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Cast iron has been a staple cookware material for a very long time. While offering good heat retention, its heavy weight is its greatest drawback. If you have trouble lifting heavy objects or have conditions like trigger fingers, using cast iron comfortably is almost impossible.
On the other hand, lighter cookware material like stainless steel and aluminum aren’t able to provide good heat retention. This makes them unsuitable for high-heat cooking techniques, like searing a steak.
Carbon steel is the answer to this, and has the best of both worlds.
In this article, we talk about why carbon steel is used by professional chefs all around the world, how they are superior, and our list of top picks for the best carbon steel pans.
If you’re looking for the overall best carbon steel pan, the Mauviel M’Steel pan is our top pick. Although it is on the pricier side, it really is not much more expensive compared to the lowest end of carbon steel, unlike the price difference as you might find in other materials. Worth it in our opinion.
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How Does Carbon Steel Fare Against Other Materials?
It is of no coincidence that many chefs choose carbon steel as the top material in a commercial kitchen setting. Because of its advantages over other materials, it makes a lot of sense to bring it into your home kitchen.
As cast iron is often brought up as the closest to carbon steel, we’ll start there. Compared to cast iron, carbon steel not only is lighter, but also rusts less easily. Another important distinction is, while cast iron has great heat retention but poor conductivity (it heats up very slowly), carbon steel excels at both!
That’s not only where it takes the lead.
Compared to stainless steel, carbon steel is many, many times better at retaining heat. While traditionally, cooking techniques that require retaining a lot of heat are reserved for cast iron and unsuitable for lightweight options like stainless steel, carbon steel is here to fill that gap.
Nothing is perfect, there are downsides to carbon steel. Unlike stainless steel, it rusts and requires seasoning, just like cast iron. Also, while it retains heat really well, it doesn’t do a fantastic job of distributing it evenly. This is fine for techniques like searing, but might not do as well for some other cooking styles.
Shopping Guide: What to Look For in Carbon Steel Pans
Purchasing a carbon steel pan is very similar to the experience of shopping for a cast iron pan, only a lighter version of it. Still, there are certain things to look out for, which we outline below.
Carbon steel pans are already much lighter than their cast iron counterparts. But there are still weight differences between the many options out there.
Since the weight is one of the main reasons to choose carbon steel over cast iron, this signifies that many of those in the market of a carbon steel piece value a lightweight piece. If you’re one of them, make sure to pay attention to the weight a piece before adding to your cookware collection.
Somewhat related to the previous point is the pan’s construction thickness.
Usually, the main factor contributing to the weight of a pan is the thickness of the surface construction. Apart from their weight, carbon steel’s heat retention levels is also one of them. However, physics only allows you to favor one of these two. Why so? Because a heavier piece will have good heat retention, while a lightweight one will have average heat retention.
Do keep this in mind when choosing the optimal weight for your carbon steel piece! The heaviest ones on the spectrum are around 4 pounds and provide plenty of heat retention capabilities.
Although a small difference, this affects the way in which you would use the pan. Seeing that most of the well-built options for carbon steel pieces come from France, some of the manufacturers choose to go with a traditional French-style handle that tilts upwards.
While we personally find it to be non-disruptive, some may find it annoying or difficult to use. If you foresee yourself being part of the crowd, definitely pay attention to this when shopping.
Our Top Picks of Best Carbon Steel Pans
Because carbon steel is such a niche material to work with, there aren’t many options on the market currently, and those that are being sold are usually made by manufacturers who know what they’re doing. For this reason, most of the carbon steel pieces being offered to consumers are relatively high-quality.
Still, we have our favorites. Here is our list of the best carbon steel pans you can buy right now.
One thing to note: all carbon steel cookware are compatible with induction stoves and oven-safe, and are not dishwasher-safe. For this reason, we didn’t bother listing those for every pan on the list.
Made in France, this carbon steel pan by Mauviel is not only well-built, but also has a good balance in the hands. There were a few complaints of the pan warping, but we haven’t experienced that ourselves. From what we can see, the pan construction looks thick enough to be fairly resistant to that.
Not much to say about this pan except for the fact that we were very satisfied with it!
Do note that Mauviel covers the cooking surface with beeswax for corrosion-resistance during shipping. For this reason, before using it for the first time, you should clean the pan with hot water to remove the coating, and use a paper towel to wipe it clean. Then, proceed to season the pan.
- Extra thick carbon steel construction makes for good heat retention as well as conduction – heats up quickly, and retains the heat
- Slightly heavy for a carbon steel pan, at over 4 pounds
This de Buyer carbon steel pan is very close to the Mauviel. While our personal favorite is the Mauviel mainly because of its looks and the feel in the hands, this is in no way inferior by being a ‘runner-up’. In fact, it’s even named as the best carbon steel pan by popular food blog Serious Eats.
A French-made pan as well, this piece is also extremely well constructed. Something that stands out is its handle, where it’s designed in French style. Preference over the traditional handle design is a little more subjective, but in our experience most people would enjoy using this.
If you’re looking for multiple sizes of pans to add to your collection, de Buyer also offers a set of three, consisting of an 8”, 10” and a 12”. Seeing the quality of the individual pans they make, this is a steal if you were looking to purchase multiple sizes anyway, and is easily the best carbon steel pan set on the market.
This pan is also covered with beeswax as with Mauviel, so cleaning before first use is necessary.
- French-style handle that tilts upwards for ergonomic gripping
- Only oven-safe for up to 20 minutes at 400°F, being the only pan on this list that has oven limitations
- Rivets on the inside tends to trap food which makes cleaning a little more difficult
Second on our runner-up list is yet another French-made piece, the Matfer Bourgeat carbon steel pan. Note that the numbering isn’t ordered (i.e. the de Buyer isn’t necessarily better than this one), and in some ways, this is better too.
As a matter of fact, this was also named as the best carbon steel pan by a popular entity in the cooking space – America’s Test Kitchen (ATK). As a result of their relationship with the popular cooking magazine Cook’s Illustrated – they literally own them – this pan is also named the best carbon steel pan by Cook’s Illustrated.
From our use, this pan doesn’t feel as thick in construction as the previous ones. However, even though we have read a few reviews about the bottom of the pan warping, we haven’t run into this issue ourselves.
One thing that stands out about this pan – albeit a small one – is that the handle is welded on, instead of using rivets. This makes the inside of the pan easier to clean, as food tends to get stuck around the rivets.
- Handle is welded, not riveted, onto the body, which makes the inner surface easier to clean
- Well-balanced so it doesn’t tip over easily
- A few complaints of the bottom warping on high heat
If you’re from the US and looking for a US-made product, this proudly Tennessee-based brand is a reputable name in the cast iron space, and their skills seem to transfer pretty well into making carbon steel pieces as well.
This piece is pre-seasoned with natural soybean oil by Lodge, unlike the other ones which are coated with a protective coating. This means that no cleaning is required prior to the first use, and you can get started with it right out of the box.
This is one of the affordable options if you’re not looking to spend too much on a carbon steel skillet, but for some reason doesn’t give off the same carbon steel pan feel as the other ones. To us it feels oddly reminiscent of Lodge’s cast iron offerings. Not that it’s a bad thing, but the most obvious observation is that the cooking surface is not as smooth as the ones listed earlier.
- Pre-seasoned so you can use it right away
- Surface is noticeably rougher than the other options e.g. Mauviel or de Buyer
If you’re looking for an affordable option, this German-made pan might be of interest to you.
The inside surface is smooth and well-constructed, with the handle riveted on which feels sturdy when held. While it provides a generally pleasant experience, it is perceptibly thinner than the other pans we have recommended. Because of this, we would actually caution against using this over high heat due to fear of it warping. This also makes it less ideal for cooking styles like searing.
If you have the ability to stretch your budget a little, we recommend going for the higher ones on this list. Although this is a good entry to carbon steel pieces, its construction thickness (or rather, thinness) kind of misses the point of getting a carbon steel in the first place – its excellent cast-iron-like heat retention!
This piece also ships with a protective silicone coating, so cleaning with hot water before the first use is required.
- Lightweight and easy to handle
- Affordable entry into the world of carbon steel cookware
- Thinner than the other ones mentioned, so it responds to temperature changes quicker but at the same time, is not so great for searing
- Small number of complaints of inside surface flaking
How to Pick for Your Use Case?
Choosing between these is pretty easy, as features such as induction compatibility and being oven-safe are standard across the board. All carbon steel pieces are also not dishwasher-safe, so there’s no distinction between the different options there.
If your budget allows, we definitely recommend going for the Mauviel or the de Buyer. Offering the best build quality and cooking experience among the bunch, these would make for a good investment if cooking is something you’re passionate about and enjoy using quality cookware. To choose between these two, know that the Mauviel is heavier at over 4 pounds compared to the Mauviel at 3 pounds, and the Mauviel is not so suitable for regular oven use as it only stands up to 20 minutes at 400°F.
If you’re looking for more affordable options, the Matfer Bourgeat, or the US-made Lodge are also good picks. Do note that with the Matfer Bourgeat piece, there were complaints of the bottom warping on high heat, so if you employ a lot of high-heat cooking it might not be suitable for you. The Lodge, while well built, is a little rough on the inner surface for our liking, for a carbon steel piece.
Do Carbon Steel Pans Require Seasoning?
If you were hoping for a no, bad news. For carbon steel pans, seasoning is required, just like cast iron.
Because its underlying composition is fairly similar to cast iron, even closer to than it is to stainless steel, the rough surface depends on seasoning for easy release of food when cooking.
Apart from this, carbon steel also rusts. Because of this, applying layers of seasoning is required to form a layer of coating that protects the surface from rusting.
For a more detailed explanation of how seasoning carbon steel differs from that of cast iron, and how to go about properly seasoning your cookware, check out our guide for carbon steel woks.
Tips on Caring for Your Carbon Steel Pan
If you followed the link to our article on carbon steel woks, you may have picked up a trick or two on how to care for carbon steel cookware. If not, fret not because we will reiterate and sum it up here.
First, is to know how to maintain the seasoning layers. If you do a lot of cooking without oil, or you regularly wash your carbon steel pieces with soap like I do, the seasoning coating will quite easily wear off. This is why once you’ve noticed the surface has become rough again, or more simply, after every wash, re-apply seasoning following the steps outlined in our other article.
Another important tip: don’t put it in the dishwasher! For the most part, carbon steel acts very similarly to cast iron, especially in terms of maintenance. This also means that the inability to put cast iron pieces into your dishwasher also carries onto carbon steel.
Lastly, some people suggest cutting down the number of times you wash your carbon steel cookware, or avoid using soap on it. For me personally, it is a habit to wash cookware pieces clean after every use, so I don’t follow those rules. In my experience, this is perfectly fine and does not damage the cookware. So for me, cleaning a carbon steel pan means just as with any other cookware, wash it with soap. What you have to do though, is to constantly re-apply seasoning to the surface, as cleaning it with soap will most likely wash off the seasoning as well.
Also, don’t forget to wipe it dry. Carbon steel pans do rust!
Carbon steel is quickly climbing up to becoming one of the more popular options for cookware material. For good reason too, they have the most sought-after characteristic of cast iron – its heat retention – while maintaining the lightweightedness of its close sibling, the stainless steel.
Maintenance for carbon steel pieces more closely resembles that of cast iron though, compared to the low maintenance of stainless steel cookware. They rust, and require seasoning, so make sure you’re fine with that before stepping into the world of carbon steel cookware.
If you’re set on getting one for yourself, be sure to skim through our guide on making a choice before purchasing, and click through the links to check the latest prices.
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