We Tested 13 Carbon Steel Pans—Three Stood Out

Our favorites skillets were from Mauviel, Vollrath, and CruxxGG.

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lineup of carbon steel skillets on a white surface

Serious Eats / Taylor Murray

Straight to the Point

Our favorite carbon steel skillet was from Mauviel. This lightweight pan released foods easily and was a pleasure to use. We also liked this model from Vollrath, which was a tad cheaper. Finally, if you're looking for a stellar pre-seasoned carbon steel skillet, we recommend the CRUXGG Seasoned Blue Steel Fry Pan, which easily released everything we made in it.

If you haven't considered buying a carbon steel skillet, this is your sign: carbon steel is like a cousin to cast iron and well worth a place in your kitchen (you'll find them aplenty in the professional culinary world), with a caveat.

Made of a mixture of carbon and iron, these pans are similar to cast iron, but are thinner, lighter, and more responsive to changes in temperature. Like cast iron, most carbon steel skillets have to be seasoned before they can fully realize their natural nonstick capabilities (though some are sold as pre-seasoned and it's worth noting that, either way, carbon steel—like cast iron—will never be Teflon-level nonstick). Carbon steel pans can also be used on gas, electric, or induction cooktops (or even an open fire, if that’s your thing).

Another major draw of carbon steel skillets is their durability; these pans can withstand super-high temperatures for hours, and can transfer seamlessly from oven to stovetop. The only thing carbon steel pans can’t do is handle acidic sauces for long periods of time, as this will eat away at their seasoning (same as cast iron). And while we go more into the differences between carbon steel and cast iron pans here, the main takeaway is that carbon steel pans have sloped, flared sides, which make them better suited to sautéing ("if you want to launch something skyward, you need to send it off a sloping ramp, not crash it into a wall," as senior culinary director Daniel Gritzer explained). Cast iron, on the other hand, has straight, vertical sides, which makes it ideal for shallow-frying and baking things like cornbread and pan pizza.

What is the carbon steel caveat we alluded to, then? As Daniel said: "if you already own plenty of cast iron, I wouldn't try to convince you that you must also invest in carbon steel." That's because, in most cases, the pans are pretty interchangeable. However, as Daniel also pointed out, "if you're still building your cookware collection, or if you enjoy compulsively buying kitchen gear whether you need it or not like I do, it's worth considering some carbon steel pieces."

So, consider we will! To find the best carbon steel pans, we tested 13 popular skillets at a variety of price points.

The Winners, at a Glance

The Best Carbon Steel Pan: Mauviel M'Steel Carbon Nonstick Fry Pan, 11 Inch

Mauviel Mauviel M'Steel Black Carbon Natural Nonstick Frying Pan With Iron Handle 11-in

Once this pan was thoroughly seasoned, it passed our tests with flying colors. The wide, open surface area was easily able to accommodate a good amount of vegetables, and it made a perfect tarte tatin. 

The Best Budget-Friendly Carbon Steel Pan: Vollrath French Style Carbon Steel Fry Pan

Vollrath 58920 French Style 11" Carbon Steel Fry Pan

Lighter than the Mauviel (and almost half the price), Vollrath carbon steel pans are often the go-to choice for professional chefs and restaurants, and for good reason. In our tests, we found the Vollrath heated up fast and distributed heat evenly.

The Best Pre-Seasoned Carbon Steel Pan: CRUXGG Seasoned Blue Steel Fry Pan

CRUXGG Seasoned Blue Steel Fry Pan

This carbon steel pan comes perfectly seasoned right out of the box, which makes it a great option for those a little intimidated by seasoning carbon steel. This pan released foods easily in every test, producing nicely cooked fried eggs and delicate, lacy crepes.

The Tests

onion tarte tatin made in one of the skillets.

Serious Eats / Taylor Murray

  • Seasoning (Pre-Test): Before we began testing, we first seasoned the skillets that came unseasoned. This involved heating the pans over high heat and applying oil. As the oil becomes hot, it undergoes a process known as polymerization, which creates a nonstick “seasoning” or coating. Read more on this process here.
  • Over-Easy Egg Test: After completely seasoning all of the unseasoned pans, we heated each pan for one minute and added an even layer of neutral cooking oil. Then, we cracked two large eggs into each pan. After two minutes, we flipped the eggs and let them cook for another 10 seconds. 
  • Crepe Test: To examine heat distribution, we made a few batches of our classic crepe recipe. We heated each pan for two minutes, then added a bit of neutral oil and wiped out the excess with a paper towel. We then added 1/4 cup of batter to the center and immediately swirled the pan to try to get the batter as thin as possible, and cover as much surface area as we could. Once the top began to look dry, we flipped the crepe with a spatula and observed if it was cooked evenly and if it stuck to the pan. 
  • Seared Chicken Test (Winners-Only): We coated each pan in a thin, even layer of cooking oil and seared a single, 6-ounce boneless, skinless chicken breast (cut in half horizontally). We heated the pan for exactly two minutes before adding the chicken and cooking each breast for four minutes per side. We evaluated the chicken to determine how evenly it cooked and if it stuck and examined browning.
  • Sautéed Broccoli Test (Winners-Only): We heated each winning pan over medium heat for two minutes, then added two tablespoons of cooking oil and cooked two cups of broccoli florets to determine how easy (or difficult) it was to stir with a wooden spoon, as well as to flip the broccoli by shaking the pan.
  • Onion Tarte Tatin Test (Winners-Only): To truly determine how nonstick the surface could become, we tested each pan with our onion tarte tatin recipe. Once the pastry was done, we flipped it out to evaluate the end result.
  • Usability and Cleanup Tests: During each test, we considered how comfortable the pan was to grip and move, if we were able to easily maneuver a spatula into the pan, and how easy the pan was to clean.

What We Learned

Thorough Seasoning Took Time

fried eggs in a carbon steel skillet on a marble countertop
Thorough seasoning was essential to getting the skillets to their full nonstick potential.

Serious Eats / Taylor Murray

Even after completely seasoning each of the unseasoned pans, none of them were able to cook over-easy eggs without sticking. This isn’t exactly unexpected, and seasoning will continue to build up over time. The first couple things you cook in the pan should ideally be something fatty (i.e. pan-frying, searing steaks). Every time you cook with fat, you'll add seasoning (this is true for cast iron, too).

After we finished testing, we tried cooking more over-easy eggs in our winning pans and were pleased to see much better results in the form of perfectly cooked eggs (that didn’t stick).

Lighter Was Better

broccoli in a carbon steel skillet
Lightweight pans were easier to maneuver, and made tossing vegetables effortless.

Serious Eats / Taylor Murray

We preferred pans on the lighter side, which allowed them to heat up faster and made it easier to move them in and out of the oven, as well as to swirl crepe batter around.

A lightweight pan is also the secret of the bit of culinary magic, where one uses a flick of the wrist to send vegetables careening up the edge of the pan and back onto themselves. If the pan is too heavy, it becomes impossible to sauté with one hand. Some pans were so heavy, they required two hands to lift, which would make tasks like sautéing vegetables and swirling batter pretty tough. In general, we found that pans under three pounds, three ounces were the easiest to lift, even when full of food.

Pre-Seasoned Pans Were a Welcome Convenience

Almost all of the pre-seasoned pans produced perfect over-easy eggs and delightfully thin crepes that released without issue (with the exception of the Made In, which probably needed more seasoning despite its “pre-seasoned” claim). 

When it came to making the crepes, some of the pre-seasoned pans were almost too nonstick—you need a certain amount of batter to stick to the center so you can swirl the excess batter to the edges of the pan. But while this was a flaw for some pans in crepe testing, we don’t think it’s a dealbreaker overall.

So, while we ultimately still prefer building seasoning up ourselves (as the long-term durability of manufacturers' coatings is unknown), we do think a pre-seasoned carbon steel skillet is likely a welcome, worthwhile convenience for those intimidated by seasoning the cookware.

Medium Length Handles with Rounded Edges Were Preferable

a closeup image of the rounded handle on the Mauviel pan
We preferred handles that were rounded at the end; they were more comfortable to grip than squared-off ones.

Serious Eats / Taylor Murray

Most carbon steel pans have very similar handles—often an angled, 1-inch-wide bar of steel—which you can grip with a kitchen towel or oven mitt when maneuvering the pan. We preferred handles with rounded edges over ones with sharp, right angles in terms of comfort. The length can vary, but a good middle ground is between seven and 9 inches long. Too short and your hand ends up too close to the flame and too long and it becomes awkward to handle. 

The Criteria: What to Look for in a Carbon Steel Skillet

a seriously good carbon steel skillet: lightweight, sloped edges, rounded handle, 2-inch deep sides.

Serious Eats / Taylor Murray / Grace Kelly

The differences between unseasoned carbon steel and pre-seasoned carbon steel are vast. Pre-seasoned pans should be completely nonstick right out of the box, easily releasing sticky eggs and delicate fish. Unseasoned carbon steel is all pretty equal once properly seasoned, and we found little difference in the quality of the results between cheap pans and more expensive models (we actually saw quite poor results in the most expensive pans).

In either style, lighter weight is definitely better—we tended to prefer pans that were three pounds, three ounces or less. Lighter pans heated up faster and were much easier to lift and maneuver. 

We also preferred pans with wide, sloping edges that were at least two inches high. Any shorter, and vegetables went flying when we tried to stir or sauté. 

The Best Carbon Steel Pan: Mauviel M'Steel Carbon Nonstick Fry Pan, 11 Inch

Mauviel Mauviel M'Steel Black Carbon Natural Nonstick Frying Pan With Iron Handle 11-in

What we liked: The Mauviel pan did well in all our tests (excluding the initial egg test, but it quickly recovered after gaining some seasoning through use). It features a wide, open surface area that allows for cooking a solid amount of vegetables without crowding. It had a handle with more rounded edges that we found comfortable to hold.

What we didnt like: This pan was just a touch on the heavy side when it came to swirling and flipping. We also noted some sticking during the tarte tatin test, but this could have been due to the acidity in the onion filling. 

Price at time of publish: $70.

Key Specs

  • Weight: 3 lbs, 3 ounces
  • Cooking surface diameter: 8 1/2 inches
  • Care: Hand wash-only
  • Induction compatible: Yes
mauviel carbon steel skillet on a white surface

Serious Eats / Taylor Murray

The Best Budget-Friendly Carbon Steel Pan: Vollrath French Style Carbon Steel Fry Pan

Vollrath 58920 French Style 11" Carbon Steel Fry Pan

What we liked: This brand is a favorite among restaurant chefs. While this pan doesn’t come with special features or fancy accessories, it is still a solid option that performs just as well (if not better) than many of the other pans, but for a fraction of the price. It was the lightest pan of any that we tested, and it heated up faster and was easier to lift, flip, and saute with. This pan also produced evenly-cooked results, including thin, lacy crepes and flaky tarte tatin.

What we didnt like: The 11-inch model has a handle that’s almost 9 inches long, which we found cumbersome.

Price at time of publish: $38. 

Key Specs

  • Weight: 2 lbs, 6 ounces
  • Cooking surface diameter: 7 5/8 inches
  • Care: Hand wash only
  • Induction compatible: Yes
Vollrath carbon steel skillet on white surface

Serious Eats / Taylor Murray

The Best Pre-Seasoned Carbon Steel Pan: CRUXGG Seasoned Blue Steel Fry Pan

CRUXGG Seasoned Blue Steel Fry Pan

What we liked: While all the pre-seasoned pans released crepes easily, only the CRUXGG had just the right amount of surface texture to grip the crepe batter enough so we could swirl it to the edges. Of all the pans, this model had one of the most comfortable handles to hold due to its rounded edges.

What we didnt like: The long-term durability of the manufacturer’s coating is unknown. It’s also a tad pricier than our other winners. 

Price at time of publish: $80.

Key Specs

  • Weight: 3 lbs, 1 ounce
  • Cooking surface diameter: 7 3/4 inches
  • Care: Hand wash only
  • Induction compatible: Yes
cruxxgg carbon steel skillet on a white surface

Serious Eats / Taylor Murray

The Competition

FAQs

What should a carbon steel skillet be used for?

A carbon steel skillet can be used for everything from sautéed vegetables to seared meat to baked items like cornbread or fruit crumble. The only thing you shouldn’t cook in one is a long-simmered, acidic sauce, which can eat away at the seasoning.

How do I season a carbon steel skillet?

We have a pretty in-depth guide to seasoning carbon steel. Though the process might seem daunting, it really is as simple as heating the metal as hot as it will go, and burning oil onto it. This can be done by rubbing a small amount of oil onto the pan while it is as hot as it can be and letting the oil burn off. The process usually takes several rounds to build up a coating.

How do I clean a carbon steel skillet?

Once the seasoning has built up, cleaning a carbon steel skillet can be as easy as wiping it with a paper towel. A little residual fat or oil in the pan is good and will provide a barrier from rust. If more cleanup is needed, some hot water and a scrub brush should do fine, just make sure to thoroughly dry and oil the pan after to avoid rust. (Tip: after cleaning, place the pan on a burner to evaporate any leftover water, then rub with a little oil.)

Can you cook acidic sauces in carbon steel? 

A small amount of acid (like lemon juice or vinegar or a pan sauce) for a short amount of time shouldn’t be troublesome, but acidic foods simmered in carbon steel for a lengthier amount of time will eventually eat away at the seasoning.

What are the benefits of carbon steel? 

The benefits of carbon steel include responsiveness to temperature changes, a lightweight and easy to handle design, a seasoning that improves with use, and long-lasting durability.

What are the downsides of carbon steel skillets?

The main downside to carbon steel skillets is the initial process of seasoning, which can seem overwhelming and time-consuming (although, really, it's not hard!).

Can I re-season a carbon steel skillet?

If a little rust appears on your carbon steel skillet, don’t panic! Simple buff away the rust with a dry sponge and repeat the seasoning process. The rust will disappear like magic.

What is a pre-seasoned carbon steel skillet? 

A pre-seasoned carbon steel skillet is simply a carbon steel skillet that has had a layer of seasoning applied by the manufacturer.

What’s the difference between carbon steel and cast iron?

Cast iron is made from a single piece of molten iron poured into a mold, which means no rivets to trap food particles. These molds are often made from sand, which contributes to the pebbled coating many cast iron pans have. Carbon steel is made from a thinner stamped piece of smooth steel with handles fastened to the pan using rivets or welding. Both types of pan need to be seasoned and a capable of handling high temperatures.