Carbon Steel vs Stainless Steel: Which one is Better?

I love these kinds of battles because I’m a drama queen, and most days, I wake up and choose violence (like my dog😅).

So, today, I’ll be finally putting to rest the carbon steel vs stainless steel battle. And I’m excited because my readers will finally understand the difference when I use the terms on my reviews.

I know most guides are written in all kinds of jargon, and you probably don’t know what the writers are talking about.

Nerds 🙄🙄🙄🙄.

Don’t worry, I got you, and this is the simplest guide you’ll find on the internet on this topic.

Table of Contents

Carbon Steel vs Stainless Steel

Both carbon steel and stainless steel are good in their special ways. And they all shine in different sectors.

Understanding their differences will give you an idea of which one is better and on what occasions.

Ready?

Let’s get started.

Corrosion Resistance

This is one of the significant differences between carbon steel and stainless steel. As the name suggests, the latter has better corrosion resistance than carbon steel.

carbon steel vs stainless steel

But that doesn’t mean that it can’t rust since both components contain iron which, when oxidized (this simply means if exposed to water, oxygen, heat), reacts to form iron oxide (rust).

So why do stainless steels have more rust resistance? They contain 10.5% of chromium, a metal that doesn’t rust even when exposed to moisture.

Chromium helps create a buffer between the iron in steel and air, slowing the rusting process. This is because chromium reacts with oxygen and creates chromium oxide, forming the protection layer against corrosion and degradation.

That’s why manufacturers who use water during production usually use stainless steel.

On the other hand, carbon steel doesn’t contain enough chromium to form enough chromium oxide. Therefore, iron is the steel that reacts with oxygen and forms iron oxide (rust).

So, if you’re aiming at something with higher corrosion resistance, then stainless steel is your best shot.

Mechanical Properties

This is a bit of a grey area because both stainless steel and carbon steel are graded differently.

Stainless steels are a little ductile compared to carbon steel because of the high amounts of nickel. However, you’ll still come across some grades, such as martensitic, that are very brittle.

On the other hand, some carbon steel grades have a lower tensile strength compared to stainless steel. This is because the latter has some alloying elements that boost its tensile strength.

However, carbon steel containing at least 0.30% carbon is more readily heated than austenitic stainless steel.

Aesthetic Appeal

When you’re making something that needs a good presentation, then the beauty of the metal must be considered.

And in this category, stainless steel is most preferred for final finishes. But you can improve carbon steel by sanding it and polishing it to achieve that shiny look. However, you’ll need to paint or add an extra coat very fast; otherwise, it will rust or start tarnishing.

Lastly, if carbon steel is scratched, you’ll need to repaint it ASAP because it will attract rust, unlike stainless steel.

Cost

As an economist, I always consider the cost of everything before buying it. Well, it goes without saying that stainless steel costs more than carbon steel. And that’s because of the extra elements it contains.

While many carbon steel grades are made of pocket-friendly iron and carbon elements, stainless steel has extras such as nickel, manganese, and chromium, just to mention a few. These additional alloying elements increase the production cost.

When purchasing items (especially high-ticket items), always check the grade level to avoid disappointments.

For example, a stainless-steel item with 16% chromium will cost more than one with 12.5% chromium. But in return, the one with a higher chromium percentage will last longer and need low maintenance practices.

But if cost is a big factor in your project, then carbon steel is the way to go.

Stainless steel vs carbon steel: Which One Should You Buy?

It really depends on all the above factors and the goals you’re trying to accomplish with the items.

But since I’m in the cookware industry, I’ll cover the two affecting my buyers.

Here you go.

Carbon Steel vs Stainless Steel Knife

It all comes down to your needs and what is essential to you when it comes to a knife.

Knives

If you’re a professional chef in a busy restaurant, you’ll likely prefer a carbon steel knife. This is because you’ll be doing a lot of chopping, and precision is important to you.

It’s also more durable and wear resistant  compared to stainless steel. Even when the impact is high, a carbon steel knife won’t bend or get out of shape; it can only break.

Another reason that makes the knife a better choice for commercial purposes is how sharp it can get, making cutting paper-thin slices easier.

However, carbon steel knives need proper maintenance care to avoid rust formation. Some tips include rinsing the knife in salty or acidic conditions after use and oiling before storage. Also, avoid re-edging the knife on steel and do it on a stone instead.

On the other hand, if you only need a knife for your home, stainless knives will do the job. Besides, stainless steel knives are easily available compared to carbon steel knives, so many homeowners go for them. Since you don’t need precision when dicing your onions, it will work perfectly for you. Always protect the knife from rust because iron oxide on the blade makes a knife dull.

Carbon Steel vs Stainless Steel Pan

Both pans have their strengths and weaknesses. I know many people who will go for stainless steel pans because they’re afraid or hate the seasoning process. But it’s not that hard when you get the right tips on how to season carbon steel pans.

Ingredients beside a pan with yellow background

This is probably considered one of the greatest cons of using a carbon steel pan. Another con of using the carbon steel pan is that you can’t cook highly acidic foods because it leaches iron off the pan, giving your food a weird taste. You also need to observe the maintenance and care practices of the pan to avoid rust.

But before you decide that’s too much trouble and disqualify it, read on to see the benefits of using a carbon steel pan.

One, after seasoning, it becomes pretty much non-sticky. And it looks like very sweet food because it can be heated at high temperatures. You’ll also use less cooking oil compared to when you’re using a stainless-steel pan.

When it comes to stainless steel pan, the greatest pro is that it’s gorgeous and worth displaying on your kitchen counter. It’s also corrosion-resistant, so you don’t have to worry much about seasoning and maintenance. That said, I wouldn’t advise putting the pan in a dishwasher. It’s better to be safe than sorry; I don’t put any of my cookware in the dishwasher, especially my carbon steel wok .

That said, the pan also has its bad side. It may not require seasoning, but it’s not as non-sticky as a well-seasoned carbon steel pan. Even experienced cooks end up with a little food sticking on the pan.

Carbon Steel vs Stainless Steel (Final Thoughts)

If you get confused when buying carbon steel and stainless-steel items, don’t beat yourself up. Everyone goes through this phase.

And to conclude my battle, It’s important to note that both carbon and stainless steel are valuable and practical; it all comes down to what you’re using them for & preference.

The only thing you need to consider is how you want them to serve you and whether or not you can handle the maintenance practices.

After reading this blog post, I hope you have a better understanding of how to do what’s best for you.

Is there anything that’s still unclear? If yes, ask me in the comment section.

Colin Matthews

Colin is a passionate chef by trade and a kitchen nerd on the side. Growing up in the kitchen, Colin has always had a passion for learning the absolute best way to cook a dish. He quickly realized most kitchens have duplicate cookware and small appliances and had to decide which ones were going to be the “keepers” – causing him to take a closer look at all his products.

As it turns out, small differences make a big impact on the experience. Whether it’s how hard you have to press a microwave button, to how long a cast iron skillet stays warm after you turn off the heat, these little difference changed everything.