Carbon steel is a chef favorite for good reason. Look in the kitchen of just about any restaurant and you're sure to find chefs cooking with carbon steel pans, but never cast iron. Its nonstick qualities far exceed that of cast iron and holds its heat much better than stainless.
My Chef's pick for the best overall carbon steel pan is the Matfer Bourgeat 11-inch Pan. It is superb for searing and sautéeing and is the best performance you'll get for the price. The main disadvantage is the low angled sides, which improve maneuverability for flipping and tossing, but make it less suitable for foods that are prone to splashing or splattering.
|Mauviel||De Buyer||Matfer Bourgeat||Lodge|
|Diameter||11 inches||10.2 inches||11 inches||10 inches|
|Nonstick Seasoning||✔ Excellent||✔ Excellent||✔ Excellent||✖ Poor|
|Maneuverability||Good||Good||✔ Excellent||✔ Excellent|
|Heat Retention||✔ Excellent||✔ Excellent||✔ Excellent||✖ Poor|
|Best Features||High sides||Easy to season||Easy to flip||Very light|
Mauviel, DeBuyer, and Matfer ultimately have very similar performance, and the choice of which to buy comes down to what you need.
If you need higher sides for pastas or sauces, buy Mauviel's M'steel frying pan. You'll get the same performance at a slightly higher cost for a more versatile pan.
For a larger 12.5-inch pan, I recommend the more expensive De Buyer Mineral B fry 12.5-inch pan.
If you have an electric stove, be sure to buy a pan with 3mm thickness or greater. Electric stoves do not heat as quickly as gas, so the extra material in a 3mm pan will retain more heat when you put something cool onto the surface.
Despite the low cost, I cannot recommend a Lodge pan for carbon steel. Lodge is a late-comer to the carbon steel market and produces a low-quality product. The rough surface similar to their cast iron makes it difficult to get a good non-stick seasoning. It takes months to achieve a smooth surface unlike other pans, which achieve a smooth, glossy non-stick seasoning after only a few uses. The product feels very light; even the 12-inch pan is lighter than the 10.2-inch DeBuyer. There is very little heat retention ability.
Carbon steel has mostly fallen out of favor by home cooks, but is still the number one choice of professional chefs working in restaurant kitchens.
The only class of pan that beats carbon steel is copper, but you're looking at a several hundred dollar price jump. A Mauviel 2.5mm copper fry pan will set you back $200. And the cooking surface is stainless steel, so you don't even get the benefits of a non-stick surface.
Granted, carbon steel doesn't look pretty like copper or the shiny stainless steel pans glistening in upscale kitchen stores. It is an industrial material and takes some work to maintain. But cast iron has made a huge resurgence in recent years and if you like cast iron, you'll love carbon steel.
Carbon steel requires a seasoning step just like cast iron, but it develops a completely non-stick seasoning after only a few uses rather than weeks or months. Despite their lighter weight, they still hold heat quite well, allowing you to flip and toss your food—something you could never do with a large cast iron skillet. If you're willing to maintain the seasoning, it will last you a lifetime.
Most pans will come with a wax coating to prevent rust. Once you buy a carbon steel pan, you will need to scrub this coating off under hot water with a scouring pad. Dry off the pan and set your burner to its highest setting.
Canola oil is one of the better oils for seasoning that's readily available, but vegetable oil will do. Rub the thinnest layer of oil you possibly can on the pan—I mean thin. Wipe it down with a paper towel to make sure there is no excess since it will build up and become sticky.
Heat the pan on high heat until the oil begins to smoke and keep it there for another 30 seconds or so (hopefully you have a good hood). Turn off the heat, let the pan cool to room temperature, and repeat at least 6 times. The pan should begin to darken from silver when new to brown to black.
If this is your first carbon steel pan and aren't sure which to get, buy the Matfer Bourgeat 11-inch Pan. I think you'll really be impressed with the versatility for a non-stick pan.