silver pan, bowl of fried potatoes

Before I heard about carbon steel cookware, I was beginning to accept the fact that the perfect pan doesn’t exist. Sure, there are qualities I love about the various types of cookware materials I own, but they don’t come without their quandaries. For instance, cast iron has an impressive ability to sear, but truth be told, sometimes I don’t feel like lugging out the heavy pan from my cupboard. I love the versatility that stainless steel offers, but the whole non-stick thing can be frustrating when it comes to cooking things like eggs. Non-stick is usually the winner in my kitchen, but still, I’m always on the hunt for healthier alternatives.

Cue carbon steel. It’s an underrated cookware material, but features quite the laundry list of star-studded qualities, especially when compared to its competitors: It’s 40 percent lighter than cast iron, more heat-conductive than stainless steel, and has better non-stick properties than your standard non-stick pan when seasoned. And, it can do basically everything — sear, sauté, braise, pan-fry, and go from stovetop to oven. TL;DR: Carbon steel is the Swiss Army knife of cookware. To put this material to the test, I turned to the 200-year-old French cookware brand that’s recognized as the purveyor of carbon steel: de Buyer.

Fit for the chef and home cook

So, what exactly is carbon steel? According to Sylvie Giret, Managing Director for North America of de Buyer, carbon steel cookware is made from 99 percent iron and 1 percent carbon, and is composed of metal sheets that are pressed into the form of a pan, resulting in a perfectly smooth surface. Once seasoned, carbon steel becomes naturally non-stick the more you use it.

Carbon steel is the material of choice for many professional chefs, but it also boasts features that make it ideal for the home cook (that’s me!) as well. For my review, I tested out a few different cookware pieces from de Buyer and found that across the board, they were easy to use and provided consistent results.

One of the most popular products from the brand is the Mineral B Fry Pan, which is essentially the do-it-all pan for searing, braising, and sautéing. I particularly like to use this pan to cook my breakfast dishes for a few reasons: A) it cooks delicate foods like eggs without stiffening them up, and B) it cooks my breakfast potatoes just how I like them — soft on the inside and crispy on the outside. You can also use this for crisping up bacon or making pancakes. This is definitely the pan to pick up if you’re new to carbon steel, just beware that it’s a tad heavy (I definitely need to use two hands to slide my food onto my plate).

I have several meat lovers in my family, meaning the Mineral B Steak Pan was a must-try during testing. This pan has a thinner material where the indentations run, which is designed to offer better heat penetration and more even cooking. If you’ve ever been to Le Relais de l’Entrecôte in France, their steak dish is one I often attempt (keyword: attempt) to recreate in my kitchen. I’m happy to report that there’s no other pan in my collection that’s been able to give me a sear quite like the Mineral B Steak Pan (plus, there’s something cool about cooking up an iconic French dish in a piece of French cookware). Usually my pans have a slight residue on them after pan-searing steak, but this one doesn’t, making cleanup a lot easier.

The high sides on the Mineral B Country Fry Pan really come in handy. For one, they help prevent splatter from wrecking my countertops when I’m deep frying chicken or making tempura. The high sides also make this an excellent piece to hard boil eggs in (though I really wish it came with a lid). Best of all, we’re big stir fry eaters around here and this pan truly delivers — I’ve made so many stir fry varieties in this pan (steak, chicken, tofu, vegetable) and it comes out perfectly even with just the right amount of crunch.

pan browned by oil

The pan after its first seasoning. Credit: Michelle Rostamian / Mashable

dark pan with layer of grease

The pan after cooking with it. Credit: Michelle Rostamian / Mashable

But…it’s high-maintenance

Even though I’ve had a pleasant experience cooking with carbon steel, the material does come with a few quirks. Like cast iron, carbon steel cookware shouldn’t be placed in the dishwasher or washed with soap and water (this can remove its patina and require it to be re-seasoned). Also, not all foods can be cooked in a carbon steel pan — anything acidic, such as vinegar, tomatoes, wine, or citrus, can break down the seasoning and result in food sticking to the surface. This is a little cumbersome for me because a lot of the dishes I cook involve tomatoes. I also like to deglaze my pans with wine when I’m making pasta sauce or chicken. So for a lot of my core recipes, I’m not able to use carbon steel cookware.

The main con for me when it came to carbon steel was the fact that it needs to be seasoned before using. « The seasoning process is what helps enhance carbon steel’s non-stick properties and protect the pan against rust, » explains Giret. I was initially really put off by seasoning (it just sounded so time-consuming and difficult), but I was surprised to experience how easy of a process it was. Though you’ll want to block off about 30 minutes of time to season each pan, I found it actually quite interesting watching chemistry occurring right before my eyes as the pan turns brown. Plus, you only have to season your pan before the first use (so long as you take care of it properly) because the pan becomes more seasoned (and non-stick) the more you use it.

Here’s how I seasoned my de Buyer pans: I first washed the pans in hot water to remove the beeswax coating, then I dried them with a paper towel. I placed the pans on the stove over medium-high heat and poured in a thin layer of grapeseed oil (the brand recommends using something with a high smoke point), making sure to rotate the pan to distribute the oil evenly across the entire cooking surface. I continued to leave the pans on the heat until the oil reached its smoke point and the pans began turning a brownish color (this took about 10 minutes). I then turned off the heat and let the pans cool down before draining the leftover oil and wiping them down with a paper towel. I repeated this process twice for each pan.

The verdict

For lazy cooks like me, the fact that carbon steel requires some prep could be a checkmark in the negative column. Though I was hesitant about the whole seasoning process, it was pretty foolproof in the end (seriously, if I can do it, so can you). You should also take into account the types of dishes you make in your kitchen, as not all ingredients can be cooked in a carbon steel pan.

Despite its oddities, I like that carbon steel is a material that becomes more non-stick over time — I find myself not having to use as much oil or fat when cooking when compared to other materials. Overall, my pans heated up quickly, cooked my food evenly, and I didn’t experience any trouble with my ingredients sticking. I know many people are comfortable with the existing cookware in the kitchen and likely follow the whole « if-it’s-not-broken-don’t-fix-it » motto. But if you’re in the market for new cookware that’ll truly elevate your cooking experience (or you’re really into multi-tasking pieces), de Buyer’s carbon steel cookware is a one-stop shop for achieving the benefits of non-stick, stainless steel, and cast iron.