Why You Need a Carbon Steel Pan

Ever since I achieved proper seasoning, it's the only pan I've used.

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Photo: Dennis Lee

I have a bunch of Cuisinart pans I purchased as a set, when I was in my early 20s (sigh). They were my adult cookware starter set. I’ve had them for close to 20 years, and I have to say, I sort of resent them now. They are banged up, weren’t that great to begin with, and worst of all, take up a ton of space. I’m at the point where I’m sick of seeing them. While I know there will never be one pan in the world that can replace all of them, with their various shapes and sizes, I’ve nevertheless been looking for one pan that might be able to do the work of several different pans currently crowding my cabinets. Now, I think I’ve finally found the one.

I recently explained the saga of seasoning my new carbon steel pan, which was a fairly long and involved process. But it ultimately rewarded me with the desired result: a pan with the even heat distribution of a cast-iron skillet, but with a much more manageable weight. (The carbon steel pan is, admittedly, still a touch heavy for my puny forearms, but that hasn’t been a major issue.)

How a carbon steel pan helps you in the kitchen

The other night I came to the realization that ever since I seasoned my carbon steel pan properly, I haven’t once reached for any of my various Cuisinarts. I simply haven’t needed them. I sauté vegetables in this thing, sear meat then toss the whole pan in the oven, make sauces, fry eggs—I pretty much use it for everything now. It’s an 11" pan, which means it’s just the right size to cook a whole range of dishes, and since cleaning a properly seasoned pan is such a cinch (just a fast wipe, maybe a rinse), I don’t have to stress about mess after I’m done.

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Finally, after a lot of hemming and hawing, I decided to retire a few of my pans permanently. I hesitated at first, since I’d had some of them for so long, but once I gave them away, I haven’t looked back. I still have a backup skillet in case I need a second one for a one-off occasion, but the longer I go without using it, I may eventually let go of that one too.

Think about how many pans you actually need

Granted, my living situation is likely different than yours. My household is just two people (as much as I love them, the cats aren’t getting any sautéed food). I rarely need more than a pan’s worth of servings at any given time, and even if we have guests over, I can slam out multiple batches of food from that thing in no time at all, since it retains heat so damn well.

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Will my carbon steel pan replace everything? Unfortunately, it can’t. I still need my saucepans and my Dutch oven, all of which I use frequently for other purposes. But now that the carbon steel pan is more or less nonstick, I won’t need a separate chemically coated nonstick pan. Those inevitably need to be replaced, since the coating can suffer from wear and tear.

If you’re looking to jump in, I’m relieved to tell you that there are plenty of inexpensive options out there. Lodge makes a 12" carbon steel skillet for $50, which is a bargain considering it’ll last you a lifetime. The one I have was sent to me by de Buyer, and it’s sort of a stovetop showpiece, but a bit pricey—the “pro” version can cost as much as $110. I have another pan waiting to be seasoned by Made In, who also sent me a sample, and it’s also a stunner, though it’s comparable in price to the de Buyer.

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I can’t recommend these pans enough, with the one caveat being you’ll need a little patience at first when it comes to seasoning them, which can be challenging. But fry a few batches of bacon in that puppy to begin building up that naturally nonstick coating, and you’ll be good to go in just a few rounds of cooking. Somewhere down the line, you might find yourself letting go of some kitchen clutter, and that’s definitely worth the price of admission.