Carbon steel cookware is the most popular cookware in professional kitchens around the world. The French swear by carbon steel for delicate foods like omelets and crepes, chefs in China insist on carbon steel woks, and it’s the go-to choice for restaurant kitchens throughout America.
So, is carbon steel cookware a good choice for home kitchens? And is it a good choice for your kitchen? Let’s examine the pros and cons of carbon steel cookware.
What is Carbon Steel Cookware?
Carbon steel is a steel alloy that is mostly iron, with 1-2% carbon. Carbon makes the steel stronger, harder, and more resistant to high temperatures than simple iron. However, the high iron content of carbon steel cookware makes it extremely similar to cast iron cookware.
If you are familiar with the benefits and care of cooking with cast iron, then you’ll naturally understand how to use carbon steel. In fact, the two materials are so similar that they draw comparisons again and again. Let’s break it down.
Carbon Steel vs. Cast Iron Similarities
High Temperature Tolerance
Both carbon steel and cast iron tolerate high temperatures, and can easily be used for searing, broiling, frying, and other high-heat cooking. This also makes them friendly for restaurant environments where they may be at high heat for hours at a time, cooking dish after dish.
Stovetop to Oven
Both cast iron and carbon steel can be used on the stovetop and in the oven, so you can cook and bake in the same pan or start a dish on the stovetop and finish it under the broiler.
With proper care, both cast iron cookware and carbon steel cookware can last for decades. Many people have carbon steel cookware that has been passed down in the family.
The high iron content in both types of cookware allow them to be used with induction cooking.
A well-seasoned cast iron or carbon steel pan is nonstick, with a coating that is eco-friendly and nontoxic, and lasts forever, unlike commercial nonstick coatings that deteriorate over time. While the details differ slightly, both cast iron and carbon steel cookware require seasoning to create this coating. Seasoning not only makes the pan nonstick, it simplifies cleaning and reduces the reactive properties of the metal.
Speaking of reactivity, neither cast iron nor carbon steel should be used to cook acidic foods. The acids in tomatoes and citrus will react with the metal in the pan, affecting the flavor of your food. A very well-seasoned pan will reduce or prevent this reaction, but it’s best to keep the cookware away from acidic foods.
When exposed to water, both cast iron and carbon steel cookware is prone to rust. This cookware needs to be cleaned in a way that preserves the seasoning and can’t be soaked in water.
While the handles are made differently, both carbon steel and cast iron pans usually do not have any type of insulation or heat protection on the handles. This makes them oven-safe, but also makes the handles hot to the touch.
Carbon Steel vs. Cast Iron Differences
Carbon steel is much lighter in weight than cast iron.
Carbon steel cookware heats up more quickly than cast iron.
While both types of cookware retain heat better than many other materials, cast iron retains heat better than carbon steel.
Generally speaking, carbon steel pans have sloped sides, designed for flipping foods, while cast iron pans have straight sides, designed to give a larger surface area for browning.
Most of the time, cast iron pans have a handle that is forged into the body of the pan itself, making them incredibly durable for generations. Carbon steel pans typically have handles that are riveted onto the pan. They are designed to last for decades, and can easily be repaired, but aren’t quite as durable as cast iron.
Carbon Steel Cookware Pros
In case you can’t tell by now, carbon steel cookware has a lot of advantages. Here are the pros:
Versatile for All Foods
Instead of using specific pots and pans for specific foods, carbon steel lets you cook delicate foods, sticky foods, brown, fry, sear, and even bake in the same pans.
Nontoxic, Nonstick Forever
A seasoned coating only gets more nonstick over time, with a surface that doesn’t wear away and reduce the life of the pan.
The nonstick coating also makes these pans easy to clean and easy to maintain.
High Temperature Tolerance
They easily withstand extremely high temperatures.
Lighter Than Cast Iron
While carbon steel cookware isn’t the lightest of all the options, it is lighter and more maneuverable than cast iron.
Properly cared for, carbon steel cookware can last for decades.
If you are transitioning to induction cooking, these pans won’t miss a step.
Carbon Steel Cookware Cons
Of course, carbon steel cookware isn’t perfect. Here are some of the disadvantages.
While a well-seasoned pan will react less, it’s always a good idea to avoid cooking acidic foods in carbon steel.
Carbon steel cookware will rust when exposed to water for long periods.
Difficult to Clean
Fans of seasoned pans will point out that they aren’t at all difficult to clean. But for the cook who wants to simply pop their cookware into the dishwasher, maintaining carbon steel requires a bit more effort.
Bottom Isn’t Flat
The bottoms of most carbon steel pans aren’t perfectly flat. That can lead to hot spots when cooking on flat-top ranges.
How to Season a Carbon Steel Pan
For people who are accustomed to seasoning, it’s incredibly simple and takes no time at all. For people who aren’t used to it, it can be a bit of a challenge. Here is a simple breakdown of how to season a carbon steel pan.
Some carbon steel pans come “pre-seasoned.” The manufacturer coats the pan with a layer of oil or beeswax before packaging it, but this is primarily intended to keep the pan from rusting while it’s in a warehouse or on store shelves, and isn’t intended to replace the seasoning you will need to do. In fact, you need to begin by removing this coating before seasoning the pan yourself.
- Using very hot water and a bristle brush, scrub the new pan thoroughly with mild dish soap.
- Dry the pan with a towel, then place it on a burner with low heat to allow the rest of the moisture to evaporate and open the pores of the pan.
- While the pan is warming, place a foil-lined baking sheet in the bottom rack of the oven.
- Preheat the oven to 400-450°F (or set it to just at the smoke point of the oil or wax you will use on your pan).
- Remove your pan from the burner.
- Using a paper towel dipped in oil, wipe the entire inside of the pan, coating it all the way to the rim. Use tongs to hold the paper towel if your pan is uncomfortably hot.
- Place the hot, oiled pan in the oven, face down on the center rack, above your foil-lined sheet.
- Cook the pan in the oven for an hour at 400-450°F. If you see some wisps of smoke, that is normal.
- After an hour, turn the oven off, but leave the pan in the closed oven until it has completely cooled.
- When cooled, your pan will be darker in color, and the surface should have a mild sheen to it.
- You can now cook in the pan or repeat this process to achieve a deeper level of seasoning.
Seasoning Should Be Repeated
- Any time you notice foods beginning to stick in the pan
- Any time you need to wash the pan with soap and water to remove any burnt-on foods
- Any time you cook with acidic foods
How to Clean a Seasoned Carbon Steel Pan
Once your pan is seasoned, it should be cleaned carefully to preserve the nonstick surface. Here’s how to clean a seasoned carbon steel pan.
- After cooking, while the pan is still warm, wipe it out with a dish cloth or paper towel to remove any reside.
- If food is stuck or burnt onto the surface, use a gentle brush or sponge and a very small amount of water to scrub the affected area.
- Once the pan is wiped clean, dry it completely. You may want to place it back onto a warm burner for a few minutes to ensure that all moisture has evaporated.
- Once the pan is completely dry, check the surface for a smooth, even, glossy coating. If the pan looks dry or spotty, you may need to re-season the pan.
Carbon steel cookware is incredibly popular for its versatility, durability, and healthy nonstick surface. It’s a great choice for home cooks who want cookware that will last forever and get better every year.