Carbon steel pans are perhaps the lesser-known workhorse of cookware that offers durability, great heat distribution, and a naturally nonstick surface when properly cared for. Popular in restaurant kitchens for their indestructibility, these types of pans can take a good deal of abuse without compromising the innate qualities that make them reliable and consistent. These same attributes will serve the home cook just as well.
Similar to cast iron in its makeup, carbon steel is comprised of carbon and iron. However, the higher carbon content of cast iron makes it heavier, more brittle, and likely to break. On the other hand, carbon steel is almost indestructible, making it a great candidate for professional kitchens where they can handle being knocked around a bit without suffering significant damage.
Beyond their durability, carbon steel pans have some great intrinsic attributes that set them apart in the kitchen. Because they are light, they tend to heat up quickly, demonstrating responsiveness on the stovetop. Meanwhile, you can expect to get a really nice sear on your food, much like cast iron.
What Should I Look For When Buying Carbon Steel Pans?
Just like the purchase of any kitchen equipment, you can easily get overwhelmed with sorting through the details in order to find what is best for you. In this article, I have focused on a few specific details so that you can see how these pans stack up against one another. They are as follows.
Criteria #1: Budget
I will show you a number of pans at a range of price points. The goal here is that you can get your hands on a carbon steel pan at a reasonable price. If you are on the market for something a little unique or even rare, I will show you a nice high-end option, as well.
Criteria #2: Design
No two pans are quite the same. Due to the depth of the sides, angle or length of the handle, or the diameter of the pan’s surface these pans all have some variations that will make them a better fit for some. I will give you a variety of recommendations so you can find the best carbon steel pan for your specific needs.
Criteria #3: Quality
With proper care, a carbon steel pan should give you many years of use. I have sorted through a lot of reviews to provide some feedback on how well these pans have stood the test of time. After all, we all want to get our hands on tools that will do the job well over and over again so we don’t suffer buyer’s remorse. Ideally, you will decide on a pan that will be with you for years to come making your time at your stovetop enjoyable and efficient.
Here’s How We’ve Determined the Best Carbon Steel Pans
With so many options in carbon steel pans, it can seem a bit overwhelming. My goal in this article is to offer you my recommendations in a number of categories. In creating this list I took into consideration the reviews of users who put these pans to work. After all, the best testament to the quality of well-made cookware is how well it performs in the hands of actual cooks over a period of time.
#1: Matfer Bourgeat Black Carbon Steel Fry Pan (Best Value – All-Purpose)
My choice for the best value in an all-purpose carbon steel frying pan is the Matfer Bourgeat Black Carbon Steel Fry Pan. This pan, with its simple classic design, is sturdy and easy to handle. By comparison, carbon steel pans can weigh up to half of their cast iron counterparts which can seem unwieldy. Weighing in at just over 4 pounds, this pan is really light in the hand, something one may not expect from such a heavy hitter in the kitchen.
The shape of this pan sets it apart from some of the others of its size. The sides of the pan are angled perfectly to allow optimal access when turning or flipping your food. It is deep enough to contain the pan’s contents, yet shallow enough to prevent steaming as you saute, enabling great capacity to sear meat or caramelize vegetables.
The handle of this pan has a nice angle which suits cooks for varying heights. Longer handles make for an awkward grip making them feel accessible for a wider range of users. Beyond that, the handle is attached in a way that is rivet-free which means it doesn’t have places inside the pan where unwanted food and bacteria can collect.
Designed to withstand and maintain exceedingly high temperatures, this pan can be used on all stovetops, including induction. With all of the flexibility and features that a pan of this nature has to offer it is clear why it is a solid contender for professional cooks and home cooks alike.
#2: De Buyer – Paella Pan 2 Handles – Mineral B Element 12½” (Best Splurge)
For those fans of carbon steel cookware who are looking to add a little something special to their collection, I have included the De Buyer Mineral B Paella Pan as my choice for best splurge.
The fact that this pan is called a paella pan may lead some to believe that it is a single-use pan, only to be pulled out on those rare occasions when you are firing up the grill to make authentic paella. I can tell you that while this pan does a fine job with that specific dish, it is so much more than that.
It has a great deal to offer and makes a really nice addition to your collection of carbon steel pans. This pan is a great choice for those who love carbon steel pans and already own a skillet and may be looking for something that brings a little diversity to your cookware, this may be a great fit. Of course, it does come at a higher cost, but I feel it is worth the extra spend, and here’s why:
Reason #1: Design
The first thing I love about this pan is the stainless steel double handles that are riveted securely to the sides of the pan. This design makes it really easy to move it from stovetop to oven or even the grill with a great deal of confidence. Much more stable, I feel than a single-handled skillet that is best for single burner use.
I am also a fan of the shape and placement of the handles. They are angled so that they are in line with the rim of the pan. This design makes it easy to slide it into the oven without taking up a lot of space. If you are familiar with the long handles on some of the carbon steel skillets and fry pans you will recognize this as a better design for those occasions when you want to use your pan in the oven. Having two handles placed on opposite sides enables you to get your pan into the center of the oven, as well as under the broiler.
Reason #2: Presentation
For those occasions when you have spent some time in your kitchen making something as special as paella or perhaps another culinary masterpiece, you really want to put your cookware in the center of the table so your guests can admire your efforts. This pan is perfect for just that. No need to transfer into another serving piece. This is the way that paella is meant to be served, after all, but why stop there?
A large roast or whole chicken will finish nicely in this pan making a stunning presentation for guests, with potatoes and vegetables roasted around the perimeter to pick up some of those pan drippings. Vegetable dishes also find their way from stovetop or oven to table in this pan. I can see roasted root vegetables, a whole head of roasted cauliflower, or a bright selection of sauteed spring vegetables.
Reason #3: Versatility
This pan is really perfect for so much more than just paella. With its ample cooking surface and low sides, it is great for searing large roasts or cuts of meat. It is a good fit for something like a standing rib roast, for example, which can finish quite nicely in the oven.
With its large cooking surface, you could easily use this pan as a griddle for bacon or pancakes. Pan frying breaded chicken cutlets or fish fillets for a number of people would work quite nicely, as well. It is a natural for cooking over an open flame, functions well with induction burners, and is very much at home over gas or electric stovetops.
I really like the way this moves right from stovetop to oven, transferring quite easily with the two riveted handles that feel secure. This would not be the case for a skillet with a single long handle which would feel awkward and unbalanced. This makes it a multitasker for a great variety of applications which is something I feel very strongly about in the kitchen. For me, a pan that can be used as widely and frequently as this pan does certainly justifies the extra cost.
#3: De Buyer – Round Pancake Pan – Mineral B Element 12″ (Best for Crepes)
My choice for the best crepe pan is the De Buyer Mineral B Element 12” pancake pan. Made in France, this is a pan with a tried-and-true design that has remained much as it was when this company began over 200 years ago.
Equipped with an angled iron handle, this relatively lightweight pan handles nicely allowing you to lift and swirl the pan with ease, getting a nice even layer of batter across the surface for perfect crepes. Of course, you aren’t limited to just crepes on this pan, though its shallow sides make it a natural. Pancakes, grilled cheese sandwiches, and fried eggs are just as much at home here.
The handle is solidly attached to the pan with rivets made of the very same carbon steel as the pan itself. This ensures that the pan and the rivets will expand and contract at the same rate as they heat and cool, resulting in a pan that is less likely to suffer damage from loosening or cracking along these points.
Expect your pan to arrive with a coating of beeswax. That has been applied for the specific purpose of keeping it rust-free in the shipping process. Once you have gotten it home, you will need to remove that coating with hot water and a brush, following that up with a proper seasoning process.
Some reviewers indicated that they found the finish on this pan to be troublesome. It did appear that, in those cases, users did not properly follow the suggested methods. My point here is that you should plan to go through the steps of proper maintenance for the best carbon steel results.
This is the pan for you if you plan to make crepes on a regular basis, though don’t rule out this one if you find yourself making tortillas or other similar flatbreads on the stovetop. The shallow sides of this pan make turning a breeze.
#4: Lodge Carbon Steel Skillet, Pre-Seasoned 10-inch (Best Low Cost)
My choice for the best low-cost carbon steel pan is the Lodge Carbon Steel Pre-Seasoned Skillet. Lodge is best known for its line of cast iron cookware. This carbon steel version has a lot to offer at a reasonable price, holding up the good name of this 100-year-old, world leader in cast iron cookware.
For those who like the idea of getting right into cooking with an already pre-seasoned carbon steel pan, this is a nice choice. Factory seasoned with soybean oil, you will notice that this pan arrives with a black patina that will serve you well over time, provided you continue to treat it well. Washing it by hand, drying it well, and coating it with a neutral oil will keep that seasoning in tack. In the long run, you can expect great things from a well-cared-for pan, its nonstick properties rivaling any other nonstick surface with the benefit of withstanding high temperatures on the stovetop, over an open flame, or in the oven.
For those who do intend to use their carbon steel skillet in the oven, you will be pleased with the handle of this pan which is slightly angled, though moderately so. This functions well in ovens where clearance is an issue. Many of the competitors’ pans have longer, more steeply angled handles that may not clear the inside of their ovens. Perhaps a small feature, but one that can hinder the flexibility of your cookware.
#5: Craft Wok Traditional Hand Hammered Carbon Steel Pow Wok with Wooden and Steel Helper Handle (Best Carbon Steel Wok)
The Craft Wok Traditional Hand Hammered Carbon Steel Pow Wok with Wooden and Steel Helper Handle is my choice for the best carbon steel wok. For those who are in the market for a great quality commercial-grade wok, this is a great choice, recognized by Chinese chefs for its reliability and durability in both the professional and home kitchen.
Before getting into the assets of this particular carbon steel pan, it is worth noting that this traditional wok has a rounded bottom, making it unsuitable for flat electric or flat induction stove. It is designed for gas stovetops, wok burners, or open flame. For added stability you may want to invest in a wok ring. They are rather inexpensive and may prove to be a safer way to stir fry at home.
Like most carbon steel pans, seasoning is essential. Users who skipped this important step complained that either their wok rusted or that they encountered issues with food sticking to the pan. If you come to this wok with the right mindset, you will be rewarded with a surface that is superior to other nonstick pans. The added bonus of handling high heat will allow you to get a nice sear on your food or even use it to deep fry.
This wok is equipped with a steel helper handle that will not burn when you stir fry over high heat. At the opposite end of the pan is a long wooden handle that enables you to pick up and toss your pan like the pros. This same wooden handle is the one thing that makes this wok unsafe for the oven. Not really a problem, as you would probably not put a round bottomed pan in your oven in the first place, but worth noting because some people may use their ovens for the seasoning process.
We have already seen quite a range in prices for quality carbon steel pans, but the list goes on. Below are three other choices for budget options. Whether you are a first timer or just looking to add a new carbon steel frying pan to your collection, I’ve got a few options that won’t break the bank.
#1 Best Budget: Merten & Storck Carbon Steel Black Frying Pan, 10-Inch
My first budget choice is the Merten & Storck Carbon Steel Black 10-Inch Frying Pan. Priced at just under $30, this is a pre-seasoned pan that develops a nice nonstick patina over time, improving with each use. Although it is preseasoned, it does require you to wash away the factory-applied protective silicone coating before use. Once that has been lifted with some hot water and a brush, you can get right to the stove and start cooking.
This pan features a steel handle that is attached with three rivets, giving it a nice sturdy grip. This oven-proof handle makes it a great piece that transitions nicely from the stovetop to the oven, safe up to 600 degrees.
Produced by a company with a long history of cookware manufacture, Merten & Storck recommends this pan for campfire and outdoor cooking. Because it is rather lightweight, coming in at under 3 pounds, I can see the application for this type of cookery. It is also safe for induction cooking, making it a pan with a great deal of versatility at a reasonable cost.
Compared with some of the higher cost carbon steel pans, this is a nice entry-level option or one that will be a pan you will build a set of cookware around. Some reviewers indicated that they purchased these pans in multiples, and at this price, you can certainly afford to.
#2 Best Budget: BALLARINI Professionale 3000 Carbon Steel Fry Pan
The Ballarini Professionale 3000 Carbon Steel Fry Pan is my second choice for best budget carbon steel fry pan. Made in Italy, this maker of premium cookware has been producing quality products since 1889 and has a fine reputation among chefs and home cooks.
This particular pan has sloped sidewalls that make it a natural for flipping food while sauteeing. Many reviewers touted this pans ability to make a perfect French omelet, rolling it to perfection with ease. At 2 inches deep, it will better contain your ingredients than some of the other shallower options, but that is really a matter of what you are looking for in your frying pan.
The oven-safe handle of this pan is welded onto the exterior of the pan itself, leaving the inside of the cooking surface rivet-free. Many reviewers like this design because it doesn’t allow space for food or bacteria to collect. This same handle, due to its angle, make it a poor fit for broiler cooking. Some ovens may not accommodate this design which may or may not be a problem, depending on how you intend to use this pan.
Reviews of this pan are really quite favorable overall. Many indicated that it was rather simple to season and that once it was, it performed really well. I think that if the design of this pan speaks to the kind of cooking you plan to do, it is a really solid addition to your collection. Priced very reasonably, I think it is a fit for the first-time carbon steel pan user as well as the long-standing enthusiast.
#3 Best Budget: Winco French Style Fry Pan, Carbon Steel Frying Pan with Extra Long Solid Metal Handle
My last runner-up in the budget category is the Winco French Style Fry Pan, Carbon Steel Frying Pan with Extra Long Solid Metal Handle. This is a relatively lightweight pan that is better known as a restaurant model than one for home use. Because it is so reasonably priced, these are the types of pans that chefs have in stacks at the ready at their stations.
These carbon steel pans are made of thinner gauge carbon steel than the other pans I have mentioned in this article which translates to pans that heat up quickly. Beyond that, they are light in the hand which is a nice feature if you are tossing your pan to saute or just looking for something considerably lighter than other pans. The downside, according to reviewers, is that they tend to heat up a little less evenly. The upside is that they can be hot at a moment’s notice.
This fry pan has curved sidewalls and a flat bottom. The design is perfect for those times when you are looking for something deeper than a crepe pan to prevent food from spilling out. The sides of this pan are sloped to prevent steam from accumulating, a nice feature when you are trying to get a nice sear on your food.
One downside is the painted handle which makes it unfit for the oven. Very few reviewers made mention of this, interestingly. I think that if you are aware of this going into it, you can certainly overlook this slight downfall. On a positive note, it is a riveted handle that seems solidly constructed, giving the handler a good deal of confidence in the longevity of this piece. In the end, given the price of this nice-quality, Spanish-made pan, you will find it a great fit for your stovetop needs.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is Carbon Steel Safe?
Carbon steel is a very safe option and one you should feel good about using at home. No need to worry about harmful fumes or the release of unhealthy chemicals getting into your food. Rest assured that these pans are safe for you and the environment.
Is Carbon Steel Non-Stick?
While carbon steel is not technically nonstick, with proper care and maintenance it is possible to build up a nice patina that serves as well or better than many of the commercial nonstick pans that are available on the market today. With that said, it is worth mentioning that just because a pan is dubbed ‘nonstick’, it still requires the use of some sort of oil to properly saute. Omitting the fat entirely is not only going to cause damage to your cookware, it will also eliminate the process of searing or growing your food altogether. The bottom line is this: Use a safe oil. Your cookware will thank you for it by delivering years of well-cooked meals.
Why Do Chefs Use Carbon Steel Pans?
Chefs love carbon steel pans. They are reliable, durable, great at transferring heat, and can take a beating in the professional kitchen. Beyond that, they are quite reasonably priced, light in the hand, and deliver great results over the high heat of a commercial stovetop, live fire, or in the oven.
How Do I Season a Carbon Steel Pan?
It is worth noting that before getting started in the kitchen with this pan it does require a bit of effort to properly season the pan. This is the way I would recommend it.
Before initial use, wash your pan under hot water to remove the protective coating, using a brush, if necessary, and a drop of dish detergent. Thoroughly dry the pan over low heat on your stovetop.
Combine oil 1/3 cup of canola oil, 2/3 cup of salt, and the skins of two potatoes over medium heat, continually moving over the surface of your pan until the skins are dark and crisp. Discard after sautéing for about 10 minutes, wiping the pan clean with a dry paper towel.
Briefly reheat the frying pan with a little oil, remove it from heat and wipe it with a paper towel.
After use, wipe with a paper towel or rinse under hot water. Do not use dish soap and do not allow pan to air dry. Rather, briefly placing over a hot burner until thoroughly dry. Finally, with the use of a paper towel, apply a very light coating of oil to the surface of your pan to prevent rusting between uses.
The desired appearance of this pan once is it properly seasoned is more of a mottled brown color that will continue to darken over time. Ultimately, you may end up with a black pan which is an indication that you have cared for and used it properly. The good news is you have built up a patina that will provide a safe, natural, nonstick surface that will serve you well for years to come, improving with use and proper maintenance.
Verdict: Your Best Carbon Steel Pans
There is a carbon steel pan for nearly any kitchen task that will perform well. At a wide range of prices, you are sure to find one that will serve you well for years to come. Here’s the breakdown of my recommendations.
If you want the best value for your money, choose the Matfer Bourgeat Black Carbon Steel Fry Pan.
If you are looking for the best carbon steel wok, pick the Craft Wok Traditional Hand Hammered Carbon Steel Pow Wok.
If you want to keep the spend under $40, pick the Lodge Carbon Steel Pre-Seasoned 10-inch Skillet.
My final thoughts on carbon steel cookware are words of support. I have provided a great range of prices and a number of styles that showcase some of the attributes these pans have to offer. At the low end, you can get your hands on a nice pan for as little $20 which is a great way to get your feet wet. Once you have taken the first step and given one of these fine pans a try, do your best to maintain it well so that you have the pleasure of working with quality tools for many years to come.