Carbon steel pans are what the pros use. They boast great heat retention, cook everything evenly, and can be nonstick when you season them properly. That's why they're great for stir fries and searing meat. They can be even better than cast iron pans and skillets.
If you’ve gotten yourself this type of cookware, congratulations! Your home cooking will be way better from now on. But you probably have some questions too, right? Today, let’s go over how to clean carbon steel pan sets—as easily and hassle-free as possible. If you're familiar with cast iron cookware, you may already guess what's coming...
Step 1: Wipe Off Food Residue
The first thing you’ll do after using your carbon steel pan is scrape off any food residue. You shouldn’t have a hard time doing this. After all, a seasoned carbon steel pan should be nonstick and prevent food from burning to the bottom. Thus, if you notice your pan is no longer as nonstick as before, it’s probably time to season it again.
Either way, try to wipe away the food bits gently. Use a cleaning brush that has softer bristles. Being too aggressive with your carbon steel pan is going to ruin the seasoning, so go gentle. If you have a brush that works well for your cast iron pans, use that one.
Step 2: Let Cool
Now, let your seasoned carbon steel pan sit on your kitchen counter or on top of the stove. Letting it cool will help you clean it properly in the next step. Just remember to never, ever soak your pan—no matter how much food there is stuck to the cooking surface of the pan. We’ll get into the why in a moment.
Step 3: Scrub and Rinse with Warm Water
The third step is to scrub the pan clean using a sponge and warm water. Since sponges are typically softer than bristle brushes, you can apply a lot more pressure to make sure you’re removing all the leftover food bits. But keep in mind that seasoned carbon steel pans are still more vulnerable to deteriorating than stainless steel, so keep that in mind!
Remove Stuck-On Food Particles
If there is still stubborn food residue in your seasoned carbon steel cookware, it’s time to get out the big guns. Grab a lot of kosher salt and sprinkle it generously on the bottom of the pan. Then, with a steel wool pad (or scouring pad), scrub vigorously. This will remove the most stuck-on food bits. Because it may also damage the seasoning layers, it’s wise to double-check if your pan is now up for another seasoning.
You can also get rid of small swaths of rust using the kosher-salt-and-steel-wool-pad method I described above. But if your pan is really, really rusted, it will need some extra help.
Fortunately, the Daring Kitchen already has an article on cleaning a rusty cast iron skillet. The process is the exact same, so you can follow it with total confidence!
Step 4: Let Air Dry, or Give It a Hand
Letting your carbon steel pan air dry is extremely important. Carbon steel, water, and humidity just don’t mix—unless you like having rusty pans.
If it’s hot in your home, you can simply let the pan air dry on the dish rack or pat it dry with a paper towel. All the water and moisture should dissipate quickly.
But if your home is a bit on the chillier side, you can speed up the drying process. Set your clean carbon steel pan on the stovetop and turn up the medium-heat. Let your carbon steel pan sit like that for a while, until you see it’s completely bone dry. Then, let it cool to room temperature and store it.
If you're used to caring for cast iron cookware, the process is the same.
Step 5: Apply a Light Oil Layer
It’s also good to apply a light oil layer to the pan every time you wash it. Apply one to two tablespoons of a high-smoke-point cooking oil (such as coconut oil or vegetable oil) to a paper towel. A small amount is all you need. Then, rub the paper towel all over the dry carbon steel pan. Don’t forget to coat the underside, handle, and cooking surface of the pan.
This will provide yet another layer of protection against moisture in the air. If you never skip this step, you’re much less likely to have a rusty carbon steel pan to deal with.
The Don’ts of Cleaning a Carbon Steel Pan
See how easy that was? Cleaning a carbon steel pan isn’t as hard as everyone makes it out to be. It just takes a bit of learning—and avoiding a few common mistakes, which is what we’re listing here.
Don’t: Soak It in Warm Water
You should never, ever, ever soak anything made of carbon steel. Whether that’s a sheet pan, a pot, or a pan, carbon steel shouldn’t be in contact with a lot of water. Otherwise, it will start rusting pretty quickly. Especially if the seasoning layer is wearing off.
Pro tip: the same goes for a cast iron pan and skillet.
Don’t: Use Abrasive Brushes
You should also avoid using very coarse and abrasive brushes. Those will scrape off the layers of vegetable oil that you built up during the seasoning process. As I’ve mentioned earlier, no seasoning = rusting. Same thing with cast iron pans and skillets. Carbon steel is a lot like cast iron when it comes to cleaning.
The only time you can use these brushes is if you’re trying to redo a bad seasoning job. And that’s only if you’re going to do it right after washing the pan.
Don’t: Use Dish Soap
Using dish soap on your carbon steel pan (and cast iron skillet, too, for that matter) is a huge no-no. Soap is great at removing food grease—which we want when we’re cleaning a dirty stainless steel pan. But it’s also great at removing the seasoning layer entirely—after all, the seasoning is just layers upon layers of fat.
Resist the temptation to reach for the dish soap and use a steel wool pad and hot water instead. It does a great job at removing food bits and won’t damage your carbon steel cooking utensils.
Don’t: Store When Wet
Again, storing your carbon steel pans while they're still wet will lead to rusting quickly. Are you seeing a trend on this “things not to do” list?
Make sure your carbon steel pans (and cast iron, too) are completely dry before putting it away. When in doubt, pat it dry with paper towels or a microfiber dish towel.