How to care for carbon steel and cast iron

How to care for carbon steel and cast iron

Note: I will be mentioning carbon steel in this article, but this guide applies to carbon steel, cast iron, and blue steel as they all have the same basic properties.

There are so many choices when it comes to picking a material for your pan. Stainless steel, cast iron, copper, carbon steel, blue steel, and many forms of nonstick aluminum.

For myself, carbon steel is the ultimate material for general cooking. It has the excellent durability and natural nonstick properties of cast iron without being as heavy, and it still easily maintains an evenly heated cooking surface.

But you probably already know this and have some carbon steel cookware of your own, so you want to know how to best maintain it. The better you maintain your cookware, the better performance you’ll get out of it. Especially with carbon steel, it will gain a non-stick coating over time that will allow you to cook eggs with no sticking.

Fortunately it’s fairly easy. The trick is to never try to clean it too much. Just like cast iron, carbon steel does well when it has gained layers of protective coating on it. It's exciting to see this seasoning build up over time and the performance of your cookware become even better. Of course, the first thing you'll want to do when you get a new piece of carbon steel is to create the initial seasoning layer.

Seasoning your carbon steel

The seasoning process is the most important part of ensuring that your carbon steel gives its best performance and avoids rust. The basic things you will need to season your carbon steel are a high smoke-point oil — I use grape seed oil — and heat. There are two primary techniques, both of them effective.

The stovetop method

  1. Pour a small amount of oil on your carbon steel and use a rag or paper towel to spread it thinly over the entire surface (top and bottom). The important part is that this is a thin layer, as too much oil will leave a sticky coating instead of absorbing into the material.
  2. Set a medium-high flame under your carbon steel and allow it to reach a high enough temperature to begin producing smoke. This should be around 200C/400F.
  3. When you see smoke, continue the heat for 30 seconds and then turn it off. Wipe off the excess oil. You will see that as your carbon steel begins to cool, it will gain a brown patina.
  4. Allow your carbon steel to cool to room temperature, then repeat as many times as you’d like.

The oven method

  1. Preheat your oven to 245C/475F.
  2. Pour a small amount of oil on your carbon steel and use a rag or paper towel to spread it thinly over the entire surface (top and bottom). The important part is that this is a thin layer, as too much oil will leave a sticky coating instead of absorbing into the material.
  3. Once your oven reaches temperature, place your carbon steel onto the center rack. It’s preferable to place it upside-down, but this isn’t necessary if your oil is spread thinly enough.
  4. Set a timer for 10 minutes and take it out sooner than that if you begin to see smell smoke.
  5. Once you remove your carbon steel from the oven, wipe off the excess oil and allow it to cool to room temperature.
  6. Repeat the process as many times as you’d like.

Note that there’s no need to season your carbon steel more than 2 times when first getting it. You’ll see people with carbon steel or cast iron that’s nearly black in color, and that’s completely possible to do, but it’s not necessary right off the bat. I prefer to season twice at first and then coat my cookware in oil each time after cooking. This allows a stronger seasoning to develop as I continue to use it, and avoids the common mistake of over-seasoning, which can cause a layer of hardened oil to develop that will chip off as you cook. Instead, you want to give the material room and time to slowly absorb the oil into it and become reinforced by it.

Cleaning and storing your carbon steel

First off, carbon steel lives by its seasoning. Using abrasive chemicals such as vinegar on it or putting it in the dishwasher should be avoided unless you're refinishing it. Doing this will dissolve the oils on your carbon steel and destroy the protective seasoning layer that you’ve created, allowing your carbon steel to rust and reducing the nonstick properties of the material. Similarly, avoid cooking with highly acidic ingredients such as tomatoes or lemon juice too often as these have some effect (though not as detrimental as soap) on your seasoning layer. However, carbon steel is durable and easy to maintain, which is why it can easily last 100+ years and be passed from generation to generation.

So how do you properly clean carbon steel? The best way to do it is to use a strong nylon-bristled brush and hot water. This will be able to remove the large majority of foods from your pan. If that’s not quite enough, you can switch to chain mail with hot water to release any tough materials. Work in circles and scrub lightly, allowing the scrubber and water to do the work. These are truly the only tools you need to clean your carbon steel.

Once you clean your carbon steel, dry it off with a dish towel or paper towel, then optionally coat your carbon steel in a thin layer of seasoning oil or beeswax. For storage, it’s best to keep your carbon steel upright instead of laying it flat in a cabinet or stacked with other cookware. If that’s not possible, use a moisture-absorbing material, such as cork or felt, under your pan to keep it from rusting.


Using carbon steel can be one of the most rewarding cooking experiences, as the performance of your cookware continuously improves the more you use it. You’ll find that you can get a wonderful sear on a steak just as well as you can cook scrambled eggs without them sticking. Meanwhile, it’s light enough to deftly toss a burger or crepe with the flick of your wrist. There’s simply so much to love about carbon steel, and I hope this guide is helpful in making sure you get the absolute most out of using it.