work much better when using a carbon steel pan.
Don’t try and cook tomato-based dishes in carbon steel though—unless you want your dinner tasting like iron!
Hannah is a freelance content writer and self-proclaimed foodie. When Hannah isn’t sitting tapping at her laptop, you’ll probably find her in the kitchen. As an ex-chalet host, she’s used to cooking four-course meals for 10+ people and loves feeding friends and family whenever possible.