Spotlight : Discovering Carbon Steel

Years before we started Tenzo, when I was but a college boy fumbling around in the kitchen, I would spend afternoons digging up old cooking videos on the internet. Pierre Koffman, Marco Pierre White, Nico Ladenis, Michel Roux, a parade of English Francophiles or French Anglophiles who spent the ‘80s bringing French gastronomy to the British Isles. One thing I began to notice, as they seared a scallop or swirled an omelet onto a plate, were these strange pans unlike anything I had ever seen, of a strange shape, like an upside-down volcano, and a strange metal, neither copper nor stainless steel. I can’t remember the exact terms of my internet search—it must have been something like “weird european frying pans,” but somehow I came across what I was looking for, the De Buyer carbon steel pan. Accepting Marco Pierre White’s imprimatur, I picked up a Mineral B pan. Reading the pan’s instructions I was reminded of my cast iron skillet, but where the cast iron’s surface had that kind of rough, pebbled texture that did its best to stick to eggs, the carbon steel was perfectly smooth. The pan came unfinished, but I knew the drill, a few coatings of oil at high heat and I was in business. The cast iron skillet I’d been using happily now seemed crude and hulking, dusted off whenever I wanted to make cornbread. 

Though I felt I had found the perfect pan, years later I became intrigued by a lesser-known offering from De Buyer, the Lyonnaise pan, a thinner, pared-down version of the Mineral B. I ordered one, curious, but was immediately blown away by how incredibly lightweight yet solid it was. It heats up almost instantly and is perfect for cooking eggs in the morning when time is tight or a quick vegetable sauté after work in the evenings. I prefer the smaller, 10 1/4” size, which—at only a pound and a half—I can even carry on a backpacking trip. The Mineral B is still my first choice for searing meat or roasting vegetables, as its weight soaks up heat and distributes it more evenly across the surface to create the perfect caramelization. But the Lyonnaise cooks eggs like no other, and makes rolling a French omelette or flipping pancakes with a flick of the wrist much, much easier. For me, they’ve now both become essential.

Starting Out with a Carbon Steel Pan

DeBuyer Mineral B pans come in a raw finish with just a thin coating of beeswax to prevent oxidization. Rinse the pan quickly in very hot water and rub dry with a cloth to distribute a thin coating of beeswax. Lyonnaise pans come raw with a blue steel heat treatment that similarly protects it from the elements, but a quick rinse with hot water won’t hurt. Then starting with a dry pan, add a small amount of oil, using a towel to thinly coat the cooking surface. Put the pan on the stove on high heat. When the oil begins to smoke, polish off the excess oil with a thick cloth—folded paper towels work well—taking care not to burn your hand. Allow the pan to cool completely and repeat the process about seven times. The pan should have turned from its natural steel color to a dark, shiny finish. Because of the smoke generated in the cooking process, you’ll want to do this with the windows open and a fan running, or better yet, outside. I like to use walnut oil, which polymerizes nicely, but if allergies are a concern, flax seed oil and avocado oil are also excellent. Butter and olive oil aren’t particularly good, but lard or grapeseed oil will also work well.

Carbon steel pans are the true workhorse of the kitchen but they do have their limits. Acidic foods such tomatoes, lemons, or white wine will react negatively with the pan, degrading the seasoning and can even cause it to rust. These pans are not, consequently, great for making pasta sauce. And while the thickness of the Mineral B allows it to be placed directly over high heat, the Lyonnaise should be heated more gently starting on lower heat, so as not to warp the steel. 

After you’re finished cooking with your pan, allow it to cool, then run it under hot water and gently scrub away any debris with a stiff brush. Wipe the pan completely dry, then add a few drops of oil and rub it all over the surface of the pan to create a very thin coating. 

The more you use your pan, the better the seasoning will become, to the point where it will become completely non-stick. If you ever lose the seasoning through overscouring, you can always start over and build it up again. And even if the pan is totally neglected and allowed to rust, it can be scrubbed down bare with steel wool and resurrected. With the proper care, a carbon steel pan should last you a lifetime or more.