An Expert Guide to Carbon Steel Cookware

Published on 01/25/2024 · 9 min readUnlock the secrets of professional chefs! Dive into our expert guide to carbon steel cookware, known for its durability, heat responsiveness, and versatility.
Di Doherty, Kitchen Expert
By Kitchen Expert Di Doherty

Frying in a carbon steel pan. Photo by Cottonbro Studios

TL;DR: Carbon steel is primarily used for frying pans and woks, though there are options in other types of pans and pots. It’s a durable and versatile material, meaning that a carbon steel pan will last a lifetime. When picking one out, consider what type of cookware you want, if you want blue carbon steel, and what you need to properly care for it.

I’ve spent all of my adult life cooking for myself and my family. I grew up learning how to cook from my mom, who was a huge fan of cast iron skillets. Once I began growing my own collection, I gravitated toward cast iron. Now that I’ve discovered carbon steel, however, I may end up switching some of my favorite cookware around.

Carbon steel is like a lightweight version of cast iron, making the pans much easier to maneuver. It has excellent heat distribution and reactivity, meaning that it gets hot evenly and quickly. It’s safe to extremely high temperatures, making it perfect for searing steaks and browning chuck or pork chops.

Wondering if carbon steel cookware might be right for you? Start a chat for free with a Curated Kitchen Expert! All of our Experts are well-versed in different types of cookware and can answer any questions you may have about them in terms of performance, care, and price.

What Is Carbon Steel Cookware?

Carbon steel is an alloy of iron that has a relatively large percentage of carbon. It’s been in use for a long time, both for knives and for cookware. It’s a very hard metal, but it’s not brittle, which makes it excellent for knives and cookware.

It does, however, lack protection from rust. That makes carbon steel very similar to cast iron in that it needs to be seasoned to protect it from rusting and to add a nonstick coating. Just as with cast iron, this seasoning is made by applying a thin layer of vegetable oil and then baking it at a high temperature to bond it with the metal.

A carbon steel pan compared to a cast iron pan – notice the difference in thickness. Photo by Di Doherty

What to Consider When Buying Carbon Steel Cookware

If you’re familiar with cast iron, then carbon steel isn’t very different in terms of performance or care. The hardness of the metal does make it much, much lighter than a similarly sized cast iron pan or pot, and the fact that the metal is thinner makes it more heat reactive. If you’re thinking of trying out carbon steel cookware, here are some questions to ask yourself.

What Type of Cookware Do I Want?

Cookware made from carbon steel is a specialty item, which means that they aren’t sold everywhere. It’s almost exclusively used for skillets and woks, though carbon steel grill pans and crepe pans aren’t unheard of.

A carbon steel pan that could stand to be reseasoned. Photo by Ejov Igor

  • Skillet: Also called a frying pan or fry pan, these multipurpose pans are excellent for frying, sauteing, and searing. The majority of carbon steel cookware are fry pans, just as skillets are common for cast iron cookware. These pans are lightweight, heavy duty, and temperature resistant.
  • Wok: Likely the second most common cookware made out of cast iron, woks are much more popular in Asia. They resemble a large frying pan with extremely sloped sides. While most often used for stir frying, woks are also excellent for deep frying, sauteing, and simmering.
  • Grill pan: A grill pan looks like a frying pan with raised lines on it. The grill serves the dual purpose of keeping what you’re making out of the fat and adding tasty grill lines to your food.
  • Crepe pan: Despite the name, these can be used to make other dishes than crepes. A crepe pan has an extremely low rim, allowing you to easily flip something thin. Besides crepes, they’re also excellent for pancakes, eggs, and tortillas.
  • Stockpot: It’s rare for carbon steel to be used to make any type of pot, but there are options out there if you care to look. As it’s resistant to high temperatures and oven safe, carbon steel makes a versatile pot; however, its seasoning can be stripped by tomato sauce or other acidic foods (vinegar is even recommended as a way to strip seasoning off).

Blue or Regular Carbon Steel?

When searching for a carbon steel pan, you may see some manufacturers say that their pan is made with blue carbon steel or even just blue steel. Blue carbon steel is treated with a high-heat process called annealing before being shaped into cookware.

Being exposed to this extremely high temperature treats the metal and makes it more corrosion resistant and durable. It gets its name because the process darkens the silvery metal, giving it a bluish tint. It won’t stay blue for long after being seasoned, though, as that process turns it dark brown or black.

So, you’re wondering, does that mean that blue carbon steel is better? The treatment does make it more corrosion resistant, but it still needs to be seasoned. Carbon steel is already extremely durable and can last for generations, so treating it to be even tougher may be unnecessary.

In short, yes, it’s a bit better, but it’s also more expensive. For most home cooks, regular carbon steel pans will serve you just as well.

How Do I Care for Carbon Steel Cookware?

Carbon steel is similar to cast iron in terms of care instructions. It requires some extra care, but if you’re willing to put in the time, you’ll get a nonstick pan that’ll last you a lifetime. Here are some tips to keep your carbon steel cookware at its best.

  • Handwash: Carbon steel is vulnerable to corrosion, which means that putting it in the dishwasher is a bad idea. The combination of high temperatures, staying wet, and the harsh cleaning agents in dishwasher detergent will break down the seasoning and promote rusting. Washing it by hand with hot water and a small amount of dish soap (or none at all) will preserve the seasoning the best.
  • Dry immediately: While the seasoning layer does help prevent rust, it doesn't protect your cookware entirely. Be sure to dry your carbon steel cookware off right after washing to avoid it rusting.
  • Add to the seasoning: A well-seasoned pan will be largely nonstick, even for notoriously tricky dishes like fried eggs. I like to add additional layers of seasoning to new pans, as most of the time the manufacturer only does a layer or two. It’s also a good idea to put some oil on your pan after and/or before every use, which will add to the seasoning layer as you cook.

Three different sizes of carbon steel pans. Photo by Paul Heubusch

Features to Look For When Buying Carbon Steel Cookware

A lot of carbon steel cookware is going to function similarly because of the material it’s made out of; however, there are features that will make some stand out. While none of these is imperative, they can give you an idea of how high quality the cookware is.

Stainless Steel Handle

A lot of carbon steel pans will have a stainless steel handle attached with rivets. There are other options, like carbon steel, wood, or plastic, but I highly recommend an oven-safe handle so that you can get full functionality out of your pan.

Benefits:

  • Stainless steel is fully oven safe
  • Doesn’t require oiling, seasoning, or other care
  • Striking appearance

Be aware:

  • More expensive than a carbon steel or plastic handle
  • Can get hot when the pan is in use

Lid

Not every piece of cookware comes with a lid — there are certain pans, like grill pans, where it’s pretty much unheard of. That being said, for skillets, woks, and pots, a lid makes your cookware a lot more versatile.

Benefits:

  • Allows you to trap heat for simmering, boiling, or deep frying
  • Prevents spatter on your stove

Be aware:

  • Cookware with a lid usually costs more
  • Most lids will be glass, meaning that they may be oven safe to a different temperature than the pan

Pre-Seasoned

Like cast iron, a lot of carbon steel pans will come pre-seasoned nowadays. That means that a layer or two of vegetable oil is already baked onto the pan when you receive it.

Making a stir fry in a carbon steel wok. Photo by Kevin Malik

Benefits:

  • Starts you off with a smooth seasoning layer
  • Can be used right out of the box

Be aware:

  • If the company offers an unseasoned version, it’ll be cheaper
  • If you’re particular about the type of oil you use to season your pan, this may not be your first choice

How to Find the Best Carbon Steel Cookware for You

To make the process of selecting the right cookware for you easier, I’ve described several different types of cooks and what my top picks for them would be.

Maria: Older Cook Who Wants Lighter Cookware

Maria learned to cook with cast iron and loves it. But she’s getting older, and hefting cast iron skillets and Dutch ovens is hard on her hands and wrists. She’s looking for something lighter. As she’s accustomed to cast iron, she was hoping to get something that functions similarly.

Features to look for:

  • Metal handles to make them oven safe
  • Well-known brands for an assurance of quality

Recommended products: Le Creuset Enamel on Steel Stockpot, Viking Blue Steel Fry Pan

Riley: Graduate Student Looking for Cookware That’ll Last

Riley is working on her graduate degree and has started making an effort to make home-cooked meals for herself regularly. She’s looking for good cookware that’ll last a long time but isn’t too expensive. She’d also like something that has multiple uses, as she doesn't have space for too many types of cookware. It also needs to work on an induction cooktop, as that’s what her apartment has.

Features to look for:

  • Carbon steel handle as that’s less expensive
  • Versatile cookware like skillets and woks

Recommended products: Lodge Seasoned Carbon Steel Skillet, Oxo Obsidian Carbon Steel Wok

London: Hobbyist Cook Looking for More Environmentally Friendly Cookware

London has primarily used nonstick frying pans and pots, as that’s what she grew up using. However, she’d done some research that’s made her realize that some of the chemicals used in the nonstick coatings aren’t environmentally friendly, like forever chemicals, and she’d like to switch to something better for the environment. She’d like long-lasting cookware that has some manner of nonstick surface.

Features to look for:

  • Pre-seasoned carbon steel to get a good nonstick base
  • Pure carbon steel for less manufacturing

Recommended products: Merten & Storck Carbon Steel Fry Pan, Merten & Storck Carbon Steel Grill Pan

Find the Right Carbon Steel Cookware for You

Carbon steel’s heat resistance makes it ideal for cooking outdoors. Photo by Markus Diselrath

Carbon steel isn’t a very well-known cookware material, which can make picking one up feel intimidating. If you’re unsure about anything, start a chat with a Curated Kitchen Expert! Every one of them is well-versed in product care and can walk you through the benefits of and care instructions for carbon steel cookware. And best of all, the service is totally free!

Curated experts can help

Have a question about the article you just read or want personal recommendations? Connect with a Curated expert and get free recommendations for whatever you’re looking for!

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