A good carbon steel pan is the versatile kitchen workhorse that many home cooks don’t know they need.
Carbon steel pans are very popular in restaurant kitchens and European homes. While they are slowly gaining popularity with home cooks in the US, they are still way behind cookware materials like stainless steel, aluminum, and cast iron.
If you love cooking with cast iron, you will probably have an easy time accepting carbon steel into your cookware family.
If you’re unfamiliar with this type of cookware, I’m here to show you some of my favorite carbon steel pans, and how to take care of them. By the end, I think you’ll see how useful and versatile they would be in your kitchen.
Best Overall: De Buyer 11-Inch Fry Pan
The craftsmanship and build quality on the De Buyer carbon steel fry pan is top-notch.
Their pans always sit flat and are made with thick gauge steel that should never warp. The long angled handle is very secure and it makes moving the pan around on a full stovetop easy.
One thing that sets this choice apart is the sides that are a bit higher than many other options. This adds extra volume and allows you to cook more food without having to step up to a larger, more cumbersome pan.
The epoxy coating on De Buyer’s steel handle makes this pan more comfortable to hold than most competitors. One drawback of the epoxy is that it limits oven-safe temperature to 400 F for this skillet.
Personally, I’ve used these pans in ovens higher than 400 F, but the epoxy coating will burn off and can release some unpleasant fumes.
De Buyer has been making cookware since 1830. With nearly 200 years of experience, you expect products with high performance and few flaws.
The pans are made in France and come with a limited lifetime warranty, protecting against manufacturer’s defects. The 11-inch size is a great all-purpose pan, but they make a variety of different sizes.
- Heavy-duty and durable
- Inexpensive for a pan that will last a lifetime
- High sides offer more volume
- Handle coating limits oven temperature
Best Upgrade: Mauviel M’Steel 11-Inch Fry Pan
Even novices can handle the Mauviel M’Steel fry pan like a pro. The curved sides are designed to make tossing ingredients feel very natural, which is in stark contrast with carbon steel pans that use a straight flared edge design.
This M’Steel also has a lot of similarities with our “best overall” pick. The handle design is almost identical and they both use thick steel that is between 2 and 2.5 millimeters thick.
There are five sizes of the frypan available, ranging from 8 to 14-inches. They are all made in France and come with a limited lifetime warranty against manufacturer’s defects.
Mauviel is best known for their copper cookware, but every line the produce is of exceptional quality. The company has been manufacturing cookware in France since 1830.
- Very durable even with daily use
- Curved walls are great for easily tossing ingredients
- Top-notch fit and finish
- More expensive but similar materials and design to other options
- Some owners had problems with warping
Best Budget: Winco French Style 11-Inch Fry Pan
The Winco French Style fry pan is a smart option for casual cooks, because most people can’t distinguish a difference in performance between this and the premium models. Most importantly, it is half the price. So yea, you could say it’s a smart buy.
Winco is not necessarily a household name, but it’s what you’ll find in restaurant supply stores and professional kitchens across the country. They make every type of kitchenware imaginable, and it’s always affordably priced.
The thinner gauge metal will heat faster, but the heating can also be a little less even. Another effect of the thinner material is a lighter weight pan. It’s still not exactly lightweight, coming in at just over three pounds, but that’s almost two pounds less than Mauviel and De Buyer.
Lighter weight and faster heating pans can be crucial in a busy restaurant, but I think a lot of home cooks will appreciate those attributes as well.
There are no advertised oven limits, but I know that many restaurant kitchens store these in stacks either directly on a high burner or in 500-degree ovens. This ensures pans can be used at a moment’s notice without any preheating time.
An unnecessary step at home but it speaks to the durability and heat tolerance of these pans.
- Very inexpensive
- Trusted in many professional kitchens
- Thinner metal is more responsive to temperature changes
- Thinner material heats less evenly
- Thinner material is more susceptible to warping
Best Pre-Seasoned Option: Lodge 12-Inch Seasoned Carbon Steel Skillet
Lodge makes an incredible option for home cooks who aren’t practiced in seasoning their own pan, or simply want a skillet that is ready to go out of the box.
Lodge was the first company to offer pre-seasoned iron cookware, and their factory-ready coatings have turned the company into a famous American brand. Like their signature pre-seasoned cast iron, this carbon steel skillet falls right in line with their affordable, no-frills cookware.
The skillet features a straight handle, which is a little different than most other carbon steel skillets which tend to angle upwards. This was done so that the pan would fit on the higher racks in an oven. Something that can be difficult with some other options. The downside of this is that it is not as easy to maneuver around the back burners of the stove.
The durability and heat tolerance of the Lodge skillet is up there with the best brands.
Home cooks who are well-versed in seasoning their own cookware, may benefit from choosing a different skillet. Lodge’s method for pre-seasoning yields a slightly textured cook surface which some people like. Most carbon steel pans are known for their smooth surface. Some owners may choose to scrub clean and reseason if a smooth feel is what they’re after.
- Very durable
- Quite inexpensive
- Arrives seasoned
- Additional seasoning may be necessary
- The flat handle can be hard to maneuver on the stove
Most Sizes Available: Matfer Bourgeat 11-Inch Carbon Steel Fry Pan
Pans in the 10 to 12-inch range are great for a lot of daily cooking tasks. But, having nine sizes to choose from makes Matfer Bourgeat a great choice for every task imaginable.
The other thing that sets this pan apart from the crowd is that the handle is welded on, where everyone else uses rivets. This is one of the most well-loved features of the pan. Rivets are strong and made to last, but they also create a place for food and grime to get stuck.
This pan is a heavy-duty option made from thick gauge steel with wide flared edges. The shape and design are very similar to our top pick, De Buyer.
Matfer Bourgeat is another French company, and they have been in the cookware business since 1814. They produce all kinds of kitchen equipment, and their carbon steel fry pan is available in nine different sizes. They range from 8 ⅝-inches all the way up to 17 ¾-inches.
Having a welded handle gives you a smooth and uninterrupted cooking surface that’s easy to clean. And considering the company has been around for over 200 years, I doubt that durability will be an issue.
- Rivetless design is easier to clean
- 9 sizes for all cooking situations
- Very strong and durable
- Some owners have less confidence in the rivetless design
Best Design: Solidteknics 10.2-Inch AUS-ION Skillet
Solidteknics is an Australian company that has only been around since 2015. The founder is an engineer with a background in kitchen knife making and also spent time working for De Buyer.
I should note that this pan is actually wrought iron rather than carbon steel. In cooking performance it functions about the same, so I let it sneak in here.
Most of the carbon steel pans on the market look very similar, but the Solidteknics skillet really stands out from the crowd. It is the only one to be made entirely from one piece of metal.
The one-piece design looks very unique and also means there are no rivets or welding points to deal with when cleaning. It also means you don’t have to worry about the handle ever coming loose.
Another unique feature is that there are vent holes that reduce heat transfer to the rest of the handle. The vented handle is also indented and can function as a handy spoon rest.
Yet another design aspect that sets this option apart is the rounded rim that makes pouring easier and less messy.
This pan is packed with unique features and should certainly last for several lifetimes, all of that comes at a price, and make this one of the most expensive choices on our list.
- One-piece design means nothing will ever come loose or detach
- Easy to clean
- Only option with an easy-pour rim
- Stay cool handle
- A new brand that hasn’t stood the test of time
- More expensive than most
Best Grill Pan: De Buyer 12.5-Inch Carbon Steel Grill Pan
De Buyer’s fry pan was our best overall pick, so it makes sense that they make another appearance. Their grill pan is made from the same material as the fry pan but it has raised ridges on the cooking surface.
This is an excellent option if you live in an apartment that doesn’t allow grills or you just don’t feel like cooking outside in the middle of winter.
Using grill pans inside can often lead to smoke-filled rooms so make sure you have a good hood installed or keep your doors and windows open.
Since oil likes to gather in between the raised ridges, seasoning can be a little trickier with this pan. But if you’re careful and only use the thinnest layer of oil like you’re supposed to, you should be just fine.
- Same quality you expect from our top pick
- Grilling qualities without leaving your kitchen
- Only one size available
- A limited number of uses
- Harder to season
If you know how to use a wok, then you know what a versatile tool it can be in the kitchen. There is no single pot or pan that can do as much as a wok can.
The primary design of a wok is to quickly stir fry bite-size pieces of food, but it’s also an excellent tool for boiling and deep-frying. With a little extra know-how, it can also work beautifully for eggs, crepes, and even flatbreads.
Most woks are made of thinner steel than your average fry pan. This one is 1.8mm thick and weighs about 4.5 pounds.
The thinner material allows the pan to heat very quickly and get extremely hot in the center of the pan.
The deep shape of the wok gives you multiple temperature ranges to cook with. The very bottom and center are meant to be very hot, with heat gradually decreasing as you move up the sides.
Unfortunately, the rounded bottom also means that this is really only suited for gas stoves (or better yet a wok burner), and won’t work on most flat-top stoves. Adding an inexpensive wok ring will make cooking a lot easier and safer.
This is definitely a more specialized choice, but if you take the time to learn how to use a wok properly you will be greatly rewarded and your cooking repertoire greatly expanded.
- A very versatile cooking tool
- Huge cooking volume
- Heats very quickly
- Multiple temperature zones
- Special equipment required
- Cant be used on glass top or coil stoves
- Takes practice to become proficient
Most Comfortable Handle: Made In 10-Inch Blue Carbon Steel Frying Pan
The curved handle on Made In’s blue carbon steel frying pan pays homage to traditional designs, but makes it more modern, and frankly, much better.
Most carbon steel pans share a similar handle design. It’s usually a long flat piece of steel that is angled up and away from the pan. It gets the job done, but it’s not very comfortable.
Their handle is made from stainless steel rather than carbon steel. It is long and flat, but the edges are very nicely rounded and it has a sweeping arch rather than a straight angle. In the middle is a slight indentation that your thumb rests nicely in.
The curved handle and curved walls of the pan make tossing ingredients feel smooth and very natural.
Made In is an American direct to consumer cookware brand that was started in 2016. They focus on accessible, professional-level cookware. These fry pans are manufactured in France, and built as a modern take on traditional carbon steel pans.
- Very comfortable handle
- Curved walls are great for tossing food
- More modern design than most options
- A new brand that hasn’t been proven over time
- Only available directly from Made In
Best Splurge: Smithey 12-Inch Carbon Steel Farmhouse Skillet
In most cases, carbon steel pans are meant to be utilitarian kitchen workhorses. Rarely are they designed to be ogled by cookware nerds like myself. The Smithey Farmhouse Skillet is one noteworthy exception.
This skillet is a work of art as much as it is a functional fry pan. But, it also costs over $200 more than most of the options on our list.
Each skillet is hand forged and hammered in South Carolina, making each piece unique. The sides are more shallow than most and they very naturally curve up from the bottom of the pan.
The shape and design translate to a very large cooking area, but tossing ingredients can be a little cumbersome.
The handle is thick and sturdy, and also features a unique hammered look. There is a helper handle on the opposite side which is great for a pan of this size.
Most brands only offer warranties against manufacturer’s defects, but Smithey goes a step further and will repair or replace their cookware even if it “fails you after honest and normal use”.
- Beautiful design and aesthetic
- Large cooking surface
- Warranty covers normal use
- Handmade in the US
- Very expensive
- Only one size available
- Very low sidewalls
Greatest Benefits of Carbon Steel
Carbon steel is so useful in the kitchen because it’s very durable, and can become exceptionally nonstick.
The initial cost of a carbon steel fry pan is often between $30 and $75 depending on what brand you go with. That can be a little more expensive than a Teflon or ceramic nonstick pan, but the carbon steel option should last for generations.
Compared to cast iron, it can also be slightly more expensive, but you get big weight savings. Being a lighter weight pan makes carbon steel more friendly to use on a daily basis.
The nonstick capabilities are also very impressive, but they do take some work and consistent upkeep for the life of the pan.
If you do put in the time and effort, you’ll end up with a nonstick pan that contains no chemicals and won’t need to be replaced every few years.
Common Drawbacks of Carbon Steel
The biggest and most obvious drawback is that carbon steel requires maintenance in order to function properly.
An initial seasoning process is required and there are special steps that must be taken for cleaning and storage. When used and cared for improperly you’ll have a pan that foods always stick to, and is likely to rust.
Some people also find the appearance of this type of cookware to be less than attractive. Most options out there have a similar rudimentary design, and they can’t be scrubbed and polished to a sparkly sheen.
I on the other hand love the way that the pans develop and change as they are used more and more. As your pan develops its nonstick patina, it becomes a badge of honor that you can show off to those in the unofficial carbon steel cooking club.
Most carbon steel pans are made from 99% pure iron and 1% carbon. So you know what you’re getting and you don’t have to worry about any potentially dangerous chemicals.
The one thing to keep in mind from a health perspective is that an unproperly cared for pan can develop rust. If that does happen you should take the steps to scrub away the rust with steel wool and restart the seasoning process.
The thin iron handles that most brands utilize can have a tendency to get hot during longer cooking sessions on the stovetop. The unique slotted handle on the Solidteknics skillet does a good job of mitigating that.
Performance and Responsiveness
Carbon steel shares a lot of cooking characteristics with cast iron. After all, iron is the main ingredient in both.
Carbon steel is much thinner than cast iron. Because of that, it doesn’t distribute heat quite as evenly and hot spots are more common.
The great benefit of the thinner material is that these pans are very responsive to temperature changes and you don’t have to wait ages to preheat your cookware.
Since carbon steel is pressed or hammered from a sheet of metal it is incredibly smooth from the start. This is a characteristic the leads to a better and more easily achievable nonstick surface.
The iron content also means that you can use any carbon steel pan with induction cooktops, and any other type of cooking surface. The only exception on our list is the wok, but that’s due to the rounded bottom and not the material itself.
How Heavy Is Carbon Steel?
As you may have noticed, carbon steel pans are often compared to cast iron, and I’m going to do it again here. Cast iron skillets are known for their weight and thickness. Two things that contribute to their durability and great heat distribution.
Carbon steel cookware is generally much thinner than cast iron, but are still made from hefty gauged metal. Most of the options on our list are between 2-3 millimeters thick, while a classic Lodge cast iron skillet is around 5-millimeters.
The thinner material means less weight. Have you ever tried tossing a stirfry in a 12-inch cast-iron skillet? It can be a good arm workout, but also leads to a messy stovetop. Carbon steel pans are designed to be more mobile and maneuverable on the stovetop.
When you consider carbon steel is the material of choice in many restaurant kitchens, you can imagine that it’s important for cooks to be able to lift and toss these pans repeatedly during a busy lunch or dinner service.
Still, they are not what I would call a lightweight option. Most of the choices on our list are between 3.5-5 pounds.
Is Carbon Steel Durable?
A good carbon steel pan will last for generations, especially when cared for properly.
One of the reasons cast iron pans are so thick is that it is a rather brittle material. It’s not common, but cast iron pans can crack, but they’ll never bend. Carbon steel on the other hand is more malleable.
Rather than cracking, carbon steel will bend. This is what allows manufacturers to stamp and mold pans using thinner gauged metal. This also means that it is more durable (in a sense) than cast iron.
While it’s rare that a carbon steel pan will ever crack, it can bend or become warped. All of our choices have solid track records for maintaining their shape, but there are occasions where owners did have warping issues.
How To Maintain And Clean Carbon Steel
The maintenance and cleaning of carbon steel are very important and also one of the reasons more people don’t use this kind of pan.
If you have a cast-iron pan that you regularly use and take care of then a lot of this information will be familiar. If this is your first time, don’t get discouraged, after a few uses you’ll develop a routine that becomes second nature.
Seasoning is the process of adding a protective layer to your pan to protect against rust and makes your cookware more nonstick. That layer is made by bonding oil to your cookware in a hardened layer.
As you continue to cook foods with oil and fat on a seasoned pan, you can continue to add layers and durability to the protective layer.
There are a wide range of techniques to season carbon steel cookware, and I’ve previously published a simple guide on how you can get started with seasoning in your kitchen. It’s a simple fast method that works better than any other I’ve tried. It’s also a big time saver, and will give you tips on which oils to use for best results.
When it comes time to clean your carbon steel pan avoid using soap as that will break down your seasoning layer. Instead, use hot water and a stiff-bristled brush. I like to keep a bamboo wok brush in the kitchen for this and my other cast iron cookware.
Another alternative is to use coarse salt and a towel to scrub off any stuck-on food. After any cleaning with water, dry the pan thoroughly and rub just a drop of oil on it before storage.
What Is Carbon Steel and How Is It Made?
Carbon steel is primarily made from iron. Most carbon steel cookware is made from 99% iron and 1% carbon. Cast iron on the other hand usually has between 2-4% carbon.
The higher carbon content in cast iron makes it very brittle, and the metal must be melted and poured into molds to sets.
The lower carbon content of carbon steel makes it much more malleable. To make a pan, a piece of carbon steel is cut from a sheet and then pressed or hammered into the desired form.
Because of this, carbon steel cookware can be much thinner and smoother than cast iron.
Carbon Steel vs. Other Cookware Materials
Each cookware material has unique strengths and weaknesses. None are objectively better than the others; it really depends on how you intend to use them.
Here I’ll provide a direct comparison of how carbon steel performs next to other popular cookware materials. If you want to dig deeper on a particular material you can find specifics in our recent article about performance characteristics of the best cookware materials.
Carbon Steel vs. Blue Steel
Blue steel is carbon steel. It has simply gone through a heat treatment to create a protective outer layer. There is no effect on performance and it has the same attributes as non-treated carbon steel.
Carbon Steel vs. Stainless Steel
Stainless steel was a novel discovery because the chromium content inside of it acts as a layer of protection against corrosion. Practically speaking, this means that stainless steel is easier to maintain. It doesn’t require seasoning and won’t rust.
Stainless steel is also considerably more expensive than carbon steel, and can be more challenging to cook with. Carbon steel is much more affordable, and can achieve a non-stick property with proper seasoning. This is a benefit you won’t find with stainless steel.
Carbon Steel vs. Cast Iron
Carbon steel and cast iron cookware have a lot of similarities. They are both generationally durable, affordable materials that build up non-stick properties on the cook surface when properly seasoned.
The primary differences between the materials has to do with their weight and heat responsiveness. Cast iron cookware is much thicker and heavier than carbon steel. This makes it excellent at heat distribution and retention which are great qualities for braising, stewing and baking.
By contrast, carbon steel is thin and light. This makes carbon steel cookware easier to handle in the kitchen, which is convenient if you are moving the dish or flipping ingredients with a flick of the wrist. Carbon steel is also much more responsive to temperature changes.
Carbon Steel vs. Nonstick Cookware
While you can achieve good food release over time with a carbon steel skillet, nothing is more convenient out of the box than a nonstick pan. Nonstick food release is superb, and in most cases individual dishes are very affordable.
Carbon steel may not be as user friendly as nonstick cookware, but you will get exponentially more value from it over the life of the pan. Carbon steel skillets should last more than a lifetime if treated properly, while nonstick cookware typically lasts under 5 years before needing a replacement. There is also some concern about the environmental impact of chemicals used in the making of traditional nonstick cookware.
If you’re buying a carbon steel pan for the first time there are a lot of good and fairly inexpensive options. Since the performance differences between models are often negligible, I wouldn’t go spending hundreds of dollars on something like the Smithey Skillet right off the bat.
De Buyer is what I stock in my kitchen because I’ve used it at home and in demanding restaurants and it has never failed me. Its middle of the road pricing is also well worth the usefulness and durability.
The Winco pan as our budget pick is really a great value and a good place to start if you’re not sure if carbon steel is for you or not.
Whatever you choose, if given a chance, I think carbon still will become the pan you reach for more often than not.