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How to season a carbon steel skillet like a pro

Here's the right way to season your carbon steel skillet.

My unseasoned carbon steel skillet sorely needs some seasoning before I use it.
Brian Bennett/CNET

Cast iron skillets are prized for their high durability and excellent thermal retention properties. The trade off though is that cast iron is heavy compared with other materials like steel, aluminium and copper. There is another way to go. Carbon steel is less dense than cast iron, making it lighter. Even so, carbon steel holds on to heat almost as well as cast iron. 

But there's a catch. While many cast iron pans are preseasoned at the factory, carbon steel cookware often is not. Before you use them, you'll need to season them properly. It may sound like a drag to do this extra step, but a good seasoning doesn't just protect your skillet from rust and corrosive compounds. It'll give it a naturally non-stick cooking surface. The technique also works with cast iron too so it's a good skill to have in your cookware quiver.

You don't need a lot of items for this project.

Brian Bennett/CNET

Step 1: Gather what you need

Your material list isn't long for this project but there are a few critical items. Here's what you'll need.

Give your unseasoned carbon steel skillet a good washing with dish soap, warm water, and a stiff bristled kitchen brush.

Brian Bennett/CNET

Step 2: Wash your skillet

With your supplies ready to go the next step is to wash your skillet. Using mild dish detergent, warm water, and the kitchen brush, thoroughly scrub the pan. Make sure to get both the inside and outside surfaces of the skillet. 

The idea here is to remove any protective coating that was added at the factory.  Typically it's a thin layer of wax but it can also be oil, too, depending on your pan. Rinse the skillet free of soap and wipe it dry with a paper towel. 

Step 3: Oven heat the pan

Now preheat your oven to 200 degrees Fahrenheit (F). Drop the skillet into the hot oven for 20 minutes. Next carefully remove the pan from the oven and place it on a heat-safe surface. Use an oven mitt to grab the pan handle to avoid burns. Don't forget to turn your oven off.

Use your cloth to apply a thin layer of wax to your oven-warmed skillet.

Brian Bennett/CNET

Step 4: Apply the wax

Take your cloth and swirl one corner of it over the surface of wax in the tin. Two fingers should be enough to get some wax onto the cloth. Now apply a thin layer of wax onto the skillet. Cover both the inside and outside of the pan. Use a dry section of the cloth to remove any excess wax from the pan. 

After going through the seasoning process three times your pan should begin developing a protective patina.

Brian Bennett/CNET

Step 5: Fire at high heat

While you can certainly use your kitchen oven for this step, it can produce smoke and odd smells. I suggest using an outdoor grill instead. Fire up your grill to at least 400 degrees Fahrenheit (204.4 Celsius). Place the waxed skillet upside down on the grates and shut the grill lid. Fire the pan at this heat level for 1 hour, then remove and let it cool.

Even after one quick cook, my carbon steel skillet's patina became more pronounced.

Brian Bennett/CNET

Step 6: Repeat, then repeat again

Repeat the entire process, oven, wax, high-heat fire, at least two more times. At the end, the color of your skillet should be noticeably different. My pan had a nice, golden brown patina. A quick breakfast test run (with a couple of fried eggs) demonstrated a slippery cooking area that was a snap to clean. The more you use your skillet the more its non-stick coating will improve.