How to Season a Carbon Steel Pan

Carbon steel pans are the lighter and more expensive cousins of the beloved cast iron skillet. Renowned for their exceptional heat conductivity, durability, and versatility, these pans are indispensable for achieving the perfect sear on a steak or effortlessly tossing a stir-fry. And just like its cousin, carbon steel is also prone to rust when exposed to moisture. That is why carbon steel pans must be seasoned just like a cast iron skillet.

Seasoning a carbon steel pan is not just a maintenance task; it is also a crucial step in maintaining the “non-stick-ness” of the pan. Understanding how to properly season your carbon steel pan can elevate your cooking game and ensure the longevity of your pan.

In the following sections, we will dive deep into the art and science of seasoning carbon steel pans, guiding you through each step of the process, from selecting the right oil to recognizing a perfectly seasoned pan. Let’s embark on this journey to becoming a seasoned carbon steel user.

What is Carbon Steel Seasoning?

Much like cast iron seasoning, carbon steel seasoning is the process of creating a patina on the surface of the pan through the application of oil or fat and heat. This process, called polymerization, creates a tough barrier that not only prevents rust but also forms a natural, slick surface that improves with every use.

Following proper seasoning procedures for carbon steel pans is crucial for the longevity and performance of your pans. It can also prevent a multitude of common problems – like rusting, sticking, and flaking – that might otherwise compromise the functionality and aesthetic of your cookware.

Step-by-Step Carbon Steel Seasoning Process

The following guide provides a comprehensive step-by-step approach to seasoning your carbon steel pan, ensuring that you achieve the perfect non-stick surface while protecting it against rust and wear.

Step 1: Clean (and Dry) Your Pan Thoroughly

Start by vigorously scrubbing your carbon steel pan, as any stuck debris left on the pan will cause the oil to not properly adhere to the surface. This will create patches of unseasoned surfaces once the debris ultimately burns and flakes off the surface,

After washing, dry your pan thoroughly with a towel. Then, place it on a stovetop over low heat to evaporate any remaining moisture. This step is vital to prevent rusting during the seasoning process.

Step 2: Apply Oil Thinly and Evenly

Once the pan is completely dried, put a few drops of oil on it and spread it all over the pan to coat its surfaces. Make sure that there are no dull spots on the pan.

Another important step to do is to wipe away any excess oil with a clean towel, as putting too much can cause the oil to turn into a sticky residue instead of a thin and hard surface.

Step 3: Heat Your Pan

Next, you have to heat your pan up to oil’s smoke point to start the polymerization process. The best way to do this is via oven, but there are also methods of seasoning that do not require an oven.

Knowing your cooking oil’s smoke point is crucial to produce a great layer of seasoning. You’ll want to hit the right temperature here – too low and it won’t polymerize properly; too high will cause the seasoning to flake off.

Moreover, knowing the duration of the process is important as well. Most guides on the internet say that 1-hour inside the oven is recommended. I think that that is more of a easy, short-hand answer that is applicable for many. For me, the best way to tell if your pan is done is by checking if the pan looks dry and a little dull, and this process is a lot quicker than most people realize.

Step 4: Repeat the Process (Optional)

Whether you’re going to put your pan back into storage or apply another layer of seasoning, the next step you need to do is to apply a coat of oil to your freshly seasoned carbon steel pan.

Applying another layer of oil on your carbon steel pan before storage prevents it from rusting. So, just like usual, apply a few drops of oil all over the pan, then wipe off the excess. It will be ready for storage once it has cooled down. 

If you want to apply another layer of seasoning, then do the steps in the sentence above, but instead of putting the pan back into storage, repeat step #3. You can repeat these steps for as many layers as you want.

What Oil to Use For Seasoning Carbon Steel

With the myriad choices of cooking oils to season your carbon steel pan with, choosing the right one may be difficult if you don’t know what you’re looking for. Generally, high smoke point oils (above 400°F or 200°C) are the way to go for both cast iron and carbon steel as they won’t burn off in most cooking applications. These oils include, grapeseed oil, avocado oil, and sunflower oil. But personally, I use canola oil to season my cast iron and carbon steel cookware as it is cheap and readily-available.

What Does a Properly Seasoned Carbon Steel Pan Look Like?

A properly seasoned carbon steel pan should have a smooth, semi-glossy surface that is black or dark brown in color. It should only become shiny once you put the finishing touches of oil for storage.

It’s important to note that the pan’s coloration may not be perfectly uniform, especially after the first few rounds of seasoning. This variance is normal and will even out with continued use and additional seasoning sessions.

Be a Seasoned Carbon Steel User

With proper seasoning and care, carbon steel cookware can give you great cooking experiences for years to come. Whether you’re a seasoned carbon steel and cast iron cook or new to the game, understanding the basics of seasoning is key to getting the most out of your cookware.

If you’re still hungry for more info about cast iron and other cookware made from carbon steel, stainless steel, copper, and aluminum, then be sure to check out the rest of the Cult of Cast Iron blog!

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