Pan of Steel

On May 15, 2008, in Food and Drink, by psu

Everyone has their favorite pans. Mine are restaurant-style aluminum non-stick pans. I’ve used these for years, generally just buying another one when the coating on whichever one I had started to go south. The pans are durable (except for the coatings) and perfect for lazy people like me who don’t like cleaning frying pans. They are also really good for cooking eggs. Always important.

Lately though, I’ve started to think that maybe I’ve been too lazy if such a thing is possible. A lot of people have been expressing worries about those non-stick coatings burning off and poisoning the air and your food. I think such worries are probably overblown, but it did get me to thinking that I should perhaps restrict my use of the Teflon pans to medium/low heat work and find something better for sauté jobs and that “sear in pan then roast in oven” dance that I enjoy so much.

So I started looking around. The natural first thing to try would be cast iron, but I can’t go there. My hands are too tired and wussy, beat up as they are from twenty years of supporting my computer work at the keyboard. The weight of the iron pans is just too much overhead.

Everyone seems to love those All-Clad stainless pans. I love the medium sized soup pots for making, well, soups and stuff.

So at the last All-Clad sale I picked up a sauté pan to see how it works. It did not make me happy. What I found is that there is a curious psychological problem with stainless pans. People want to keep them shiny. So they are really designed to stay shiny rather than actually cook at high heats and in the oven. Get the oil too hot and you get a brown polymerized mess permanently bonded to your previously shiny silver pan. And unlike a nice steel pan, this brown mess does you no good. Everything just continues to stick to it and you are left to stand over the sink and scrub it off with powder so that even if the food sticks, at least it sticks to a shiny silver pan. This is too much overhead for my lazy self. I could care less what the pan looks like as long as it does its job well, and what I found is that a stainless frying pan is just too frustrating.

Then a couple of weeks ago at Sur La Table, a place you should never go if you want to keep money in your pocket, I spied a pile of those De Buyer carbon steel pans. These were mentioned by many people as an excellent tool, especially for high heat work. So after due consideration, I picked one up.

It is almost too heavy, but not quite. So I put it on the stove and proceeded to burn some oil into it. For those who don’t know, what you do with steel (and cast iron) pans is to “season” them by getting them hot and brushing a thin film of oil in the bottom. Then you let the pan smoke for 10 or 20 minutes and bake this oil into the surface of the pan. The oil bonds with the metal and leaves a very nice non-sticky surface to cook on. It also makes the pan a delicious black/brown color on the inside which projects the idea that you are a bad-ass that cooks a lot:


For some reason, baked oil makes a carbon steel pan great and a stainless steel pan worthless. I looked into it but I don’t really know why. I assume it’s because the sticky oil just sits on top of the stainless pan’s surface rather than getting inside of it and doing some good.

In any case, after about a week of use and a few passes of seasoning I can say that this pan is nearly as good as my old Silverstone pans even for Silverstone pan stuff like eggs and omelets. And for pan-seared oven roasted steak on Mother’s Day, the thing is the perfect tool. It holds heat well enough to get the steak nice and crusty and leave the nice brown bits behind that you need for pan sauce. I could never really get that effect with my old pans, but I would usually shrug my shoulders and just live with it because I’m a lazy bastard.

Finally, since the food generally doesn’t stick, cleanup is easy. Just wipe it out with a paper towel, rinsing if needed. Then dry over heat on the stove and wipe a thin film of oil into the pan if you want.

Overall, a thumbs up. Be careful with the metal handles though. They get hot when the thing is in the oven.


If your local store does not have these pans, you can find them at Broadway Panhandler. Amazon also has pans made by an outfit called “World Cuisine” but I don’t know if they are the same. Internet opinion seems mixed.

The next thing for me to try will be the crepe pans… for pancakes and omelets.


11 Responses to “Pan of Steel”

  1. kim says:

    I have been having a very similar internal debate. It takes a ton of Bar Keeper’s Friend to clean my all-clad stainless and my hands are usually cracked when I’m done. (Yeah, I could wear gloves but will I? Nope.) My husband is not going to be happy the next time we go to the South Side. I will put all the blame on you.

  2. psu says:

    I might be safe from his wrath because when I went back to actually buy the pan they had moved the stuff into the back room after some reorganization, so I am not sure if the Sur La Table is still planning on carrying the line.

  3. peterb says:

    Fundamentally, I think a good cast-iron skillet is the right tool for this job. But I sympathize with your not wanting to lift them.

  4. psu says:

    The skillets also have the wrong shape. I like the more gentle slope of the french-style pan… rather than the deep sides of the skillet. I think you can find iron pans in different shapes. But it’s a bit of work.

  5. Jonathan Shewchuk says:

    I’ve heard it from a trustworthy source that the “right” way to season a pan is to use lard or bacon grease, not vegetable oil. The former is said to be less sticky.

  6. Benoit says:

    I don’t completely understand why the weight of the pan matters: when do you move it?

    I tend not to heat-dry my pans anymore, after an unfortunate incident where I forgot I was heat-drying a pan. Just putting them on the stove upside-down keeps mine from rusting. I suppose hanging them would work, if you have a place to hang your pans.

  7. jeff says:

    I clean my All-Clad pans with baking soda. Put water in the pan, nearly to the rim, and add bakcing soda. Turn on the heat so it simmers, adding more baking soda as you go. (I use maybe 1/3 of a box if the pan is really dirty.) Let it simmer for 15-30 minutes, and then wipe the pan out with a rough sponge. (The baking-soda water mixture generally spatters on my stove, but wiping that up gets my stovetop clean for a two-fer.) It’s incredibly easy and cleans 90% of the gunk off immediately.

  8. psu says:

    I need to pick up the pan for various reasons…


    Flipping the stuff in the pan around instead of using a spatula (I love doing this).

    Moving it around on the stove to free up burners.

    Move the pan from stove to oven and back.

    All of these are easier with a lighter pan. That’s why I started using All-Clad soup pots and stopped using the beautiful, yet horribly heavy Le Creuset enamel-on-cast iron dutch ovens.

  9. Alex says:

    We love our Le Creuset pots (they are very heavy, true) and baking dishes, but are totally baffled by the All-Clad stainless pan we received as a gift. Forget cleaning, how do you cook on the thing without half your food sticking to it and then burning? More grease? This whole carbon steel thing makes much more sense to me, thanks for the tip.

  10. psu says:

    For the soup pots the trick is to control the heat. You really never want to cook in these pans with the heat above medium to medium high unless you are boiling water.

    This works well for most soups, sauces, some brown then braise things and so on, which is what you use a soup pot for.

    Given this problem, the frying pan is more limited in utility.

  11. Coleman Molt says:

    Cast iron is hands down the best. I used non-stick pans for years, but a nice steak fried in a cast iron skillet is on a completely different level. Besides, you can buy a great pan for maybe 80 dollars and it will last you a lifetime. The non-stick stuff may last 4 years if you are very lucky. If you dig around a bit, you can often find a quality pan on sale. There are always some awesome offers on cast iron cookware listed on the cast iron pots website. Ok, that did it, now I’m salivating. I’m off to the kitchen to fry up some steak and eggs.