In Gear: How to Season Carbon Steel Pans

20080214-crepepan.jpgThough I rarely used it to make crepes, for which it performed rather poorly, I had always appreciated the design of my flimsy, nonstick crepe pan. As it was, it mostly just made for a great quesadilla toasting pan, its short sides making it easier to maneuver and flip without losing filling. But in my mind’s eye—much heavier and made of a material capable of maintaining heat—the pan’s wide, shallow form became a stage on which perfectly cooked pancakes flipped and crisp-skinned fish fillets sizzled.

When, a few weeks ago, I found myself in a kitchen shop looking right into the expansive face of an inexpensive carbon steel crepe pan, there was no resistance.

The instructions on the pan said to heat it well before use, wash it immediately after use with hot water (no soap), dry it, and if the mood strikes, oil it before storage. I was sure, however, just from running a finger across the inside of the pan that I’d be about as successful making crepes on its virgin surface as on an unglazed terracotta tile. Despite the instructions of the manufacturer, I knew that before I could use it, carbon steel, like cast iron, had to be seasoned. But I’d never really seasoned a cast iron piece before—the ones I had used were either pre-seasoned by the factory or by a generation or two of family members—and I didn’t want to go about the process uninformed.

I turned to the internet, where I found a number of returns for seasoning carbon steel, mostly for woks, the most common type of cookware made from that material. There were a few different methods discussed, distinguished mainly by whether they suggested seasoning on the stove top or in the oven. The overall gist was this: get pan hot, carefully brush pan with fat, keep heating pan until all fat blackens, rinse pan, dry pan, and repeat all in sequence, until a dark, enamel-like finish is achieved. This gist did the trick.

20080214carbon-steel_crepe-.jpgFor my treasured new crepe pan, I repeated the seasoning process twice on my stovetop and once in my oven. Stovetop seasoning required some vigilance, in that my burners were too small and weak to evenly blacken the entire pan, so I had to reposition it every so often. But it only took 15 or 20 minutes per seasoning, and I was able to watch my little pan progress from dull gray to glossy black in the process. The oven method was less hands-on, requiring just a little effort in the lining of the lower rack with tin foil to catch oil drips (when you season in the oven, you place the hot, greased pan upside down on the rack so that oil cannot pool and cause uneven seasoning), but it took an hour or so to harden all of the oil (if the oil isn’t completely set and blackened, the pan’s surface will be sticky), and I wasn’t able to gauge the pan’s progress. Both methods had their merits.

In the end, I had achieved a beautiful, super glossy, deep brown-black finish, ready to use.

20080214carbsteel_crepe-pan.jpgThe first trial was in making crepes, at which the pan performed beautifully. Heavy, but not too heavy, the pan maintained good heat but was easy to maneuver in the first crucial seconds after the batter hit. Its lovingly seasoned surface gave up the delicate crepes as readily as any Teflon-coated pan I’d encountered. Triumph!

Since that inaugural run, we’ve experienced continued success, my pan and I: more crepes, a few quesadillas, and a salmon fillet. This Sunday we’re going to make pancakes. This could be the one.

About the author: Amanda Clarke is a recovering restaurant pastry chef with a background in architecture. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, where she writes, tests, and develops recipes and works on freelance food-styling gigs between walkings and feedings of her two dogs and husband.

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