Carbon steel pans are a favorite among professional chefs. They combine the durability and heat transference of carbon steel with the smooth surface and light weight of stainless. But if you’re nervous about making the switch because you think it’s hard to clean carbon steel pans, fear not. Follow a few simple steps and it’s a breeze.
Season, Don’t Scrub
Much like a cast iron pan, carbon steel should absolutely not be washed in the traditional way that you would use for a nonstick skillet. Instead, the cooking surface will need to be seasoned with a combination of oil and heat.
Start with an oil with a high smoke point. Some of the best picks are safflower oil or grapeseed oil. The oil needs to have a high smoke point so it does not break down under heat.
Put a few tablespoons of oil into a cold pan and heat until the oil shimmers. Then use a paper towel gripped with non-scratch tongs and rub it across all of the pan’s surfaces. Wipe out any excess buildup and continue to heat the pan until it smokes, then let cool.
That process restores the coating on the metal that keeps food from sticking. Over time, the pan will build up a dark patina. If done properly, it can keep your pan usable for decades. It’s especially important to season your pan if you don’t use it every day. Regular use is the best way to ensure that your patina is solid and protective.
You can start this process when you first buy your pan by pre-seasoning it. Experts recommend rubbing it all over with a neutral oil and baking it in your oven over a sheet pan for 30 minutes at 325 degrees. Then cook a few high-fat items in it for good measure.
Erase The Grease
Before you season, it’s important to make sure that there is no food debris or residue on your carbon steel pan. This process can require a bit of patience. The soap and scrubbers that you would use on other cookware can damage carbon steel and make it cook unevenly.
The best way to clean your carbon steel pan before you season is with a little warm water and a soft cloth. Cleaning the pan while it’s still slightly warm from cooking can make the job easier.
Unlike cast iron, where seasoning sinks deep into the material, you can get carbon steel wet. Place the pan in a bath of warm water with no soap for a few minutes to loosen the grime. Lift it out and use a soft cloth to gently work the cooking surface, dislodging anything that might be stuck there.
Once the surface of the pan is clean, rinse with warm water and hand dry immediately. Leaving water on a carbon steel pan can break down that coating you’ve worked so hard to build up.
Tackling Heavy Messes
If you have burnt residue or grease that stubbornly resists gentle cleaning, there are options. One popular method of cleaning your best carbon steel pan involves the use of kosher salt.
Heat the pan on the stovetop until a single drop of water dropped on the surface puffs to steam immediately. Then take it off the burner.
Mix a solution of two parts salt to one part oil. A quarter cup should be enough to clean most pans, but you might need to make several batches. With a paper towel or disposable cloth, gently but firmly scour the cooking surface to pull off the mess.
When you’ve thoroughly scrubbed the pan, rinse it gently under warm water and immediately dry it with a dishtowel or cloth. Examine the cooking area to make sure you’ve eliminated any residue and, if you have, season the pan according to the instructions above.
Maintaining that beautiful patina on your carbon steel pan is important. You want to make sure that after you have cleaned and seasoned it the pan is stored properly.
Don’t nest your cookware in a cabinet, because the seasoned surface can be damaged by scraping and rubbing against other items. Instead, invest in a hanging rack that keeps your pans a safe distance away from each other.
If this isn’t a possibility, some use paper plates in between pans to store them in a cabinet. Other kinds of padding can also work, as long as the material is not abrasive.
Humidity can also be an issue for both cast iron and carbon steel pans. If you live in a damp environment, it can cause rusting and discoloration to the steel if incompletely seasoned. Take extra time with your oil coating and, if necessary, invest in a dehumidifier for your kitchen space.
It’s important to note that some discoloration on the surface of carbon steel pans is normal. Black marks and smudges are not a sign of any damage. Instead they are artifacts from the process of building up a patina through seasoning.
Following these simple instructions on how to clean carbon steel pans will keep your cookware usable for a very long time. Investing in a high-quality piece is better for your budget and the environment. Carbon steel is also versatile enough to replace multiple other skillets. It works wonderfully in the oven as well. Treated well it will become a key part of your cooking life.