Photo: Caitlin Bensel

Culinary heavyweight Andrea Nguyen invested in a carbon steel skillet. You should, too.

Andrea Nguyen
August 08, 2017

When it comes to nonstick skillets, people gravitate toward either high-tech coated or old-fashioned cast iron, but there's a third option to consider: carbon steel. The lighter-weight, smoother cousin of cast iron, carbon steel pans have been around for ages, but brands like Mauviel, de Buyer, and Mather Bourgeat have been associated with toque-wearing chefs and fancy European kitchens.

The reality is this: Carbon steel skillets should be the nonstick workhorses in your home kitchen. Aside from searing food well, they are oven-safe, light enough to casually lift and toss ingredients around, and easy to clean, and they work on induction stoves. Moreover, they're tough enough to outlast you. After decades of using coated nonsticks for my work as a cookbook author and culinary instructor based in Santa Cruz, California, I was tired of periodically replacing worn-out skillets. Cast iron was a potential substitute, but it's heft makes it unwieldy.

I settled on an 11-inch Mauviel M'steel skillet. At roughly 4 pounds, it's crafted from thicker metal than my carbon steel wok—a sign of good high-heat conduction. After removing the wax coating and seasoning it, I test-drove the pan. I fried eggs and, with little oil involved, they developed crisp bottoms and released from the skillet handily. Fried rice danced on the hot metal. Potatoes  achieved a beautiful golden shell. Steaks developed a delicate deep-brown crust. Broccoli picked up character while cooking to a tender crispness. My go-to weeknight salmon seared quickly and stayed moist.

The carbon steel skillet gave me greater control than other pans that I own. It heated up fast and help its temperature, but I could quickly and easily adjust that heat because it's a lot thinner than cast iron. About 2 teaspoons of oil poured into the pan visibly coated the entire surface; in a nonstick, that oil would have just beaded and pooled. Here, it shimmered.

This may sound California wavy-gravy, but I felt a great connection with my food when preparing it in the carbon steel pan. Good cooking depends on monitoring and manipulating the transformation of ingredients. The skillet helped me do just that.

There are downsides: Carbon steel is not dishwasher safe. It will react to prolonged cooking of acidic or alkaline ingredients (don't simmer a tomato sauce in it). Each skillet is different and will mottle, darken, and age differently.

It cleans up best soon after being used. Let the pan cool briefly, and then wash with hot water and a soft scrub sponge before drying over medium-low to low heat. A little smudging of oil (use tongs and a paper towel) prevents rusting; over time it'll likely only need periodic oiling.

If this all seems fussy, consider it a routine to keep a loyal kitchen friend happy. A carbon steel skillet will repay you many times over, probably achieving family heirloom status.

View Recipe: Fast Pan-Fried Salmon

Photo: Caitlin Bensel

Cutting fish into escalopes (thin slices)—as the famous Troisgros restaurant family in France does—facilitates fast cooking and delicate searing. Serve with sautéed  veggies such as Soy-Glazed Vegetables. Use white pepper on the fish for an earthy flavor with less heat. Black pepper adds specks of color and a hotter taste.

How to Season a Carbon Steel Skillet

Follow these three steps, and seasoning the skillet yourself is easy, if not rather fun. Here's now Andrea Nguyen seasoned her 11-inch Mauviel M'steel skillet.

Step 1

Photo: Caitlin Bensel

Pour a kettle's worth of boiling hot water all over to remove the protective wax (gray stuff). Repeat as needed. Finish by scrubbing with dish soap and hot water.

Step 2

Photo: Caitlin Bensel

Put 1/2 cup canola oil, 2/3 cup salt, and the peels of 2 potatoes into the pan, and cook over medium heat for 8 to 10 minutes. Stir and press the solids against the skillet walls all the way to the rim. When finished, the potato skins will be dark and crisp and the pan will be blotchy. The salt and potato get ride of excess wax, and the oil bonds with the metal to create a nonstick surface.

Step 3

Photo: Caitlin Bensel

Let cool slightly. Dump out the solids, and then use a paper towel to wipe the skillet clean. Now it's ready to use!