What if one pan could do everything the best traditional stainless-steel, cast-iron, and nonstick pans can do—and, in some cases, even do it a little better?
Last Updated Sept. 1, 2022. Appears in America's Test Kitchen TV Season 17: Steak and Veggies
Even if you’ve never heard of a carbon-steel skillet, you’ve almost certainly eaten a meal made in one. Restaurant chefs use these pans for all kinds of tasks, from searing steak to sautéing onions to cooking eggs. French omelet and crêpe pans are made of carbon steel, as are the woks used in Chinese restaurants. Even Julia Child had a few carbon-steel pieces alongside her familiar rows of copper cookware. In European home kitchens, these pans are hugely popular. Somehow, though, despite their prevalence in restaurants, carbon-steel cookware never really caught on with home cooks in the United States. Given their reputation for being as great at browning as they are at keeping delicate foods from sticking, we wondered if it was time that changed.
We bought seven carbon-steel skillets, all as close as possible to our preferred size of 12 inches for a primary skillet, priced from $39.95 to $79.95. For fun we also threw in a $230 hand-forged version made in Seattle, Washington. Bearing in mind carbon steel’s multipurpose promise, we decided on a range of recipes for our testing: frying eggs, turning out cheese omelets, pan-searing steaks, and baking the traditional French upside-down apple dessert known as tarte Tatin, which begins on the stove and moves to the oven. Along the way we’d evaluate the skillets’ shape, weight, handle comfort, and maneuverability. Washing the pans after every test would let us judge how easy they were to clean and maintain. Our key question: Could this one type of pan actually make owning the other skillets we’ve always had in our arsenal—stainless-steel tri-ply, cast-iron, and nonstick—more of an option than a necessity?
The first thing we learned about carbon steel is that, like cast iron, it rusts when it’s bare. It requires seasoning, a process that bonds oil to the pan to not only provide a layer of protection but also start the process of making the pan nonstick. While two of the skillets we ordered came preseasoned, the other six arrived sheathed in sticky beeswax or thick grease to block rust formation in transit. After scrubbing off this temporary coating (which was sometimes easier said than done), we followed each manufacturer’s seasoning instructions. At first we wondered if the need for seasoning might end up being a deal breaker. But we found a favorite seasoning method that is relatively easy.
When we got cooking, we were astonished at how nonstick even the initial seasoning made these pans. Our first test was to fry an egg in a teaspoon of butter. In nearly all of the pans, the egg slipped around like a puck on an air hockey table. Omelets slid out in perfect golden oblongs...
The mission of America’s Test Kitchen Reviews is to find the best equipment and ingredients for the home cook through rigorous, hands-on testing. We stand behind our winners so much that we even put our seal of approval on them.
Lisa is an executive editor for ATK Reviews, cohost of Gear Heads on YouTube, and gadget expert on TV's America's Test Kitchen.