What if one pan could do everything the best traditional stainless-steel, cast-iron, and nonstick pans can do—and, in some cases, even do it a little better?
How We Tested
Even if you’ve never heard of a carbon-steel skillet, you’ve almost certainly eaten a meal made in one. Restaurant chefs use these pans for all kinds of tasks, from searing steak to sautéing onions to cooking eggs. French omelet and crêpe pans are made of carbon steel, as are the woks used in Chinese restaurants. Even Julia Child had a few carbon-steel pieces alongside her familiar rows of copper cookware. In European home kitchens, these pans are hugely popular. Somehow, though, despite their prevalence in restaurants, carbon-steel cookware never really caught on with home cooks in the United States. Given their reputation for being as great at browning as they are at keeping delicate foods from sticking, we wondered if it was time that changed.
We bought seven carbon-steel skillets, all as close as possible to our preferred size of 12 inches for a primary skillet, priced from $39.95 to $79.95. For fun we also threw in a $230 hand-forged version made in Seattle, Washington. Bearing in mind carbon steel’s multipurpose promise, we decided on a range of recipes for our testing: frying eggs, turning out cheese omelets, pan-searing steaks, and baking the traditional French upside-down apple dessert known as tarte Tatin, which begins on the stove and moves to the oven. Along the way we’d evaluate the skillets’ shape, weight, handle comfort, and maneuverability. Washing the pans after every test would let us judge how easy they were to clean and maintain. Our key question: Could this one type of pan actually make owning the other skillets we’ve always had in our arsenal—stainless-steel tri-ply, cast-iron, and nonstick—more of an option than a necessity?
The first thing we learned about carbon steel is that, like cast iron, it rusts when it’s bare. It requires seasoning, a process that bonds oil to the pan to not only provide a layer of protection but also start the process of making the pan nonstick. While two of the skillets we ordered came preseasoned, the other six arrived sheathed in sticky beeswax or thick grease to block rust formation in transit. After scrubbing off this temporary coating (which was sometimes easier said than done), we followed each manufacturer’s seasoning instructions. At first we wondered if the need for seasoning might end up being a deal breaker. But we found a favorite seasoning method that is relatively easy.
When we got cooking, we were astonished at how nonstick even the initial seasoning made these pans. Our first test was to fry an egg in a teaspoon of butter. In nearly all of the pans, the egg slipped around like a puck on an air hockey table. Omelets slid out in perfect golden oblongs, and tarts popped out intact, with few exceptions. Each time we cooked, more patina built up. And as long as we cleaned it following manufacturers’ instructions—no soap and a light coat of oil after drying, like cast iron—the nonstick surface kept gradually improving. Most of the time, we merely had to wipe out the pan with a paper towel—no washing at all—to find it clean as a whistle.
So our first discovery was a big one: Getting true nonstick performance from a carbon-steel skillet is remarkably quick. Another virtue of carbon-steel skillets came to light when we seared steaks. A smoking-hot traditional stainless-steel tri-ply skillet does a perfectly acceptable job at this task, and it’s what most home cooks are likely to use, even though we’re partial to cast iron and find that it does a superior job (cast iron’s heat retention makes it incredibly good for high-heat tasks). The carbon-steel pans trumped both. The impressively deep, even browning these pans produced was easily on a par with cast iron, but because carbon-steel pans are lighter and thinner than cast-iron skillets of the same size, the carbon-steel pans were able to heat up in nearly half the time. Later, using our winning carbon-steel pan, we saw equally great browning when we tried an assortment of other recipes, including frying sliced potatoes, cooking burgers, and stir-frying Sichuan green beans. This is a skillet worth owning if only for pan frying and sautéing, besting our favorite traditional skillet and equaling the best cast-iron skillet in terms of results but with less weight to lug. Like both of these types of pans, it can also go under the broiler.
However, during these additional tests we did discover one downside. If you simmer an acidic tomato sauce in a carbon-steel skillet, as we did when we made a batch of skillet lasagna in our winning pan, the acid will strip off most of the pan’s dark patina and the shiny silver interior of the skillet will reappear. However, we didn’t notice any off-flavors when we tasted the lasagna, and a few rounds of stovetop heating and wiping the skillet with oil, which took about 10 minutes, restored the slippery patina.
Finally, design. We found two basic styles: very thin, shell-like pans and a thicker variety. The thin pans scorched food and threw off recipe times (butter instantly browned and even blackened before we could crack an egg to fry), and they warped by the end of testing. We preferred the thicker skillets. Even if they were a bit harder to lift—some weighed up to twice as much as our favorite traditional skillet, though still a few pounds less than our favorite cast-iron pan—they regulated heat much better and did not warp.
Other design features—issues that have come up in every skillet testing we’ve done—mattered, too. Some pans felt unbalanced or had slightly cramped cooking surfaces. Others had too-high sides that impeded access to the food or too-low sides that let liquids (like the egg for omelets) splash out. And several of the pans had unusually long, steeply angled handles; these made shorter testers grab them at awkward angles, and they barely fit inside the oven when we baked tarte Tatin.
Make Room on the Pot Rack
Despite these minor issues, though, our conclusion was clear: Carbon-steel skillets have earned a place in our kitchen. They possess some of the best attributes and lack several of the drawbacks from each type of standard skillet. They offer the versatility of a traditional pan, the heat retention of cast-iron at a lighter weight, and the slick release of a good nonstick skillet without the synthetic coating or the lack of durability. In fact, many of us would happily opt for just a carbon-steel pan in our own home arsenal. (Plus, perhaps, either a traditional or nonstick pan if we didn’t want to fuss with reestablishing the seasoning after cooking acidic dishes.)
At the end of our testing, we had two top choices: Our winner is a simple, classic pan that cooks beautifully. It’s sturdy, easy to maneuver, and quick both to acquire slick seasoning and to clean up, with a smooth, rivet-free interior that won’t trap food particles—in other words, it’s all you need. But if you want a pan that’s a showpiece as well, we also loved our runner-up. While our initial skepticism was well deserved given its price, we were surprised by what a great pan it was. It is beautifully crafted, sturdy, and well sized and shaped, and it performs perfectly, releasing food well from the get-go and only improving as we used it. However, its high price means it’s not for everyone, and because the pans are made by hand one by one, wait times can be weeks long, depending on demand.
Carbon Steel: A Very Versatile Material
The composition of carbon steel, an alloy made of about 1 percent carbon and 99 percent iron, makes it a particularly functional material for cookware. It contains slightly less carbon than cast-iron, which makes it less brittle; as a result, it can be made relatively thin and lightweight but still be plenty durable. It’s heavy enough to retain heat well but thin enough to heat quickly. And unlike cast iron, which is so rough that it requires multiple rounds of seasoning to become truly nonstick, the smooth surface of carbon steel makes it easy to acquire a slick patina of polymerized oil during seasoning.
The Pan That Does It All
A good carbon-steel skillet can literally do it all: You can bake, broil, sear, and stir-fry in it; plus, you can cook delicate foods like fish and eggs in it with no fear of sticking. It’s no wonder that these skillets are used by so many professional chefs in restaurant kitchens around the world. The only caveat? Cooking with acidic ingredients will take away some of the seasoning, but it can be easily restored.
- SEARS LIKE CAST IRON: A carbon-steel skillet can brown food just as deeply and evenly as cast iron. It also has two advantages: It heats up more quickly, and its lighter weight makes it easier to handle.
- PERFORMS LIKE STAINLESS TRI-PLY: Carbon steel heats virtually as evenly as stainless-steel tri-ply (aluminum sandwiched between stainless) but can brown more deeply; our winner costs one-third of the price of our favorite tri-ply skillet from All-Clad.
- AS SLICK AS NONSTICK: Carbon steel is as slippery as brand-new nonstick, but it sears better, doesn’t have a synthetic coating, has no oven-safe temperature limits, and lasts forever.
We tested eight carbon-steel skillets, all close to 12 inches in diameter, rating them on their cooking performance, sticking, and ease of use, including directions for seasoning. (Two pans were preseasoned; we seasoned the rest according to manufacturer instructions.) All pans were purchased online and appear in order of preference.
- COOKING SURFACE: Official pan sizes are based on rim-to-rim measurements; we measured across the flat portion of the inside of each pan to assess the actual available cooking surface.
- COOKING: We fried eggs, made omelets, pan-seared steaks, and baked tartes Tatin. Pans that performed well across the board earned higher ratings.
- NONSTICK: Pans received high marks for consistently releasing food without sticking.
- EASE OF USE: We considered design factors such as shape; weight; thickness; and handle angle, length, and comfort. We also rated pans higher if they were easier to clean.