If Your Carbon Steel Pan Looks Like This, Don’t Freak Out

updated Sep 27, 2022
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(Image credit: Erika Tracy)

Carbon steel is cast iron’s lighter, more maneuverable cookware cousin. It’s the secret of professional kitchens — and we think it’s high time this

restaurant workhorse

know what to do when your carbon steel skillet, wok, or paella pan gets more funky than chic.

Like cast iron, carbon steel does take a little maintenance, but as long as you stay away from soap and long soaks in water you should be fine. Still, that doesn’t mean rust and sticky residue don’t happen. They do — or, if they haven’t yet, they will.

Surface Rust

Water is enemy number one of carbon steel, so the key to rust prevention is making sure your pan is bone-dry before you put it away. Start by wiping excess water off with a paper towel or lint-free towel, then set the pan over a stovetop burner or in the oven to evaporate any residual moisture.

If you do see rust, don’t worry: Use a metal scouring pad (plain ol’ stainless steel or copper will do) and hot water to remove it. Then re-season your pan with your method of choice.

(Image credit: Erika Tracy)

Sticky Residue

That grimy, sticky stuff on the rim of your wok or pan? It’s gotta go. Or, as food writer Grace Young says, your pan needs a facial.

Heat the pan until a drop of water evaporates the moment it hits the interior surface. Remove from heat. Add a mixture of two parts salt to one part oil (2 tablespoons salt and 1 tablespoon oil, for instance) and, using a paper towel, rub this mixture all over the interior of the pan. Think of it as an exfoliating treatment for your cookware. After you’ve removed all that gunk, rinse with hot water and dry the pan thoroughly.

(Image credit: Erika Tracy)

Loss of Nonstick Surface

This can happen if you’ve cooked acidic foods in your carbon steel cookware. Basically, high-acidity foods can eat away at that polymerized patina you’ve been cultivating so lovingly, but there’s no reason to worry. Re-season your pan with your method of choice — and remember to give it a good swipe of fat after every use. Your eggs will be slipping and sliding again in no time.

(Image credit: Erika Tracy)

Black or Dark Spots or Streaks

Do nothing! These marks are totally normal and expected. Iron discolors when it reacts to acidic foods (tomatoes, citrus) you’ve cooked in your pan. And every piece of carbon steel ages and changes individually, developing these unique markings along the way. If there’s no rust or gunk, there’s no problem and no “fix” for these spots. They are beauty marks, not blemishes.

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