Carbon Steel Pans: All You Need to Know

Published Categorized as Kitchen
Photo of a carbon steel skilletdesignsstock /Depositphotos

For decades, carbon steel was the metal of choice for professional chefs while remaining largely unknown to home cooks, who stuck to their non-stick pans and thick-bottomed cast iron skillets.

Lately, partly thanks to YouTubers and food bloggers, partly as a response to the scandal surrounding the decades long-use of the toxic chemical called perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) in the manufacture of non-stick coatings, carbon steel has been turning into a more and more popular choice of metal for the everyday cook.

Why go for a carbon steel pan?

Carbon steel pans heat up not only quickly but also evenly, without cold spots. Like cast iron, they can retain heat for a long time, but they also rust and need to be seasoned. Carbon steel pans are 1/3 lighter than cast iron, making them easier to carry around and maneuver.

Using a carbon steel pan feels, in terms of the cooking experience that you get, as if you’re frying foods in a hybrid of cast iron and stainless steel that takes the best of both worlds. You get the even heating of cast iron coupled with the lightness and versatility of stainless steel.

Are Carbon Steel Pans Worth It?

Carbon steel pans are worth every single penny. They’re versatile, long-lasting, reasonably priced, and compatible with every type of stove. Sure, they need to be seasoned and can’t go in the dishwasher, but that’s a small price to pay for the convenience and performance you get.

Carbon steel is an alloy that contains 0.05% to 3.8% carbon by weight. Carbon is added to steel to give it strength, and the carbon contents of this type of steel makes any piece of cookware made out of it virtually indestructible.

Grind your carbon steel pans against the grates on your gas stove’s burners, or drop it from the height of a wall-mounted counter by mistake, it won’t sustain damage or snap into pieces.

This is my subtle way to hint to some of you that carbon steel is a sensible choice for the occasionally clumsy home cook—a group of which I admittedly am a lifetime member!

A carbon steel pan can be used anywhere. You can fry with it on your stove (gas, electric, or induction), as well as bake with it in the oven or put it under the broiler. You can even use it on your outside grill (charcoal or gas) and even over a campfire.

If you’re the kind of person who goes camping and likes to take a pan or two with them for outdoor cooking, a carbon steel pan is more compact than cast iron and, therefore, easier to pack and carry.

Most carbon steel skillets are oven safe up to 600°F (315°C). However, some higher-end models can be heated to temperatures as high as 750-800°F (399°C-426°C). Refer to the instructions and care guide for the exact numbers for your make and model.

One caveat to carbon steel is that, just like cast iron, its cooking surface is porous and prone to corrosion and rust, so it needs to be seasoned. A well-seasoned pan will exhibit non-stick properties that keep stickier foods—such as eggs, chicken, or salmon fillets—from sticking.

If you’re used to cooking with cast iron, which takes a dozen or so uses to get “proper” non-stick properties, you’ll be amazed by just how non-stick a carbon steel pan is immediately after it’s been seasoned. I know I was.

Sunny-side-up eggs will slide out your pan as soon as you’ve tilted it. Omelets will fold nicely without sticking even the slightest to the carbon-steel cooking surface. Tarts and cornbread will pop right out, without any damage, as soon as you’ve taken them out of your oven.

When you experience this for the first time, your start to understand why professional chefs are so fond of their carbon steel pans.

What Are Carbon Steel Skillets Good For?

Carbon steel skillets are great for tasks requiring steady and constant heat, like browning thick-cut steak, cooking chicken breasts, searing salmon fillets, or making stovetop burgers.

They excel at any task that requires you to bring out the flavor of your foods through browning.

“Browning” is the home cook’s term for something that chefs call the Maillard reaction, a complex chemical reaction that starts at around 284°F (140°C), which creates hundreds of aromatic and flavorful compounds that enhance the taste of meat, veggies, baked goods, and coffee.

maijamedia /Depositphotos Frying potato chips in an old and trusty carbon steel skillet

Thanks to their ability to distribute heat evenly, carbon steel pans are also good for shallow-frying foods, a cooking technique for preparing serving-sized meats, potatoes, and fritters in a shallow pool of hot fat or oil.

What Are Carbon Steel Skillets Not Good For?

Don’t cook acidic foods, such as any recipes that call for wine, vinegar, limes, lemons, or tomatoes, in a carbon steel pan. The acidity will strip away the seasoning, and you’ll have to re-season it from scratch.

Carbon steel cooking vessels leach a small amount of dietary iron into your foods, especially if you simmer them in acidic liquids for long periods of time. So, when cooking tomato sauce or preparing Pasta al Limone, you may want to reach for non-stick or enameled cast iron.

These skillets are not the best for cooking with a liquid as a whole. With their shallow and sloped sides, they don’t offer as much capacity as sauté pans or saucepans, and it’s just too easy to spill something when you’re lifting the pan to move it from your stove to a counter.

What’s the Best Size for a Carbon Steel Skillet?

If you cook mostly for yourself and only occasionally have friends or family over, a 10-inch carbon skillet should be compact yet comfortable enough for your cooking needs.

Readers who cook for two or a family of three should consider a 12-inch skillet, as they’ll need the extra space for cooking multiple cuts of meat, as well as for moving foods around and flipping them over.

Home cooks who cook for large families or often have to feed a crowd should get a 13-inch to 14-inch carbon steel skillet. Before buying one, check the diameter of the largest cooking zone on your stovetop—you want to make sure that your brand new pan fits it.

For more specific guidance, check out my post titled, “What Skillet Size Is Right for You (8, 10, or 12 Inches)?”

How to Season a Carbon Steel Pan

Carbon steel pans must be seasoned before being used for the first time. The seasoning is a thin coat of baked-on oil that protects the pan from corrosion and rust. It also gives the cooking surface non-stick traits.

If you’ve never seasoned a cooking vessel before, don’t be intimidated by the idea of it; it’s one of those things that sounds much harder to do than it is in practice.

Some carbon steel pans are sold pre-seasoned, but the factory seasoning’s quality can be a hit or a miss. Even if that’s what you bought, I generally recommend that you follow the process below to remove the factory seasoning and apply yours anew.

How to season a carbon steel pan in 7 steps:

  1. Clean the pan by hand, with dish soap and a scrub sponge, to scrub off the old seasoning and/or any grease leftover from cooking.
  2. Pat the pan completely dry with a few paper towels. Heat it for 5 minutes over medium heat on your stove to get rid of all moisture.
  3. Pour 1 tablespoon of cooking oil with a high smoke point into your pan, rubbing it all over the interior of your pan with a paper towel.
  4. When you’re done applying oil on your pan’s interior, use the same paper towel to rub the oil all over the exterior (bottom and sides).
  5. Use a fresh paper towel or a dry dishcloth to wipe away any oil from the interior and exterior of your pan.
  6. Bake the pan upside down in the oven preheated to 450°F (230°C) for 1 hour. Then turn off the oven and let the pan cool down inside.
  7. Once the pan has cooled down, it’s seasoned and ready for you to use.

I tend to use avocado oil (expensive), rice bran oil (medium-priced), or sunflower oil (cheapest) for the purpose. No need for anything special, any good ol’ supermarket cooking oil with a high smoke point will do.

You’ve probably removed most of the excess oil. However, it’s a good practice to put aluminum foil or a baking sheet on the lower rack of your oven to catch any droplets of oil that might drip down during that one hour of baking.

This whole process takes about 2 hours. So it’s best to do it on the weekend or a day when you’re not in a hurry to be anywhere else since it’s essential to get it right (otherwise, you might have to do it twice).

Why Carbon Steel Pans Need to Be Seasoned

Like most metals, carbon steel reacts to the oxygen molecules in the air and the water molecules in moisture.

Left uncoated, carbon steel will eventually corrode (from exposure to air) and rust (from exposure to moisture). All metals corrode, but only those that contain a sufficient amount of iron rust.

Carbon steel pans are made of bare steel, so they need something to protect them from the outside elements. That something is the baked-on vegetable oil that most cookware experts refer to as “seasoning.”

When heated to a temperature that’s high enough for a long enough period of time, vegetable oil will go through a chemical reaction called “polymerization,” in which it turns from a liquid to a tough and solid film.

If you’ve ever cooked with stainless steel, you’ve probably had to clean polymerized oil, a dark-brown residue left after cooking, from the pan. In the case of carbon steel (as well as cast iron), you actually want to have it all over your pan.

The seasoning—a patina of polymerized oil—keeps the bare metal from reacting to the oxygen in the air and the water in cooking liquids. As an extra, it’s slick and slippery, so it gives your pan non-stick-like traits.

To make all of this work, you want a very thin and very even layer of oil that’s coated all over your pan. Preheating the pan helps because metals expand when heated, which means that you’re opening up the pores of your carbon steel skillet so that it lets more of the vegetable oil in.

Baking the pan in the oven is what triggers the polymerization of the oil. And you’re flipping it face-down to prevent excess fat from pooling in the pan (which will cause uneven seasoning) and have it drip down instead.

Are Carbon Steel Pans Dishwasher Safe?

Carbon steel cookware must never go in the dishwasher. The prolonged exposure to moisture and the chemical aggressiveness of dishwasher detergent can strip away the seasoning and cause the pan to rust.

While you can salvage a pan that’s gotten rusty, it takes a good few hours to get rid of all of the rust and re-season the pan, so it’s much better to look after it well in the first place.

How to Clean a Carbon Steel Pan

The good news is that—thanks to the slick and slippery surface provided by the seasoning—a carbon steel pan can be remarkably easy to clean.

Most of the time, all you need to do is wipe the cooking surface down with a paper towel, then give the pan a rinse under running water and pat it completely dry before storage.

Don’t use soap unless you’re planning to re-season your pan immediately after cleaning. Soap and other cleaners designed to remove grease will wash the seasoning on your pan away, which will encourage corrosion and rust and cause foods to stick to it.

Is Carbon Steel a Good Conductor of Heat?

Carbon steel has a thermal conductivity of 54 Watts per meter-Kelvin (W/m-K), comparable to that of cast iron (52 W/m-K), which means it’s not really a great conductor of heat.

To be precise, carbon steel is 4.3 times worse at conducting heat than aluminum, the top choice of metal for ceramic and non-stick pans, and 5.8 times worse than copper, the metal that makes for the most responsive pans and pots on the market.

Still, there are metals that are worse at conducting heat than carbon steel. Grade 304 stainless steel—the kind that’s used in the manufacture of cooking vessels—has a thermal conductivity of only 14.4 W/m-K.

This, by the way, is why most cookware manufacturers bond a thick piece of aluminum to the bottom of their stainless steel cooking vessels or clad layers of aluminum between layers of stainless steel.

Readers eager to know more about the differences between carbon steel and stainless steel can check out my post, “Stainless Steel Cookware Terms, Decoded.”

Do Carbon Steel Pans Warp?

As a general rule of thumb, you don’t want to expose a carbon steel pan to thermal shock, or it may warp.

Carbon steel pans can warp when heated or cooled too abruptly, which can happen on ceramic-glass or induction cooktops and when running a hot pan under the facet, soaking it in cold water, or placing it on a cold countertop.

If you have a glass-ceramic or induction cooktop at home, keep your carbon steel pans from warping by preheating them gradually on medium-low to medium before turning the heat up.

When taking your pans off the heat, place them on a stainless steel trivet that allows them to cool down slowly and naturally (rather than on a stone-cold countertop or a wood cutting board).

Last but not least, never run a hot pan under the facet and don’t soak it in cold water, as the thermal shock can cause it to warp. A warped pan is still usable but will have hot and cold spots that worsen your cooking outcomes.

How Much Do Carbon Steel Skillets Cost?

A good carbon steel skillet doesn’t cost much but can last you well over a lifetime. Most skillets with a diameter of 12 inches, which gives you enough space for your daily cooking, retail for $45 to $65.

That’s one of the things that I love about carbon steel. It allows you to get the products of some of the finest cookware companies in the world at a more than reasonable price, which is something you can’t say for stainless steel or copper.

Who Makes the Best Carbon Steel Pans?

The best carbon steel pans, in our frank opinion, are German-made Merten & Storck, French-made De Buyer, Made In Cookware, and Matfer Bourgeat, and USA-made Lodge.

While there are other good brands out there, be careful not to fall for inferior China-made carbon steel pans—they tend to have deceptively good branding—or for those that come with a non-stick coating, as they’ll only last for 2-3 years before the PTFE coat starts to peel off.

When it comes to cookware, it’s best to go by the saying “buy it nice, or buy it twice.” Seriously, I can’t count the number of times that I’ve bought an item on the cheap, only to have to replace it with the costlier one that I had been eyeing in the first place.

Who Sells Carbon Steel Pans?

If you live in the United States and prefer to shop for cookware in brick-and-mortar stores, Bed Bath & Beyond, The Home Depot, and Walmart carry carbon steel pans. However, the best deals can usually be found online.

For readers who live in other locations, IKEA is a good option. IKEA makes and sells its own carbon steel skillets, which, in our opinion, are good enough for your daily cooking.

Restaurant suppliers are a source of underappreciatedly good carbon steel cookware, as long as they’re willing to sell you one or two pans instead of their usual order for supplying a professional kitchen.

By Jim Stonos

When Jim isn't in the kitchen, he is usually spending time with family and friends, and working with the HCW editorial team to answer the questions he used to ask himself back when he was learning the ropes of cooking.