It’s more than just a pan. It’s a family heirloom. Here’s how to season it, and season it well.
A carbon steel pan is a real boon in the home kitchen. It holds on to heat and transfers it to the food evenly, much like cast iron. But carbon steel pans also heat up faster than cast iron skillets do, are lighter to lift and carry, and have a smoother, less sticky cooking surface.
As you very well know since you’re here reading this, carbon steel pans must be seasoned, or they will corrode and rust. And if you’ve never done this before, the sheer number of methods out there—which often conflict with one another—on can be overwhelming.
We think the method below is the simplest, although it admittedly takes time. What we like about it is that it’s hard to mess up, and it yields consistently good results no matter what kind of stove (gas, electric, or induction) you have in your home.
How to Season a Carbon Steel Pan, Step by Step
Time needed: 1 hour and 15 minutes.
You will need cooking oil and a roll of paper towels.
- Preheat the oven
Adjust the oven rack to the middle position and place a pan lined with aluminum foil under the rack. Preheat the oven to 400°F / 200°C while you work your way through the steps in this list.
- Wash the factory coating away
Did you notice how sticky your carbon steel pan feels? This is because new carbon steel pans have a protective factory coating of beeswax or silicone. This coating protects them from corrosion and rust, but it must also be washed away before seasoning and first use. Rinse the pan with hot soapy water and a scrub sponge.
- Dry the pan
Carbon steel rusts quickly, so act fast. Pat the pan dry with a paper towel. Now put it on the burner, set the heat to medium, and keep it that way for 5 minutes to evaporate any leftover moisture. When the pan is still warm but no longer too hot to touch, continue to the next step.
- Rub cooking oil on the pan
Add a tiny dollop of cooking oil to the center of the pan. Rub it on the bottom and sides of the cooking surface, as well as on the exterior walls and underside of the pan’s body. Use another paper towel to wipe the excess oil away—you don’t want the oil dripping down the sides or pooling on the bottom.
- Bake the pan upside down in the oven
Things are about to get smoky. Open the windows, turn the range hood on to the highest setting, and send the kids off to play somewhere else. Place the pan upside down in the hot oven and bake it for 1 hour so the oil polymerizes on the metal. The oil will start to smoke, and your carbon steel pan will change color from metallic silver to golden brown.
- Let the pan cool
Turn the oven off and leave the pan inside. When it has cooled down and is no longer too hot to handle, it’s ready to stash away in the cabinet or cook in.
What’s the Best Oil for Seasoning Carbon Steel?
The edible fats in our kitchens can be saturated or unsaturated.
Saturated fats like bacon fat, lard, poultry fat, or tallow solidify at room temperature, whereas unsaturated fats like plant oils stay liquid. As Doctor of Polymer Chemistry Zac Hudson explains to the YouTube audience of Cook Culture, unsaturated fats bond to the iron in our pans more readily than saturated fats, which is why plant oils are better than animal fats for seasoning.
But not all plant oils are the same. As a general rule, you want to season your carbon steel pan with a plant oil with a neutral flavor, low fiber content, and high smoke point. (Should you be wondering, the low fiber content and high smoke point are so the oil doesn’t burn and make your first few dishes taste bitter.
To put it simply: To season a carbon steel pan, use canola oil, flaxseed oil, grapeseed oil, soybean oil, or sunflower oil. These oils will form proper bonds with the iron and polymerize well. Avoid animal fats, butter, or extra virgin olive oil.
Can You Season a Carbon Steel Pan on the Stovetop?
Many online guides will instruct you to season your carbon steel pan on the stovetop. And if you own a gas stove, that’s perfectly fine—the blue flames from the burner will heat the sides of the pan and season it wonderfully well.
If you own an electric or induction cooktop, it’s better to season your carbon steel pan in the oven. The oily underside of the pan will stain the glass-ceramic surface, and you’ll have additional cleaning to do once you’re done.
When in doubt, use the oven. It is the best and easiest way to achieve consistent results when seasoning a carbon steel pan.
Which Foods to Cook First in a Newly Seasoned Pan?
Build up the seasoning in your first few uses of the pan by preparing fatty foods with plenty of butter, clarified butter, or cooking oil. Some of my favorite things to do in a newly seasoned pan are browning bacon, searing a steak, or frying pork chops.
If you’ve just laid down the meat in the pan, don’t hurry to move it immediately. The proteins on the surface of the meat will stick to the metal at first, then release themselves once they’ve gotten a slight sear. If bits and pieces stick to the pan, scrape them off with a wooden spatula.
Now, if the pan is excessively sticky, you may need to season it a second time. The exterior is already seasoned, so you can focus only on the cooking surface. Give the bottom and sides a good soapdown. Pat the pan dry and heat to get rid of excess moisture. Apply a very thin coat of oil, and heat over medium-high on the stove until the pan starts to smoke and the seasoning turns brown.
Which Foods Shouldn’t You Cook in Carbon Steel?
Carbon steel pans are meant for cooking dry, alkaline foods. Any acidic ingredients or liquids belong nowhere near these pans. The acid will strip the seasoning off and react with the iron in the pan. As a result, the pan’s seasoning will be ruined and the dish will have a metallic aftertaste.
Avoid recipes that call for the addition of citrus juice, tomatoes (whether fresh, canned, or preserved in oil), tomato sauce, vinegar, or wine. Such dishes require an inert pan, be it ceramic, non-stick, or stainless steel.