Have you ever wondered if the perfect nonstick pan exists? One that’s not flimsy, and whose nonstick coating gets stronger with time instead of fading away.
Let me introduce you to the carbon steel pan.
It’s the secret weapon in many pro kitchens, but those of us cooking at home are just now catching on.
You can find an excellent carbon steel skillet between $30-75. It’s lightweight, naturally nonstick, and will last you forever. There are no unsavory chemicals, and it’s friendly enough to use on a daily basis. Even for delicate foods.
In this article, I’ll walk you through what you’ve been missing out on, how carbon steel compares to other cookware materials, what it takes to use and maintain one.
In This Article
Why Do Chefs Prefer Carbon Steel Pans?
Carbon steel pans are a staple in many pro kitchens. But why? For one, carbon steel can be significantly more affordable than stainless steel and nearly as versatile.
They offer excellent heat conduction and are significantly more durable than other highly-conductive materials like aluminum and copper. Carbon steel is also much easier to maneuver than cast iron while offering a similar natural nonstick property.
For many types of frying, sautéing, and wok cooking, there simply isn’t a better material.
Unique Features of Carbon Steel Cookware
Although you may just now be discovering carbon steel cookware, it shares some of the best features of other cookware materials that you already know and love. Here’s what you can expect.
Carbon steel pans are often compared to cast iron, but one thing is for sure. Carbon steel is nowhere near as heavy as cast iron.
Carbon steel cookware is generally made from a much thinner material. Most carbon steel skillets are 2-3 millimeters thick. For comparison, a classic Lodge cast iron skillet is around 5 millimeters.
The thinner carbon steel material means less weight. Have you ever tried tossing a stir fry in a 12-inch cast-iron skillet? It can be a good arm workout, but it also leads to a messy stovetop. A carbon steel pan is designed to be more mobile and maneuverable on the stovetop.
When you consider carbon steel is the material of choice in many restaurant kitchens, you can imagine that it’s important for cooks to be able to lift and toss these pans repeatedly during a busy lunch or dinner service.
While they aren’t as light as an aluminum pan, most models weigh about 4 lbs.
A good carbon steel pan will last for generations, especially when cared for properly.
If you’ve ever used a cast iron skillet, you know how thick and brittle they can be. It’s not common, but cast iron pans can crack, but they’ll never bend.
Carbon steel, on the other hand, is more malleable.
Rather than cracking, carbon steel will bend. This is what allows manufacturers to stamp and mold pans using thinner gauged metal. This also means that it is more durable (in a sense) than cast iron.
While it’s rare that a carbon steel pan will ever crack, it can bend or become warped.
Many of the best carbon steel pans are made from 99% pure iron and 1% carbon. So you know what you’re getting, and you don’t have to worry about any potentially dangerous chemicals.
The one thing to keep in mind from a health perspective is that an unproperly cared for pan can develop rust. If that does happen, you should take the steps to scrub away the rust with steel wool and restart the seasoning process.
The thin iron handles that most brands utilize can have a tendency to get hot during longer cooking sessions on the stovetop.
Thin carbon steel is very responsive to temperature changes. With carbon steel, you won’t have to wait ages to preheat your cookware.
Since carbon steel is pressed or hammered from a sheet of metal, it is incredibly smooth from the start. This is a characteristic that leads to a better and more easily achievable nonstick surface.
The iron content also means that you can use any carbon steel pan with induction cooktops, and any other type of cooking surface.
What Is The Advantage Of Carbon Steel Pans?
Carbon steel pans have excellent heat conductivity, so they heat up quickly and evenly distribute heat across the cooking surface. This property gives you precise control over cooking temperatures, making them ideal for tasks that require quick adjustments, such as sautéing or searing.
Carbon steel is relatively lightweight compared to other materials like cast iron. This feature makes them easier to handle and maneuver in the kitchen, especially when tossing ingredients or moving your pan about.
Their ability to withstand high temperatures makes them suitable for both stovetop and oven cooking. And, with proper seasoning technique, you’ll also get a natural nonstick coating. This makes for easy food release when you’re flipping, turning, or removing delicate ingredients.
They’re also known for their durability and ability to withstand high heat without warping or developing hot spots. They can handle frequent use and are less prone to damage than non-stick pans, which can deteriorate over time.
- Excellent heat conductivity and responsiveness
- Lightweight and maneuverable
- Appropriate for many cooking methods
- Natural non-stick properties
- Exceptionally durable
- Affordable, compared with other premium cookware materials
What Are The Downsides Of Carbon Steel Pans?
Like cast iron, carbon steel requires seasoning before use to develop a non-stick surface and prevent rusting. This involves applying oil and heating the pan to create a protective layer and it is something you’ll have to do periodically across the life of the pan.
Carbon steel tends to react with acidic ingredients like tomatoes, vinegar, and citrus. Simmering an acidic food like one of these will strip the seasoning layer, and can impact the flavor of your dish. I once made marinara in carbon steel, and learned this lesson quickly.
Unlike stainless steel, carbon steel pans are prone to rust. Regular seasoning helps prevent this, but you should also hand wash and dry your pan thoroughly after every use. Never wash in the dishwasher or with strong detergents.
If rust does occur, you can remove it with proper cleaning and seasoning, but it does take some effort.
Some people dislike the plain aesthetic of the traditional French carbon steel pan design, but some newer brands (like Misen) have given their version a more modern look.
Cooking with carbon steel does have a small learning curve if you’re accustomed to using nonstick cookware. It takes a few meals to master heat control and prevent food from sticking. However, with experience, this can become second nature.
- Requires seasoning and maintenance
- The material is reactive with acidic ingredients
- Susceptible to rusting if not dried properly
- Not compatible with dishwasher cleaning
- A small learning curve to use it effectively
- Only available for a skillet and wok
How Does Carbon Steel Compare To Other Cookware Materials
While it may be helpful to get a quick read on the advantages and disadvantages of carbon steel cookware, I’ve found it’s more practical to compare it with other cookware materials.
For every material, there are tradeoffs. And only you know for sure which tradeoffs are worth it for you.
Blue steel is carbon steel. It has simply gone through a heat treatment to create a protective outer layer. There is no effect on performance and it has the same attributes as non-treated carbon steel.
Nonstick cookware is usually made using an aluminum or stainless steel base with a slippery polymer coating applied to the cooking surface to prevent food from sticking.
They’re incredibly convenient…at least as long as they last.
I’ve found that, in most cases, a nonstick pan coating will wear down in less than 2 years. Oftentimes, much less.
While it doesn’t offer the same “wow” factor, carbon steel will give you a similar level of food release when seasoned properly. And it will last forever!
Because of the chemical composition of the coatings used for nonstick pans, you’ll also find that they have severe temperature limitations. On the other hand, carbon steel is excellent for high-heat meals like stir fry or searing steak.
Cast iron offers a similar natural nonstick to carbon steel, and significantly better heat retention due to its thick-walled sides.
It’s also incredibly heavy.
With carbon steel, most people can toss and flip ingredients easily. Not so much with cast iron. You’ll need a helper handle and a hot mitt!
Carbon steel is also significantly more responsive to changes in temperature, so if you need to heat up or cool down quickly, this material is far superior to cast iron.
Most carbon steel skillets fall in the $60-100 range. You can find an excellent raw cast iron skillet for under $30, but the “enameled” versions may cost you above $300.
Stainless steel was a novel discovery because the chromium content inside of it acts as a layer of protection against corrosion. Practically speaking, this means that stainless steel is easier to maintain. It doesn’t require seasoning and won’t rust. It also won’t react negatively with acidic ingredients.
Stainless steel is also considerably more expensive than carbon steel, and can be more challenging to use. Carbon steel is much more affordable, and can achieve a non-stick property with proper seasoning. This is a benefit you won’t find with stainless steel.
Especially for beginners, stainless steel can be a bear to learn. And it’s unforgiving if you make a mess of things. Cleaning can quickly become a chore.
While you can get virtually any dish made in stainless, carbon steel is typically only available as the construction material for a frying pan or wok.
How To Cook With Carbon Steel
You can use a carbon steel pan over any conventional stovetop including gas, electric coils, ceramic, and induction. It also works well on an outdoor wok burner, grill or even over a wood fire.
One great benefit of thin, hammered carbon steel is that thee pans are very responsive to temperature changes. That means you don’t have to wait age to preheat your cookware.
At the same time, allowing the pan some time to preheat will help the cooking surface heat evenly. Don’t rapidly heat or cool a carbon steel pan because it will risk warping.
Most carbon steel pans come with a long handle grip. I’ve found that, in most cases, the handles are slow to heat and provide a barrier between the hot pan and your hand. But, especially if you’re cooking over an open flame, the handles can get hot. It’s helpful to keep an oven mitt nearby for such occasions.
Safety tips aside, the most important advice I can offer is to try cooking different types of cuisine in your carbon steel pan to learn everything it can do for you.
Read also: 8 Great Meals In A Carbon Steel Pan
Does Carbon Steel Need Maintenance?
The maintenance and cleaning of carbon steel are very important and also one of the reasons more people don’t use this kind of pan.
If you have a cast-iron pan that you regularly use and take care of then a lot of this information will be familiar. If this is your first time, don’t get discouraged, after a few uses you’ll develop a routine that becomes second nature.
Seasoning is the process of adding a protective layer to your pan to protect against rust and makes your cookware more nonstick. That layer is made by bonding oil to your cookware in a hardened layer.
As you continue to cook foods with oil and fat on a seasoned carbon steel pan, you can continue to add layers and durability to the protective layer.
While there are many techniques to season carbon steel cookware, our preferred method is simple, fast, and effective. It’s also a big time saver, and will give you tips on which oils to use for best results.
When cleaning your carbon steel pan, avoid using soap as that will break down your seasoning layer. Instead, use hot water and a stiff-bristled brush. I like to keep a bamboo wok brush in the kitchen for this and my other cast iron cookware.
Another alternative is to use coarse salt and a towel to scrub off any stuck-on food. After cleaning with water, dry the pan thoroughly and rub just a drop of oil on it before storage.
Are carbon steel pans any good?
Carbon steel pans (and woks) are incredibly versatile and offer many of the same benefits of a cast iron skillet in a lighter package. Carbon steel develops a natural nonstick coating and, in stark contrast to PTFE or ceramic options, it will last a lifetime.
Is a carbon steel pan safe?
Yes, a carbon steel pan is constructed of 99% iron and 1% carbon. Unlike “traditional” nonstick pans, there are no controversial chemicals or funky fine-print additives.
Why does everything stick to my carbon steel pan?
Carbon steel pans develop a nonstick patina as you cook with them. Out of the box, you’ll want to wash and season the pan before using it for the first time. Expect the nonstick capabilities to improve with time, although cooking with acidic ingredients (like tomatoes) can strip away the patina. If your seasoning is already well-developed and food is still sticking, it’s possible that you aren’t giving the pan proper time to pre-heat before adding ingredients.