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What are Carbon Steel Pans?

Updated: Nov 15, 2023

The hidden gem of frying pans.


For decades, carbon steel pans have been the unsung heroes of restaurant kitchens worldwide. Celebrated by chefs for their remarkable heat conductivity, versatility, durability, and natural nonstick properties, these pans have masterfully handled the demands of high-paced professional cooking. Carbon steel pans are a excellent natural alternative to traditional non-stick or ceramic pans. It is only recently that this culinary secret has made its way into the homes of everyday cooks. Why is it so revered? Let's dive in and explore!

What is it?

Carbon steel pans are cookware made generally entirely out of a single piece of stamped or spun steel (Strata's Clad Carbon Steel Pans are the exception). Carbon steel specifically refers to a class of steel with a small percentage of carbon (generally 0.1-1.0%). Carbon steel pans are similar to cast iron, but smoother and lighter (but still relatively heavy compared to most pans). They're known for their excellent heat retention and even heating properties. These pans are versatile, durable, and can develop a natural non-stick surface (seasoning) over time with proper care. They are often used for searing, frying, and sautéing, and they require seasoning and a small amount of maintenance to prevent rusting.

Characteristics of Carbon Steel Pans:

  1. High Heat Capability: Carbon steel pans excel in searing and sautéing at high temperatures, ensuring optimal browning. Thanks to their excellent heat retention, these pans maintain their temperature when applying cold proteins, essential in achieving a perfect medium rare stake.

  2. Natural Non-stick Surface: With proper seasoning (a process where oil is heated on the pan to create a protective, non-stick layer), carbon steel becomes naturally non-stick. This seasoning improves with time and usage, making older pans even more valuable.

  3. Heavy: While carbon steel pans are notably lighter than cast iron, they typically have a heft to them. This weight is intentional; a robust, thick carbon steel pan ensures even heat distribution, preventing hot spots and warping. The only light weight solution is the Strata Clad Carbon Steel Pan

  4. Durability: These pans are tough. With the right care, a carbon steel pan can last a lifetime, making it a wise investment for your kitchen.

  5. Versatility: Whether you're frying, searing, or baking, a carbon steel pan can handle it. Its ability to withstand high temperatures makes it oven-safe and perfect for various cuisines.

Caring for Your Carbon Steel Pan:

Seasoning: This is the most critical step. Season your pan before the first use and re-season as necessary. The best way to improve seasoning is to just cook with it using oil and fats like grapeseed oil or butter. The more you cook with your pan, the better its seasoning will become. It's a good habit to do a quick stove top seasoning after cleaning before storing to prevent rusting.

Cleaning: After cooking, if not too messy, you can simply wipe the pan out with a paper towel. For tougher messes, clean the pan with soap and hot water and a soft brush/sponge. Many sources will say to avoid using soap, but we find it does no damage to the seasoning layer and can actually help it to form by removing excess oil or burn food from the pan. Always completely dry and lightly oil the pan immediately after washing to prevent rusting. Do NOT wash in the dishwasher.

Pro tip: If you end up with burnt-on or stuck on foods, try filling the pan with a shallow amount of water and bringing to a simmer on the stove. After a minute or so of simmering, dump the water out and clean as normal. This should loosen up even the most stubborn of foods.

Avoid Acidic Foods: Initially, until a robust seasoning is built, it's advisable to avoid cooking acidic foods like tomatoes or wine as they can strip the pan's seasoning. Small amounts of these foods are fine when the pans is well seasoned.

Store Properly: Store in a dry place. If stacking pans, place a cloth in between to prevent scratching the seasoning.

Carbon Steel vs. Cast Iron:

While both pans share similarities in heat retention and the requirement for seasoning, there are distinctions

  • Carbon steel heats up and cools down faster.

  • Carbon steel is lighter and, for many, easier to handle (although still relatively heavy).

  • Carbon steel pans usually have a smoother surface, while cast iron can be more textured.

Is Carbon Steel Right for You?

Are you seeking a durable and versatile replacement for conventional non-stick pans like Teflon, ceramic, or hex clad? When properly seasoned, carbon steel boasts impressive non-stick capabilities. If you're keen on sidestepping the sketchy chemicals in traditional non-stick coatings, or you're simply tired of replacing pans every couple of years, carbon steel might just be your ideal solution.

In Conclusion:

Carbon steel pans are a wonderful addition to any kitchen. With their combination of heating efficiency, non-stick surface, and durability, they cater to a variety of cooking needs. With proper care and use, this pan might just become your go-to kitchen companion for years to come! Whether you're a seasoned chef or just starting out, give carbon steel a try and experience the magic firsthand.

Looking to get a carbon steel pan? Join Strata's Clad Carbon Steel Pan newsletter to learn more about the most efficient carbon steel pan.

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