9 Things You Need to Know About That New Carbon Steel Pan You Just Got for the Holidays

updated Dec 28, 2020
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Credit: Joe Lingeman

Whoever gifted you a carbon steel pan over the holidays is in the know! Carbon steel is nothing new and it’s been a favorite among pro chefs for ages, but right now it’s becoming more and more popular with home cooks. For a few good reasons, too! First of all, it works like a nonstick pan but it doesn’t have that nonstick finish, so you don’t have to worry about its safety and you can use it over high heat for searing. And, unlike your now-nonstick cast iron pan, it’s not so heavy that you’ll get a workout every time you lift it. Ready to get started with your brand new pan? We’re so excited for you to try it out! But first, here are some key things you should know.

1. It may come with a beeswax coating that you need to remove before you use it. 

Don’t throw out the instructions that came with the pan, as they’ll tell you whether or not your pan has a coating and, if so, how to remove it. (These pans often come with a layer of wax to protect until they can find their new homes.) If you already tossed them, no worries — you can probably get the information from the manufacturer’s website. To remove the beeswax, you’ll likely be told to soak the pan in very hot water or heat it a bit on low heat either on top of the stove or in the oven … just enough to soften the wax and make it easy to remove. Either way, it will require a little bit of scrubbing with a brush to get it off. When the inside and outside surface of the pan feel smooth to the touch, you’ll know you got it all off. Then thoroughly dry the pan, heating it over a burner for a few minutes. 

Credit: Erika Tracy

2. You’ll have to season it. 

Even if your pan comes pre-seasoned, we recommend that you start out by seasoning it. Once you’ve removed the wax (if yours had wax), rub vegetable oil all over the surface so that it is thoroughly coated (interior and exterior) and then wipe out any excess oil. Then place it upside down in a preheated 400°F oven with a tray underneath it. Let it bake for one hour. At that point it should turn from gray to brown. Eventually it will develop a black patina like the one on cast iron cookware. However, regardless of the color, the seasoning will give your pan a finish with nonstick properties. 

Read more: How to Season a Carbon Steel Pan

If at any time food begins to stick to the surface or if it changes back to a gray color or becomes rusty, you’ll need to re-season your pan.

3. Your pan may look blotchy for months and that’s OK.

Depending on how often you use your skillet, the interior surface may look brown, blotchy, and streaky for months. 

4. Always heat and cool your pan gradually.

Letting your pan heat up slowly over a low to medium heat setting will help it to distribute heat evenly and prevent hot spots. When you’re finished cooking, let it cool off slowly to prevent warping. Absolutely don’t submerge a hot pan in cool water.  

Credit: Erika Tracy

5. Carbon steel heats up quickly. 

Because carbon steel is relatively thin and lightweight, it will heat up faster than a cast iron pan. Don’t walk away while it’s heating up. When a few drops of water flicked in the skillet sizzle immediately, you can pour in your crepe batter or begin your stir-fry. 

6. The handles get red hot.

You may be used to aluminum or stainless steel pans, which generally have stainless steel, plastic, or silicone handles that don’t conduct heat well and stay cool enough to touch when you use them on the stovetop. But most carbon steel pans have handles made of the same material as the skillet part and they get super hot. Make sure you have pot holders or oven mitts on hand. If you want, some companies (like Lodge!) even make silicone grips, which you can slip onto the handle.  

7. The same acidic rules from cast iron apply here too.

You can’t use it to cook tomato, wine, or lemon sauces.

Perhaps you’ve heard that you can’t cook tomatoes, wine, or lemon sauces in your cast iron skillet? You totally can, but you just have to wait to make sure your seasoning is built up well. Otherwise, yes, the acid will strip the seasoning off the surface. The same is true with carbon steel. While a squeeze of lemon on your fish at the end of cooking won’t ruin your new pan, simmering your marinara or coq au vin will.

Credit: Erika Tracy

8. Carbon steel is hand-wash only. 

You’re probably getting the point by now. With a carbon steel pan, it’s all about developing and protecting the nonstick finish, which is the beauty of carbon steel. Don’t chuck it in the dishwasher, as that can remove the seasoning.  

9. Don’t use steel wool. Ever.

If your skillet ever develops any rough spots, resist the temptation to use steel wool. Instead use a nonabrasive scrubbing pad (we love Dobie pads) or a soft-bristled brush (like this one or this one).