Yes, cast-iron pans are durable kitchen workhorses. But, man, they are heavy. (Have you ever lifted a cast-iron pan full of roast chicken and vegetables and dropped it onto the kitchen floor due to the immense weight? If you don't care to get your bicep workouts done in the kitchen, there's a better way: there's a skillet with the same versatility and durability and less of the heft. It's called carbon steel.
You and your cast-iron are going to be together forever, so it pays to choose wisely.
Much like cast iron in care and convenience, carbon steel is a kitchen workhorse that, inexplicably, never really caught on in American home kitchens. It is, however, quite popular in restaurants and European homes; as well as in the home of Bon Appétit senior food editor Chris Morocco, who likes that the thinner metal—an alloy of iron and less than two percent carbon—is "more responsive to changes in heat than cast iron." Here are the reasons he loves it:
It Has a Smoother Cooking Surface
Chris says that modern cast iron often has a rough texture, which means it can't even compete from a performance standpoint with the glassy, smooth surface of carbon steel. He explains that the carbon-steel pan makes more thorough surface contact with whatever you're cooking, resulting in a steak with a more even sear or a stir-fry with more–quickly and evenly cooked vegetables.
Since he started using carbon steel at home, Chris hasn't just forgone his cast-iron pans. The pan is so versatile that he rarely uses his stainless steel pans, either. Like cast iron, a carbon steel pan can also go from oven to stove-top to broiler to grill, without fear of harm to the pan. That means you can use it to start searing chicken on the stove and then move it into the oven. You can use it to make a skillet cookie or a cobbler in the oven. You can use it to broil lamb chops. And it does all these things with the lightness and accessibility of an everyday skillet. (Chris still uses his nonstick skillet to cook eggs, though.)
A Weight Comparison Chart:
- Lodge 12" Cast-Iron Skillet: 8.22 pounds
- All-Clad Stainless Steel 12-inch Fry Pan: 4.5 pounds
- SolidTeknics 12.5" Australian Iron (aka Carbon Steel) Skillet: 4.35 pounds
As you can see, the carbon-steel pan is way lighter weight than a cast-iron pan—and it's even marginally lighter than a stainless steel skillet. Even though it doesn't have the heft, it's also durable like cast iron (in fact, cast iron can crack if overheated—a difficult, but not impossible task; carbon steel pans can't).
Unfortunately, cleaning and caring for carbon steel is also very similar to caring for cast-iron pans. You shouldn't put it in the dishwasher and you must maintain the seasoning.
Most carbon-steel pans will arrive from the manufacturer with a waxy coating that should be removed prior to cooking. This is because carbon steel, without the protection of a proper seasoning, will rust. The coating protects the new, unseasoned pans from rusting while in transit.
Yes, you can buy a pre-seasoned carbon-steel pan just as you can buy a pre-seasoned cast-iron pan. But Chris isn't a fan."The pre-seasoned coating that mass producers use can prevent the cook from giving the pan a proper seasoning," he says. This results in a pan with non-stick properties that aren't quite as effective as seasoning it yourself.
How to Season and Care for Your Carbon-Steel Pan
To season the pan, you should follow the manufacturers' instructions, which usually include scrubbing off the waxy coating with hot water and heating a tablespoon or two of an oil with a high smoke point (grapeseed, safflower) in the pan until it's shimmering. Then, using tongs and a paper towel, rub hot oil all over the surface, including the bottom of the pan, wiping out the excess. Continue to heat the pan until it's smoking. Finally: allow the pan to cool completely. Repeat.
Over time the shiny new silver skillet will develop a black, satiny patina, which is why it's sometimes called a "black steel" skillet. Of course, other seasoning methods abound, like placing the pan in the oven, and adding salt and potato skins to the oil. The best way to ensure that your pan is properly seasoned is just to keep using it every night.
Once you get hooked on the carbon-steel lifestyle, that won't be hard to do.
How to Shop for a Carbon-Steel Skillet
Carbon-steel pans tend to be slightly more expensive than cast-iron skillets. However, there are options available at a variety of price points, depending on what you're looking for and how committed you are.
An Inexpensive Skillet for Beginners
A Middle-of-the-Road Option
A Luxury Pick
Originally Appeared on Epicurious