Carbon steel is cast iron’s more athletic cousin. It heats quicker, moves easier, and when adequately seasoned, maintains a nonstick surface. You can fry an egg on carbon steel, and you should sear a steak on it. You can also toss pasta, fry bacon, sauté asparagus, and blister shishitos. Using the words of chef and Food52 resident Lucas Sin, carbon steel is “a workhorse” and “the perfect piece of cookware for serious home cooks.”
There’s just one thing: To enjoy carbon steel, you need to maintain it. This includes seasoning, washing, drying, and occasionally repairing your cookware. Although none of this maintenance requires much effort, when done right, it enables pieces of carbon steel to perform for decades.
To gather the best approach for carbon steel maintenance, we spoke with metal industry veteran and cookware restoration expert, Kyle Seip. Over the years, Kyle’s work (which includes restoring—and cooking with—pans from the 1800s) has gained a substantial and notable following that includes chef and actor Matty Matheson, former Bon Appétit personality Brad Leone, and MeatEater’s Jesse Griffith.
Here’s a breakdown of everything you need to know to properly care for your carbon steel cookware.
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What Is Carbon Steel?
Similar to cast iron, carbon steel is an alloy composed of carbon and iron. Contrary to what its name would suggest, carbon steel contains less carbon than its metallic cousin (carbon steel typically contains 1 percent carbon and 99 percent iron, while cast iron is 2 to 4 percent carbon). Moreover, the two have entirely different production processes. “Carbon steel is basically a thick sheet of steel that’s pressed into the shape of a frying pan,” says Kyle. “Cast iron is actually heated up, melted, and poured.” Ultimately, its metal composition and manufacturing process make carbon steel cookware lighter and thinner than cast iron, allowing it to heat quickly and move freely.
How To Season Your Carbon Steel Pan
To become nonstick, carbon steel cookware must be “seasoned” by developing a layer of carbonized oil on its surface. To create this natural nonstick coating, use a paper towel to carefully rub a few drops of neutral oil along the entire cooking surface of a very dry, very hot carbon steel pan. Then burn the oil onto the pan by keeping it on the stove or placing it into a hot oven. To enhance the nonstick quality, you can repeat this process a few more times, but according to Kyle, there’s no need to spend all day seasoning a pan. “Seasoning is so overthought, it makes people scared,” he says. “I have pans from the 1870s, 1860s—Civil War–era stuff—and I just wipe them down with oil before I cook.”
Conveniently (and assuming you follow the rest of our maintenance techniques), every time you cook with a carbon steel pan, you add to its seasoning. Meaning if your pan isn’t exactly perfect, don’t worry—just keep cooking with it. However, there are some exceptions to this rule. “If you cook anything that’s lemon or tomato-based—really anything with citric acid in it—you may need to use more oil the next time or season it again,” Kyle says.
How To Avoid Warping Your Carbon Steel Pan
Carbon steel can warp when exposed to drastic shifts in temperature. “Warping is too much heat too fast or too much cooling too quickly,” says Kyle. “It’s a process called annealing and it actually changes the chemical properties of the metal.” After scrolling through countless carbon steel message boards (more fun than you’d think), it appears that warping most commonly occurs through rapid induction heating. While warping is rare, you can further reduce its likelihood by gradually altering the heat underneath the pan.
If your pan does warp, you can fix it. Because carbon steel cookware is effectively a well-shaped sheet of metal, you technically always could restore the pan to its original shape. “You could heat it up, and then you could hammer it, you could press it, or you could bend it,” Kyle explains.
How To Clean Your Carbon Steel Pan
There are three non-negotiable components to cleaning carbon steel. First, when you’re cleaning the pan, avoid using especially abrasive materials like steel wool, as they’re liable to scratch the cooking surface. “If you scratch carbon steel deeply, you could create a place for water to deposit and you could really get some rust going,” says Kyle. Second, when you’re done cleaning the pan, it should be bone-dry. If there’s any residual moisture along the surface, the pan will rust. To ensure the pan is completely dry, place it over medium heat until all of the moisture has clearly evaporated. Third, after the pan dries, season the pan by coating its entire surface with the thinnest possible layer of neutral oil. You should only need only a few droplets.
Beyond that, there are a few competing approaches to actually washing carbon steel cookware. Most people—including Kyle—avoid using soap when washing their pans. The leading thought behind this stems from the notion that soap’s degreasing agents will strip the seasoning and possibly corrode the pan. For Kyle, avoiding soap is also a matter of taste, as he finds that the chemical flavor lingers on the pan and into future dishes. “If you don’t want to taste soap, you’re going to have to rinse it with tons of water. It’s totally wasteful,” he says.
While there are people who endorse using some soap when washing carbon steel, typically they recommend using it sparingly. In the event that your pan is particularly dirty and crusty, we suggest the following soap-free procedure: Fill the pan with a thin layer of water, and bring it to a boil. Whatever food is stuck to your pan will release after the boil, making it easy to wipe clean. Then dry the pan and finish with oil. For further instructions, refer to this helpful tutorial.
How To Fix A Rusted Pan
At some point, you’ll forget to completely dry your pan. It’ll happen, then it’ll rust, and that’s fine—as long as you remove it before cooking again. While the rust will likely not harm you, it damages the pan, adds a metallic flavor to your food, and strips the seasoning.
To remove rust, Kyle recommends first mixing a solution of equal parts white vinegar and water. If there’s just a small amount of rust, use the solution and a sponge to spot-wash it. If the rust is significant, submerge the pan in the water-vinegar solution for up to three hours and then wash it with a sponge. In both cases, after all of the rust is removed, the pan should be reseasoned.
Learn What Works For You
Above anything else, Kyle recommends you begin your carbon steel journey on your own terms. “Trial and error is literally the best way to do anything,” he says. “To get into it, just go dive in there: Buy a pound of shrimp, get a carbon steel pan, and see what happens.”