Even the best carbon steel pan is somewhat plain in appearance, but these pans offer several advantages over other pans. They are lighter and more durable than cast iron. They heat up fast and handle high temperatures well, making them ideal for sears, sautés, and so on. They are compatible with induction cooktops. They also don’t have any of the health concerns associated with some nonstick coatings.
Many cooks will have come across carbon steel cookware in the form of traditional woks and paella pans, but those are just a small sample of the wide variety available. There are numerous options available to suit almost any cooking need.
- BEST OVERALL: De Buyer Mineral B Frying Pan, 10.2 Inch, Silver-Grey
- RUNNER-UP: BK Cookware Skillet Black Carbon Steel, 10″
- BEST BANG FOR THE BUCK: Matfer Bourgeat Black Carbon Steel Fry Pan, 9 1/2″
- BEST FRY PAN: Mauviel M’Steel, carbon, nonstick fry pan, 9.5 Inch
- BEST PAELLA PAN: Lodge Carbon Steel Skillet, Pre-Seasoned, 15-inch
- BEST WOK: Craft Wok Traditional Hand Hammered Carbon Steel Pow
- BEST DEEP-DISH PAN: Oklahoma Joe’s 1996978P04 18.5-inch Carbon Steel Deep
- BEST CREPE PAN: De Buyer Crepe Pan, Blue Steel, Made in France
What to Consider When Choosing the Best Carbon Steel Pan
The beauty of a good carbon steel pan is its simplicity. While aluminum nonstick fry pans that meet NSF (National Sanitation Foundation) or FDA (Food and Drug Administration) standards are perfectly safe, choosing carbon steel pans is easy because there’s no chemical coating to worry about. Of course, that doesn’t mean that all carbon steel pans are the same. The following explains some key considerations to keep in mind.
Pan names can be confusing. Some people argue that skillet and fry pan are just different names for the same thing. Others say skillets are deeper. In truth, it doesn’t really matter what they are called, as long as they deliver the cooking performance you need.
Diameter and depth are two major considerations. Carbon steel pans run anywhere from around 8 inches across right up to 20 inches. The latter are often designed for outdoor, open-fire use. The depth can be anywhere from half an inch or less for a carbon steel crepe pan but up to 3 or 4 inches for deep pans for cooking stews, gumbos, and so on. Of course, woks are much deeper still.
The important point is that there is a huge variety among carbon steel pans. So it isn’t difficult to find something to suit almost every style of cooking.
Weight and Thickness
Professional chefs and keen home cooks usually choose between cast-iron or carbon steel pans. Both are an alloy of iron and carbon, though, perhaps surprisingly, carbon steel actually has a higher percentage of iron (it’s around 1 percent carbon, whereas cast iron is 2 percent to 3 percent).
Despite the marginal difference in iron content, carbon steel pans are actually much lighter. They’re generally 40 to 60 percent lower in weight than comparable-size cast-iron cookware. This makes the best carbon steel pans easier to handle, which can be a big benefit when they’re full of hot food.
Material thickness also has an impact. A carbon steel crepe pan will be about 1 millimeter (1/16 inch) thick. It gets hot very fast but doesn’t retain heat. Most pans are between 2 millimeters and 3 millimeters (up to 1/8 inch) thick. The thicker models provide heat retention that’s almost as good as cast iron.
Actual material quality is almost impossible to judge, and, in truth, carbon steel is a relatively basic product with minor variations. It shouldn’t be confused with the term high-carbon steel, which is a different product and has all kinds of rating systems for hardness and chemical composition. Cooking pans are made not of high-carbon steel but rather just standard carbon steel. The buyer’s focus should be on material thickness (in terms of the cooking performance it offers) and construction quality.
Handles are frequently made from the same carbon steel as the pan itself, though sometimes the handle is made of cast iron for added strength. Either way, these pans can go straight from cooktop to oven if necessary (carbon steel pans should never go in the microwave). Metal handles are either riveted or welded in place, and both methods make for a very strong attachment. These handles do get very hot; while they will occasionally have plastic heatproof covers, they are more often bare, so a cloth or oven glove is needed when using them.
Sometimes a short round bracket is riveted to the pan and a wooden handle is attached. These are typically found on carbon steel woks, though other pans may have a wooden inset in the steel handle.
You’ll want to look for a long handle that will provide good leverage when lifting the pan but that’s not so long that it gets in the way. In general, manufacturers are good at getting this right, though handles can be a little short sometimes.
On larger carbon steel pans a secondary handle, often called a hanging loop, is attached opposite the main handle (again either welded or riveted). As the name suggests, it’s often employed for hanging up the pan. However, it is very useful for extra control when carrying a full pan, especially with liquid. It’s almost always steel, so the same precautions against heat need to be taken.
Seasoned vs. Unseasoned
Carbon steel pans are supplied either unseasoned or seasoned. Whether a pan is seasoned or unseasoned makes little difference for cost, so it’s very much a question of personal preference. Seasoning prevents rust and makes the pan nonstick, so an unseasoned pan will need to have this done before you can start cooking with it. It’s a simple process, basically involving heating the pan and applying cooking oil. Often, seasoned models have a black finish, though it’s not always the case, so it needs to be checked.
If you buy a pre-seasoned carbon steel pan, you can use it straight out of the box. So does that save you the trouble? At first, yes, and the seasoning may last a long time. However, many forms of cooking will begin to wear away the seasoning coating, particularly when using acidic foods. Eventually, it will need to be reapplied. A rough feeling on the surface is a good indicator that it’s time to season the pan. Fortunately, it’s quick and easy to do.
Our Top Picks
Carbon steel pans come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and uses, so selecting the best is a matter of personal preference combined with factors that determine a quality product. These pans were selected based on essential features, quality construction, and specific uses.
French manufacturer De Buyer has been making professional cookware since 1830. Their 10.2-inch pan has a consistent thickness and a perfectly flat bottom that provides even heat distribution for consistent cooking.
The high sides offer great versatility. The handle is triple-riveted for durability, and while the angle seems quite steep, it is designed for good balance and the easy tossing of contents. There’s a useful hole for hanging. The pan can go straight from cooktop to oven, where it can take 400 degrees Fahrenheit for up to 20 minutes.
This De Buyer carbon steel pan does require seasoning, but once done, it provides excellent nonstick performance. It is also available in five other sizes, from 7.9 inches to 14.2 inches in diameter. With just occasional seasoning, these are pans that can last a lifetime.
One hundred fifty years of experience goes into making BK’s high-quality pans. They have developed their own grade of carbon steel that offers tremendous durability plus improved resistance to corrosion and staining. The cast-iron handle is immensely strong. The pan can go from cooktop to oven, grill, or open-flame cooking and is safe for temperatures of up to 600 degrees Fahrenheit.
The BK skillet is pre-seasoned but does come with a thin silicone wax coating that needs to be washed off by hand before use. The brand produces affordable carbon steel pans in a range of sizes and styles, allowing the home gourmet to build a comprehensive collection if they wish.
The French-made Matfer Bourgeat fry pan follows a traditionally simple but highly durable design. For many years they were only available to commercial kitchens, but U.S. distribution expanded their availability to consumers for cooking at home.
Although described as black carbon steel, it arrives plain and unseasoned and will color over time. The pan is safe to transfer to ovens or open fires up to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. The welded handle provides a virtually unbreakable attachment. It also makes cleaning easier and provides fewer hiding places for bacteria than riveted alternatives.
There are nine pans in the Matfer range, from 8⅝ inches to 17¾ inches, providing quality yet affordable cookware for a variety of uses.
The Mauviel carbon steel fry pan comes from a French company that has been making cookware for almost 200 years. It’s a classic design, relatively deep but with gently curved sides that provide excellent versatility.
The bottom is perfectly flat for even heat dispersal, and the thickness creates heat retention that’s comparable to cast iron. The handle is actually made from cast iron, held in place with three rivets. The Mauviel fry pan does come at a premium price, though the company calls it “heritage” cookware to reflect its exceptional durability.
Mauviel carbon steel pans come with a layer of beeswax as a natural rust preventive. This needs to be washed off with hot water before seasoning. There are five pans in this design, ranging in size from 8 inches to 14 inches.
This 15-inch skillet from popular U.S. brand Lodge is ideal for cooking paella. The flat-bottomed pan can heat up quickly when necessary but allows for controllable heat across a wide area. Unlike some cheaper pans, the Lodge skillet is sturdily made and retains its shape. Two riveted steel handles make for easy carrying. The pan is safe on any kind of cooktop, or it can be taken outdoors and used on a grill or open fire.
The Lodge skillet comes pre-seasoned, so it can be used straight away. There may be loose flakes from the seasoning on the surface, but these are harmless and can simply be wiped away. If you prefer a smaller paella pan, 8-inch, 10-inch, and 12-inch versions are also available.
This is a heavy-duty carbon steel wok, made in China, using traditional methods. It’s the same commercial-grade widely used in Chinese restaurant kitchens and is arguably the only way to produce authentic Oriental cuisine.
At 4.6 pounds, it is not light, but it offers excellent heat characteristics and tremendous durability. A typical nonslip wooden handle is attached, with a steel loop opposite for two-handed use and for hanging. The Craft Wok will need to be seasoned before use.
It’s a great piece for use on gas cooktops or open fires. Unfortunately, the round bottom is not suitable for electric cooktops because the contact area is too small to provide sufficient heat.
Oklahoma Joe’s is a company well known for its smokers and grills. This big, deep pan could be used indoors, but at 18½ inches across, it’s probably best for outdoor cooking, which is the specialty of its manufacturer. Given its size and capacity, this deep-dish pan offers excellent value for the money.
As one might expect, this tough, well-made piece is perfectly safe on an open fire or in a smoker. Riveted side handles make it easy to move around on the grill or carry to a table. It is pre-seasoned, so it can be used immediately.
From French maker De Buyer, this crepe pan has the classic shallowness with flared sides that allows for easy flipping. The handle shape lets the cook swirl batter freely so it spreads in a thin, even layer. The blue carbon steel—treated to prevent rust—absorbs heat quickly for crispy crepes.
Of course, it’s not just for crepes and pancakes. The 8-inch surface (it’s actually 9½ inches across in total) is ideal for cooking eggs or searing meat. Although the color resembles pre-seasoned carbon steel, this model is unseasoned. De Buyer provides their own simple instructions to prepare it properly for cooking. A 6½-inch version is also available (8 inches in total diameter).
FAQs About Carbon Steel Pans
You now know the important features that separate good carbon steel pans from their rivals. You’ve also had the chance to take a detailed look at the best carbon steel pan for each of a variety of uses. This final section looks at some of the questions that may not have been answered so far.
Q. Why do chefs use carbon steel pans?
There are several reasons. They heat up more quickly than cast-iron alternatives. Being lighter makes them easier to use all day. They can withstand the bumps and knocks of a busy kitchen, whereas cast iron can be brittle and more prone to damage.
Q. How do I clean a carbon steel pan properly?
Wipe off excess fat, oil, or food particles with paper towels. If you need to scrub off burned or stuck food, use a soft-bristle brush and a little hot water. Do not use detergents or soap. Do not immerse the pan in water. Dry the pan, then warm it slightly to remove any remaining moisture and prevent rust.
Q. How long will my carbon steel pan last?
Carbon steel pans can last a lifetime, even if they aren’t treated particularly well. They can often withstand being dropped or knocked around. With an occasional seasoning, they should give many years of cooking pleasure.
Q. How do I season my carbon steel pan?
Before using your new carbon steel pan for the first time, wash it with warm soapy water to remove any coating. Dry it completely to prevent rusting. Use paper towels and apply a neutral oil (such as vegetable oil) in a very thin coating to the inside of the pan. Heat it on the stove or in the oven, if the handle is oven safe, until it turns a very faint shade of brown. Repeat this process several times.