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The 11 Most Common Carbon Steel Questions, Answered

Everything you need to know, from selecting to seasoning.

By Rachel Robey
Nov 30, 2023
A well-organized kitchen shelf displays a collection of books, a frying pan, and various kitchenware against a tiled backsplash.
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While professional chefs swear by carbon steel cookware, it’s one of the lesser known cooking materials among home cooks. Given its superior heat control, durability, and versatility, we can only figure that its relative obscurity is simply a result of not knowing how to cook with it—or even what it is.

Because it’s indispensable for any home kitchen, we compiled the most common questions we’ve received about our Carbon Steel and created a comprehensive guide to purchasing, seasoning, and cooking with it. Whether you’ve got a technical question about using carbon steel on an induction stovetop (spoiler alert, it is induction-compatible!) or simply want to know the differences between cast iron and carbon steel, no worries—we’ve answered below.

What Is Carbon Steel?

Two non-stick frying pans on a counter with a dark green cloth and a wooden-handled knife nearby.

Carbon steel is an alloy—a metal composed of more than one metallic element—made of carbon and iron. Professional chefs love this material because it’s tough, maneuverable, versatile, and highly responsive to changes in temperature, meaning you can go from searing to sautéing almost instantly.

Our Carbon Steel Pans are 99% iron and 1% carbon, effectively combining cast iron’s durability and stainless steel’s heat control. Like cast iron, carbon steel must be seasoned prior to use (more on that below) and will develop a naturally non stick patina, or protective layer that seals the pan’s surface from oxidation, or the chemical reaction that causes rust, over time.

Why Is It Called “Blue Carbon Steel?”

carbon frying pan on range

Some carbon steel cookware—including ours—is labeled as “blue carbon steel,” meaning it has undergone an additional heat treatment process called “annealing” that increases its corrosion resistance.

This means your pan will arrive with a slightly blue hue, but the color will change drastically once you begin cooking with it. Over time, it will fade away completely.

Why Do You Season Carbon Steel Cookware?

Seasoning carbon steel involves heating a small amount of high smoke-point oil—our test kitchen prefers grapeseed oil or Seasoning Wax, but any unflavored oil works, like canola, sunflower, or avocado oils—to fill in the small pores of the pan’s metal surface. When heated over high temperatures, the oil dries out and becomes a slick polymer coating that's bonded to the surface of the pan, also called "polymerization".

When done correctly, seasoning results in a smooth protective coating that prevents rust and keeps even the most delicate foods from sticking.

How to Season Carbon Steel

Make sure your pan is completely clean and dry before seasoning, and err on the side of using too little oil rather than too much—a scant teaspoon is perfect. Too much oil during the seasoning process could result in a sticky pan with uneven, flaking, or beaded seasoning.

When you’re ready to season your carbon steel pan for the first time, head to our How to Season Carbon Steel Cookware guide, complete with a step-by-step video detailing our favorite stove-to-oven method.

How Do You Cook With Carbon Steel Cookware?

A person is tossing carrots in a frying pan over a kitchen stove.

Able to withstand temperatures up to 1200F, carbon steel is ideal for everything from searing steaks to open flame cooking. Using carbon steel on the grill helps you get a smoky, charred flavor without losing precious marinades, oils, and fats through the grate.

While there’s nothing you really can’t cook in carbon steel, there are a few things that may be better suited to other cookware materials. Like cast iron, carbon steel is reactive, meaning its surface metals undergo chemical reactions when introduced to certain ingredients like citrus, tomatoes, wine, and vinegar. If you do end up cooking with these ingredients in carbon steel, you’ll likely need to reseason your pan after the dish is complete.

Cooking wit highly acidic ingredients like those risk stripping the Pan’s seasoning and/or adding a metallic flavor to your dish. A quick white wine deglaze in a Carbon Steel Pan is perfectly fine, but a slow-simmered Filipino adobo may be better in another pan. In general, acidic ingredients are better suited to nonreactive Stainless Steel or Enameled Cookware.

Can You Use Carbon Steel on Induction Cooktops?

Two orange fruit halves with caramelized tops are being fried in a black skillet on a stovetop.

Yes, carbon steel is induction compatible. In fact, most of our cookware is compatible on induction, gas, electric, and glass stoves—only our Copper Cookware and Sheet Pans are not induction compatible.

There are a couple things to keep in mind when cooking with carbon on an induction surface, however:

  • When you initially season your pan, you’ll want to follow the Stove-to-Oven Carbon Steel Seasoning Method.
  • Avoid heating your pan too quickly, as thermal shock can warp your pan’s cooking surface. Instead, always begin by heating your Pan on low before slowly bringing it up to temperature.
  • To find the right size skillets to fit your induction stove, we recommend measuring your burners and referring to the product specifications.

How Do You Clean Carbon Steel Cookware?

We’ve previously shared a complete guide to cleaning carbon steel cookware, but keep reading for a quick review. For all levels of messes, hand-wash your pan only—do not put it in the dishwasher.

  • Level One: If your pan is well-seasoned, all you really need to do is wipe it down with a paper towel to remove excess oil and crunchy bits. It should look shiny and brand new—if not, proceed to level two.
  • Level Two: Using a paper towel, scrub two tablespoons of coarse salt around your pan to remove stubborn food bits. Salt is abrasive enough to scrape up stuck-on remnants, but its solubility means it’s still gentle on the seasoning. Once everything is thoroughly scrubbed away, use clean paper towels to remove the salt and wipe down your Pan until nothing remains. You may need to follow up with a quick reseasoning. If you're dealing with exceptionally stubborn residue stuck to your pan or you have burnt-on bits, proceed to level three.
  • Level Three: Add slightly less than a half-inch of water to your pan and bring it to a slow boil. This will soften the stuck-on food, allowing you to scrape it off with a Wooden Spoon or spatula. Do not use metal utensils to scrape up anything on carbon steel, as this can mar the seasoning. Let the pan cool, discard the water and food scraps, and wipe dry with a paper towel. If your pan looks dry, add a light coating of oil and reseason.

Is This Normal?

Darkening/Different Colors:

A well-seasoned pan develops a non stick patina that protects it from rust and corrosion. As you use your pan, it will evolve and darken as it interacts with the heat, ingredients, and environment around it—that’s totally normal. Consider your pan a living entity that alters as you cook with it.

Rust

With a high iron percentage, carbon steel does have a tendency to rust, especially if you live in a humid climate or haven’t used your pan in a while. The good news is that bringing it back is as simple as following our guide to dealing with a rusty carbon steel pan.

Flaky Coating

Using acidic ingredients may strip some of the seasoning, causing the black coating of your pan to flake. This can often be remedied, either by giving your pan a light coating of oil or reseasoning entirely. Flaking or beading can also occur when pans are over or unevenly seasoned.

Sticky Coating

If your pan feels tacky, it’s probably over seasoned. Continued use is sometimes enough to even out the seasoning and course-correct, but you can also take your seasoning buildup back a layer with an abrasive sponge and mild soap.

On rare occasions, you may want to strip the seasoning entirely—head to our guide on reseasoning for detailed step-by-step instructions.

How Is Carbon Steel Different From Other Cookware Materials?

Cast Iron

At less than half the weight of cast iron counterparts, professional and home chefs love carbon steel for its maneuverability around the stovetop, in and out of the oven, or over an open flame.

Carbon steel’s responsiveness to temperature also means it’s much faster to heat up and cool down than cast iron, meaning your proteins end up seared—not burnt. Because the surface pores are much smaller on carbon steel pans, they require less oil during seasoning compared to cast iron. Head to our guide dissecting the differences between carbon steel vs. cast iron for more details.

Stainless Steel

Unlike stainless steel, carbon steel requires routine seasoning and is considered a “reactive” material. As such, it’s not recommended  for cooking highly acidic foods.

However, carbon steel develops a helpful non stick layer as you use it, meaning dishes cooked in carbon steel often require less cooking oil or butter than those prepared in stainless. Head to our guide on the differences between carbon vs. stainless for more info.

What Are Some Advantages and Disadvantages of Carbon Steel?

carbon steel frying pan steak on grill

Advantages

Carbon steel is incredibly durable. Like cast iron, it’s almost impossible to ruin, save for running it over with your car. Chefs and home cooks alike love it for its heat control and maneuverability, not least of all because it’s less likely to burn food. It handles extreme temperatures with no problem, making it a great choice for those who love open flame or outdoor cooking.

Considerations

While carbon steel is preferred among chefs for its versatility and high-heat performance, it does require some attention. All carbon steel pans require proper seasoning before use, and acidic ingredients should be avoided as much as possible. With proper care, however, carbon steel can last a lifetime.

Is Carbon Steel Non Stick?

A person is sautéing food in a frying pan on a stove, with steam rising from the pan.

Unseasoned carbon steel pans are not non stick out of the box, but our Seasoned Carbon Steel Pans come with the first two seasoning layers—aka, the hardest ones—complete, so you can start cooking with it and skip the seasoning. If you opted for an unseasoned pan, you will need to thoroughly wash and season it prior to cooking. This will create a protective layer sealing the pan’s surface, preventing rust and food from sticking.

Both seasoned and unseasoned carbon steel pans will become more non stick the more you cook with them. We recommend cooking something fatty off the bat—like bacon, steak, or burgers—to kickstart building up a solid non stick patina.

How Heavy Is Carbon Steel?

bacon in carbon steel

Heft-wise, carbon steel is almost as light as stainless steel. Unlike cast iron, which is almost twice as heavy, carbon steel’s lightweight maneuverability means chefs can easily handle and cook with it from open to close.

Ready to Shop?

As you can tell, we're firm believers that carbon steel is an indispensable tool that no home kitchen worth its salt should be without. And once you get that base seasoning down, your cooking will be the crispier, juicier, and more flavorful for it.  Check out our Carbon Steel Cookware collection to stock up now and see the difference it can make.