When it comes to cookware, there are a lot of different materials to choose from on the shelves. Stainless steel, aluminum, and cast iron are all popular options, but what about carbon steel? This lesser-known material has some distinct advantages over other cookware materials, and it’s growing in popularity. I invested in a carbon steel pan, and it’s my personal favorite for cooking almost anything. Since I got my pan, I wanted to write this comprehensive guide to cover everything about cooking with and caring for carbon steel (mainly so I can refer back). This post covers everything you need to know about getting started with carbon steel, including the best uses for carbon steel, when you should avoid using it, and how to care for your carbon steel cookware, so it lasts for years!
Carbon steel is a metal alloy of iron and carbon, each brand will have its unique blend, but the vast majority of the metal is iron with only a small amount, around 1% or so, of carbon. This mixture creates a dark, heavy-duty metal with excellent heat conductivity so that the whole pan will heat quickly and evenly.
Carbon steel is not corrosion-resistant. Unfortunately, this property means long periods of exposure to corrosive environments like high humidity and hot water will damage carbon steel pans and other pieces in your cookware collection.
These properties make carbon steel cookware perfect for searing meats like chicken thighs, ribeye steaks, or cooking the perfect skin-on salmon.
The final treatment at the factory causes the difference between blue carbon steel and black carbon steel, but there won’t be any difference in the kitchen. It’s just a personal preference on looks, but both blue carbon steel and black carbon steel will change in appearance with seasoning.
Carbon steel and cast iron are similar and often confused; this is understandable because cast iron is another alloy of iron and carbon. Unlike cast iron, though, carbon steel has less carbon in the mixture. This makes carbon steel less brittle, which means manufacturers have to increase the thickness of the pans, and this adds more weight. Using more metal means cast iron pans will have several differences from carbon steel.
- Cast iron skillets will generally weigh about twice as much as the carbon steel equivalent.
- Cast iron will take longer to reach cooking temperature.
- Cast iron has better heat retention, holding a temperature longer after removing the heat.
- The extra carbon content in a cast iron pan makes the end product more brittle.
Stainless steel has many of the same properties as carbon steel, but since it is shiny, most people can tell the difference pretty quickly. Stainless steel is polished because it contains a higher percentage of chromium. The added chromium creates a thin layer on the surface of the pan that protects it from rust and corrosion. This also makes stainless steel more resistant to heat damage, so you can use metal tools without the worry of scratching or damaging the pan because stainless steel is extremely hard.
It also means you can boil water and cook acidic ingredients, like tomato sauce and citrus-based glazes, without worrying about the pan reacting with the foods!
- Stainless steel is non-reactive, so you can cook acidic foods in it without damaging the cookware.
- Weight is dependent upon composition, which can vary widely among brands.
- Stainless steel will generally have a smoother surface.
- Stainless steel is also excellent at retaining heat throughout the cooking process.
Carbon steel pans are best for high heat cooking like searing over an open flame, frying, and stir-frying. The carbon steel pan will heat quickly and evenly to get a nice sear on steaks or a perfectly crispy crust on cornbread with a carbon steel skillet because carbon steel pans are oven safe up to very high temperatures usually around 600 F.
Carbon steel is also an excellent choice for woks since the shape of the pan concentrates the heat in the center.
Carbon steel skillets have been gaining popularity, so more cookware brands are starting to develop carbon steel pieces. Like carbon steel, like cast iron, is pretty commoditized; performance will be largely dependent on how you season and maintain your carbon steel. Other than that, the only fundamental differences will be in the handles.
I prefer the ergonomic handle design from MadeIn, but really it’s up to your personal choice. You can find deals on Amazon for about $50 – $100 for a quality pan that should last a lifetime. If you’re a serious cook and enjoy regularly searing steaks or making one-pan stir fry meals, then a carbon steel pan is a no-brainer. Carbon steel pans are a staple in restaurant kitchens, and the prices mean one carbon steel pan, which is all you need, isn’t out of reach for home cooks.
The downside to carbon steel is that it is reactive, which means it can react with certain types of foods and impact their taste and color. The foods to avoid with carbon steel, and any reactive cookware, are acids like citrus juices, tomatoes, and vinegar. If you’re looking for something that can handle acidic foods and sauces we recommend a stainless-steel saute pan.
Seasoning is the process of creating a non-stick surface on your carbon steel, or cast iron, cookware. Seasoning happens when cooking with fats naturally, so each piece of carbon steel cookware will develop its own unique patina.
You’ll need to season your pan before your first use unless it comes pre-seasoned. The only tools you’ll need are a seasoning oil, a paper towel, some aluminum foil, and, optionally, tongs.
Here are some excellent seasoning oils and their smoke points. You’ll want to use an oil with a smoke point of at least 400 F. Pre-heat your oven below the appropriate smoke point. If you don’t have any of these in your pantry, check the manufacturer’s instructions on any oils you may have for the smoke point.
- Avocado Oil (520 F)
- Canola Oil (400 F)
- Grapeseed Oil (420 F)
- Ghee Oil (465 F)
- Macadamia Nut Oil (410 F)
Line a larger sheet pan or tray with aluminum foil and set it on the level below where you will put the carbon steel.
Out of the Box Seasoning
Most carbon steel pans will come with a very thin coat of oil to protect them during transit from the factory. Wash this off with mild soap and warm water, and then dry the pan thoroughly.
Warm the Pan
Heat the pan over low heat for a few minutes to get it slightly warm. You don’t want it too hot because you’ll be applying the seasoning oil to it, and you do not want to burn yourself.
Coat the Carbon Steel
Use a paper towel and stainless steel tongs, if necessary, to soak up some of the oil and apply a thin coat to the entire pan. It is essential to coat the outside and the inside to protect the whole pan from rust and corrosion.
Heat to the Seasoning Oil’s Smoke Point
Dry off any excess oil and place the carbon steel in the hot oven for about an hour. Turn the oven off and let the pan cool for approximately another hour.
One Coat of Seasoning Complete!
Congratulations! That’s one coat of seasoning, extra seasoning may be required, and you can repeat the seasoning process as much as you want and should do so regularly as you cook with your carbon steel. As you add more coats, the surface will develop a unique individual look and be easier to cook with as the oil will seep into the natural pores in the steel and provide a smooth surface for searing meats. It might not be relatively as smooth as your nonstick pan, but it’ll be very close.
I hope you enjoyed this comprehensive guide to carbon steel. Now that you know everything about it go out and get yourself a quality carbon steel pan! You won’t regret it.