Cooking is one of my favorite activities. It combines creativity, technique and it is a social event. On top of that, there is a tangible outcome which hopefully fills your belly. I regularly invite friends over to cook and eat together.
As I am obsessed with good tools, I have strong opinions on the right cookware. A centerpiece of each kitchen is a good pan. This means for me that the pan
- is durable. I want to buy a pan once and use it a lifetime.
- is easy to use. Cooking is an everyday activity and therefore all tools involved should not require doing extra rounds.
- heats up evenly. The entire pan surface gets hot and not only certain parts.
- is able to brown the ingredients. When I put stuff in a pan I usually want to achieve some kind of browning. A high heat capacity helps here.
- has non-stick properties.
When you are looking for a new pan, those are usually the options in order of popularity:
- aluminium with some kind of high-tech coating like Teflon
- stainless steel
- cast iron
- carbon steel
Aluminium is lightweight. Therefore, pans made out of this material are very easy to handle. However, lightweight also translates to an overall low heat capacity. Do you know this sizzling sound when putting stuff in the pan? This is where you want to be with a high quality pan. You will hardly have this with aluminium. The biggest selling point of Teflon pans is their non-stick coating. However, besides the desired non-stick property, there is a big negative side effect: Teflon has low heat conductivity. Therefore, the browning you can achieve with a Teflon pan is very limited.
The worst part of Teflon pans is their durability. As your daily driver, such a pan will loose its non-stick properties within a year even when being considerate through e.g. only using wooden or plastic spatulas. With the coating gone, most of the pans end up being trashed soon. On top of that, the Teflon will at least partially end up in your food and therefore your body.
Overall, in my opinion, Teflon pans are a big marketing hoax. Who really profits from them are the companies producing them: They can sell a new pan every three years. It’s a pity that so many of us (including the younger me) where so convinced that we take Teflon pans as the “ideal” pan for such a long time.
Although I think stainless steel and cast iron are both good options, my personal favorite is carbon steel. The heat conductivity is better than stainless steel. Therefore, the pan heats up quickly and evenly. The pan stays hot even when throwing in cold ingredients due to its high heat capacity. The material thickness is usually thinner than cast iron as the material is less brittle. This translates to better maneuverability as carbon steel pans are lighter.
Carbon steel is also cheaper than stainless steel. It is a material which was already widely available 100 years ago. It is the traditional material for Chinese woks. The metal builds up a natural non-stick property with each use. More to this in the second section of this post.
The combination of all these properties results in great durability. It is a very liberating feeling being able to scratch around inside the pan without worrying about destroying it. A disadvantage compared to stainless steel is that carbon steel rusts. This can be easily prevented by correct usage though.
Using Carbon Steel
Carbon steel builds up a natural non-stick property. This is achieved by polymerization of the cooking oil through heat which then sticks to the surface.
Before using the pan for the first time, you need to create the first solid layer of non-stick coating. This process is called seasoning. I used the following method:
Apply a thin layer of flaxseed oil all over the pan. Use some kind of wipe to do this. Then, heat up your oven to maximum temperature, put the pan inside for 30 minutes (upside down so any excess oil can run off). Afterwards, the steel should have a considerably darker color.
That’s it. You can repeat the process although it is not necessary in my opinion if you follow the advice below in your daily cooking sessions.
There are a couple of rules to follow if you want to have a great everyday cooking experience with your carbon steel pan.
1. Use enough oil
Without oil, things will stick and burn. There should be a thin layer covering the pan bottom.
2. Heat up the pan before putting anything inside
The oil should be hot, ideally just before smoking. This prevents food from sticking because:
a) It acts like on the spot seasoning. The hot oil will polymerize on any yet non-coated part of the pan.
b) If the frying process already starts, then the food does not even touch the hot metal and cannot stick.
c) The viscosity of oil is much lower when being hot. This makes it so much easier to have a thin oil layer everywhere in the pan. I usually swirl around the pan right before throwing anything inside.
Using a hot pan is not only beneficial with carbon steel. It is recommended for any pan you are using, as it will prevent your ingredients from soaking up the oil.
3. Use a metal spatula
If you want to have a good non-stick property with carbon steel it is important to have a smooth pan surface. If there are burned spots scratch them off. This is much easier with a metal spatula.
So many of us including me have grown up with the constant nagging fear of destroying a coating while using a pan. With carbon steel that is history. Feel free to scratch around with the spatula. No need to worry. If worst comes to worst you can take a steel sponge and rub any stains off.
4. Have a cleaning routine
Carbon steel needs to be treated a little differently then your usual cookware as it can rust. To prevent rust, a small protective layer of oil should be present on the steel.
I use the following routine:
Wash the pan hot. If something did stick to the pan for some reason, it is easier to clean while still being hot. I usually put a little bit of warm water inside and use a brush to remove any excess food and oil. Warm water dissolves oil better and does not represent such a temperature shock to the steel. Use the metal spatula for harder residuals. After using the brush, I simply wipe the pan dry with a special towel which I only use for the carbon steel pans. Why? As I don’t use soap, there will always still be some oil around. That quickly makes the towel greasy which is actually a good thing. Besides drying the pan, the special towel will leave behind a thin layer of oil.
It is a false assumption that soap destroys the coating. The patina does easily withstand soap. However, soap will remove all excess oil. This is not what we want as we need that thin layer of protective oil. Therefore, don’t use soap.
That’s it. No applying oil after drying the pan, no putting the pan back on the stove to dry it. I want a simple process and this one does it for me.