I Tried the Carbon Steel Skillet That Cook’s Illustrated Recommends — Here’s What I Thought
In debates about the perfect all-purpose pan, cast iron gets a lot of the love, but carbon steel is at least as good, if not better. Carbon steel skillets (aka black steel) are what many chefs use on the regular — especially in Europe. They have all the benefits of cast iron —they’re cheap, can be used on any heat source, are great at searing, perfectly nonstick when properly seasoned — except they don’t retain heat quite as well. However, they have some extra benefits in their favor, namely the fact that they’re far lighter in weight so they’re more responsive to heat and easier to handle, and the smoother surface is easier to season and keep nonstick.
Considering all the benefits, it’s a wonder why every home kitchen in America doesn’t have at least one carbon steel skillet. They’re starting to catch on, though. We’re seeing more and more new brands pop up with carbon steel offerings. Which carbon steel skillet is best, though?
If you ask the folks at Cook’s Illustrated it’s the French-made Matfer Bourgeat. The editors there tested carbon steel skillets in 2015 and picked this one, causing a full-on ordering stampede that left the company’s 12-inch pan fully sold out for several weeks. In November 2018 Cook’s Illustrated updated their test, and still the Matfer-Bourgeat came out on top as a test kitchen favorite. Is it really that great? I decided to test it out myself to find out.
At $54 for a very generously sized and versatile 12-inch skillet, the Mafter-Bourgeat is a good value. Of course, it didn’t come with even the slightest hint of seasoning — just shiny bare metal with a skim of wax to protect it from rust during shipping. So I followed the company’s directions and seasoned it myself. This required essentially sautéing a strange mix of potato peels, salt, and oil for 15 minutes, throwing it out, and starting again. I had my doubts but low and behold, the pan transformed from shiny silver to a burnished chestnut color.
Just like the Cook’s Illustrated team, the first thing I cooked was a couple of fried eggs, which slipped around the pan with ease. Then I sautéed a ton of mushrooms, which got gorgeously seared and golden. The pan did a great job distributing the heat and burning off the moisture. I cooked scrambled eggs, pancakes. All good. Then I used it to cook chicken breasts and noticed some of the seasoning was looking lighter where it had come into contact with the chicken. As I was contemplating this, I remembered a similar thing happening to a newly seasoned cast iron pan. I instinctively splashed in a bit of vermouth to deglaze — and only then did I remember you’re not supposed to cook anything acidic until the seasoning is really built up. Ack! Hello, shiny metal.
I got the chicken and vermouth out of the pan as quickly as I could and assessed the damage. Most of the pan was still seasoned, but there were definitely bare-ish spots (see above). The next day I re-seasoned it in the oven (I was out of potatoes to peel) with a Crisbee Stik three times, and got it looking good again. I fried some eggs, which wanted to stick a lot more than last time but not too badly, and seared some steak, which turned out with a great crust.
So, even though I goofed, the pan is forgiving. I love how responsive it is to heat changes and how evenly it distributes it. I love how much lighter it is to work with than my cast iron skillets. The cooking surface is generous and the sides are high enough to contain a mound of food, but sloped for easy access. There aren’t any rivets to get crusty with food, and the handle is long enough to truly stay cool while using. (It’s almost too long to fit in my vintage oven, but the pan did fit.)
Until I use it enough to get the seasoning really built up, I’ll refrain from cooking anything acidic in it and just deglaze with stock. But that’s a small price to pay for such an affordable, versatile pan.