Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Carbon Steel Pans

My workhorse skillet has been a traditional 12" nonstick. But with almost daily usage, I find that they last about one to two years and then they need to be replaced. The nonstick components begin to die off. Scratches and other damage begin to take their toll. There always comes a day when you realize that this pan is done and it's time to order a replacement.

While nonstick skillets are convenient, they are treated with the chemical polytetraflouroethylene (PTFE). This surface, while nonstick, is prone to scratching and erosion over time. Plus you have all of the chemicals, perhaps, leaching into your food.

Cast iron is an excellent alternative that will last a lifetime. When well-seasoned, it can offer a similar nonstick experience. But they are heavy and have more responsibilities in the cleaning and maintaining end of things.

So enter, carbon steel pans. I was reading this article (limited access without a subscription) in a recent edition of Milk Street magazine and it introduced me to carbon steel pans. I've peered into enough restaurant kitchens to know that the stack of pans from which cooks draw from are their workhorse--carbon steel pans.

The article, entitled "Toss Out Your Nonstick Skillet," made the case for using a well-seasoned carbon steel pan instead of nonstick. The article and the video below say that carbon steel can offer a similar experience to PTFE nonstick but it will last a lifetime and skips the chemicals.

So based on the article, the video, and other research, I decided to start with Mafter Bourgeat 11 7/8" pan. Here it is as delivered to me from the factory.

Carbon steel pans need to be seasoned before use. The seasoning process helps to build a natural nonstick patina. From the factory, the skillet will be a metal silver color but the goal is, over time, to get it a brownish-black color. Seasoning directions as provided by the manufacturer (reworded):

  1. Wash the pan in hot water with a mild detergent, using a bristle brush, if necessary (as you can briefly see in the above video), to remove factory protective coating. Be sure to get both sides of the pan.
  2. Dry the pan thoroughly.
  3. Over medium to medium high heat, add 1/3 cup vegetable oil (I used canola), 2/3 cup salt, and the skins of 2 potatoes (I used russets).
  4. Sauté, continually swirling the contents around entire pan (including side), for 15 minutes.
  5. After 15 minutes, let the pan cool slightly. Then discard the contents and rinse in hot water (to minimize temperature shock--but still be careful with this step). 
  6. Repeat steps 2-5 with another round of seasoning. 
  7. Let pan cool thoroughly (I did about 30 minutes). 
  8. Rinse the pan under hot water removing all of seasoning ingredients. Dry completely with a towel.
  9. Reheat the pan with a little oil
At around 10 minutes during round one, I noticed that pan began to darken. I don't think you need to be too religious about the 15 minutes, as I was. You can probably do a little longer without any negative impact. Remember that it will continue to darken with ongoing usage, eventually turning black.

Here's the pan after the double-session seasoning.

Like cast-iron, carbon steel pans should never be washed with detergent. Hot water and a gentle brush should be all that is used. Also like cast iron, water/rust is the enemy that can ruin the pan. After the soap free cleaning never air dry these pans. Dry thoroughly and do a quick season with a bit of oil before putting it away.

My pan's maiden voyage was with shrimp and yellow onion. I found the pan to be very nonstick even on its first use. The heavy seasoning that I used created some areas of blackening which I thought would be difficult to clean, but hot water and gentle brush got the pan very clean.

I look forward to continuing to try it out and watching it darken over time--improving the nonstick qualities.

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