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The Pans That French Mamas Use Instead of Cast Iron

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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.

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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.

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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.

Mauviel M'steel Round Fry Pan

Mauviel M'steel Round Fry Pan

From $40
Mauviel M'steel Wok

Mauviel M'steel Wok

$100

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
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.

Mauviel M'steel Splayed Curved Sauté Pan

Mauviel M'steel Splayed Curved Sauté Pan

From $60
Mauviel M'steel Paella Pan

Mauviel M'steel Paella Pan

$90

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
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!

Tags: Mauviel, carbon steel, M'steel