Some say they’re amazing. Others regret buying them. This guide will help you know what you’re getting yourself into before buying one for your kitchen.
I moved to Barcelona in Spain this year and bought some carbon steel pans from IKEA for my new kitchen. After cooking with them for almost three months, I want to share my thoughts on the pros and cons of this type of cookware.
If you’re considering buying a carbon steel pan, the first thing to know about these cooking vessels is that they’re made of bare, uncoated metal. That metal is typically an alloy of 99% iron and 1% carbon. (The carbon gives the alloy strength, but adding too much of it makes it brittle.)
Carbon steel pans are compatible with every type of stove, from gas to electric to induction, and they move freely from stovetop to oven. They’re built to withstand high heat, as high as 600°F (315°C), so you can also use them on the grill or over a campfire.
That said, not all carbon steel pans are created equal.
Some manufacturers state that their pans can go in the oven “for flash use only,” meaning you can finish a dish in them, but you shouldn’t really use them for baking. Always read the product description before buying a pan and familiarize yourself with the owner’s manual before using it for the first time.
Carbon steel is a reactive metal. It reacts to the elements in the air and cooking liquids when left without adequate protection. Like cast iron, that protection comes from a thin, baked-on film of cooking oil called the seasoning.
You can’t cook acidic foods in carbon steel, or the metal cooking vessel will leach dietary iron into your food and give it a metallic aftertaste. You must season the pan before the first use and maintain the seasoning from that moment on so it doesn’t corrode and rust in your cabinets.
The good news for anyone who’s had to season a cast iron skillet is that seasoning carbon steel cookware is easier:
- Wash the pan in the sink with warm water, dish soap, and a soft sponge.
- Pat it thoroughly dry and heat it over medium heat on the stove until the moisture evaporates completely.
- Let the pan cool down and wait until it’s warm but not too hot to handle.
- Dab a paper towel, cotton makeup pad, or clean, lint-free cloth in cooking oil. Apply a very thin layer to the cooking surface to give it an oily sheen.
- Heat the pan over medium heat for 15 minutes. Allow it to cool down completely before tucking it away in your kitchen cabinets.
As you can see, there’s no oven involved. You don’t need to flip the pan upside down as you do with cast iron—and the seasoning process won’t smoke out your kitchen.
The seasoning is also what gives the pan its non-stick properties.
A properly seasoned carbon steel pan has a shiny and slippery surface that eggs, crêpes, and fish fillets glide over with minimal resistance; it lets you prepare delicate foods without mangling and ripping them up into pieces.
The downside to carbon steel cookware is that you can’t cook acidic foods on it. Add wine, vinegar, tomatoes, or citrus juice to the cooking liquid in the pan, and the acidity will strip off the seasoning you’ve worked so hard to build. Dietary iron will leach into your dish and make it taste metallic (no, adding more seasoning or herbs doesn’t help).
Carbon steel is light gray, so the seasoning appears as a brown patina on the bottom and sides. Do not confuse it with dirt; a carbon steel pan is not as spotless as a stainless steel one when clean. Yes, you can scrub that patina off and make the pan shiny, but all you will have done is remove the seasoning.
Speaking of cleaning: Carbon steel pans mustn’t go in the dishwasher. Instead, they must be hand-cleaned with warm water, dish soap, and a soft sponge, then patted completely dry for storage.
Let’s talk about the evenness of heating and heat retention of these cooking vessels.
As a metal, carbon steel has similar thermal conductivity to cast iron. According to The Engineering Toolbox, a site with reference information for engineers, the thermal conductivity of carbon steel is 36 to 54 Watts/meter-Kelvin (W/mK), and that of cast iron is 52 W/mK.
This tells you that carbon steel pans behave very much like cast iron skillets on the stove and in the oven. They take a while to get up to heat and are just as reluctant to let go of it. When they get hot, they stay hot and distribute that heat evenly.
A carbon steel pan gives an excellent sear to steak, creates a crispy crust on fried eggs, and leaves a nice browning on mushrooms. It’s also great for fries, latkes, and pork schnitzels. Use it for searing, sautéing, and shallow frying; avoid it for boiling liquids and preparing sauces.
The surface of this type of cookware is smooth and non-porous. You can prepare crêpes and pancakes, but also oily fish fillets and seafood without leaving your pan smelling like fish.
Carbon steel is also stronger than cast iron, so the cookware made from it isn’t as thick and heavy.
Carbon steel pans are noticeably thinner and lighter in weight than cast iron skillets. So they’re easier to whip out from the cabinets, carry around in the kitchen, maneuver on the stove, and hand-wash in the sink; a real boon to those who don’t want cooking dinner to feel like a visit to the gym.
Although carbon steel pans come in many sizes, I would argue that 10 in (25 cm) is the best and most universal size for home cooking. A pan of this diameter has enough room to fry up a couple of steaks or burgers without getting too crowded but is also compact enough to have fewer hot and cold spots.
The handles on these pans are made of metal, and they get really hot, really fast. Handle them with care; they will burn your hand unless you handle them with a kitchen towel during cooking.
On entry-level pans, like the IKEA Vardagen, the handle is attached to the body with rivets. The rivets are sturdy but also hold on to food residue, so cleaning them can be tricky. On higher-end pans, the handle is welded to the body. The welding joints are strong and capable of lasting a lifetime. The cooking surface is also easier to clean because there are no rivets.
To make a long story short, a carbon steel pan can be an excellent addition to your cookware collection if you’re looking for a cooking vessel that’s great for high-heat cooking on the stove and capable of lasting you a lifetime. But you must be willing to put in some tender loving care to make the most of it—and not everybody is.