When I think about cooking supplies I would need if the apocalypse comes, I think of two things: a gyuto, and a carbon steel pan. Carbon steel pans are my go-to for their excellent heat retention, light weight, and relatively low required maintenance. A lot of folks I talk to in the shop have some concerns about food sticking, the pans rusting or warping, or the task of seasoning; BUT I'm here to tell you not to worry! As with any kitchen tool worth having, a carbon steel pan comes with its dos and don'ts, but the effort required is minimal and the payoff of a perfect sear or stir-fry is so worth it.
Carbon Steel vs Other Pans
Carbon steel pans seem to have developed a reputation for being high-maintenance, but I disagree! Whereas nonstick pans can't go above a certain temperature or be used with metal utensils lest you damage the nonstick coating, carbon steel radiates heat much better than stainless, thereby cooking your food more effectively. As for cast iron, it's basically the same thing, just heavier. Carbon steel can take all kinds of heavy use in the kitchen and last for ages, whereas most nonstick coatings can wear off or be damaged over time, and even become toxic to the user. Not so for carbon steel.
Seasoning Carbon Steel Pans
The internet has made seasoning sound way more complicated than it needs to be. What's the best method? The best oil to use? How much time does it take? What temperature should you heat it to? Can you use soap on it? Take a deep breath. None of the steps of creating or maintaining a seasoning are that big a deal--or even all that necessary. Seasoning is simply thin layers of polymerized oil--basically oil hardened onto the pan's steel. This serves a few functions: the oil fills in the tiny pores of the steel so you food doesn't seep in and stick to the pan, and protects the steel from moisture which can cause rust or impart a metallic taste onto certain reactive foods (think acidic and juicy, like tomatoes). So while seasoning is certainly beneficial, most carbon steel pans can be used straightaway! The best part is: as long as you're using oil with your cooking, the pan will season itself over time. If you do want to give your pan a head start by seasoning it, here are my tips:
Use an oil with a high-smoking point so your home doesn't get stinky. Seasoning has no flavour, so don't bother with anything fancy. Peanut oil, canola oil, and flax/linseed oil are all good options. It's best to stay away from olive oil as it tends to be extra-smoky.
Use oil sparingly - pour a small amount in your pan, and spread it around the pan's whole surface (inside and out) with a paper towel, leaving no excess. The goal is thin layers of oil, otherwise you'll wind up with a sticky and not very durable seasoning. Turn on your vent hood if you have one, and open a window. Position your pan upside-down in cool oven and heat it to 400 degrees Farenheit (or better yet, do this outside on a barbecue). Leave it there for about 15 minutes, remove the pan and let it cool to point where you can safely add another layer of oil. Doing this three times is usually enough. You can do this on the stove too, but the oven makes for a more even heat and enables the pan to be heated upside-down, which prevents to oil from pooling in the bottom. If your pan has a wooden handle, like those from Prince Kogyo, use the stovetop method.
If you have a deeper carbon steel vessel like a wok or a dutch oven (and something that can be used as a lid), a really fantastic way to season is to make stovetop popcorn in it! As the popcorn bursts, it releases a tiny spray of oil that with a whole batch of popcorn will evenly distribute throughout the whole pot. Or you can deep-fry in it if you’re feeling adventurous!
Our wonderful Yamada pans do require one necessary step before they can be used: they come with a protective chemical coating which needs to be baked off. Simply put them in the oven and heat at 400 degrees for 1 hour, then cool and wash with soap and water before cooking with them or beginning the seasoning process.
"My pan's not nonstick like Teflon! What's going on?"
The first thing to understand is that even a perfectly-seasoned carbon pan is not going to behave like commercial nonstick pans--but it's super easy to keep food from sticking nonetheless! It's a simple matter of pre-heating your pan when you use it. The steel has tiny pores in it that can "absorb" food, so preheating the pan allows steam to escape the steel, pushing the food away from it. Make sure you heat your oil until it shimmers, or until a small piece of food sizzles when placed in the pan. And don't be afraid of oil, especially with protein-rich foods like eggs or fish which can be a little sticky. You can always drain off excess oil after cooking!
Carbon Steel Pan Care and Maintenance
The two main things to avoid to keep your pan in good shape are extreme temperature changes and prolonged exposure to moisture. You can use soap! A lot of people will say soap will strip your seasoning, but it would take some hardcore elbow grease to remove your seasoning while washing your pan. After hand-washing your pan, dry it well with a towel or on low heat on your stove. While I might occasionally soak my pan to loosen any residue, I never leave it in water for more than half an hour to prevent any rust.
To prevent warping, don't crank the heat right away. Carbon pans can handle the super high temperatures needed for searing or wok-frying, but they benefit from a couple minutes on low heat first to let all the surfaces of the pan to warm evenly. After that, you're ready to rumble!
It's fun to explore the world of carbon steel pans--much like our knives, we have a variety of pans with distinct styles that can suit each individual user. Our Kirameki pan are the prefect entry level pan, the Prince Kogyo pans have a sleek look, while the Yamada pans are more rustic and lightweight. You can go for a beautiful Millio pan to experience the texture of a hand-hammered pan, or try the West Japan Tools pan for an excellent, streamlined design by our favourite, Shibata-san.
Bainer is about two things, cooking and eating; she likes a hole-in-the-wall as much as she does 3 Stars and always has the best recommendations. When she isn't talking knives with us, she's hustling & bustling over at Citizen or cooking up a storm at home. Her cookbook library rivals Cordon Bleu's and she's actually cooked out of all of them! Need a good recipe for bibimbap? She's got your back.
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