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Why you need carbon steel pans

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Do you need a carbon steel pan? No. Should you try a carbon steel pan? Certainly, mostly because they're cheap and will last you forever.
Why you need carbon steel pans

My pans

While carbon steel pans are uncommon in most of America's home kitchens, chefs love them. Arguably the best—and most readily available—are French. I really didn't even know that carbon steel pans existed outside of my beloved crêpe pans. I bought my first carbon steel pans back in the late 90s when I discovered crêpe-making. I wanted crêpes to be my signature dish. Not until years later that I discovered that there are carbon steel versions of all of my stainless steel pans, my cast iron skillets, and my nonstick frying pans. 

Why You Should Consider a Carbon Steel Pan 

Think of (and I will write it out) carbon steel pans as the best features of:

  • A carbon steel wok

  • A nonstick pan

  • A stainless steel pan

  • A cast-iron skillet

  • A griddle

Carbon steel pans are often much lighter than cast iron. Also, they offer a much wider variety of sizes than woks. They both (CI & CS) hold and distribute heat better than clad stainless steel pans (less well, maybe, than copper), but CS releases the heat faster when you change the flame. Carbon steel does pretty badly on induction (warps) and electric (sometimes doesn't heat well) but works with them both. Has nonstick properties when seasoned well. Won't crack when dropped on the floor as a CI might.

Seasoned carbon steep pan seasoning

Generally speaking, compared to clad pans like All-Clad, basic French CS pans are affordable and sometimes cheap, as long as you just buy a basic version and not 3mm versions or PRO versions or specialty versions. But, at the end of the day, they're all just some form of hot metal that can get hot and cook food. So, I guess one can just go to the DIY Center and get a square panel of thick steel and use that to cook, too. I like how light and durable they are but if you are strong enough to use your CI pan every day for everything then no, you don't need a CS pan. 

Why You Don't Want a Carbon Steel Pan

One reason you might not want one is that they're as finicky as carbon steel knives and cast iron pans and will never develop their best magical qualities such as a nonstick surface if you don't season them well, keep them dry and lightly oiled, keep them out of the dishwasher and please don't wash them with dishwashing soap. Believe it or not, try to clean it with water and a rag; and, if the grime is stuck and you need a little help cleaning up, use liberally-applied salt as a scouring powder to remove the bits and bobs. If you really need some assistance, put water into the pan, boil the water on the stove, and then scrape the bits off with a spoon. Remember, this is steel so you can use metal utensils. 

Good luck!

More About Carbon Steel Pans

Carbon steel pans are a popular choice in both professional kitchens and for home cooks due to their versatility, excellent heat conduction, and durability. Here's a comprehensive overview covering their pros and cons, seasoning instructions, cooking tips, a detailed FAQ, and a glossary of terms.

Pros of Carbon Steel Pans:

  1. Excellent Heat Conduction: Carbon steel heats up quickly and evenly, allowing for precise temperature control.
  2. High Heat Tolerance: They can withstand very high temperatures, making them suitable for searing and frying.
  3. Lightweight: Compared to cast iron, carbon steel pans are lighter, making them easier to handle.
  4. Durable: With proper care, they can last for decades.
  5. Natural Non-Stick Surface: Once properly seasoned, they offer a natural non-stick surface.
  6. Versatile: Suitable for cooking a wide range of dishes, from omelets to steaks.

Cons of Carbon Steel Pans:

  1. Requires Seasoning: They need to be seasoned to prevent rust and to create a non-stick surface.
  2. Not Dishwasher Safe: Dishwashing can strip the seasoning off and lead to rust.
  3. Reactive with Acidic Foods: Cooking acidic foods can strip the seasoning.
  4. Maintenance: Requires regular seasoning to maintain its non-stick properties.
  5. Rust Prone: Without proper care, they can rust.

Seasoning Carbon Steel Pans:

Seasoning a carbon steel pan is crucial to prevent rust and create a non-stick surface. Here's how:

  1. Wash the Pan: Clean the pan with hot soapy water to remove any factory oil or residue.
  2. Dry and Heat: Dry thoroughly and then heat the pan on the stove until it's slightly smoking to open the pores of the metal.
  3. Apply Oil: Use a paper towel to apply a thin layer of high-smoke-point oil (like flaxseed, canola, or grapeseed oil) over the entire surface.
  4. Heat Until Smoking: Heat the pan again until it starts to smoke, then let it smoke for a minute or two.
  5. Cool and Repeat: Let the pan cool. Repeat the oiling and heating process 2-3 times to build up a good seasoning base.

Cooking with Carbon Steel Pans:

  • Preheat Properly: Always preheat the pan before adding food to prevent sticking.
  • Use the Right Oil: Choose oils with a high smoke point to avoid burning.
  • Avoid Acidic Foods Initially: Until the seasoning is well-established, try to avoid cooking acidic foods that can strip the seasoning.
  • Cleaning: After cooking, clean with hot water and a brush or sponge. Avoid soap and don’t soak the pan. Dry thoroughly and apply a light coat of oil before storing.

FAQ about Carbon Steel Pans:

  1. What is carbon steel made of?

    • Carbon steel is made from iron and a small amount of carbon, which gives it its durability and makes it more robust than other steel types.
  2. Can I use metal utensils with carbon steel pans?

    • Yes, but use them gently to avoid scraping off the seasoning.
  3. How often should I re-season my pan?

    • Whenever it looks dull or food starts sticking.
  4. Is it safe to cook acidic foods in carbon steel pans?

    • Yes, but it's best to wait until your pan is well-seasoned. Acidic foods can strip the seasoning if it's not fully developed.
  5. Can carbon steel pans go in the oven?

    • Yes, they are oven-safe, making them great for a variety of cooking methods.
  6. How do I remove rust from my carbon steel pan?

    • Scrub the rust off with a mixture of salt and water, rinse, dry thoroughly, and then re-season the pan.
  7. Why is my carbon steel pan sticking?

    • It likely needs more seasoning. Build up the seasoning layer with additional oil and heat cycles.
  8. Can carbon steel pans be used on induction cooktops?

    • Yes, carbon steel is compatible with induction cooktops due to its iron content.
  9. How do I know if my carbon steel pan is seasoned enough?

    • It will have a smooth, black, non-stick surface and won’t rust when exposed to moisture.
  10. Can I wash my carbon steel pan with soap?

    • It's best to avoid soap as it can remove the seasoning. Use hot water and a brush instead.
  11. Why does my carbon steel pan change color?

    • Color changes are normal and indicate the pan is developing its seasoning and patina, which improves its non-stick qualities.

Glossary of Terms:

  • Seasoning: The process of treating the surface of the pan with oil and heat to create a natural non-stick layer.
  • Patina: The dark, glossy layer that forms on carbon steel and cast iron cookware over time, enhancing its non-stick properties.
  • Smoke Point: The temperature at which oil starts to smoke, beyond which it can degrade and produce unpleasant flavors.
  • Reactive: The tendency of a pan to react chemically with acidic foods, potentially affecting the food's flavor and the pan's seasoning.
  • Non-Stick: A surface that prevents food from sticking, achieved through proper seasoning of carbon steel and cast iron pans.
  • Rust: The result of iron reacting with oxygen and moisture; can be prevented by seasoning and keeping the pan dry.
  • Conduction: The process by which heat is directly transferred through a material, with carbon steel being an excellent conductor.
  • Carbon Steel: An alloy of iron and a small amount of carbon, known for its strength and heat conduction properties.
  • Flaxseed Oil: A type of oil commonly recommended for seasoning due to its high smoke point and the hard, protective layer it forms.
  • Induction Cooking: A cooking method that heats a cooking vessel by magnetic induction, for which carbon steel is suitable due to its iron content.
  • Acidic Foods: Foods like tomatoes or lemon juice that can strip the seasoning from carbon steel pans if the seasoning is not well-established.

Understanding these aspects of carbon steel pans can enhance your cooking experience, allowing you to make the most out of this versatile cookware.