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Carbon Steel vs. Non Stick Cookware: 9 Differences

Here are the 8 key differences between these two cookware materials.

By Emily Borst
Jan 8, 2024
A variety of pots, pans, and cooking utensils are neatly arranged on a stove and shelf in a tidy kitchen.
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Carbon steel is beloved in professional kitchens, while non stick is a popular choice of cookware for home cooks all around the world. Together, these two types of cookware are the perfect duo for any home cook.

If you need help deciding which one you need next, don’t worry. Here’s everything you need to know about how carbon steel and non stick cookware compare and differ.

Construction Materials

A person is tossing carrots in a frying pan over a kitchen stove.

Carbon Steel

Carbon steel is made from 99% iron and 1% carbon, and is commonly thought as a hybrid between the control and maneuverability of stainless steel and the heat retention of cast iron. Like cast iron, carbon steel requires seasoning to achieve a naturally non stick cooking surface.

Non Stick

Non stick typically features a base constructed from either aluminum or stainless steel, and features a durable non stick coating on the pan’s surface to prevent ingredients from sticking.

Cooking Surface

salmon in non stick frying pan

Both carbon steel and non stick cookware feature a durable non stick surface that prevents ingredients from sticking to the pan, but the main difference lies in how this layer is achieved.

Carbon Steel

Carbon steel’s "naturally non stick" layer is achieved through the seasoning process, where a small amount of high smoke-point oil—our test kitchen prefers grapeseed oil or Seasoning Wax, but any unflavored oil works, like canola, sunflower, or avocado oils—is heating over high temperatures to fill in the small pores of the pan’s metal surface. When heated, the oil dries out and becomes a slick polymer coating that's bonded to the surface of the pan, also called "polymerization." This layer of protection on the pan also helps keep moisture from penetrating the metal, which may cause it to rust.

Non Stick

On the other hand, non stick comes with its durable no-stick coating out of the box that ensures food slides off the surface with ease.

Care and Maintenance

Two non-stick frying pans on a counter with a dark green cloth and a wooden-handled knife nearby.

When it comes to care, non stick and carbon steel are similarly easy to care for. To start, we don't recommend putting any of our cookware in the dishwasher, as harsh cleaners can damage their surfaces and it’s easy to get scratched or dented by other dishes. Before you attempt to clean either pan, make sure it is fully cooled and you have removed as much food as possible.

Cleaning Carbon Steel

Carbon steel is similar to cast iron in that most of the time, you don't have to clean it with soap and water—often, you can just wipe out residue with a clean paper towel.

If stuck on food bits remain, sprinkle a tablespoon each of neutral oil and kosher salt and scrub at the residue with a paper towel, bristle brush, or clean dish sponge. If you must introduce water, be sure to throughly dry it afterwards—the high iron content of carbon steel all but guarantees rust if exposed to water for prolonged periods.

Check out our guides for a deeper dive into cleaning carbon steel or removing rust.

Cleaning Non Stick

If you have high-quality non stick pans, all you need is dish soap and the soft side of the sponge, which will clean your pan in a matter of moments. Our guide on cleaning non stick cookware has more details and step-by-step instructions for tackling different kinds of mess without damaging the surface of your non stick.

What You Can Cook

non stick in oven

Carbon Steel

Since carbon steel is safe up to 1200F, it's ideal for all types of high-heat cooking, from on the grill to over an open fire. This is the perfect pan for searing steaks or other proteins or getting a char on your grilled veg.

Non Stick

Non stick cookware is perfect for cooking delicate foods that would stick to other pans, like fish and eggs, as well as sautéeing vegetables. Since the base of our Non Stick is the same as our Stainless Clad, our Non Stick collection can be used in the oven up to 500F—making this the perfect pan for oven-finished frittatas or Dutch babies with minimal cleanup.

Durability

carbon steel in wood fire oven

Carbon Steel

No matter if you rust it by accident, put a nick on the surface, or make your best attempt at cooking an omelet, there’s almost always a way to fix near-indestructible carbon steel.

Rust can be cleaned off with the help of vinegar and water, a nick on the surface of the pan will fill in with seasoning, and the biggest of messes can be scrubbed off and reseasoned.

Non Stick

While non stick cookware will not have the same lifespan as carbon steel, it can last for years when given proper care. To avoid replacing your pan every year, you should wash it by hand (with a dish sponge, never something abrasive like steel wool), cook with non stick-friendly utensils, and remember that it’s only oven safe up to 500F.

Ease of Use

egg in non stick

Carbon Steel

Carbon steel seems intimidating when first unboxed, but like most things, gets easier the more you use it. Once the seasoning has been applied (or you unboxed a preseasoned pan), we recommend cooking with fatty ingredients, like steak or bacon, to kick start the buildup of your pan's naturally non stick layer.

Note that acidic foods (like citrus, wine, vinegar, and tomatoes) can strip the seasoning on your carbon steel cookware, but you can always re-season your pan if this happens. For more tips on conquering cooking with carbon, check out our guide.

Non Stick

Non stick is one of the easiest cookware materials to get the hang of. You can cook just about anything with non stick cookware, just be sure to always preheat your non stick with food or oil in them—prolonged exposure to heat without anything inside the pan can cause your pan to degrade faster or warp the coating.

The only restriction to keep in mine when cooking with non stick cookware is the cooking temperature—for example, our Non Stick Cookware should be kept at 500F or under, and other brands recommend keeping your pan on medium-low only.

Heat Conductivity

Carbon Steel

Overall, carbon steel is a superior heat conductor—it can be heated to extremely high temperatures and responds quickly to changes in temperature. While it can handle heat up to 1200F, it is by no means necessary to cook over high every time—in fact, most of the time, you’ll achieve perfect sears and chars over medium heat.

Non Stick

The heat conductivity of non stick cookware ultimately depends on its construction. Aluminum bases are excellent heat conductors but aren't durable, which is why we used an aluminum core in our Stainless Clad construction process. The result is a pan with exceptional heat conductivity and no hot spots.

Price

non stick with grilled cheese

Pricing for both of these materials will typically vary depending on the quality. Our Carbon Steel Frying Pans range from $79 for an 8" Frying Pan to $129 for a 12" Seasoned Frying Pan. Our Non Stick Frying Pans range from $69 for a 6" Frying Pan to $149 for a 12" Frying Pan.

Which One Should I Buy?

A well-organized kitchen shelf displays a collection of books, a frying pan, and various kitchenware against a tiled backsplash.

Carbon steel and non stick cookware are the perfect complement to one another. Both deserve to be in your kitchen, especially since they excel at different tasks.

For high-heat cooking, like searing steak and charring vegetables, turn to carbon steel. It’s nearly indestructible, and our collection offers a variety of shapes and sizes like a Wok, Pizza Steel, and Roasting Pan.

For delicate cooking, such as scrambling eggs or searing fish, we recommend non stick. The easy-to-clean coating is extremely durable and long-lasting, and our collection features a Non Stick Saucepan, Sauicer, and even Stock Pot for easy cleanup.

Ready to Shop?

Ultimately, we recommend thinking of these pans as complements, not competitors, of a well-stocked cookware collection. Together, they'll help you see the difference chef-loved, home cook-approved pans can make in your day-to-day, whether searing steaks or scrambling eggs.

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