Product Design

The Pans That French Mamas Use Instead of Cast Iron

July  8, 2016

You might know the French brand Mauviel for its top-of-the-line copper cookware, the stuff of wedding registries and shiny, rose-colored, dream-kitchen dreams.

But one of their lesser-known lines, called M'steel, deserves a foot in that spotlight, too: The French-made, commercial-grade pans are made of smooth carbon steel, which has all the upsides of cast iron—a natural nonstick quality through seasoning, excellent heat retention, and the ability to withstand even scorching oven temperatures—but in a smoother, lighter-weight, industrial-inspired design.

Carbon steel is already a staple of restaurant kitchens, but it's begging to find a home in everyday homes, too. As Mauviel says, "It's what the French mamas use instead of cast iron."

Here's a little more about why we love these pans, new in our Shop, plus how to cook in and care for them.

What's carbon steel?

The easiest way to understand why the composition of carbon steel makes it such a desirable cookware material is to compare it to cast iron (though we wouldn't say one is better than the other; they're just different). According to Cook's Illustrated, carbon steel is composed of roughly 99% iron to 1% carbon, while cast iron contains more like 97 to 98% iron to 2 to 3% carbon. And even though that difference seems minuscule—and is, largely, in terms of performance—it affects how the two materials are shaped into pans, which in turn affects the resulting design.

The relatively lower percentage of carbon in carbon steel results in a more uniform grain (more carbon, as in cast iron, makes for a brittler pan), which means it can actually be flattened into super-smooth sheets, which the pans are then stamped from as if by a giant cookie cutter (instead of cast in a mold like cast iron). It's also ultra dense and won't retain cooking odors.

This production method results in a smoother, lighter-weight pan that looks and feels a whole lot like the vintage cast iron of yore. (Vintage cast iron was also cast in molds, like the pans today, but back then it was polished to a smooth, thin finish—a step that's since been dropped from production.)

Besides looking and feeling a little more streamlined, the smooth surface of carbon steel, once well-seasoned, is technically going to have better nonstick qualities than a well-seasoned but still-pebbly-surfaced cast-iron skillet. In addition, the sides of the pans are curved, rather than straight up and down, which means they're excellent for sautéeing because you can shake food around without as much fear that the pieces will jump out of the skillet.

The M'steel Wok Photo by James Ransom

How do I cook with it?

However you like. Being commercial-grade, these carbon steel pans can stand up to most anything you throw at them: They're commonly used in restaurant kitchens, where high heat and flame-to-oven cooking happen quickly and often not in a delicate fashion.

An exceedingly high heat retention (meaning they stay hot when they get hot) makes carbon steel especially great for getting a crackly sear on a steak or extra crispy skin on fried chicken. Let the pan heat up to rip-roaring, and it won't cool down when your food hits the surface. Then, once that steak is seared, slip your carbon steel in the oven to cook it through, without any fear for your pan.

Because it's naturally nonstick once seasoned, carbon steel is also great for delicate cooking. By heating up the pan with a thin layer of oil, you'll build up a shiny-slick layer of polymers on its surface over time (we watched eggs slip right off the surface of a newly seasoned M'steel skillet in our test kitchen!). And residue will wipe away easily with a sponge. They work on any and all cooktops, including induction surfaces.

Because carbon steel is a reactive metal, it's not what you want to use for cooking acidic foods like tomato sauce, lemon juice, or vinegars over long periods of time. Same goes for alkaline ingredients: Don't use baking soda on these pans!

How do I care for it?

Mauviel's carbon steel pans ship with a thin, tacky layer of beeswax all over their surface, which prevents the pans from rusting when they're in transit. To remove it, pour very hot water all over the surface (we recommend doing this in a sink with boiling water) so the wax melts, and then wipe it away with paper towels. And don't worry about them rusting in your kitchen: When you season the skillet later, the new coating that forms will protect them.

When we tested this process ourselves, there was some tough-to-remove wax remaining between the pan and its handle; to remove that, set the pan on a large baking sheet in a hot oven and watch it melt right off. Just be sure your baking sheet's large enough to catch any drips!

After the beeswax is gone, you'll want to season the pan before using. Cover the bottom of the pan with a flavorless oil and heat it on a burner for 5 minutes. Let the pan cool before draining the oil, and then wipe clean with paper towels. Now repeat the process a second time.

The M'steel Round Fry Pan Photo by James Ransom

As you season, you'll see a dark ring start to develop on inside of the silvery base of the pan—that's the film of polymers that make it nonstick, which will expand to cover the entire surface of the pan over time. (Don't try to scrub it off!) After cooking, wash the pan in hot water without soap, wipe with a soft sponge, and dry thoroughly. Store in a dry space, too!

Have you ever used a carbon steel pan? Tell us how you love them in the comments!

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43 Comments

Clay H. January 28, 2018
I have several carbon steel pans and a few cast iron pans and I don't do anything special as far as seasoning is concerned. I just cook with it. Sure, I followed the 'seasoning' instructions, but I didn't find that it helped in the slightest and came off. The whole polymer thing is BS as far as I am concerned. What does work is to just cook with the thing using oils. I use butter, olive, grapeseed and canola oils to cook with. What I notice is that over time, a black finish forms on the cooking surface. What is forming is 'black magnetite', which is what happens when ferrous metals oxidize under heat. I also wash my pans with soap and water. No, I don't scrub the heck out of them, just a gentle wash and then dry them with a towel and use a little heat from my cooktop to ensure that all moisture is gone. That's it. No magic, no frantic Internet searches looking for 'reseasoning', just cook with the thing and keep if from rusting.
 
Noreen F. July 12, 2016
These are the latest items on my wishlist. As far as the handles getting hot, I've got some handle covers from Lodge (http://bit.ly/29NEfzc) that work great for my cast-iron skillet. The handles on the M'Steel pans look longer, though, so I might have to hunt around for longer ones.
 
jane F. July 12, 2016
These pans are amazing, I have never used a pan before that cooks so beautifully! They may be expensive but worth every cent!
 
Polly L. July 11, 2016
I purchased one of these pans and had only used it a few times. We renovated our kitchen last winter and when I brought it back from storage there was a bit of rust on it. Any recommendations for removing the rust and reseasoning it?
 
Stephen L. July 11, 2016
With loads of respect, I have to say that FOOD52 is rather glib about seasoning these pans, which is where so many cooks stumble with carbon. Sheryl Canter is the expert here. See her blog posts on the topic here:<br /><br />http://sherylcanter.com/wordpress/2010/01/a-science-based-technique-for-seasoning-cast-iron/<br /><br />http://sherylcanter.com/wordpress/2010/02/black-rust-and-cast-iron-seasoning/<br /><br />Towards the bottom of the comments section of this second post of Sheryl's, a helpful commenter named "Brab" summarizes her methodology.
 
SandyToes October 31, 2016
With all due respect to Ms. Canter, her method doesn't appear to be fool-proof. There are several discussions on Chowhound detailing flaking after using the Canter method, from cooks well familiar with carbon steel. I'm in the traditional (I'd call it slapdash) camp and my pans, while not having a lovely even patina, are still nicely nonstick.
 
Andrew W. July 9, 2016
In the seasoning instructions you say to "heat it on a burner for 5 minutes" but don't list a temperature. Given that I have a terrible glass top range, what temp. should I shoot for when seasoning?
 
Mailin July 9, 2016
Got a few questions I didn't find the answers to:<br />1. Is this the healthiest form of non-stick?<br />2. Could it get smelly after cooking fish?<br />3. If it gets scratched, will it loose its non-stick property?<br />4. Will the handle stay cool or hot?
 
Mark S. July 9, 2016
From what I understand it's better, health wise than non-stick. No as to the smell. You shouldn't be able to scratch it because you're not scrubbing it. And the handles stay cool on the cook top. Not the oven.
 
Kathryn G. July 9, 2016
These are nonstick pans. They are really nice steel pans that won't stick if you season them properly and heat them before you place your food in them. The handle does get hot, so you'll need some sort of pot holder. Anything can scratch.
 
Kathryn G. July 9, 2016
I meant to say they are not non stick pans...
 
Author Comment
Amanda S. July 10, 2016
Kathryn's right! If you season them and care for them properly (how to do so is indicated above), they *become* naturally nonstick; the only buildup will come from the oil you use. It shouldn't scratch off. And yes, the handles will get hot, so be careful!
 
Mailin July 12, 2016
Thank you all for your input :)
 
Alexis D. July 9, 2016
What's the main difference between Mauviel and DeBuyer because DeBuyer also has carbon steel pan under the name Mineral B.
 
cv July 9, 2016
There is no practical difference between the Mauviel and deBuyer pans; the material and design are the same. There are probably three or four other brands sold in the USA that also produce comparable carbon steel cookware.<br /><br />The deBuyer Mineral B line is pretty much the same as the Mauviel M'steel line, right down to the beeswax coating that must be removed before first use.<br /><br />I bought my set of deBuyer pans from another online retailer (it was a good deal at the time), plus I fancied the pans that would most commonly be found in a French high-end restaurant kitchen.<br /><br />That said, if I bought today, I'd simply buy the ones with the best pricing.
 
Mark S. July 9, 2016
Agreed! I got mine at the Chef's Catalog. Sad to say, that catalog bit the dust.
 
Bubba M. July 9, 2016
The new seasoning for steel pans is flaxseed oil....easy to find in a spray bottle in health food stores. I have used steel pans purchased in France after cooking school for 40 years. I consider them my most trusted item in the kitchen. As my kids have moved on and moved out, I always present them with a few to start them out. They are a delight to use. A must is an omelette pan.
 
darqman July 9, 2016
For outdoor grillers, a Firedisc is made of carbon steel as well.
 
gardeningal July 9, 2016
Sounds like a nice pan. Lighter than the cast iron, I would presume. That would make my day. I just finished seasoning a cast iron pan I found at an estate sale. Although I love it - stove top to oven, it's a bit tough to maneuver( arthritis).
 
Author Comment
Amanda S. July 10, 2016
Yes, they are definitely lighter-weight than everyday cast iron—but not necessarily lightweight compared to all pans. All weights are listed on their buying page; for example, the 11" fry pan weighs 3.2 pounds.
 
cv July 10, 2016
I disagree with Amanda.<br /><br />The cooking surface of my smallest deBuyer carbon steel skillet is about the same diameter as my smallest Lodge cast iron skillet, basically 5" or about 13 cm.<br /><br />However, the carbon steel skillet is actually 115 grams heavier than the cast iron one, about 13%.<br /><br />Plus, there is a difference in the weight distribution. For the cast iron skillet, the center of gravity is very close to the center of the pan since the handle is so short. For the carbon steel skillet, the center of gravity is considerably closer to the handle because of the handle's size and weight.<br /><br />The carbon steel pan "feels" lighter than the cast iron skillet because it is better balanced and handles better, but it is actually the heavier pan.
 
SandyToes October 31, 2016
This is why I favor carbon steel, aside from it's smoothness compared to new cast iron. However, CV is right in that to get the same floor space you'll need a larger steel pan to compensate for the widely flared walls. Cast iron skillets have relatively straight sidewalls. <br /><br />For an egg or omelette pan that will only be used over low heat, you can save even more weight by going with a thinner pan. My deBuyer Force Blue crepe pan is a little thinner than the M'Steel or Mineral B and would warp over high heat, but it handles medium heat and lower like a dream. I use it for fried eggs, omelettes, pancakes, grilled sandwiches and (duh) crepes. <br /><br />I have a larger, heavier crepe pan that will take high heat that is great for foods where containment isn't an issue. It's advantage is that with only one-inch sidewalls it's possible to get more floor space without adding a lot of weight.
 
Houlton M. July 9, 2016
So many of us are using induction, it would be useful for pan reviews to address that cooking method.
 
Mark S. July 9, 2016
I also was interested in using induction ranges, so before I made my purchase I researched these pans for that reason. These are a perfect solution to induction cooking.<br />
 
Author Comment
Amanda S. July 10, 2016
That's correct! They do work on induction surfaces. I've changed the above to reflect that.
 
Mark S. July 9, 2016
I purchased these pans from de Buyer. They are the best pans bar none. It took me a while to get used to them, but once seasoned, they preform like a dream. I thought Mauviel was only copper pans. I happy to know they produce carbon pans as well.
 
les C. July 9, 2016
what about the handle?does it stay cool when on stove top.is it a different material?lets here about the handle.thx
 
Author Comment
Amanda S. July 10, 2016
The handle is also carbon steel, so it will get hot.
 
MrsWheelbarrow July 9, 2016
Do they work on induction cooktops?
 
Kristina W. July 9, 2016
They do!
 
Risottogirl July 9, 2016
At culinary school in France these pans were use for fish only and we're never given to to the "plongeurs" to wash. We always cleaned them with coarse salt scrub if necessary, never soap. I use and treat mine the same way.
 
Kathryn G. July 9, 2016
I love these pans! They are slowly replacing my worn out nonstick pans.
 
Candi D. July 8, 2016
I had a friend recommend that when in Paris I buy a "blue pan" , would this be the same? She raved about them.
 
Aisha July 9, 2016
I'm guessing she means "tôle bleue", which is not far off from this. It is a type of carbon steel that's made into thinner sheets so it's ideal for applications where you need a very reactive pan (like for wok cooking). Thinner also means lighter. Besides that, you can care for it and use it pretty much the same way as is outlined here. De Buyer have a large range of blue steel (tôle bleue) cookware. I have their wok and it's a joy to cook with.
 
PbrDoug July 9, 2016
A blue pan could be a forged iron pan which is lighter in weight than a cast iron pan. I recommend cooking with forged iron or carbon steel if your looking for a lighter weight. Remember they still heavier than thin PTFE non stick pans. Forged iron and carbon steel pans can handle high heat in the oven. These pans need to be season and treated like a cast iron pan. They will last you a life time and should be past down like a heirloom.
 
Suzanne July 8, 2016
I do not have the Mauviel carbon steel, but I have a pan from Mauviel's M'stone line - it is ceramic non-stick and it is my favorite pan ever! I LOVE that company and will be looking into one of these M'steel pans.
 
ChefJune July 8, 2016
I've had two of these pans for decades. They are my favorites for cooking meat, for sure. I don't recommend using them for any gooey cooking, though. Tough to clean without ruining the season.
 
Julie C. July 8, 2016
I live for cooking in my Mauviel M'Steel pan! I use it every day!