What Is a Carbon Steel Pan — and Do You Need One?
Does this durable cookware deserve a place on your pot rack? The pros, cons and best picks for carbon steel skillets.
Restaurant cooks have used carbon steel pans for years because they’re durable enough for heavy-duty use and provide the best of both cast iron and stainless steel cookware. These pans are now making their way into home kitchens, so what do you need to know about them?
Carbon steel pans are similar to cast iron pans, in that they are made mostly of iron: 99 percent, in fact, with 1 percent carbon. That’s only 1 or 2 percent less carbon than cast iron, but it makes the metal smoother and less brittle, which translates to a lighter pan that can easily develop a nonstick surface. They also tend to be thinner, so they heat quickly, like stainless steel.
In addition, while cast iron skillets tend to have straight sides — great for frying chicken or baking cornbread — carbon steel skillets often have sloped sides, which makes them ideal for sautéing and the in-pan tossing that chefs like to employ. The sloped sides also make the pans suited to stir-frying as well as searing.
What Are the Pros of Carbon Steel Pans?
There are a lot of benefits to adding a carbon steel skillet to your arsenal:
- Great choice for searing: These pans heat quickly and transfer heat nicely to create even browning. They also have a smoother surface, so they provide great contact for searing.
- Goes from stovetop to oven or broiler: The solid metal construction means that, in most cases, the whole pan is safe for sautéing, frying and stir-frying on the stovetop as well as roasting, baking and broiling in the oven. This ability makes the pan versatile and is especially nice for cuts of meat you might start with a sear on a burner and finish in the oven.
- Builds up a natural nonstick coating: Like cast iron pans, carbon steel pans need to be seasoned with oil so they don’t rust. Seasoning (coating with a high-smoke-point oil, heating and cooling) helps the pan develop a dark (sometimes shiny black) patina that creates a nonstick coating over time. With proper care — wiping out or hand washing, drying to prevent rust and seasoning as needed — you’ll have a natural nonstick coating that both rivals and outlasts chemical coatings.
- Works on any cooktop and with any tools: In addition to gas and electric ranges, these pans work on glass and induction cooktops as well as on grills and smokers — even over campfires. You’re also free to use metal utensils without fear of scratching the pan.
What Are the Cons of Carbon Steel Pans?
But there are downsides to carbon steel as an everyday cookware material:
- Not dishwasher safe: Carbon steel is not necessarily hard to clean, but it's not dishwasher safe. In some cases, you can just wipe it out. If not, you can wash it by hand. If you have a busy kitchen, it’s worth noting that you can’t stick a carbon steel pan in the dishwasher and be done. You need to dry it well and keep it seasoned to maintain the nonstick patina.
- Not suited for acidic sauces: These pans are not the best choice for braising in wine or simmering a tomato sauce. The acid in foods like these can strip away the seasoning of the pan and leave them at risk of rusting over time.
- Some arrive coated in wax: Some brand-new carbon steel pans are shipped with a waxy barrier to prevent rusting before the pan is seasoned. This means you must clean away the barrier as well as season the pan before you can use it.
Takeaway: Carbon steel pans are a good choice if you want to avoid synthetic nonstick coatings or if you’re looking for the virtues of cast iron but want or need a pan that’s easier to lift. They’re also a versatile choice that makes sense for anyone building a collection or creating a limited cookware set for a second home or a dorm room.
Best Carbon Steel Pans to Buy
Lodge is a longtime household name for cast iron cookware, and the company introduced carbon steel pans back in 2013. The low sides of this pan make it ideal for searing — the shallow design presents less risk of steaming — and for maneuvering when flipping eggs, pancakes or burgers. The biggest pro with the Lodge pan is that it arrives ready to go: The skillet is seasoned at the company’s foundry in Tennessee, so you can start using it right away. Then all you have to do is maintain the patina by seasoning with oil as needed.
Made In lists this 10-inch carbon steel pan as a best seller. It has high, sloped sides that make the pan versatile enough for shallow frying, stir-frying and sautéing. It’s oven-safe up to 1,200 degrees F, well beyond the maximum temperature a home oven can reach. (It's ideal for using in a pizza oven that can reach up to 900 degrees F.) The pan does not come pre-seasoned, but you can purchase their carbon steel seasoning wax to create your nonstick coating before use. Nice bonus: For an extra $20, you can have the handle engraved with a short name or phrase to personalize your pan.
This single-sheet stamped pan is oven safe to any temperature, so it’s good for roasting, baking and broiling as well as stovetop cooking like sautéing and stir-frying. But the real standout for this pick is the welded handle: Many carbon steel pans have rivets, which can trap food; the welded handle keeps the connection smooth, making the Matfer Bourgeat easier to clean up and season. It will arrive with a protective coating that you’ll need to remove before seasoning and using.