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Most of us are familiar with, or at least have heard of, the mythical powers of the cast iron skillet. Well, gear up for carbon steel.
Carbon steel and cast iron are cousins in the kingpin family of cookware. They both conduct heat efficiently, although carbon steel heats up and cools down faster. While both materials are incredibly durable and will likely outlive their owners, carbon steel is less brittle and therefore does not risk shattering upon dropping, as does cast iron.
They each are made entirely of their composite metals and contain no plastic or rubber, making each material safe for use in the oven as well as on the stove.
Both materials are made solely of naturally occurring materials and do not carry any of the shadowy, strange risks associated with chemically altered cookware. However, this means they do not begin as non-stick pans. For this reason, both cast iron and carbon steel must be seasoned before they become non-stick. Carbon steel has a smoother surface, so it will not take as much time or resource to season.
So, salt and pepper in the pan?
Many people rightly associate the word ‘seasoning’ with the spices used to, well, season food. Seasoning a pan has nothing to do with spices—although hopefully more than a few spices will make their way into the pans sooner than later!
The type of seasoning needed to make carbon steel and cast iron cookware non-stick actually involves infusing the surface of the cookware with a fat-based product, usually some kind of oil. Because cast iron is more porous than carbon steel, it is able to actually absorb the seasoning oils.
Carbon steel, however, has a denser, smoother surface. Therefore, in seasoning such a pan, one is actually creating a fat-based patina on the surface of the pan. This means that while less oil is required to season a carbon steel pan, its seasoned surface is more susceptible to stripping if it contacts soapy water or a brittle, abrasive cleaning tool.
Seasoning a pan is an easy job. For many carbon steel pans, especially the more expensive ones, there will often be a coat of beeswax or other protective greasy layer put on the cooking surface to protect it during shipping. Ironically, you will want to remove this fatty coating before applying—you guessed it—a similar fatty coating. A simple dousing in hot water with the assistance of a gentle scrubbing device should completely remove the coating.
The seasoning process itself is basically just a practice in oiling the pan while it is hot, heating the oil until it turns black and begins smoking, removing excess oils, and allowing the pan to cool. Doing this several times may increase the non-stick properties of your pan.
Alternatively, the pan may be heated and seasoned in a medium-heat oven for an hour, ideally upside down to release excess oil.
Vegetable, canola, motor oil?
OK—maybe not motor oil. What exact kind of oil you use isn’t as important as its general ‘neutrality.’
What the heck is a neutral oil? Thankfully, understanding the answer doesn’t require a Ph.D. in chemistry. Rather than having anything to do with molecular makeup or ion charge or anything heady like that, a neutral oil is simply an oil with a relatively flat (‘neutral’) flavor. These are the oils that are not used on account of their ability to influence overall taste.
There are many available neutral oils—in fact, the majority of popular cooking oils are neutral. Let’s compare a few of the best choices.
Flax stacks up
Many culinary pundits tout the seasoning powers of flaxseed oil. It is considered to be the food-grade counterpart to weatherproof linseed oil—what many carpenters use to condition wooden surfaces against the elements. The science of fat polymerization of flaxseed oil adds up, but that information may not pass the no-PhD test.
When selecting flaxseed oil, you’ll want to make sure it’s 100% flaxseed—no additives, and certainly no additional oils! Also, if the oil you bought doesn’t require refrigeration, you bought the wrong stuff. The omega-3 presence in flaxseed oil makes it go rancid without staying chilled. Organic is best (though perhaps not necessary), as the pure, chemical-free nature of carbon steel is one of its main selling points. No need to compromise that with strange chemicals in the seasoning.
Puritan’s Pride Organic Flaxseed Oil comes in a 16 ounce bottle, and meets all the aforementioned criteria for good flaxseed oil for seasoning carbon steel. Its reasonable price makes it a sure bet!
Canola, the old standby
Canola oil has long been embraced as one of the most versatile cooking oils. It can be used for everything from salad dressings to stir-fries to sautés. Being a neutral oil, it will not infuse a pan with any particular taste, making it a good choice for pan seasoning.
The Spectrum Organic Refined Carrier Cold Pressed 100% Pure Canola Oil offers a safe, organic canola oil at a budget price. The 16 ounce bottle will last a long while. Organic oils are best to use, as they do not come with the risk of harmful contaminants.
Grapeseed oil has been a popular standby in the health industry for decades, owing to its moisturizing qualities, as well as its great use as massage oil. Now, its benefits extend to the seasoning of carbon steel pans. It is a neutral oil and has a high smoke point—this means it will not create quite so much of an eye-watering spectacle when used as a seasoning oil.
Artizen Grapeseed Oil offers a 16 ounce bottle of all-natural, 100% pure grapeseed oil. It is therapeutic-grade, meaning you can rub it into your skin as confidently as you can into your pan.
‘Tis the season for carbon steel pans
Now that you’ve been introduced to the carbon steel pan and the proper oils to season it with, you can ensure a lifetime of quality cookware to be passed on for generations! If you want to get the most for your money, check out these pan sets worth the investment.