Carbon Steel Fry Pans, Oh Yes I Do!
Non-stick pans skeeve me out. Teflon and other high tech coatings may be relatively harmless, but only up to a certain temperature, at which point they start to give off toxic gases. I also haven’t met a non-stick pan that doesn’t scratch or peel, whatever promises they make. So then you have to replace it or risk the coating coming off on your food. Doesn’t sound like a healthy relationship to me.
I ditched non-stick a long time ago in favor of seasoned steel cookware. It all started years ago at Kmart, when I bought a Martha Stewart 10″ cast iron fryer. Inexpensive and reliable, it now has a sexy black sheen from years of Sunday morning bacon and eggs. Since then, I have gradually accumulated a dutch oven, a 12″ fry pan, a grill pan, and a flat skillet too. When it comes to cast iron, I now buy Lodge Logic because their pans come already seasoned. The downside to cast iron is the weight, and there is no way to make a proper omelet in a cast iron pan. It takes two hands for me to lift the 12″ fry pan even when it’s empty, and I could probably use it to take out a 250 lb. intruder with a single blow to the head. Cast iron is also brittle, and can break from the impact if dropped, or crack if heated too quickly over high heat.
So recently, I decided to look into getting myself some traditional European style carbon steel fry pans. They’re much lighter than cast iron, but still heavier than aluminum or copper core stainless pans. There are a bunch of carbon steel pans out there – some referred to as Black Steel, some as Carbon Steel, and even Blue Steel. But they are all raw steel that must be seasoned before use. Seasoning refers to the process of sealing a steel pan with oil, which protects it from rust and provides a natural non-stick coating that only gets better with use. The process for all raw steel pans, including cast iron, is pretty standard. Basically you want to make sure the pan is clean of any residue from the manufacturing or packaging process. Then you just coat the pan with a flavorless oil and heat the pan. Then once the pan is cool, wipe out the excess oil. If the coating ever gets messed up, you can just scrub the pan clean and start all over.
After browsing around and reading some reviews, I settled on buying a set of three DeBuyer Mineral fry pans. Released in 2010, the DeBuyer Mineral series are 99% iron, made from recycled material, and can be used with the widest range of heat sources, including induction cook tops. The set includes 8″,10″, and 12″ Lyon shaped fry pans, with deep angled sides. The seasoning instructions included with the De Buyer pans were a little more involved. Before you season the pan, they instruct you to boil some potato peelings in the pan for 15 minutes, dispose of the peelings, then rinse and wipe the pan dry. It appears that the starch in the potatoes binds to any grime embedded in the metal that is released as the pan is heated, resulting in a more thorough cleaning. Next De Buyer instructs you to heat about 1/2 cm of oil in the bottom of the pan instead of just coating the pan with oil. The rest of the process is the same.
Anyone skeptical of the recycled Mineral pans can put their reservations to rest. I am in love with these pans! They performed beautifully right after the initial seasoning. I cooked myself an over easy egg in the 8″ pan with just a little butter and the pan was so slick the egg slid around and flipped effortlessly. French Toast and Pork Chops browned up nicely and didn’t stick to the 10″ or 12″ pans.
For sake of comparison I also ordered a less expensive Paderno 8″ heavy duty carbon steel pan ($26.90 at Amazon). At first glance there are obvious differences between the pans. The De Buyer pans have a smoother factory finish, a higher offest handle, and more eye-appeal. The Paderno pan is much more basic. It is heavier and shaped more like a standard saute pan, with shallower sides and a straigher handle than it’s De Buyer counterpart. Performance wise though, they are the same. Eggs slid around just as easily in the Paderno pan, and the crusty residue left by the beans for my Huevos Rancheros wiped clean with a paper towel.
So from a cost standpoint, the Paderno pan was a more economical choice, but I do like the fact that the Mineral pans are made from recycled material. Regardless, I expect to have a long and happy relationship with these pans. Both of them are great, and with proper care and maintenance I’m sure they’ll last long enough to be passed down to my grandchildren, or be sent off to the thrift store to find a new life once I’m long gone.
Notes about Carbon Steel/ Raw Steel cookware:
Great for pan roasting and saute-ing, and cooking foods that tend to stick to other pans. Stir fries or dishes that use plenty of oil or fat are the perfect use for these pans. Your food will get a nice sear and the fat will maintain the pan’s seasoning.
Care is the same as cast iron. To clean, just rinse in really hot tap water and wipe out any residue with a dry towel. If by some chance there is some food stuck to the pan, you can make a paste of coarse salt and a little water, and use a dry sponge or towel to scrub out the offending matter. I find filling the pan with really hot water and scrubbing with a natural bristle brush (like a vegetable cleaning brush) works better than the salt paste and doesn’t damage the seasoning. Before storing, dry the pan thoroughly, and use a paper towel or clean dish towel to thinly coat it with vegetable oil.
Cooking highly acidic foods can strip away the seasoning on your pan. So keep the vinegar away – save your stainless cookware for that.