What Is The Best Way To Clean Carbon Steel Pans – Soap or Just Scrub?

Belinda Woodhouse
Belinda Woodhouse

Belinda Woodhouse

Belinda Woodhouse is an award-winning food and travel writer. Her writing is heavily influenced by her experiences with a wide range of international cuisines. She regularly writes for the International Living Magazine.

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How to clean a carbon steel pan

I love that feeling you get when you look at a beautiful, clean pan. Especially when it was one of those “oh gawd, that’s going to be hard to get off” situations with burnt-on food. 

Carbon steel pans have gotten a bad rap over the years as being hard to clean. But when your pan is seasoned properly, it’s easy and quick to clean. In this how-to guide, we’ll show you step by step how to deal with everything from the well-seasoned pan that needs a quick, easy wipe to the pan with difficult, stuck-on food.  

wipe away all excess oil

When you need more scrubbing power, don’t turn to dish detergent and steel wool. Instead, sprinkle some coarse salt into the pan and scrub using a paper towel. Salt is coarse enough to remove food grime but also soft enough that it won’t remove or damage the seasoning layer. You can rinse with water and use a dishcloth to scrub, but no soap or harsh scour pad is needed.

How to Clean a Carbon Steel Pan without stripping it – Step-By-Step

Below, you’ll find step-by-step instructions for how to clean a carbon steel pan. We’re going to cover methods for removing residual cooking oil and harder-to-remove food residues (stuck-on, burnt-on) in this section. 

What You Will Need

You only need a few things to clean a carbon steel pan, most of which are probably already in the kitchen. 

  • Coarse salt
  • Oil
  • Wooden or silicone spatula (something that won’t scratch)
  • Non-scratch pad or paper towel.

Method 1 – Wipe

This method is all you need for a well-seasoned pan when just a little food residue and some excess oil remain after cooking. 

  • Step 1 – Let the pan cool.
  • Step 2: Using a paper towel, thoroughly wipe away all excess oil and any remaining food particles. That’s it. The pan is clean and ready to store in a dry place. 
Method 1 - Wipe your carbon steel pan

Method 2 – Scrubbing 

This method is for when there are some residual food particles stuck to the pan, like after you’ve seared a well-seasoned steak, but it’s not a charred disaster.

  • Step 1 – Let the pan cool.
  • Step 2 – Sprinkle some coarse salt in the pan, and using a paper towel, gently scrub the food residue. It will begin to lift along with excess oil.
  • Step 3 – Discard the dirty paper towel and use a fresh paper towel. Wipe the pan clean and store it in a dry place. 

Method 3 – Slow Boil for Stubborn Food Residue

This method is needed when a carbon steel pan is not seasoned properly and food is burnt onto the bottom of the pan. (It may feel like this happens a lot when you first start cooking in carbon steel, but as the seasoning builds on your pan and you get a feel for how much heat to use, things will start to improve!)

  • Step 1 – Let the pan cool. 
  • Step 2 – Cover the bottom of the pan with a little water and heat over medium-low heat. Fill the pan to the height of the stuck food, or carefully spoon the water over the sides as you heat it.
  • Step 3 – Once the water is at a slow boil, take a wooden or silicone spatula/scraper and gently scrape the bottom of the pan. You will see the food soften and lift. Once there is no more stuck to the bottom of the pan, turn off the heat and let the pan cool. 
  • Step 4 – Once cool, dump out the water. Use a paper towel and wipe out the pan thoroughly. Once dry, have a good look at the bottom of the pan. If it looks a little dry, place a tiny amount of oil in the pan and wipe the entire inside (don’t forget the sides) to form a very thin layer of oil. This seals the pan to protect the carbon steel from contact with oxygen and prevents any chance of rusting. 
  • Step 5 – Consider heating the oil to add another layer of seasoning to your pan before using it again.
Slow Boil for Stubborn Food Residue

Editor’s Note: In our test kitchen at The Skillful Cook, we have found that carbon steel pans made by top-quality brands like de Buyer and Matfer Bourgeat season and clean much more easily than cheaper brands. If so much food is sticking to your carbon steel pan that you need to scrub it aggressively every time you use it, it may not be a problem with your cooking methods or your seasoning – it might be the grade of steel that your pan is made from.

Can You Use Soap on a Carbon Steel Pan?

To soap or not to soap, that is the question! Luckily, well-seasoned high-quality carbon steel pans don’t need soap and water after every use – because they wipe out so easily. You can use a little dish soap for a more thorough clean on carbon steel, but not a lot. The detergents will may not remove the layers of seasoning, but they may compromise them. So be sure to reseason your pan if you’ve washed with it soap. This is especially true for newer pans with fewer seasoning layers.

Oil-based soaps like Caron-Doucet are gentler on seasoning than detergents. This type of soap can be helpful, actually, by removing the sticky extra oil that hasn’t been baked into the seasoning and isn’t fully polymerized yet. No one wants those residues in their pans!

Can You Wash Carbon Steel Pans in the Dishwasher?

No. Never place carbon steel cookware in a dishwasher. The concentrated soaps and high temperatures strip away the protective seasoning layer of your carbon steel pan and cause it to rust.

Can You Soak Carbon Steel Pans?

No. Soaking carbon steel pans in water is one of the worst things you can do. Water and oxygen are the two ingredients for rust and corrosion. So, soaking is the quickest way for rust to form on a carbon steel pan.

If you have a rusted carbon steel pan, you can still restore it. Read our guide on How to remove rust on carbon steel pans.

How To Clean Burnt Carbon Steel Pans

How To Clean Burnt Carbon Steel Pans

The best way to clean burnt carbon steel pans is the slow boil method listed above. It softens any burnt food residues so they lift free.

If you feel like you need to use soap to get it clean, then you can use a little. It will help clean excess polymerized oils that gum up your pan and are not a part of the seasoning. Then wipe an extremely thin layer of high-smoke point oil onto your pan and burn it off, to add to the seasoning.

Do I Need To Season Every Time? 

No, you won’t need to season your carbon steel pan every time you use it. Cooking in your pan (with plenty of oil!) will cause it to gain layers of seasoning naturally. Avoid using sugary or acidic foods in your carbon steel pan, and avoid cooking sticky proteins (like eggs) in it until a thick patina develops.

Seasoning is not to be confused with carbon build-up. Carbon buildup is created when overheated food bonds to the pan. This reduces a pan’s nonstick ability. If your carbon steel pans have black flakey layers or you notice black specks in your food after cooking, then try boiling off the carbon as I described above. If that doesn’t work, you may need to strip your pan with a product like Bar Keeper’s Friend and then re-season it.

Conclusion

Carbon steel pans are easy and quick to clean when they’re seasoned properly. Most of the time, you can just wipe clean with a paper towel. 

For deeper cleaning, try an oil-based cleaner like CARON-DOUCET, which is less likely than dish detergent to damage seasoning.

If you have any questions, we’d love to hear from you, so drop us a comment below, and we’ll get back to you as soon as we’ve finished cooking. 

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Belinda Woodhouse
About The Author
Belinda "Bel" Woodhouse is an award-winning food and travel writer celebrated for her global culinary narratives. As International Living's Mexico Correspondent, she blends Yucatán flavors with her European aspirations. Every piece she pens is a passport to the world's culinary treasures.

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