Seasoning a Carbon Steel Skillet

There is a reason I run screaming from the timeshare sales people. You know: the companies that offer you a free week at a resort and all you have to do is attend a one hour sales pitch to buy into a timeshare. I’m a Star Wars storm trooper at the hands of a Jedi master: “This is the pan you are looking for.”

A few years ago Carla and I were preparing for a trip to New Zealand and Australia (it was the first of 3 international trips we didn’t get to take, but that’s another story) and attended a lecture by a travel expert. She travels around Europe a month at a time taking only a carry-on bag. We went in steeled – or so we thought – against buying anything. Well, she was a great salesperson. As various packing and traveling items were passed around Carla and I would look at the item, then at each other and confirm that we would have to be stupid not to buy whatever it was we were holding. We bought some stuff. Really, it was all equipment – including a couple of nice suitcases – that makes our travel easier and better. But still, get me near a salesperson – or really almost anyone with a good thing to say about something – and my resistance collapses like a cheap card table.

What does that have to do with a carbon steel skillet? Last week, a friend of ours, Karen, texted me to ask what I thought about a specific carbon steel skillet her son-in-law had his eye on for Christmas. I read a few reviews, then watched a few YouTube videos and got obsessed with the subject. I told Karen that the skillet her SIL was looking at was a good one. Then I kept watching videos. I developed a man crush on Uncle Scott of Uncle Scott’s Kitchen who has a lot of content on carbon steel pans. So I bought one: a Matfer Bourgeat 11 7/8- inch skillet.

Brand new Matfer Bourgeat carbon steel skillet

Carbon steel is similar to cast iron, but lighter and more versatile. It is bare steel, so needs to be treated similar to cast iron. Unlike most cast iron skillets, the carbon steel pans come unseasoned and will rust as soon as the factory coating is scrubbed off. Also unlike cast iron, when properly seasoned carbon steel is non-stick.

Truth be told, I bought one a few years ago but gave up on it pretty quickly. Watching the videos I realized I had no idea what I was doing: I didn’t clean that factory coating off properly at the beginning and didn’t season it well. Uncle Scott showed me the error of my ways.

The three big names in carbon steel pans are from France and Germany: Matfer Bourgeat, De Buyer, and Mauviel. The factory sealing for one or two of them is beeswax which is easy to take off; just take it outside and pour very hot water over it and scrub it off. The Matfer has some other type of coating – I haven’t found what it is – but many people have reported it is extremely difficult to get it off – like an hour of scrubbing difficult. On Reddit I read a solution where you clean it with isopropyl alcohol.

I had an expired – who knew isopropyl alcohol has expiration dates – quart of the alcohol in the bathroom so I headed outside, put it on a work table and poured in the alcohol. Before the recommended 10 minutes were up, I could see the sealant coming up.

Isopropyl alcohol reacting with the skillet sealant.

Cleaning the inside was a breeze. I couldn’t soak the outside, but turned it over and used a scrubbing sponge dipped in the alcohol. I had a bucket underneath to capture the runoff. Here you can see the sealant coming off.

Removing sealant from the Matfer Bourgeat skillet

Within 20 minutes I got almost all of the nooks and crannies clean.

Matfer Bourgeat skillet stripped of its factory sealant

There was still a bit of crud where the bottom becomes the side, so I finished cleaning with hot soapy water in the kitchen.

A very clean, unseasoned carbon steel skillet

Rust will start to develop immediately so it needs to be dried and seasoned with oil. There are two methods people use to season their skillets: on the stove top or in the oven. Uncle Scott, and Matfer Bourgeat likes the stovetop method if you have a gas stove. Electric and induction stovetops don’t heat as evenly so Uncle Scott shows how to use the oven.

In addition to being an easy mark for sales, when I first try a recipe I follow the recipe as closely as I can. To apply the oil seal on the pan, I sautéd ⅓-cup of oil, ⅔-cup of kosher salt and the peels of two potatoes. I constantly stirred the mixture.

Seasoning a carbon steel skillet with oil, salt, and potato peels

The instructions call for doing this for 15 minutes. So I kept stirring. The salt turned into sludge and the potato skins are crispy. The pan is starting to build a nice patina.

There I was, watching the skillet with one eye on the 15-minute timer. Um, I should have looked up. Carla came into the house and “what on earth are you doing?” I looked up and across the room and the whole kitchen and family room was bathed in a fog of smoke. I was a bit worried that the smoke detector didn’t go off. Taking a fresh look at the sauté I realized I may have taken things a bit too far.

Burned potato peels and salt in the carbon steel skillet.

On the plus side, look at that beautiful dark patina on the skillet.

I grew up in Palmdale, California where fighter jets such as the F-104 Star Fighter, and passenger jets – such as the Lockheed L-1011 – were built and flight tested. On December 29, 1972 an L-1011 commercial flight crashed in the Florida Everglades. A red alarm light was going off indicating a problem with the landing gear. The black box revealed that the pilot, co-pilot, and navigator were all so involved in trying to figure out the light bulb issue, they crashed the plane, killing 101 people. The audio playback from the black box revealed other alarms going off and an automated voice giving warnings about losing altitude. This story has stuck with me, and as a manager I felt that one of my primary responsibilities was to make sure we kept an eye on the big picture and not the flashing light. I should have taken my advice here and noticed the smoke.

I really didn’t need to cook things down to that degree. Ten minutes would have been fine. Thank goodness it wasn’t a freezing cold day; we opened every door and window and the smoke eventually cleared. I was embarrassed.

The instructions call for repeating the process – but I was smarter the second time and stopped well short of burning. Like I said, the pan turned out beautifully seasnoned.

Beautifully seasoned Matfer Bourgeat carbon steel skillet

Looks are one thing; but could it pass the fried egg test? If I seasoned it correctly, I should be able to fry an egg in a little bit of butter and slide it around on the pan like a puck on an air hockey table. I had Carla film the cooking and here is my second ever video on my blog. The sound is terrible because the cook top exhaust fan was still roaring away to clear the smoke. And we should have filmed in landscape mode, not portrait mode.

Performing the fried egg test on a nicely seasoned carbon steel skillet

Spoiler alert: it worked!

Perfectly fried egg from the carbon steel skillet

That was all the day before Thanksgiving. I wanted to get it all done before the big cooking day. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I am not a fan of turkey – alive, dead, or cooked. So, I made Samin Nosrat’s (see the TV series and read the book Salt, Fat, Acid Heat) buttermilk roasted chicken. Search for “Samin Nosrat” and this is probably the first entry you’ll see. She is a fantastic cook and human; if you look at the auto-complete when you Google “Samin”, you’ll see a popular search “Is Samin Nosrat married?” This is one of the dishes I’ve given 5 stars to. You can read my blog post here.

Taking a page from Spinal Tap, I turned this dish up to 11: I made gravy from the fat and drippings from the chicken. The pan performed flawlessly. This is a great skillet – and I’m glad I gave it a second chance after being frustrated a few years ago. It’s great for high heat cooking – the chicken cooks at 425°. And I loved making the gravy in the pan afterward. Next week, I’ll be cooking a steak in it.

So, do I recommend someone buying this pan? Most home cooks can manage well with a cheap non-stick skillet and something for high heat cooking. This would fill that second need. Whereas a 12-inch All Clad stainless steel skillet costs over $200, the Matfer Borgeat 11 7/8-inch pan is $54. But those multi-ply stainless steel skillets are fantastic. And cooking down acidic sauces, such as tomato based sauces, may strip some of the seasoning finish from the carbon steel where the stainless steel just scoffs at it. If you are thinking of buying a cast iron or carbon steel, I’d tell you the carbon steel is a bit more versatile. Of course, either will take more upkeep than washing and drying. Treat it right and it will last for decades.

If you have a cooking hobbyist in your life, this would make a great gift. But honestly, if you’ve lived this long without one, you can go on living a full life without one. If you are interested, here is the link to the one I purchased. I am not an Amazon affiliate, meaning I don’t make any money from anything you buy from my product links.

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