I Tested a Dozen Carbon Steel Skillets — This Is the Absolute Best One You Can Buy Right Now
I thought I left carbon steel behind when I closed the professional-line-cook chapter of my life and entered the baby-making and school-lunch-packing era. Back in the day, while cooking in restaurants, I never thought twice about juggling multiple carbon steel skillets on a hot line. At home, however, things move at a different pace and I’ve stocked up on easy-breezy nonstick cookware.
But, wait! What’s this now? Home cooks are jumping on the carbon steel skillet train? With the stuff growing in popularity, I figured it was time to revisit an old friend.
I tested as many carbon steel skillets as I could get my hands on in order to find the very best carbon steel skillets you can buy right now. I found an overall winner, a budget option, and a super splurge (in case you really want to make an investment).
Best Overall Carbon Steel Skillet: Made In Blue Carbon Steel Seasoned Frying Pan
Scoring consistently high in each test I ran it through, the CRUXGG Seasoned Blue Steel Fry Pan proved itself to be the best performer (nonstick, lightweight, consistent heat distribution, etc.). It cleaned up oh-so nicely and came pre-seasoned, so you don’t have to deal with any of that uncertainty around building the initial patina.
Unfortunately, the CRUXGG pan is no longer available, so I tested the Made In Blue Carbon Steel Frying Pan and that comes pretty darn close. It’s very similar in construction and price point, and we’ve tested and reviewed it at least three times on The Kitchn (here, here, and here). It’s also well-reviewed on other sites as well, so you can trust that this pick comes highly recommended. And I know it’s not about the looks, but this pan is as sleek as they come.
- Weight: 3 lbs
- Cooking Surface Diameter: 7.5 inches
- Handle Design: Curved, 9 inches long stainless steel
- Performance: 4.75
- Ease of Use: 4.75
- Cleanup: 5
Who it’s best for: Anyone looking to stock their home kitchen with carbon steel (especially those who want to skip the initial seasoning process!)
Good to know: This pan comes in two sizes: 10-inch and 12-inch
Best Budget Carbon Steel Skillet: Merten & Storck Carbon Pro
This was the lightest of the skillets I tested, making it super easy to maneuver while cooking with one hand. It also boasted one of the largest flat cooking diameters (which means you can fit more eggs or pancakes in each batch). It performed really well, just losing a fraction of a point for slight unevenness in browning. It was totally nonstick right out of the box and quick to heat up — pretty much everything we want in a carbon steel skillet.
All in all, it’s a very affordable option, and an especially good choice for those just starting their carbon steel journey.
- Weight: 3 lbs 3.3 oz
- Cooking Surface Diameter: 9.5 inches
- Handle Design: Bent, 9 inches long, stainless steel
- Performance: 4.3
- Ease of use: 5
- Cleanup: 4.3
Who it’s best for: Carbon steel novices looking for a light and easy-to-handle skillet
Good to know: Like most carbon steel skillets, this product is shipped with a protective wax coating the pan; be sure to wash the wax off with soap and warm water before using.
Best Splurge Carbon Steel Skillet: Smithey Carbon Steel Farmhouse Skillet
Yes, it’s really expensive. But I will also say, this is the only pan I’ve ever shown off to my friends at a dinner party. In fact, this might be the first “heirloom” piece in my kitchen that I hope to pass down to future generations.
Rather than being cast in a mold, this skillet is hammered into form by a blacksmith. You can really see the hand-forged details throughout the skillet and handle. Throughout testing, it was remarkably easy (and fun!) to use, and it was pretty effortless to clean. It lost a bit of a point in performance because it browned the chicken TOO well and fast — but that’s something you learn to calibrate the more you get to know your pan.
- Weight: 4 lbs 14.7oz
- Cooking Surface Diameter: 9 inches
- Handle Design: Uniquely hammered carbon steel, 7.5 inches long, support lip on opposite side with 3 holes
- Performance: 4.2
- Ease of use: 5
- Cleanup: 4.75
Who it’s best for: The home cook who wants not just a skillet, but a piece of art.
Good to know: Smithey produces a limited number of these “farmhouse” skillets in partnership with Charleston blacksmith Robert Thomas Iron Design. Grab one if you can!
- Sear two skin-on chicken thighs in each skillet and evaluate the browning.
- Fry two eggs in each skillet in a small amount of butter (1 teaspoon each).
- Make a batch of pancakes in each skillet to look at the evenness (or sporadic nature) of heat conduction.
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I am a professional recipe developer and food writer; my work can be seen in Cook’s Country (magazine and television show), America’s Test Kitchen Kids cookbooks, Serious Eats, Hannaford’s Fresh magazine, and The Kitchn.
I spent two full work days just seasoning the pans (that needed it) for these tests. I smoked out my entire house and had to open every window in 45-degree weather. But it was all worth it to help you find the best carbon steel skillet.
What You Need to Know About Carbon Steel Skillets
Let me give you the quick sell: Carbon steel heats up super fast, it’s lighter than cast iron, and it’s wildly durable.
Now for a bit of a deeper look: The carbon in carbon steel cookware is what separates it from good ol’ cast iron. This carbon makes the metal smoother and easier to form into thinner, lighter-weight pans. While you may love your trusty cast iron skillet for its many virtues, it’s not an easy one-hand-operated vessel for sautéing or flipping. Carbon steel skillets, on the other hand, can be easier to maneuver (you’ll understand the italics on this statement when we get further down). Their slimmer profiles also allow them to heat up faster than thick cast iron.
Why add carbon steel into the mix? While you do have to season it, like cast iron, it will develop a natural nonstick patina over time that will last much longer than pans with synthetic nonstick coatings. In fact, it will last forever if treated right. It can also be used on pretty much any heat source (electric, gas, induction, oven, grill, or even in a campfire!) and with any utensils (read: you don’t have to worry about metal tools scratching the pan).
The cooking experience is a bit different with carbon steel skillets. Browning is much more intense and happens quickly. I found this out the hard way during testing while searing chicken thighs. I usually brown chicken in my nonstick pan for about seven minutes, skin-side down, but in that amount of time in a carbon steel skillet the thighs scorched. Lesson learned: Lower the heat and browning time in these skillets.
You also need to watch out for acidic ingredients (like tomatoes, lemon, and wine) when you’re first developing your seasoning on the skillet, because acids can dissolve the natural nonstick layer, causing rust to form.
You may need to adjust your cleaning ritual if you switch to carbon steel cookware. If you are already accustomed to using cast iron, it’s pretty much the same deal: Wash the skillet by hand, dry it thoroughly, and reheat it with a tiny amount of oil rubbed onto the cooking surface.
You cannot place these skillets in the dishwasher, leave them to soak, or air dry them because they absolutely can (and will) rust. The good news: You can fix any rust spots by re-seasoning the pan, so don’t worry too much!
Note: Try not to get too frustrated with the ever-changing appearance of the cooking surface. With more and more use, the cooking surface turns darker and darker, but there are quite a few stages before developing a sleek black patina.
Some of the changes are downright alarming, and you almost certainly will think you screwed something up. The surface may look spotty, uneven, or almost like a rainbow, but, believe it or not, this is all normal. Just stick with it and keep using (and caring for) your skillet. If you play your cards right, it could be the last pan you ever need to buy.
What to Consider When Buying Carbon Steel Skillets
Some of these skillets require a pretty hefty amount of time and attention upfront. In my testing lineup, the initial seasoning process ranged from zero minutes (hooray for pre-seasoned carbon steel!) to a whopping five hours (for ONE pan)! You need to have a properly seasoned skillet for it to cook well, so don’t commit to a pan until you have thoroughly investigated what work you’ll need to put into it before you can start using it.
What is seasoning? It’s a process of applying oil (or seasoning wax) to the pan to bake into the pores of the carbon steel. Thin layers of heated oil polymerize to develop an easy-release cooking surface. The seasoning also prevents rust from forming. In other words, you can’t skip the seasoning step; if you do, your food will stick to a rusty pan.
These days, lots of carbon steel (and cast iron, for that matter) come pre-seasoned and that’s my Very Strong Preference. They are just so easy and foolproof; they are ready to go out of the box. If you are a novice with carbon steel, or don’t feel super confident seasoning skillets, you might want to consider one that’s already been seasoned by the manufacturer. Most of these products ship with a protective coating that must be washed off (just with soap and water) before you start cooking. But that’s it!
Unlike heavier vessels that are just meant to stay put, you should be able to move your carbon steel skillet around with confidence and some level of ease. So the details of the handle are key.
- Design: The handle designs I encountered in this lineup of products fell into two categories: bent and rounded. The bent style features a sharp angular direction change as the handle comes up and away from the pan. The rounded style resembles an arch shape. While I didn’t find either design inherently superior, most of my favorite skillets had bent handles.
- Length: The skillets I tested had handles that ranged in length from 7.5 to 10 inches (measured from the exterior of the skillet to the far tip of the handle). I was surprised to find that my very favorite skillet actually had the shortest handle; while I thought it would become hot and hard to handle, it was, in fact, stable and comfortable!
- Material: While the majority of the skillets’ handles were made of carbon steel, a few incorporated different materials like stainless steel, aluminum, and silicone-wrapped carbon steel.
Because the main benefit of a carbon steel skillet over cast iron is its relative light weight, you should investigate the poundage before purchasing a pan. I was shocked to find one of the skillets in my testing lineup to be just shy of 7 pounds (6 pounds 14.6 ounces, to be exact). It was a two-hander, for sure, and really just too heavy. The skillets I liked best were between 3 and 5 pounds.
What We Look for in Carbon Steel Skillets
I judged all of the skillets on a scale of 1 to 5 (1 being the worst and 5 being the best) through a course of three tests, evaluating them each on the following criteria:
- Performance: How well did the chicken thighs brown? Did the eggs stick to the skillet? Were the pancakes an even shade of golden-brown, regardless of their placement in the skillet?
- Ease of Use: Was the skillet comfortable to hold and handle? How easy was it to flip the pancakes within the skillet? Was there a lot of splatter while cooking?
- Cleanup: Did any food get stuck onto the skillet that couldn’t be easily cleaned off with a soft sponge and warm water? Did any rust patches form on the skillet?
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We will do our homework, going wildly in depth with our testing. But we’ll condense the info into easy, breezy summaries, so that you can see what we picked and why, and then move on with your life. Because we know you’re busy!
Do you have a question about carbon steel skillets? Let us know in the comments!