There's no pan material that's perfect for every purpose in the kitchen—but carbon steel pans sure come close. They can be used for just about any cooking technique, and they're effectively nonstick with seasoning. They're very similar to more familiar cast-iron pans; both are an iron-carbon alloy, but in a different ratio, and durable enough to last a lifetime with proper care.
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Like cast iron, carbon steel pans hold and distribute heat exceptionally well, which is great for searing. And they can handle frying, sautéing, baking, broiling and more—plus they can go directly on induction cooktops, grills or campfires. Carbon steel also has special care requirements, like needing to be seasoned regularly and protected against rusting, and it's a reactive material not well suited to acidic preparations.
But then there are a few noteworthy advantages over cast iron. For one, carbon steel heats much quicker; the wait for cast-iron cookware to preheat is one of its more inconvenient aspects. Also, a carbon steel pan is about half the weight of a cast-iron skillet of the same size; cast iron's bulk is another of its less-appreciated characteristics.
What to Consider When Purchasing a Carbon Steel Pan
Size: In general, a medium (around an 8-inch diameter) to large (around a 10- to 12-inch diameter) pan is the way to go if you're only buying one. You can always cook something small in a bigger pan, but it's much harder to cook something in too small a pan. Plus, crowded food in a pan partially steams, which is counterproductive when you're trying to do things like sauté or brown it. So, think about the quantity and size of the food you usually prepare and choose accordingly.
Pre-Seasoned or Not: While most cast-iron cookware sold today comes pre-seasoned, a lot of carbon steel cookware does not. And when it's not pre-seasoned, it's usually coated in a thin wax or film that protects against rusting. This layer needs to be scrubbed off before seasoning and use. So, you could seek out a pre-seasoned model if you prefer to avoid this extra initial work. However, even a pre-seasoned carbon steel pan is unlikely to have well-developed nonstick qualities right away, and it still needs regular seasoning on an ongoing basis.
Frying Pan (Skillet) or Sauté Pan: Most carbon steel pans are frying pans (skillets), but you can certainly find carbon steel sauté pans if you want one. Sauté pans have wider bottoms and vertical sides, while frying pans—also called skillets—have less surface on the bottom and sides that curve up and outward. Sauté pans are heavier, have a larger cooking surface, and can hold more liquid than frying pans of the same size (pan diameter is measured across the lips, not the bottom of the pan). So, sauté pans are better for cooking tasks like shallow frying or braising. The flared sides of frying pans or skillets are great for tossing and flipping the pan contents. The confusing irony here, if you're following along, is that sauté pans are better for frying and frying pans are better for sautéing.
By thinking through these factors and considering how much you're willing to pay for your new carbon steel pan (they range from under $30 to a few hundred bucks), you can make a good personal choice from the many options available.
The Best Overall Carbon Steel Pan
Matfer Bourgeat 12.6-Inch Black Carbon Steel Fry Pan
This simple, elegant French-made carbon steel pan is suitable for home cooks and professional chefs alike. It's sold at a good price point for the quality and performance, too. The single-plate black carbon steel construction provides reliably even heat distribution and great temperature control with fast heating and cooling.
While not pre-seasoned (it comes with a beeswax coating), it quickly develops a superior nonstick surface once it is seasoned that can compete with the best of any nonstick cookware. This is about as large a frying pan as you'd buy for at-home use, and it maximizes the cooking surface for this style of pan. One nice, rare feature is that the handle is welded on, rather than riveted (as is the norm). This eliminates the concern of loosening during tossing and sautéing, and the opportunity for food, gunk and bacteria to build up between the rivets and the pan.
The Best Pre-Seasoned Carbon Steel Pan
Lodge 12-Inch Carbon Steel Skillet
If you prefer to buy a pre-seasoned carbon steel skillet, this very affordable one—made by the oldest and best-known producer of cast-iron cookware in the U.S.—is a winning pick. The nonstick qualities are impressive right out of the box, but like any other pre-seasoned carbon steel product, it still requires continued seasoning to maintain and improve its nonstickiness and to help prevent rusting.
Like the Matfer Bourgeat product above, Lodge's pan is highly responsive to changes in temperature. This 12-inch model is an ideal size, but it's also available smaller and a little cheaper at 8 inches and 10 inches. Plus, there's a 15-inch version that's too big for use on a home stove, but you might like it for use in the oven, on a grill or over a fire.
The Best Carbon Steel Sauté Pan
Northwest Skillet Company 10-Inch Carbon Steel Sauté Pan
Yes, it should be acknowledged upfront that this is an expensive pan. But if you're willing to invest in an amazing sauté pan you'll get lots of use out of for as long as you're cooking—and potentially even hand down—consider this one. It delivers all the benefits of carbon steel with top performance. And you can save $45 if you only want the 8-inch version.
But beyond that, it's almost as much a piece of art as it is a piece of cookware. Your unique sauté pan is hand-spun and hand-forged by a blacksmith, and you choose from three different aesthetically pleasing handle designs. The handle is triple-riveted on for stability and has a hanging hole at the end so you can proudly display this piece in your kitchen.
The Best Budget Carbon Steel Pan
Ballarini Professionale Series 3000 9.5-inch Carbon Steel Fry Pan
This is about as low a price as you can pay for a carbon steel skillet. At 9.5 inches in diameter, it's an unusual size between standard medium and large frying pans. You can also upgrade to an 11-inch version for an additional $10.
This Italian-made pan has a thick construction for heat retention and durability, so don't worry about sacrificing quality or durability for a lower cost. It performs well for such a budget-friendly piece of cookware, heating efficiently and evenly, and quickly developing good stick resistance (it's not pre-seasoned). It's also oven-safe up to 600 degrees Fahrenheit, and it has a high-angled handle that's nice to work with when you're shaking, tossing, flipping and sautéing.
The Best High-End Carbon Steel Pan
Smithey Hand-Forged 12-Inch Carbon Steel Skillet
Like the sauté pan from Northwest Skillet Company above, this is another carbon steel pan that's pricey, but as much a work of art as a piece of kitchenware. It too is hand-forged by a blacksmith, so every piece is unique. And with a design inspired by classic American fire cookware of the 18th and 19th centuries, it makes a statement. Display it proudly in any kitchen!
Of course, nobody wants to pay top dollar just for style; this gorgeous piece has substance, too. It offers stellar temperature responsiveness and control, and while it's conveniently pre-seasoned, it gets more nonstick with subsequent uses and proper care. The round, attractive handle is comfortable and an ideal length and angle for manipulating the pan's contents. Plus, this product is large and maximizes the cooking surface for a fry pan. And don't worry about durability; this piece can last for generations, which really helps justify the price tag.
The Best Specialty Carbon Steel Pan for Grilling
BK Black 12-Inch Carbon Steel BBQ Frying Pan
Here's a carbon steel skillet made special for use on the grill. If you're an avid griller, it's well worth picking one up. And if you need a gift for a grilling enthusiast—especially one who already has lots of grilling accessories and gadgets—look no further. It's a perfectly reasonable price for this unique, high-quality product, too.
This pan is full of holes. That's not normally something you look for in a pan, but in this case, it's a great feature. Your food gets a much stronger smoky flavor imparted during grilling, while fat and excess juices drip right out. Obviously, you wouldn't use this pan on the stove. Even with the holes, the black carbon steel offers all the benefits you expect from this material. The cast-iron handle is very securely riveted, and this durable pan can last a lifetime.