Carbon steel frying pans have gained huge popularity recently as a safer, cleaner alternative to nonstick-coated pans. They're a great option on their own, and are a favorite all-purpose skillet for many cooks. They are the choice of many professional chefs for their affordability and durability.
Here, we take a detailed look at carbon steel skillets: types of carbon steel, what makes them great, what they're best for, seasoning, how they compare to other skillets (stainless, cast iron, nonstick), pros and cons, and more. Finally, we review our favorite pans and give you all the best buying options.
Best Carbon Steel Pan at a Glance
Here's a quick look at our favorite carbon steel pans, with features and buying options.
Unless you go with a boutique brand, carbon steel skillets are all similar in design and performance (and even if they're expensive and pretty, the performance will be similar to inexpensive pans). The biggest difference to understand is the thickness, or gauge, of the carbon steel. Thinner pans will heat faster but less evenly and have less heat retention than thicker pans.
There's no right or wrong pan thickness. If you want a lighter pan you can maneuver easily, go with a thinner one (like the Vollrath). If you want a pan that retains heat almost as well as cast iron (excellent for searing steaks), go with a thicker one (like Matfer-Bourgeat). They will all perform well as long as you let them pre-heat enough to distribute the heat evenly.
Note that the larger the gauge number, the thinner the pan--so looking at millimeters is easiest.
Best Carbon Steel Skillet Overall:
-3.2mm thick black carbon steel body (10 gauge)
-Excellent heat retention (thick)
-Welded handle (no rivets)
-Sloped walls for easy tossing
-Flat steel handle
-Comes waxed, must be removed
-Seasoning required before use
-10.25" weighs about 3.1 lbs
-Several size options, about $50-$160
-Limited lifetime warranty
-Made in France.
Best Carbon Steel Skillet Made in USA:
-1.6mm thick carbon steel body (16 gauge)
-Good (not great) heat retention
-Welded handle (no rivets)
-Sloped walls for easy tossing
-Flat steel handle
-Seasoning required before use
-9.325" pan weights just under 2 lbs
-4 size options, 8.5-12.5", about $30-$60
-1 year warranty (but will last decades)
-Made in USA.
Best Pre-Seasoned Carbon Steel Skillet:
-2.6mm thick carbon steel body (12 gauge)
-Good heat retention
-Pre-seasoned but will probably need more
-Sloped walls for easy tossing
-10" skillet weighs about 3.1 lbs
-4 sizes: 8", 10", 12", 15", about $35-$75
-Backed by Lodge "satisfaction guarantee"
-Made in USA.
Best High-End Carbon Steel Skillet:
-2mm thick blue carbon steel body on 8"/10" (14 gauge)
-Hand spun and hand forged
-Good heat retention
-Seasoning required before use
-Iron handle in 3 design options
-Steeper, deeper sides than standard carbon steel, with curved rather than angled sides
-2 sizes: 8"/10" (may be more coming)
-10" skillet weighs 3.1 lbs, about $240
-Made in USA.
What Makes Carbon Steel Great?
A lot of people think of carbon steel as halfway between stainless steel and cast iron, but that isn't really the case. Carbon steel is most similar to cast iron, but it contains less carbon (ironic, given its name), which makes it possible to make thinner pans out of it: the carbon in cast iron makes it brittle, so it has to be thick or it is prone to cracking.
Other than being thinner, the heating properties of carbon steel are almost identical to cast iron. This means it's much better than stainless steel, which requires cladding with aluminum or copper to make good cookware.
Here are the traits that make carbon steel excellent for skillets:
Lightweight: Because carbon steel has less carbon, brittleness isn't as much of an issue, so it can be worked into thinner pans than cast iron. This is the main reason carbon steel is lighter than cast iron: because it's thinner. The density is about the same, so if it were as thick as cast iron, it would weigh as much.
Great heat retention: Like cast iron, carbon steel heats slowly and unevenly, but once heated through, it retains heat well. If you pre-heat carbon steel enough before use, it makes an excellent all-purpose skillet.
Note that because carbon steel is thinner than cast iron, its heat retention won't be quite as good. Many people disagree with this statement, and you will find other sites that say it's just as good, but the physics of heat retention make it impossible for thinner carbon steel to retain heat as well as thicker cast iron. The heat capacity ratings of carbon steel and cast iron are identical, which means the thicker material will retain more heat.
Is carbon steel as good as cast iron for high heat searing? Not quite. But even so, you can get excellent results, and the thicker the carbon steel, the better the searing.
Nearly nonstick: When well-seasoned, carbon steel can make an excellent substitute for a nonstick-coated pan. Many people claim it's even better--and it's certainly safer, as the pan has no potentially dangerous chemicals.
Inexpensive: Most carbon steel pans are inexpensive. For a standard carbon steel pan you'll pay somewhere between $30-$80, depending on size. You can spend more on boutique carbon steel, but there's really no reason to unless you have the budget and fall in love with a design. The most important feature is the thickness (gauge) of the carbon steel: go with a thinner gauge if a lightweight pan and go with a thicker gauge if you want the best possible high-heat searing. Thick and thin pans will both make great all-purpose skillets, as long as you know how to use them and keep them well-seasoned.
Carbon Steel Cookware Pros and Cons
Carbon steel isn't perfect. Here's a summary of its pros and cons:
What Are Blue and Black Carbon Steel (And Do They Need to Be Seasoned)?
Blue and black carbon steel have been treated to create a layer of oxidation on the surface of the cookware. Bare carbon steel is prone to rusting, but "blued" and "blackened" carbon steel are less prone to rusting.
The bluing and blackening processes are somewhat different, but they have the same end result: a more rust-resistant surface.
Blued and blackened carbon steel pans can look very much like bare carbon steel (like the blackened Matfer-Bourgeat), or they can have a deep blue or black color (like the blued Northwest Skillet Company pan)--thus, color is not necessarily an indication of bluing or blackening. Even many blue carbon steel skillets appear black (like Made In's model).
Is there an advantage to blue or black carbon steel over bare carbon steel? Not really. They're more rust resistant, but all carbon steel pans require seasoning or they will rust with use. Also, all carbon steel pans will develop a dark brown or even black patina with seasoning and use, so no pan will keep its initial color (unless it's already black).
And like bare (unseasoned) carbon steel, most blue and black carbon steel pans are shipped with a protective wax coating to prevent rust during storage and shipping, so you still have to wash the coating off before you can season and use the pan.
On the other hand, there's no disadvantage to buying blued or blackened pans. Our recommendation is to choose a pan for its basic usability: its thickness and ease of handling will be the most important features for most cooks.
What Are Carbon Steel Skillets Best For?
Well-seasoned carbon steel skillets make great all-purpose pans. They're good for everything from frying eggs and making omelets to searing steaks and making stir fries. And they keep getting more nonstick over time, so they keep giving better nonstick performance.
If you don't mind re-seasoning the pan, you can use a carbon steel skillet for anything. However, because seasoning deteriorates from acids and liquids, you may want to avoid using a carbon steel skillet for acidic foods or foods with a lot of liquid.
One caveat: as we said above, the gauge (thickness) of the pan affects what it's best for. If you want a pan that will be great for searing steaks, go with a thicker one (like Matfer-Bourgeat). If you want a pan that will be easy to handle and best for quick dishes like eggs and stir fries, go with a thinner pan (like Vollrath).
You can use a thinner pan for high-heat searing and vice-versa, but you will get better results if you choose the pan for a primary use.
A medium-thick pan (2mm) might be a great choice too, especially if your main concern is versatility. It won't sear a steak quite as well as a thicker pan, but it will produce great results nevertheless.
Traditional carbon steel skillets also have wider, shallower sides than many other types of skillets, so they're not great for deep frying (because the oil will spill and splatter easily, making it a not-very-safe option) or baking (because batter can spill over the sides). However, you can now find some brands with higher, steeper sides (such as the Northwest Skillet Company pan we review below). In that case, deep frying is safe, although cast iron is the better choice because of its higher heat retention.
Are Carbon Steel Pans Safe?
Yes: carbon steel pans are some of the safest you can cook with. They are 100% carbon steel, which may leach iron, but this is completely safe unless you have a rare condition where your body produces too much iron.
In fact, many people are iron-deficient, so carbon steel may actually provide a healthy dietary supplement.
There is some uncertainty about the seasoning, which is polymerized oil (essentially a kind of plastic, similar to PTFE). Research shows that the seasoning process creates free radicals, which can cause all sorts of problems in your body, including aging and cancer.
That sounds bad, but it really isn't if you understand the seasoning process and follow a safe protocol. According to Sheryl Canter's excellent and now famous post about seasoning cast iron, the free radicals are the key to getting a good coat of seasoning. They "link" together in the seasoning process to form stable compounds that are no longer radicals and aren't dangerous.
As long as you use the right oil (pure flaxseed oil is best), don't heat it above its smoke point, and season your pans in a well-ventilated area, seasoning should be completely safe.
Why a well-ventilated area? Because some free radicals are released during the seasoning process, and you should not breathe them in.
Why Do Carbon Steel Pans Need to Be Seasoned?
Both cast iron and carbon steel are metals that contain iron and carbon only, with no rust inhibitors. Stainless steel contains compounds that inhibit rusting, such as chromium (at least 15% by law). Stainless steel can also contain nickel, titanium, molybdenum, and other rust-inhibiting elements.
Carbon steel contains no rust inhibitors, so like cast iron it rusts fairly easily. Carbon steel pans are often shipped with a coating of wax to prevent rusting (and needs to be thoroughly cleaned off before you can season and use the pan).
Seasoning creates a coating that protects the pan from rusting. Seasoning also gives pans a near-nonstick coating and prevents a lot of iron from leaching into your food (though some may in very small amounts, especially if you cook acidic foods or use a lot of liquid).
Without seasoning, both carbon steel and cast iron are too unstable to make good pans.
For the best explanation and instructions on seasoning, see Sheryl Canter's article, which we linked to in the section above. (Seasoning carbon steel should be the same as for cast iron, although carbon steel is smoother, so may require fewer coatings to make it nonstick.)
Is Carbon Steel a Good Nonstick Option?
When well-seasoned, carbon steel makes an excellent nonstick pan.
Even though it will never be quite as slippery as new PTFE (Teflon™), both cast iron and carbon steel have many advantages that we believe make them a better choice:
Many fans of carbon steel (and cast iron) even report that their pans are just as good or better than PTFE. But even if this isn't quite your experience, they do come very, very close. And there are so many good reasons to avoid nonstick cookware and switch to carbon steel or cast iron that we think they outweigh the "convenience" of nonstick cookware.
Are Carbon Steel Pans Heavy?
One of carbon steel's most appealing features is that it's lighter than cast iron. It's a great choice for people who want the features of cast iron in a lighter package.
However, it would be misleading to tell you that carbon steel is light. In fact, carbon steel has the same density as cast iron, so if the pans were the same thickness, carbon steel would weigh just as much. The reason carbon steel is lighter than cast iron is that it's less brittle (i.e., won't crack), so it can have thinner walls and still be as durable as cast iron.
The thinner walls also mean, though, that carbon steel doesn't have quite the heat retention of cast iron. But it's still pretty good--better than aluminum (coated or bare) and most clad stainless steel.
As we said above, if you want carbon steel primarily for its heat retention, go with a thicker-walled pan (like the Matfer-Bourgeat). The thicker the carbon steel, the better its heat retention will be.
Compared to clad stainless steel cookware, carbon steel is heavier. Stainless has a density slightly higher than carbon steel (7.9g/cc stainless vs. 7.85g/cc), but because it's layered with aluminum and is only 10-20% steel, clad stainless cookware is typically lighter. The exception is if the clad cookware contains particularly thick layers of aluminum and/or copper, such as Demeyere Atlantis.
Compared to aluminum cookware (usually coated with nonstick--but not always--which adds negligible weight), carbon steel is heavier. Aluminum has a much lower density of 2.7g/cc, so it's a lighter metal (no doubt a feature that draws many cooks to it), as well as having excellent thermal conductivity.
Compared to copper, carbon steel is lighter. Copper has a higher density of 8.96g/cc, so unless its very thin copper cookware, it will be heavier than most carbon steel.
Why Can't You Buy Sets of Carbon Steel Cookware?
This review is for carbon steel skillets, which along with woks are by far the most popular type of carbon steel cookware. As carbon steel grows in popularity you'll see some other pieces. We've recently seen deep skillets, perforated grill pans, and paella pans. And crepe pans have been around forever.
Made In has a sort-of set of carbon steel that has a skillet, a wok, and a roasting pan, but these aren't the traditional pieces you find in a set (e.g., no sauce pans, etc.)
We're not really sure why you don't see sets of bare carbon steel. But here are some possible reasons:
Weight: Most people prefer saucepans and stockpots to be lighter than carbon steel. The one exception is a Dutch oven, which is superb in enameled cast iron and worth the extra weight (click the link to find out why).
Seasoning: Liquids can strip seasoning on carbon steel and cast iron cookware. Since sauce pans and stock pots are used primarily for liquids, you rarely see them in bare (un-enameled) carbon steel or cast iron.
For now, cast iron reigns in the enameled cookware category, but this may change as carbon steel--and colored cookware--both gain popularity in the US. People may be willing to trade in slightly worse heat retention for lighter cookware, especially if it's available in many beautiful colors.
Design: Carbon steel is traditionally utilitarian cookware, most popular with professional chefs who want cheap, durable, high-performing pans. Carbon steel pans have only recently become popular among home cooks, especially in the US.
As the marketplace changes and more people discover the benefits of carbon steel, we expect to see more carbon steel cookware on the market, possibly entire sets.
Carbon Steel Skillets Vs. Nonstick, Cast Iron, and Clad Stainless
Here's how carbon steel skillets compare to nonstick, cast iron, and clad stainless steel. In each case, assume decent quality--in particular, cast or forged nonstick, and clad stainless with enough internal aluminum to spread heat evenly (such as the brands we recommend in this article).
This is just an on-average summary. Traits can vary greatly among both nonstick and clad stainless pans, depending on their quality and construction. (For example, Demeyere Atlantis clad cookware has very different heating properties than Tramontina Tri-Ply Clad.)
Carbon steel and cast iron have pretty much the same traits regardless of price or build quality (though the thickness varies on carbon steel pans--more on this below) because they are the same material no matter how much you pay for them. (That is, carbon steel is carbon steel at any price and cast iron is cast iron at any price. You may get some improvements with a higher priced brand, but the heating properties are exactly the same.)
100% carbon steel
aluminum w/ nonstick coating
100% cast iron
Stainless w/ aluminum interior
Slow and uneven
Fast and even (if thick enough)
Slow and uneven
Medium and very even
Needs seasoning but easy to clean; s/b hand washed
Easy to clean; s/b hand washed
Needs seasoning but easy to clean; s/b hand washed
Food can stick but dishwasher safe
Up to 800F
500F or less
Up to 800F
Up to 600F
Any heat level, avoid acids
Must use low heat, no metals
Any heat level, avoid acids
Any heat level, use for all tasks
Skillets, woks, no sets
Open stock and sets
Skillets, Dutch ovens, no sets
Open stock and sets
How to Choose a Carbon Steel Skillet
Buying a carbon steel skillet is pretty easy because despite the many brands on the market, there aren't a lot of differences between them. The features we think are important to consider include gauge, design, pre-seasoning (or not), and price.
We've already discussed this, but the biggest difference among carbon steel skillets is their gauge, or thickness.
Carbon steel pans vary from approximately 1-3mm thick. This is a fairly big range, so you should know what you want before you buy.
The main difference is the heat retention (which is one of carbon steel's best features): Thinner carbon steel will have poorer heat retention than thicker carbon steel. The thicker the carbon steel, the closer it will be to cast iron in heat retention (which is the best on the market).
However, thinner carbon steel is lighter and easier to handle. So the thicker the pan, the closer it will be to cast iron in weight, and the harder it will be to maneuver.
If you're looking for a pan that's easy to handle, go with a thinner gauge (1-1.6mm). If you're looking for a pan that's close to cast iron in heat retention, go with a thicker gauge (2.5-3mm).
If you want something that's light and will sear adequately, go with something in the middle (2mm).
No matter how thick a carbon steel pan is, it will perform well as long as you preheat it long enough (it needs several minutes to distribute heat evenly). We just want you to know what you're buying so you can make the best decision for how you want to use the pan.
Overall shape: In traditional carbon steel skillets, there aren't a lot of design choices other than thickness. They are designed for utilitarian use and not meant to be pretty (although their utilitarian design can be quite attractive if you're into that sort of thing). They have long, shallow sides for easy access to food and quick evaporation (to facilitate browning). The sides are angled from the bottom rather than curved (as with clad stainless or aluminum skillets). They have long, flat handles that aren't always the most comfortable, but make it easy to grab and stabilize the pan.
Do note also that even among traditional carbon steel skillets, the size of the flat cooking surface can vary. That is, some pans have short sides and a lot of flat cooking surface, while some pans have longer sides and less flat cooking surface. One reason we chose the Matfer Bourgeat as the best overall carbon steel skillet is because it has a good amount of flat cooking surface.
As carbon steel skillets gain popularity among home cooks, more design options are becoming available. Made In's carbon steel skillet is shaped more like a traditional home skillet but has a flatter handle than their stainless steel pieces. The sides angle up from the bottom like traditional carbon steel, but the angle is a little gentler. (It's a nice pan, but it's overpriced).
And the Northwest Skillet Company pan (reviewed below) has a design very different from traditional carbon steel, with high, steep sides that curve up from the bottom rather than angle, and a fancy cast iron handle. (This pan is also very expensive, but it's our pick for best high-end carbon steel pan just because it's so beautiful and unique.)
You can also find some carbon steel skillets that are designed very much like traditional nonstick or clad stainless, like the BK skillet. This is a nice, affordable skillet and it makes our list of Other Good Options.
Depth: Most carbon steel skillets, and most skillets in general, have a depth of about 2-inches. Carbon steel pans may seem shallower because the sides flare out more than on some other pans, but the depth is about the same.
Crepe pans, on the other hand, are very shallow at just about one inch deep: you can use a skillet as a crepe pan, but probably can't use a crepe pan as a skillet.
Handles and helper handles: Probably the only other design choice that will matter to you is the handle design. Traditional carbon steel pans have long flat handles, but they can differ in height, and this can affect how the pan feels to use.
If you look at the images above, you can see that the Matfer Bourgeat handle is low, rising just an inch or two above the pan. In fact, most carbon steel skillet handles are about this same height above the pan: between 1-3 inches.
The Vollrath pan (below) has a much higher handle. See how far above the pan it rises? It's at least 5 inches:
Some cooks really love the tall handle on the Vollrath. One big advantage is that it stays cooler than lower handles. But others find it harder to maneuver and store.
The handle height that works best for you will probably depend on your height--taller people like the taller handle. It may also depend on how you use the pan: if you like to toss it to flip your food, the lower handles are easier for most people.
Rivets: Another consideration is how the handles are attached to the pan. Most are riveted on, which means you have spots on the cooking surface that collect gunk and are hard to clean around. But some handles are welded, meaning that the cooking surface is completely smooth. This is another reason we chose Matfer Bourgeat as the best overall skillet: welded handles means no rivets to collect gunk. (Vollrath also has welded handles, but lost out on first place because of the pan design: less cooking surface and too-tall handle for most people.)
Helper handles: As for helper handles, very few carbon steel skillets have them. This is too bad, because the larger sizes can be unwieldy. You'd think you'd see them on the newer style pans, but we really haven't. The de Buyer Mineral B 12.5" carbon steel skillet has a helper handle, but that's probably because it weighs almost 6.5 lbs. To compare, the Matfer Bourgeat 12.5" pan weighs just over 5 lbs. (Both are made from 3mm carbon steel.)
Lack of a helper handle isn't a deal breaker, but if you're concerned about pan weight, pay attention to the weight of the pan you buy, especially in the larger sizes. 12-inch carbon steel skillets can weigh anywhere from 3-6 pounds. (But remember, heavier means better searing.)
Lids: As far as we know, there are no carbon steel skillets that come with lids, though some of the newer designs geared to home cooks may have them. If you think you'll use a lid, you may already own one that will fit, or you can invest in a universal lid that should fit any pan you own.
Related to the topic of lids is size: If you do own a lid that will fit a particular size of skillet, be sure to go with a USA-made skillet that's measured in inches such as Lodge or Vollrath, or a foreign-made pan made to be sold in the American market. Matfer-Bourgeat skillets are great, but they come in wonky sizes because they're measured in centimeters rather than inches.
Summary: As with so many cookware decisions, there's no wrong choice. We like the traditional carbon steel design, but all the designs are functional. What's best for you depends on your personal style and how you'll use the pan.
Here's our checklist that summarizes what to look for in pan design:
Pre-Seasoned or Not?
Pre-seasoned pans are becoming more popular, but we've seen this more with cast iron and less so with carbon steel. Still, there are a few pre-seasoned choices out there, and you may prefer this over a pan you have to season yourself.
Pre-seasoned carbon steel skillets can be convenient because you probably won't have to remove a protective coating that bare carbon steel skillets are shipped with (though some seasoned pans have a protective coating, too). This is great, but they may not work as well as you'd expect them to, so be sure to use plenty of cooking oil or butter at first. You may have to re-season them anyway, but if you use enough cooking fat, you may be able to get away with not having to re-season.
Unseasoned carbon steel pans will definitely need seasoning before use. Most manufacturers include instructions, or you can google, or find YouTube videos that show you how. As we've already mentioned, we think Sheryl Canter's seasoning method is the best option.
Since there's a good chance you'll have to season a pre-seasoned pan anyway, we recommend that you don't use this as a main buying decision. Instead, go with a pan that suits your long-term needs. Seasoning is a little fussy to learn, but easy to do once you get the hang of it.
Most carbon steel skillets are affordably priced. The 10-inch skillets we like range from about $40 to about $60.
You can pay less: both BK and Ballarini are a little less and get good ratings. We didn't test them, so we can't recommend them, but they're probably as good as the ones we do recommend; both made our "Other Good Options" list below. (BK are made in China and Ballarini are made in Italy.)
You can pay more, too. Made In's 10-inch carbon steel skillet goes for about $80, and for that you don't really get anything you don't get in a less expensive brand, unless you fall in love with the design. And of course, the Northwest Skillet Company charges a premium for their beautiful 10-inch blue carbon steel skillet/sauté pan, which goes for about $240--you'd have to really love the design to pay this much for carbon steel.
Carbon steel is cheap, plentiful metal, and it all heats the same, depending on thickness--but a $60 2mm pan will heat exactly the same as a $240 2mm pan. So before you decide to spend a lot on a fancy brand, be sure you really want it, because a cheaper option will almost certainly be just as good (and last just as long).
Using Carbon Steel: Avoid Rapid Temperature Changes!
Carbon steel can warp if heated or cooled too quickly. This is due to "internal residual stresses" from the manufacturing process, which is hard to avoid in any carbon steel pan (i.e., paying more probably won't eliminate the possibility of warping, even if the pan is spun and not stamped into existence).
Any gauge of carbon steel can warp from high heat or too-fast temperature changes, so buying a thicker pan may not make a difference.
There are two ways to make sure your pan doesn't warp:
- Heat it slowly. This probably means avoiding induction cooktops at first, which heat very quickly, or using the lowest setting you can. Use a different heat source if possible, heat slowly and don't go above 400F for the first several uses. (Note: You can still season a pan at this temp.)
- Do not submerge a hot pan in cold(er) water. Let the pan cool before washing.
As the pan gets use, the steel gets stronger and more resistant to warping. It may still warp after several uses, but the chances are less likely.
If your pan does warp? There's an easy fix: flip the pan over, put it on a safe (ideally wood) surface, and pound it flat with a rubber mallet. Your pan will be like new.
Best Overall Carbon Steel Skillet: Matfer-Bourgeat
Matfer-Bourgeat is the best traditional carbon steel skillet on the market. It has a superb design with a good amount of flat cooking surface, a welded handle (no rivets to collect gunk), and thick construction (3mm) for superb browning.
Matfer Bourgeat is also the favorite choice of several cooking sites, including Cook's Illustrated and Serious Eats.
The Matfer Bourgeat is an excellent traditional carbon steel skillet that will provide decades of durable use. It's on the thicker side, so it's the right choice for high heat searing and will also be a great all-purpose skillet, though heavier than some other brands. You have several sizes to choose from. No lids are available, and it's measured in centimeters, so you may not have a lid that will fit it well (but a universal lid is always an option).
BUY THE matfer bourgeat CARBON STEEL SKILLET:
Best Made-in-USA Carbon Steel Skillet: Vollrath
Vollrath is an American maker of primarily commercial grade cookware. It's a thinner gauge than the Matfer Bourgeat above, so if you want a lighter pan or don't care so much about high-heat searing, it's a good choice.
There are several complaints on Amazon that the pan warps, in some cases even under medium heat--so be sure to heat the pan slowly when new to avoid this problem (and if it happens, you can hammer it back into shape with a rubber mallet).
We heated the pan slowly when we tested it, and had no issues with warping. Its surface was smooth and slippery after seasoning, so eggs slid right out. Searing was also impressive, as long as we gave the pan plenty of time to preheat (don't try this until you've used the pan several times to avoid warping).
Don't shy away because of the 1-year warranty. This is standard for Vollrath and commercial-grade products in general. The pan should last for decades.
Two potential drawbacks of this pan:
First has a smaller flat cooking surface than some other brands: the 12-inch skillet has about 9 inches of flat surface, which isn't too bad, but less than the Matfer Bourgeat.
Second, the handle is very high, which helps keep it cool and could be great for tall people, but can also make it harder to maneuver and store, and possibly harder to fit in an oven.
There's also the warping issue, but as long as you heat and cool it slowly, you should be fine.
The Vollrath carbon steel skillet is an excellent quality, made-in-USA pan designed for commercial use. It has slightly less flat cooking surface than the Matfer Bourgeat and a very high rising handle, which you may prefer if you're tall, but can make it harder to toss food and to store.
The pan has 1.6mm walls, which are on thin side, so be especially careful to heat and cool the pan slowly, especially when new, to avoid warping.
A durable pan that will last for decades (despite the paltry 1 year warranty).
BUY THE Vollrath CARBON STEEL SKILLET:
Best Pre-Seasoned Carbon Steel Skillet: Lodge
Lodge is another American-made skillet and also a great all-around option. It's our top pick for a pre-seasoned skillet and unlike Lodge cast iron, which definitely needs re-seasoning for best results, many reviewers found that the carbon steel didn't need it, and was fine as long as you use plenty of cooking fat (although many reviewers also found the opposite).
We tested the pan without re-seasoning, and found that in the beginning food stuck more than with pans we had to season. The rough surface is frankly an oddity among carbon steel skillets. We used it for meats and stir fries where sticking wasn't a big issue, and sure enough, sticking dissipated with use. The pan eventually became smooth enough for eggs to slide around easily (with enough butter to coat the pan, of course).
One great thing about the pre-seasoning is that there's no waxy or greasy coating to wash off before you can use the pan, which is a convenient feature even if you find the pan does need to be re-seasoned. But if you want a pan that's nonstick out of the box, Lodge isn't it.
The pan has a great shape and a good handle with a medium rise above the pan: not so high that the pan is hard to handle or store, but high enough to keep it cooler, longer, especially on gas stoves.
The 2.6mm body is thinner than Matfer Bourgeat but thicker than Vollrath, so it's juuuust right for a lot of cooks: thick enough to resist warping (though heat and cool it slowly, especially when new) and have great heat retention, but not so thick that it's hard to maneuver.
We love Lodge, so why didn't this pan get our number one rating? Well, the main reason is the rough cooking surface. We recommend not using the pan for foods that do best on a nonstick surface, such as eggs. Start with bacon, burgers, and other things that produce enough fat for the food to release from the pan easily. These fats will help to fill in the rough surface, making it smoother and smoother with use. In time, the pan should be as smooth and slippery as any other carbon steel pan--but it definitely won't start out that way.
There were also a number of complaints about the pan being "warped," by which people meant oil pooled around the edges of a raised center. This is often intentional, because pans will "warp" when heated, causing the cooking surface to flatten out to perfection. We're not sure why this didn't happen for some users, because the pan worked fine in our testing. But there were complaints were enough complaints about this that it needed to be mentioned.
Finally, the handle is riveted, and rivets can collect gunk. It may sound like a small thing, but rivet free pans are much easier to clean, and they are more sanitary in general because there's no place for bacteria to build up.
Lodge is a great choice, especially if you're looking for a pre-seasoned pan. It's made in the USA and its traditional design is excellent for most applications. The surface is rough, which you may hate if you're looking for an egg pan. But if you use it several times for foods that don't require a nonstick surface, the surface will develop a smooth, nonstick patina..
Another option is to sand off the factory seasoning and season the pan yourself, as many reviewers did. This defeats the purpose of buying a pre-seasoned pan, but it is a means to an end (and the pre-seasoning is going to need more seasoning anyway, so it's not a big deal if you want to sand it off).
If you really want a pre-seasoned skillet, you may also want to look at BK skillets. Although seasoned, they come with a layer of wax that has to be removed, but they are a good value and get mostly positive reviews; the BK pan is also shaped more like a traditional nonstick skillet than the Lodge.
BUY THE lodge pre-seasoned CARBON STEEL SKILLET:
Best High-End Carbon Steel Skillet: Northwest Skillet
We don't see much advantage to a boutique brand of carbon steel because the difference in heating properties are going to be negligible compared to cheaper brands (the thickness is the most important factor). But when we saw this Northwest Skillet pan, we knew it was going to be a favorite.
And it is. Mostly because it's just so beautiful. It's all hand made, and you get three choices of handle design. And that gorgeous color...well, you can see what we mean.
The shape is also great, especially if you prefer a more traditional shape or even a straight-sided sauté pan, which this comes dangerously close to being. This means you can safely deep fry in this pan as well as do everything else that carbon steel skillets are great at.
All carbon steel skillets develop a dark patina with use, so it's not going to keep that amazing blue color, which is a shame. And it really doesn't heat any better than a skillet costing a fraction of the cost. BUT: if you love the design and have the budget, there's really no reason not to get this skillet.
It would also make a great gift for the carbon steel lover in your life (something they would probably never buy for themselves).
This skillet is absolutely gorgeous and will last forever. The high, straight sides make it functional in ways that more traditional, shallower carbon steel skillets aren't, such as deep frying. Do you need it? Probably not. But if you have the budget and love it, you probably won't regret the purchase.
buy the northwest skillet company carbon steel skillet:
Other Good Options
Carbon steel is going to provide the same heating performance no matter how much you spend on it. The only real difference is the thickness (gauge) of the pan: thicker pans will weigh more but retain heat better, while thinner pans will be lighter but their heat retention won't be as good.
There are a number of excellent carbon steel skillets on the market. In fact, it's hard to go wrong with any carbon steel skillet, as long as you get the gauge and style that you want.
Here are some other options we recommend:
Ballarini: Made in Italy, 1.6mm thick walls, reasonably priced. We may have chosen this as our favorite except that the sidewalls are very wide, leaving less flat cooking surface than many other brands. For example, the cooking surface on the 11" skillet is 7.75".
BK: Made in China by a Dutch company, 1.6mm walls, pre-seasoned, iron handle, curved, higher sidewalls than traditional carbon steel (similar to a standard nonstick skillet). This skillet gets great reviews and you won't regret buying it. Even though pre-seasoned, it comes with a protective wax coating that you need to remove before use.
de Buyer: Made in France, 3.2mm thick, traditional carbon steel shape. De Buyer carbon steel is built like a tank and will last forever. It's one of the heaviest brands available, so it will perform very close to cast iron. We didn't pick it because it's a little more expensive than Matfer, and the pans have three huge rivets that will collect gunk and are hard to clean around. But this is standard on most pans, so if you want the heaviest carbon steel you can find, de Buyer is the way to go.
Mauviel M'Steel: Made in France, 2mm thick walls, a little higher-priced than Matfer Bourgeat. Mauviel is our favorite brand of copper cookware, and the quality of their cookware is unsurpassed. They make a fairly wide line of carbon steel pans, including a wok, a curved sauté pan (we would call it a saucier), a paella pan, and a crepe pan. We prefer the Matfer-Bourgeat for its welded handle, slightly lower rise of the handle, and lower price. But if you want a 2mm thick skillet--which is a great all-around design, thick enough for good searing but not as heavy as the MB--Mauviel M'Steel is a great choice.
Merten & Storck: Made in China, pre-seasoned, 1.6mm thick walls, affordably priced. The design is very much like the BK skillet (same OEM?), that is, it looks very much like a standard nonstick skillet. Gets great reviews is probably a good quality skillet.
Why We Don't Recommend Made In, Misen, or Viking
Made In: Made In gets tons of positive press and a lot of people really love this brand. Their carbon steel--made in France, not the US--is good quality, but it's quite a bit more expensive than other French-made brands.
Cost is the main reason we don't recommend it. Remember: all carbon steel pans provide essentially the same performance, so there's no reason to pay more for the same thing.
Misen: Misen's carbon steel is also good quality, but it has a silicone handle. While some people think this is great for "beginner" cooks, all it does is limit the temperatures at which you can use the pan. Also, the silicone will wear out long before the pan does.
We love Misen cookware and recommend the clad stainless over Made In (see our comparison review), but their carbon steel isn't a great option.
Viking: Viking has a reputation for high end stuff, but in reality, their cookware is just so-so. And their carbon steel is rated to an oven-safe temp of just 450F, which is unheard of for carbon steel.
See our Viking review if you want to read more.
Carbon Steel FAQs
Why Is My Carbon Steel Pan Sticky?
You probably used too much oil when you seasoned it, or you didn't wipe it out well enough after use and the oil dried to a tacky finish. You have to remove the coating of oil and start over.
Is Carbon Steel Induction Compatible?
Absolutely. Carbon steel is naturally magnetic, so naturally induction compatible.
Will Carbon Steel Warp?
Yes, carbon steel will warp if it undergoes abrupt temperature changes, especially when new. Heat and cool carbon steel pans slowly to avoid this happening. Never put a hot pan into cooler water.
The good news is that you can use a rubber mallet to pound your warped bottom back into shape.
Is Carbon Steel Oven Safe?
Most carbon steel pans are oven safe up to any temperature. However, if they have a silicone handle, they will have a lower rating and some (such as Viking) are rated to just 450F for reasons we don't understand.
Most brands are oven safe, but check manufacturer specifications before you buy.
Final Thoughts on Carbon Steel Skillets
Carbon steel skillets are getting more popular among home cooks. They're inexpensive, durable, lighter than cast iron, and can be almost as nonstick as PTFE (Teflon) when well-seasoned. They make great all purpose skillets, and they just keep getting better with use.
Our favorite carbon steel skillets are Matfer Bourgeat, Vollrath, Lodge, and the Northwest Skillet Company's gorgeous high-end blue carbon steel skillet.
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