There are so many kinds of sauté pans on the market that it can be hard to know which ones you need and which ones you can do without. If you only have a few pans, you should make sure that one of them is made of carbon steel. Carbon steel pans have been the go-to pan for restaurant chefs for decades because they are strong, light, and useful. They are finally making their way into home kitchens.
Carbon steel pans have a coating that makes them naturally nonstick. Most nonstick pans use a chemical or ceramic coating. Once the coating is set, heat or metal utensils can’t damage it. A carbon steel pan is like a lighter version of your favourite cast iron pan. A good carbon steel pan is an important part of any kitchen. It can be used for baking, searing meat, or giving vegetables the perfect golden-brown crust.
What Is a Carbon Steel Pan?
Carbon steel pans are similar to cast iron in many ways, but there are a few key differences. Cast iron is made by pouring molten metal into a mould. This makes one solid piece of metal with no joints or rivets. Carbon steel, on the other hand, is made by stamping a sheet of carbon metal. The handle and the pan itself will be riveted or welded together. Since it’s not made in a sand mould, the metal can be smoother, thinner, and lighter. Carbon steel is a metal alloy made of 99% iron and 1% carbon. This is a strong mix that makes it possible for pans to be heated to very high temperatures.
Most carbon steel pans have sides that slope down, which makes them good for sautéing, searing, or simmering. The sides of the pan slope away from the bottom, which keeps steam and smoke from building up and making the sear less crisp. These pans are made to last, so you can use them on the stove, in the oven, and everywhere in between. Carbon steel pans can be used over a roaring campfire, in a pizza oven, or on a glass or induction cooktop.
What To Know About Carbon Steel Pans
One of the most important things to remember about carbon steel pans is that they should never be washed in a dishwasher. The hot water, steam, and detergent that are used in dishwashers can ruin the oil coating on your pan and probably cause it to rust. Most of the time, you don’t need to use soap at all. Any food stuck to the surface can be scraped off with hot water and a good ball of steel wool (not the kind with soap added). It’s not the end of the world if you make a mistake and rust your pan. Just scrub off the rust and start over.
When using a carbon steel pan, you should also remember that acidic foods can damage the surface of the metal very badly and should be avoided at all costs. Most likely, a quick spray of lemon won’t ruin a nonstick surface, but you shouldn’t let tomato sauce simmer for hours.
How to Season a Carbon Steel Pan
Carbon steel pans can be durable and useful, but they do need to be cared for. You have to “season” both carbon steel and cast iron pans, but what does that really mean? Seasoning means to bake oil onto the surface of the pan with heat. When the oil gets very hot, it turns into carbon and goes through a chemical process called polymerization. This coating works as a nonstick surface because it fills the tiny holes in the steel it’s on, making it impossible for food to stick there. Follow the directions for seasoning your pan that came with it for the best results.
Whether a pan is already seasoned or not, the nonstick layer will be thicker the more layers of seasoning and oil are baked onto the pan. Because of this layer, you should never use soap on carbon steel or cast iron pans. The main job of soap is to break up the bonds between oil and fat so that they can be washed away. Even with hot water and a stiff scrub brush, the seasoning doesn’t come apart. They just got bits of food stuck on it.
How We Tested
Most people who are interested in carbon steel pans for the first time are thinking about getting rid of their other nonstick pans for good. The first thing we did to test the carbon steel was fry an egg. After washing, seasoning, or doing anything else the manufacturer said to do before the first use, we heated a teaspoon of oil over medium heat and cracked a fresh egg into it. Some of the eggs slid off in the first few seconds, while others wouldn’t move even with the help of a fish spatula. Some of the pans that had already been seasoned had rough surfaces that seemed to grab the eggs and not let go. If you choose something that has already been seasoned, look for one that has a nice smooth surface.
After the eggs, we put dry (no oil) strip steaks in each pan to see how evenly they could sear. Each steak was cooked over medium heat until the temperature inside was also medium. When we looked at them side by side, we could see that the sear was not only different in how even it was, but also in how deep it went. The best pans made a solid, crunchy crust that was both deep and even.
For the last test, we mixed up some Jiffy cornbread and baked it according to the directions on the box, but we didn’t grease or butter the pan first. The results of this test were very different. Some had a golden-brown crust that popped right out of the pan, while others stuck completely to the pan. In this test, the pans that came already seasoned did much better than the ones we seasoned ourselves. However, it’s possible that we just need a few more rounds of seasoning to get a truly nonstick surface.
Our Top Carbon Steel Pans
- Best Overall Carbon Steel Pan: Merten and Storck Carbon Steel Pan
- Best Value: OXO Carbon Steel Obsidian Pan
- Best Splurge: de Buyer Carbon Steel Pan
- Best for Searing: BK Pre-Seasoned Carbon Steel Pan
1. Best Overall: Merten and Storck Carbon Steel Pan
The carbon steel pan from Merten and Storck doesn’t stick at all right out of the box because it has already been seasoned. Without any added oil, fried eggs slide right across the surface and steak cuts get a nice, deep, even sear. The bottom of a batch of cornbread baked in this pan got crisp and caramelised, and almost no crumbs stuck. Even cooking comes at the cost of a pan that is heavier and might be too heavy for some people to sauté with. The small downside is that you can’t cook a whole meal in one pan. However, the large size makes up for this. Merten and Storck carbon steel comes with a warranty that lasts for life and will last for decades with only minor maintenance.
2. Best Value: OXO Carbon Steel Obsidian Pan
The OXO carbon steel pan is cheap, easy to carry, and doesn’t stick at all. For a cheap option, the OXO pan comes with a coating that doesn’t stick so well that we never had to scrub it once while testing it. After the first wash, we just used a damp paper towel to clean it between tests. When baking cornbread, the OXO was able to make a crisp, browned bottom that popped right out with only a little help and didn’t stick at all. The OXO carbon steel comes with a silicone handle that makes it easier to hold when moving it to the oven, grill, or anywhere else.
3. Best Splurge: de Buyer Carbon Steel Pan
4. Best for Searing: BK Pre-Seasoned Carbon Steel Pan
If all you want is a really even sear, the BK carbon steel pan has a deep and even heat. The BK may not have been the best when it came to baking, but it was one of the best when it came to cooking steak or eggs. The BK is a great choice for people who don’t plan to bake in their carbon steel pan.
In conclusion, carbon steel cookware is a versatile and durable option for the home cook. To get the most out of your carbon steel pan, it’s important to properly season it before use, use a high smoke point oil, and keep in mind that it will not be as non-stick as a Teflon-coated pan. But with a little bit of patience and the right techniques, you can cook up some delicious meals in your carbon steel pan that will impress any foodie. So, don’t be afraid to try out this cooking tool and experiment with different dishes to see how carbon steel can elevate your cooking game.