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Can You Cook Acidic Foods in Carbon Steel Pans?

To cook like a pro and make your carbon steel pans and post last, you need to know the following about cooking with acid.

Here’s the situation: You heard somebody saying it’s okay to cook acidic foods in a carbon steel pan… but you’re not quite sure if you can trust the advice?

It’s a good thing you stopped by here. Let’s just say that there are a lot of misconceptions about carbon steel pans, and quite a few of them are related to what you can (and cannot) cook in this type of cookware.

In a word, no, you can’t cook with wine, vinegar, lemon juice, and other acidic sauces in a carbon steel pan. The acid will strip away the seasoning of the pan and your dish will have a strong, unpleasantly metallic aftertaste.

Wondering why that is? It’s simple, really.

It comes down to the fact that carbon steel pans have a cooking surface made of bare metal—that is, carbon steel. And carbon steel, like its bulkier cousin cast iron, is a reactive metal that doesn’t do very well in the presence of acid.

When you expose carbon steel to cooking liquids containing wine, vinegar, lemon juice, and other acidic sauces, the steel reacts with the acid and leaches dietary iron into your dish. The amount of iron leached is enough to impart the dish with a metallic aftertaste that many would describe as overpowering.

The bigger problem with boiling acidic liquids in your carbon steel pan, however, is that you lose the seasoning you worked so hard to build up in the first place!

The “seasoning” is that shiny and slick layer of baked-on oil that keeps your food from sticking to the bottom and sides of the pan—and that protects the pan itself from corrosion and rust by keeping it from reacting with the elements.

So don’t cook acidic sauces in a carbon steel pan, especially if the recipe calls for a long simmer.

How to Reseason a Carbon Steel Pan

Now, you be wondering: Just how difficult is it to preseason a carbon steel pan?

It’s definitely easier to preseason a carbon steel pan than it is a cast iron skillet, that’s for sure. Wash the skillet with soapy water and thoroughly scrub the bottom and sides of the pan with a soft sponge.

Pat the carbon steel pan dry, then place it on the stovetop and heat over medium heat for 5 minutes to evaporate any remaining moisture. Allow it 10 to 15 minutes to cool down.

As soon as the pan is no longer too hot to handle, dab a paper towel with cooking oil and use it to wipe the bottom, sides, exterior, and handle of the pan; you don’t want to leave any inch of carbon steel untreated.

Wipe the pan with a clean paper towel to remove excess cooking oil. There should be no oil dripping from or pooling in the pan. The key to properly reseasoning your carbon steel pan, you see, is to use as little oil as possible.

Heat the pan over medium heat for 30 minutes. Let it cool. The next few times you use it, cook hearty, non-acidic dishes in it—steaks, burgers, chicken breasts, latkes, sweated onions, sautéed mushrooms.

Which Pans Can You Cook Acidic Foods In?

If you frequently cook recipes with acidic ingredients, it’s a good idea to make sure you’re using the right kind of cookware.

When the recipe calls for the addition of wine, vinegar, lemon juice, or any other highly acidic ingredient, reach for a cooking vessel with a non-reactive surface such as an enamaled cast iron skillet or a ceramic, non-stick, or stainless steel frying pan.

Avoid cooking acidic foods in cast iron, carbon steel and copper pans; these highly reactive metals will react with the acid in the food and leach into your dish. In the case of copper, this leaching can be toxic.

Know your author

Written by

Dim is a food writer, cookbook author, and the editor of Home Cook World. His first book, Cooking Methods & Techniques, was published in 2022. He is a certified food handler with Level 1 and Level 2 Certificates in Food Hygiene and Safety for Catering, and a trained cook with a Level 3 Professional Chef Diploma.