4 Best Carbon Steel Pans, Tested by Food Network Kitchen
These durable, lightweight pans are beloved by chefs and we fried eggs, seared steaks and baked cornbread to find the best.
Our Top Carbon Steel Pans
Tested by Taylor Murray for Food Network Kitchen
There are so many different kinds of sauté pans on the market, and it can be hard to tell which you actually need and which you can skip. If you only have a few pans in your arsenal, one should definitely be a carbon steel. Durable, lightweight, and versatile, carbon steel pans have been the go-to pan for restaurant chefs for decades and they’re finally making headway into home kitchens.
Carbon steel pans offer a naturally nonstick coating (many nonstick pans use a chemical or ceramic coating) that, once established, cannot be damaged by things like heat or metal utensils. Think of a carbon steel pan like a lightweight alternative to your favorite cast iron pan. Perfect for baking, searing meat, or achieving that perfect golden-brown crust on vegetables, a good carbon steel pan is an essential tool in any kitchen.
What Is a Carbon Steel Pan?
Carbon steel pans are a lot like cast iron, with a few key differences. Cast iron is made by pouring liquid metal into a mold, resulting in one solid piece of metal with no rivets or connections, whereas carbon steel is made by stamping from a sheet of carbon metal. The handle and pan itself will be riveted or welded together and because it’s stamped from a sheet instead of made in a sand mold, the metal can be smoother, thinner, and lighter. The metal alloy used for carbon steel is 99% iron with 1% carbon, a strong combination that allows the pans to be subjected to extremely high heat.
Carbon steel pans tend to have sloped sides that are good for sautéing, searing, or simmering. The sloped sides direct steam and smoke away from the bottom of the pan so that no moisture can collect to disrupt a nice, crisp sear. The durability of these pans makes them great all-around cookware that can go from the stovetop to the oven and back. Carbon steel pans can be used over a raging hot campfire, in a pizza oven, or on a glass or induction cooktop.
What To Know Before Buying a Carbon Steel Pan
One of the key things to remember with carbon steel pans is that washing in a dishwasher is never a good idea. The combination of hot water, steam, and detergent that dishwashers use can wreak havoc on the oil coating of your pan and will most likely cause rust. In most cases, you don’t really need to ever use soap at all. Some hot water and a good ball of steel wool (not the kind with soap added) are more than enough to scrape off any bits of food stuck to the surface. If you make a mistake and accidentally rust your pan, it’s not the end of the world. Simply scrub off the rust and re-season.
Another thing to remember about using a carbon steel pan is that acidic foods can be extremely caustic to the surface of the metal and should be avoided at all costs. A quick spritz of lemon likely won’t kill your nonstick surface, but you should avoid simmering tomato sauce for hours.
How to Season a Carbon Steel Pan
While carbon steel pans can be durable and versatile, they do require a bit of maintenance. With both carbon steel and cast iron, you’ll have to “season” your pan, but what does that really mean? Seasoning refers to the act of using heat to bake oil onto the surface of the pan. Under high heat, the oil becomes carbonized and undergoes a chemical process called polymerization. This coating functions as a nonstick surface as it fills the microscopic pores of the steel it sits on, preventing food from clinging there. Follow the manufacturer's instructions for seasoning your pan for best results.
Whether a pan is pre-seasoned or not, the more layers of seasoning and oil that get baked onto the pan, the thicker this nonstick layer will be. This layer is also why it’s never a good idea to use soap on your carbon steel and cast iron pans. Soap’s main job is to break apart the bonds of oil and fat so they can be washed away. Luckily, some hot water and a stiff scrub brush aren’t strong to break down the seasoning. They just any food particles stuck to it.
How We Tested
Most people that are first interested in carbon steel pans are considering ditching their other nonstick pans for good. The first test we put the carbon steel through was a simple fried egg. After washing, seasoning, or any other first-time use instructions from the manufacturer, we heated a teaspoon of oil over medium heat and cracked a fresh egg in. A few of the eggs glided off within the first few seconds, while others wouldn’t budge even with the help of a fish spatula. Some of the pans with a pre-seasoned coating had a textured surface that seemed to grab onto the eggs and not let go. If you go for a pre-seasoned option, look for one with a nice smooth surface.
After the eggs, we placed strip steaks into each pan dry (no added oil) to determine how evenly the pans could sear. Each steak was cooked on medium heat to a medium internal temperature. When compared side-by-side, we could see clear differences not only in the evenness of the sear, but in the depth as well. The best pans produced both a deep and an even sear with a solid, crunchy crust.
For the final test, we whisked up some batches of Jiffy cornbread and baked them according to the package directions without oiling or buttering the pan first. There was a wide range of results from this test, with some producing a golden-brown crust that popped right out of the pan, and others that fused to the pan completely. The pre-seasoned pans definitely did better on this test than the ones we seasoned ourselves, though it may just be a matter of needing some more rounds of seasoning to achieve that truly nonstick surface.
The carbon steel pan from Merten and Storck comes pre-seasoned and offers a supremely nonstick finish right out of the box. Fried eggs glide right across the surface and cuts of steak achieve a nice, deep, even sear without any added oil. This pan developed a satisfyingly crisp, caramelized crust on the bottom of a batch of cornbread, and hardly a crumb stuck. The even cooking comes at the cost of a heavier pan, potentially too heavy in the hand for some to sauté comfortably. The large size makes up for this small drawback, however, as you’ll be able to cook an entire meal in one pan. With a standard lifetime warranty, the Merten and Storck carbon steel will last decades with only minimal maintenance.
The OXO carbon steel pan is lightweight, super nonstick, and very affordable. For such a budget option, the OXO pan comes pre-seasoned with a coating so nonstick, we never had to scrub it once during testing. After an initial wash, we only wiped it with a damp paper towel in between testing stages. The OXO was able to produce a crisp browned bottom when baking cornbread that popped right out with minimal coaxing and no sticking whatsoever. As a handy feature, the OXO carbon steel comes standard with a silicone handle to make it easier to grip while transferring to the oven, grill, or anywhere else.
For those who want ultimate control over their pan’s seasoning, the de Buyer is a high-quality, thick gauge carbon steel pan with a lifetime guarantee. De Buyer is a French-based company that has been making carbon steel pans for 200 years. Don’t let the seasoning turn you off: It’s as simple as heating a bit of oil in the pan to smoking. While this pan wasn’t quite as nonstick as some of the pre-seasoned ones when it came to our cornbread testing, great seasoning takes time and only gets better. Even with a single initial seasoning, a fried egg released from the pan easily and it gave our strip steak a supremely even and deep sear.
If all you want is a super even sear, the BK carbon steel pan offers a deep and even heat. The BK may not have produced the best results during baking, but was able to give us one of the best results when cooking steak or fried eggs. For those that don’t have plans to bake in their carbon steel pan, the BK is a great option.