How to Season a Carbon Steel Pan

Published on 02/17/2024 · 8 min readUnlock the full potential of your carbon steel pan! Learn the essential steps to season it correctly, ensuring a natural, non-stick surface for years to come.
Di Doherty, Kitchen Expert
By Kitchen Expert Di Doherty

A carbon steel skillet with a thin layer of canola oil. Photo by Di Doherty

Carbon steel has most of the same attributes that make cast iron cookware so attractive, with an additional benefit: It is light. The alloy is extremely hard, meaning that it can be made much thinner than a cast iron pan, which reduces the weight considerably.

Carbon steel cookware is somewhat of a specialty item, as it’s really only used for frying pans and woks, though you can also find grill pans, crepe pans, and the odd roasting pan made of cast iron.

Thinking of adding some carbon steel cookware to your collection? Ensure you get the perfect one for you by starting a chat with a Curated Kitchen Expert! Any one of our experts can answer questions about care, maintenance, and differences in brands — and it’s all free!

What Is Seasoning?

If you’ve encountered a carbon steel or cast iron skillet in a store, you’ve likely noticed the deep black surface. That isn’t the metal; it’s the seasoning. Seasoning can either be a deep brown or a matte black depending on what temperature it was baked on at.

Seasoning is the process of applying a fat (usually oil) onto the surface of the metal and then heating it to a high temperature to turn it into a polymer. The high heat bonds the coating to metal, both because of the change the oil goes through and the fact that the heat causes the metal’s pores to become more pronounced.

The reason this coating is applied is to both protect the cookware and enhance its performance. A well-seasoned pan is fully protected from rust, which carbon steel is highly vulnerable to, and has nonstick properties.

How to Remove Seasoning for a Carbon Steel Pan

While it may not seem intuitive to start an article off about seasoning a pan by how to take seasoning off, it’s often the first step in the process. If your season is flaking off, uneven, or damaged, then it’s not a bad idea to start over. Taking the seasoning off is also necessary if the pan is rusted.

A carbon steel pan with the seasoning stripped; you can see the silvery metal. Photo by Di Doherty

Here are common ways to remove the seasoning.

  • Vinegar: Acid eats away at seasoning (which is why you shouldn’t cook citrus or tomatoes in your pan!), so soaking the pan in vinegar will loosen it. I prefer to use undiluted white vinegar for this, though some experts recommend using a solution of half water and half vinegar. Soak the pan for an hour or overnight, depending on how damaged the seasoning is. Vinegar is also an easily accessible way to get rid of rust because acidic solutions take rust off. Again, soak the pan for a half hour or up to overnight, based on the severity of the rust. Then scrub it off with a stiff bristle brush or sponge.
  • Oven cleaner: Oven cleaner does an excellent job of taking the seasoning off a pan. I highly recommend doing this outside, because the oven cleaner is serious, and it stinks. Put your pan in a trash bag, then spray it all over with oven cleaner. Leave it to sit for a few hours or overnight, then wash it with soap and water. The seasoning should come right off.
  • Steel wool: Steel wool is an excellent abrasive, which makes it highly effective for removing seasoning. Use either pre-soaped pads or add dish soap to your steel wool, then scrub your pan. If you have some well-adhered seasoning, it’ll take elbow grease to get it off, but you’ll see the water turn dark brown as the seasoning is scoured off.
  • Salt and potato peels: I know this sounds more like a joke, but potato skins work well as scrubbers. Sprinkle coarse salt all over your pan, then scour it with the potato skins or half a potato. This is ideal if you have food adhered to your pan, as it’ll scrub it right off. This takes a lot of work if you’re trying to take a solid coat of seasoning off.
  • Salt and lemon: This is more often recommended as a cleaning solution, like for cutting boards. I’ve used this for rust removal rather than taking seasoning off, but it took the rust right off on a pizza pan that would have been difficult to soak in vinegar.

Sprinkle a generous amount of kosher salt onto the pan, then squeeze half a lemon onto it. Let it sit for fifteen minutes or so, then scrub it with the other half of the lemon. Rust will come right off, but seasoning will likely take more elbow grease.

How to Season a Carbon Steel Pan

There are two primary methods for seasoning a carbon steel pan: in the oven and on the stovetop. I’ll go over both methods in this article.

Oven Method

This is the way that I prefer to season both my cast iron and carbon steel pans, as I find that I get more consistent results.

  1. Preheat the oven. I like to set my oven at 400°F, though some recommend 500°F. Be aware that the higher temperature will make the process a lot smokier, though it'll also result in a darker seasoning.
  2. Put a pan or foil on the lower rack. I have a cheap baking sheet that I like to use for this. I cover it with aluminum foil, then put it on the lower rack to catch any drips.
  3. Apply a thin layer of oil. It’s important to make sure that the coat is thin and even. I pour a bit of oil into the pan, then use a paper towel to spread it over the entire pan. I then usually go over again with a dry paper towel to ensure that it’s a very thin, even coat.
  4. Bake for one hour. Put the pan on the rack upside down so that the oil won’t pool in the interior. Then shut the oven and let it bake.
  5. Let it cool slowly. Once the hour has elapsed, turn off the oven, but don’t open it. Let the pan cool in the oven, so that the process is slow. This helps the seasoning bond properly.
  6. Add additional layers of seasoning. I like to put three coats on to start with, but you can do more or fewer depending on your preferences and whether or not you start with a seasoning layer. I also like to add a seasoning layer to a new carbon steel pan, as they usually only come with one coat.

A pan about to go in the oven to add a seasoning layer. Photo by Di Doherty

Stovetop Method

I need to preface this by saying I’ve had poor luck with this method myself, but a lot of people swear by it. My issue likely stems from the fact that because I live in an apartment, I have a cheap electric stove with burners that don’t evenly heat my entire pan. So, I’d only recommend this to people with a high-quality stove.

  1. Apply a thin coat of oil to your pan. I like to make sure it’s even by coating the pan in oil with a paper towel and then going over it again with a dry one.
  2. Turn to medium heat. Let your pan heat for a while. Some recommend heating the pan slowly, by starting at low heat, then moving up slowly to medium high. Either method works.
  3. Wait for the oil to smoke. How long this will take will depend on your stove and the smoke point of your oil.
  4. Turn it down to medium. Let the pan smoke for a few minutes. If you’re concerned your stove won’t heat the pan evenly, you can lift it and put the sides closer to the burner or shift it around so that the heating is even. You should see the pan start to change color and turn brown — that means the seasoning is taking.
  5. Let it cool. Wipe off any excess oil, then allow it to cool. Once it’s safe to touch, you can repeat the process, if desired.

Which Oil Is Best?

Seasoning is one of the most important aspects of care of carbon steel cookware. Yet this question is a matter of some debate. Any neutral oil will work as seasoning, as well as waxes or other fats, like lard. Lard was used traditionally to season cast iron because it was the readily available fat.

As a rule, I recommend vegetable oil. I’ve had good luck with canola oil, peanut oil, and soybean oil. Some of the most recommended oils are:

  • Grapeseed oil
  • Flaxseed oil
  • Avocado oil
  • Canola oil

You want to make sure to use an oil that has a neutral flavor, so it won’t come out in your food; a high smoke point, so you won’t set off the smoke alarm; and a long shelf life, so it won’t go rancid.

Olive oil isn’t recommended for seasoning because of its stronger, distinctive flavor and low smoke point.

A trio of vintage carbon steel cake pans that I restored and seasoned. Photo by Di Doherty

Find the Right Carbon Steel Cookware for You

Carbon steel cookware takes extra care and attention to keep in top form, which can make it seem intimidating. If you’re wondering if it’s the right material for you, start a free chat with a Curated Kitchen Expert! All of our Experts are knowledgeable on cookware care and performance and would be happy to talk to you.

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