Carbon steel pans, a staple in restaurant kitchens, are becoming a popular cookware choice among home chefs. These versatile and durable pans go from stovetop to oven and can elevate homemade dishes to restaurant-quality meals.
In our guide to the best carbon steel pans, we noted that carbon steel pans are easy to care for. While that is of course technically true, it’s also true that carbon steel pans need to be cleaned and cared for in a very specific way to ensure they work well and last a long time.
With the help of experts, here’s everything you need to know about caring for your carbon steel pan, from the best sponges for scrubbing to the things you should never do to your carbon steel pan.
What you’ll need to clean and care for carbon steel pans
While carbon steel pans are indeed easy to clean, there is one important — and surprising! — thing to know about washing them. “We recommend using just warm water to clean your carbon steel pans,” says Daniel Kamhi, co-founder of Sardel. “Using soap or abrasive cleaning agents will strip the seasoning from the pan and negatively impact the pan’s performance.” In this way, carbon steel pans are similar to cast-iron pans.
“For regular use, carbon steel pans can simply be cleaned out with a paper towel,” says Sylvie Giret, a managing director at de Buyer. “This is beneficial because it limits the exposure to moisture, and any remaining fat or oil from cooking will help to protect the pan from rust while it is not in use, and it helps to build up the seasoning.”
“We recommend using soft sponges, kitchen scrub brushes with soft bristles and microfiber cloths to clean your carbon steel pans,” Kamhi says. “Don’t use anything that will scratch or strip the pan’s seasoning.”
Giret recommends the Scrub Daddy sponge for use on carbon steel pans. “It’s a great tool to use with carbon steel as it is not too abrasive and it will help to remove [any] stuck-on bits, so there won’t be any food remnants that can result in burnt-on carbon,” she says.
“For really big messes or burnt-on carbon,” Giret says, “you can use a little bit of Bar Keepers Friend or Bon Ami cleaning powder and scrub with a bristle brush or abrasive sponge to remove the built-up carbon.” Deeper cleaning is likely to lift some of the pan’s seasoning, so Giret says that this is the time to re-season it.
Here’s exactly how to clean carbon steel pans, according to Kamhi.
- Wipe off excess food with a paper towel, soft-bristle brush or sponge.
- Use warm water and gently scrub the surface of the pan to remove any remaining food.
- Use a dish towel or paper towel to dry.
Carbon steel pans have a coating, or “seasoning,” that releases food easily from the surface — but if there is stuck-on food after washing with water and a soft-bristle brush or scrub sponge, Giret suggests using the following method to remove it.
- While the pan is still hot, pour a little bit of hot water in to deglaze and loosen any stuck-on bits, then scrape them off with a wooden spatula.
- Discard the contents of the pan.
- Wash the pan with hot water, a drop of dish soap and a scrub sponge or brush, making sure the surface is smooth and there is no more food stuck on.
- Dry the pan with a kitchen towel or paper towels, then place it back on the stove over medium heat to evaporate any remaining moisture that might cause rust to develop.
- Pour a drop of oil onto a paper towel, and coat the inner surface of the pan to help further protect the material from rust.
- Store in a dry place.
Here’s how Giret recommends seasoning a carbon steel pan. This should be done before using a new carbon steel pan to prepare it for cooking. Repeat the process 1-3 times to build the initial seasoning; the seasoning will gradually build up as you cook with the pan.
- Wash the pan in hot water to remove the beeswax coating. The beeswax may not wash entirely off, and that’s okay, as it can help in the seasoning process. Dry the pan with paper towels or a dishcloth.
- Place the pan on the stove over medium-high heat and pour in a very thin layer of oil. Distribute the oil evenly across the entire cooking surface by gently rotating the pan.
- Heat the oil until it reaches its smoke point, approximately 10 minutes or when you see the pan turning a brownish color. Turn off heat and let the pan cool.
- Once the pan is completely cooled, drain any remaining oil and wipe the pan with a dry paper towel.
- Place the pan back on the stove over medium heat for 2 minutes to dry any remaining moisture. Turn off heat and let it cool before storing.
To get the most out of your carbon steel pans, follow these cooking, cleaning and storage tips from our experts, Kamhi and Giret.
- Avoid using dish soap, bleach and abrasive cleansers when washing carbon steel pans.
- Do not use steel wool or other highly abrasive cleaning tools for everyday use, as they can scratch and damage the finish of carbon steel cookware.
- Avoid using acidic cleaners like vinegar, which will strip the seasoning.
- Always wash carbon steel cookware by hand; do not use the dishwasher.
- After washing a carbon steel pan, place it on the stove to evaporate moisture and prevent rusting.
- Do not leave a carbon steel pan in the drying rack to dry after washing, as it will get rusty.
- Re-season the pan regularly; keeping a carbon steel pan well-seasoned will make it easier to clean.
- Put a light layer of oil on carbon steel pans before storing it.
- Enhance carbon steel’s nonstick properties by preheating the pan over low-medium heat before adding anything to it. (Use the temperature splash test — splash cold water in the pan, and if it beads up, the pan is hot enough.)
- When cooking on an electric or induction stovetop, match the size of the pan to the size of the burner to promote even heating and avoid hot spots.
- When using a carbon steel pan on an induction stovetop, especially, heat the pan gradually, rather than placing a cold pan on a hot burner, to avoid damaging the pan.
- Oven-safe carbon steel pans can be seasoned in the oven or on the grill for more even and consistent color.