An Expert Guide to Carbon Steel Pans

Published on 12/06/2023 · 14 min readMaster the art of cooking with an expert guide to carbon steel pans. Unlock the potential of this versatile kitchen essential for elevated culinary experiences!
Jane M., Kitchen Expert
By Kitchen Expert Jane M.

Photo by Studio113

TL;DR: Carbon steel may not be something you’ve ever considered, but there are good reasons to take a look at some of the options. Want to quickly sear a filet mignon or chicken breast, delicately brown scallops, stir-fry veggies, or make perfect crêpes? Then, it’s worth adding carbon steel into the mix of cookware in your kitchen.

My primary experience with carbon steel comes from assisting in several cooking classes on recipes to make in a wok. How does traditional pad Thai, Chinese five-spice pork, and stir-fried long beans sound? In a word: Yum!

If you hear the term “carbon steel” or sometimes “blue steel,” you might immediately think of woks, but there are other types of pans made out of carbon steel. You might also compare carbon steel to cast iron, as both materials share similar qualities. You could have the impression this cookware is relevant only for professional chefs and industrial kitchens. But carbon steel pans are becoming more popular for home cooks, and several high-quality brands offer a variety of options.

Let’s take a look at what carbon steel is and how it compares to other materials.

What is Carbon Steel Cookware?

Photo by Pixel Shot

Carbon steel contains more carbon than other types of steel. Like cast iron and stainless steel cookware, carbon steel is an alloy of carbon and iron. The main difference is it has lower chromium levels. While it is often compared to cast iron, carbon steel is generally thinner, lighter. and smoother than cast iron.

Like cast iron, carbon steel is excellent for high temperatures, making it perfect for certain applications like stir-frying vegetables or searing meat. Carbon steel pans also get layers of seasoning over time, which makes them nonstick. It’s also considered a safe and non-toxic material. But remember that, like cast iron, carbon steel requires careful cleaning and drying to avoid rust.

Carbon steel cookware is typically cut from a sheet of metal and then heat-treated. The handles are riveted or welded on. Conversely, cast iron pans are made from a mold, so the handles and pan are in one piece, making the pan feel denser and heavier.

Stainless steel pans can be made in similar ways to carbon steel, but since stainless steel isn’t a great heat conductor, exterior layers of aluminum or copper are bonded on. How manufacturers bond the materials—either just to the bottom or throughout—makes a difference in how the pans work and what they cost.

Like their cast iron and stainless steel cousins, carbon steel pans are versatile kitchen workhorses. While chefs have traditionally favored carbon steel, these pans are becoming more popular with home cooks who like their consistent performance.

What to Consider When Buying Carbon Steel Pans

What Is Carbon Steel Good For?

Think hot and fast cooking. The heat conductivity and heat retention of carbon steel is a major advantage. If you’re a fan of cast iron cooking, you might like that carbon steel is lighter and smoother. Any kind of searing, browning, and stir-frying are ideal candidates for a carbon steel pan. They're ideal for steaks in particular, and some cooks like them even for eggs or for use on the grill.

What’s the Benefit of Having a Seasoned Pan?

Like cast iron pans, carbon steel pans become seasoned over time, thus becoming naturally nonstick the more they are used. This nonstick quality also means you can use less oil, which is a potential health benefit for dishes that can be quickly fried without having the disadvantage of being laden in oil.

What are the Downsides of Carbon Steel?

  • Maintenance: First and foremost, carbon steel pans require similar maintenance as cast iron pans. They need to be cleaned by hand, kept dry, and seasoned. They also aren’t ideal for highly acidic sauces and foods like tomatoes, which can interact with the metal. Finally, you need to make sure you store them in a dry place without humidity or moisture, so you don’t risk having the pan get rusted.
  • Quality: Some lower-quality carbon steel pans, which are easier to make and less expensive, can lead to a metallic flavor that penetrates food. Lower-quality carbon steel can warp, dent, and rust over time, which is one reason to pay attention to the brand name and carefully review the product specifications.
  • Appearance: Because carbon steel pans are seasoned, they can look blotchy and blackened. From an aesthetic perspective, some cooks simply may not like the appearance of a carbon steel pan compared to their other pans, which by comparison look clean and shiny. Carbon steel aficionados, however, will likely say that the blackened appearance is precisely what gives dishes that extra oomph in flavor and helps the pan conduct heat well for cooking—it only gets better over time.

What Are the Different Types of Carbon Steel Pans?

Wok

Woks can be made out of different types of materials, but the most popular and traditional material is carbon steel. Joyce Chen traditional woks have been on the market for a long time and feature handles on both sides, which some cooks may especially appreciate. Chen’s reputation and work as a chef, restaurant owner, cookbook author, and television personality were instrumental in bringing Asian cooking into the American home. There is now a wide variety of woks on the market from well-known brands, such as the Misen 12-inch wok and the Oxo Obsidian 12-inch wok.

Benefits:

  • Carbon steel helps woks hold their shape, and they’re excellent heat conductors. Wok recipes are often lively and vibrant. They come together quickly and are forgiving in that you can typically make substitutions with ingredients you have on hand.

Be Aware:

  • Some lower-quality woks can warp, bend, and rust. Woks also typically come coated in beeswax, which you need to remove first and then season the wok before using.

Frying Pan

Merten & Storck's 8-inch fry pan. Photo by Merten and Storck

Merten & Storck’s 8-inch fry pan (it also comes in a 10-inch size) is consistently rated as a top performer in the carbon steel frying pan category. Think about what you typically like to cook to determine what size pan(s) you’ll want.

Benefits:

  • Merten & Storck emphasizes that its pan is half the weight of carbon steel, just as durable, and has a handle that makes it easy to maneuver and transfer the pan from the stovetop to the oven.

Be Aware:

  • If you absolutely like to wash your frying pans in the dishwasher or let them soak in the sink, this isn’t the frying pan for you.

Skillet

The Viking 12-inch frying pan. Photo courtesy of Viking

A carbon steel skillet, like the Viking 12-inch frying pan, has all the advantages of a cast iron skillet without the weight. If you don’t have a wok, this larger-sized skillet can also be a great stand-in.

Benefits:

  • The carbon steel makes this a great option for high-heat cooking, which isn’t always recommended for some stainless steel pans. And the lighter weight helps confident cooks shake and flip the pan to move food around, which isn’t easily done (or impossible) with a cast iron pan.

Be Aware:

  • As mentioned, some cooks simply may not want to keep up with seasoning and cleaning the pan.

Crêpe Pan

When you love regularly making crêpes, it makes sense to have a pan that’s designed for making them perfectly. OXO’s 10-inch crêpe pan fits the bill. Crêpe pans have low sides that make flipping even very thin crêpes simple.

Benefits:

  • Crêpes can be tricky. They can easily break, be difficult to flip, and well, easily become a flop. A good crêpe pan can make the job that much easier, with more consistent results.

Be Aware:

  • It takes practice to make good crêpes. If you don’t make them regularly, you may prefer a nonstick pan that you don’t have to regularly use to get the best seasoning.

Grill Pan

Merten and Storck's 11-inch carbon steel grill pan. Photo courtesy of Merten and Storck

A grill pan is ideal if you want to cook meat. The ridges in the pan allow fat to drip down and the meat to get a nice sear. Merten and Storck’s 11-inch carbon steel grill pan features high ridges to let fat filter down and a pouring spout for draining.

Benefits:

  • These pans can take the heat, which is perfect when you want to cook something like a filet mignon, searing it on the stovetop and then finishing it in the oven.

Be Aware: Grill pans are a pain to clean.

Roaster

The Merten & Storck Carbon Steel Roasting Pan. Photo courtesy of Merten and Storck

There are several options for carbon steel roasting pans, like one from Merten & Storck or OXO, both of which come with racks. A high-end option is a round roaster from Smithey.

Benefits:

  • Carbon steel roasters can generally go into a hotter oven than a roaster made from a different material. For example, a Merten & Storck’s roaster can withstand up to 660°F and can also be used in outdoor cooking. And you might only think of uses such as roasting larger pieces of meat like a whole chicken or pork roast, but you can use this pan for other times when you need a deep pan with higher sides, like for making a lasagna or another large casserole.

Be Aware:

  • Cleaning is a prime consideration here again, as roasting large pieces of meat can be a messy proposition.

Specialty Pans

You can find specialty carbon steel pans, such as ones designed for paella or tortillas. Obviously, they make sense when you know you like making those dishes regularly. I once owned a lovely paella pan that I used for paella exactly twice (fortunately, I used the pan for other dishes, so it didn’t sit collecting dust).

Features to Look for When Buying a Carbon Steel Pan

Size

As with any pan purchase, you’ll want to buy a size that’s suitable for the different types of food and recipes you want to cook.

Design and Handles

Carbon steel pans have different thicknesses, which will clue you in to quality and durability. Have you ever seen a low-cost wok that got bent on one side? It happens. So you’ll want to carefully review the specs detailing the construction of the pan.

As with cast iron pans, the handles of carbon steel pans can get very hot, especially when you’re cooking at high temperatures. Some vendors offer silicone sleeves. Look for a handle design and materials that feel comfortable and protect your hands. You want to make sure that the handle works well in the oven if the manufacturer says the pan can go from stovetop to oven, which some dishes require for finishing under the broiler.

Seasoning

Many carbon steel pans come pre-seasoned, so you can get up and running. But remember, carbon steel pans are designed to get a nonstick patina the more you use them. So that means you don’t want them sitting in the cabinet getting lonely and underutilized. As with cast iron, you don’t want to use cooking spray for seasoning. Ideally, use a neutral oil that tolerates a high heat point, such as grapeseed or canola.

Price

Carbon steel pans can range in price from just under $50 to more than $100. Overall, however, they can be a great deal compared to high-quality stainless steel pans like All-Clad. Lodge cast iron pans tend to be less expensive, but again, one reason cooks and chefs prefer carbon steel is because it’s lighter and easier to lift, move, shift, and transfer.

Cleaning

As mentioned previously, carbon steel pans require special cleaning and care. When I used woks in cooking classes, we never used soap. Mostly, we cleaned the woks with hot water and a brush, not a scouring pad. Soap can leach into the seasoned surface and ruin your nonstick coating. And it’s critical that you keep your carbon steel pans dry and use a paper towel immediately after washing. Carbon steel pans aren’t designed to sit in the sink and soak. You have to be committed to cleaning and drying your carbon steel pans. And remember that some carbon steel pans come out of the box coated in wax, which you need to remove before using.

Ease of Use

Some cooks may find carbon steel difficult to work with, especially if they’re using an electric oven and don’t have as much control over temperature as you do with a gas stove. That said, carbon steel pans can work with any type of oven, whether electric, gas, or an induction cooktop. Another advantage of carbon steel is that it's fine to use metal utensils with these pans.

Ideally, I think carbon steel is a great option when you have an open flame, whether on a gas stove or grill, and they even offer heat distribution and heat retention. When we advised home cooks about using a wok on an electric stove, we would recommend having two burners ready. Since electric stove top burners take a while to cool down, if you need to shift the cooking from a high temperature to a lower temperature, you have more control if you go from one burner to another set at the desired temperature.

How to Choose the Right Pan for You

Danny: The First-Time Carbon Steel User

As a meat lover, Danny primarily enjoys using the outdoor grill (which he often measures with the time it takes him to have a nice cold beer!), but not so much in the wintertime. He decided to venture into carbon steel territory by first trying thick center-cut smoked pork chops. He loved using a carbon steel grill pan to get the same effect of nice grill marks on the meat, and like the grill, these cooked relatively quickly and stayed moist and tender.

Features Danny should look for:

  • A pan that works well both indoors and outdoors over open flames.
  • A pan that can fit meat, including larger cuts and chops.

Carbon steel pan example(s): Merten & Storck Grill Pan, $59.99, Merten & Storck Carbon Steel Roaster, $59.99,Viking Blue Steel 12-Inch Fry Pan, 89.99

Marie: The Explorer

Marie loves trying different ethnic cuisines and went to a nearby cooking school to take a class on Thai recipes. She loves experimenting with different spices and ingredients, and she got excited going to her local Asian market to buy fish sauce, soy sauce, lemongrass, ginger, holy basil, Thai chilies, tamarind pulp, palm sugar, and rice noodles. She has been using her wok at least a couple of times each week and loves the way it’s gradually getting seasoned. She’d like to keep exploring various Asian cuisines, including Chinese and Vietnamese.

Features Marie should look for:

  • A traditional wok that isn’t nonstick or stainless steel to make authentic Asian dishes.
  • A high-quality wok that’s deep enough for noodles and sauces, preferably with a lid and a handle that’s shaped to be comfortable and stay cool.
  • Because Marie has an induction oven, she needs to make sure the pan has a flat bottom and is approved for induction cooktops.

Carbon steel pan example(s): Misen 12-Inch Carbon Steel Wok, $119, Zwilling Dragon 12-Inch Carbon Steel Wok with Lid

John: The Seasoned Cook

John has a great collection of stainless steel and cast iron cookware. He’s been confidently cooking for the last 10 years, and he considers it a personal challenge to perfect classic recipes. One thing that has really bugged him is cooking scallops. He can never get just the right browned caramelization on the outside that he’s aiming for in either his stainless steel or cast iron skillet, or even on the grill. Invariably, the scallops tend to stick. He wants to see if a carbon steel pan will help him perfect his scallops on his gas stove. He’d like a pan that he can also use for a variety of recipes, and he would prefer not having to store a wok, so a carbon steel skillet can offer similar benefits with high heat for stir frying vegetables.

Features John should look for:

  • High-quality carbon steel that’s long-lasting and versatile
  • A reputable brand that has been highly rated and well tested
  • A lifetime warranty

Carbon steel pan example(s): DeBuyer 11-Inch Mineral B Pro Carbon Steel Fry Pan, $115, Misen Preseasoned 12-Inch Carbon Steel Pan, $90, Made In Blue Carbon Steel Frying Pan Set, $239

Find the Best Carbon Steel Pan for You

Carbon steel pans are worthwhile to have in your repertoire when you don’t want the heaviness of a cast iron pan or simply want to try other types of cookware. They’re affordable given their durability, and they’ll last a long time (with higher-end products often offering a lifetime warranty). With a little extra attention in cleaning and seasoning, you can get consistently great results. There’s also something fun about seeing your own pans get seasoned over time as a testament to your cooking endeavors. You may find that carbon steel surprisingly becomes your favorite pan material.

If you have questions about trying a carbon steel pan, Curated Cooking Experts can help you find the right product that matches your needs and budget. Let’s get cooking!

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