As we all become more conscious of our health and wellbeing, it’s only natural that the safety of the tools we use to prepare our food is questioned. After all, the food we eat has a huge impact on our health and we want to make sure it isn’t contaminated in any way.
It’s in this spirit that many people have asked the question ‘is carbon steel cookware safe?’ Carbon steel pots and pans are popular in kitchens worldwide, used by amateur and professional chefs alike. As it is prevalent in our kitchens it’s certainly worth investigating any potential harmful elements of carbon steel before using it to prepare your family’s food.
In this article we take a closer look at carbon steel cookware to help you make an informed decision on whether it is the right, healthy choice for your kitchen.
What is Carbon Steel?
Before we begin we should take a moment to explain what carbon steel pans are actually made of.
Carbon steel is an alloy of iron and carbon, with carbon making up around 1% of the overall weight. Cookware made from this alloy is lightweight yet durable and conducts heat very quickly. Carbon steel cookware is also resistant to high temperatures and is easier to move about the kitchen than heavier cast iron cookware. These properties have made it an ideal choice for cooks everywhere, and you’ll find carbon steel cookware in both home and commercial kitchens.
Is Carbon Steel Cookware Safe for Cooking?
After learning about the harmful effects of PFOA and other materials used in the manufacture of kitchen utensils, it makes complete sense to question everything when it comes to the safety of different types of cookware. With that said, let’s talk about the safety of carbon steel cookware.
Is Carbon Steel Toxic?
The great news is that carbon steel is not toxic. The alloy is made up of only two elements – iron and carbon, and doesn’t contain any other materials including potentially harmful heavy metals. Both carbon and iron are safe for humans and are already present in our diets. Iron is in fact essential for the healthy operation of our body.
Another point in favor of carbon steel cookware is that it actually isn’t new at all. Carbon steel cooking utensils have been used around the world in various forms for centuries. Unlike modern ‘space age’ materials, we can look back in time and see that carbon steel is a tried-and-true material for cooking. Many manufacturers selling carbon steel cookware have been in the business for many years and have stellar reputations, allowing you to buy with confidence.
What are the Potential Risks?
Although carbon steel is a safe material for cookware, that doesn’t mean there is absolutely nothing to watch out for when buying it.
The greatest risk is that a pan advertised as ‘carbon steel’ is actually an alloy that includes other metals. The concern here is that these could include potentially harmful heavy metals that can leach into food when cooking.
Whilst this is doubtless worrying, it is actually easy to avoid. Simply be sure to always buy cookware from trusted retailers and manufacturers. Buy cookware made in the US or countries with tight regulations such as the UK or EU and avoid anything that is made in China where there is much less regulatory oversight.
What About Iron Leaching Into Food?
Though carbon is not harmful to the body, some people have raised concerns about iron leaching into food when cooking, especially at higher temperatures.
Iron toxicity is a health problem in which too much iron builds up and circulates freely in the body, damaging cells.
For most people, iron building up in the body over time is not a concern as our bodies are very efficient at regulating the amount of iron circulating. However, some people have a genetic predisposition to absorb excessive amounts of iron from the digestive tract. Whilst the amount of iron that leaches from carbon steel pans is relatively low, if you have been diagnosed by a doctor as having an iron overload disorder, you should avoid using cookware made from iron, including carbon steel pans.
On the other hand, if you haven’t been diagnosed with iron overload there is no reason not to use carbon steel cookware. This is because the amounts of iron that will leach into food during preparation are very small and not harmful.
Is Carbon Steel Safe for Baking?
Just as it’s safe to use on the stove, carbon steel is safe to use in the oven for baking. If you are using carbon steel cookware in the oven, be careful when handling as it will get exceptionally hot throughout, including the handle. Be sure to use oven mitts!
How to Season Carbon Steel Cookware
One way to make sure that your carbon steel cookware is as easy to use and as safe as possible is to season it. Like cast iron pans, carbon steel needs to be seasoned before you first use it. You’ll also need to re-season the pan periodically.
What Does Seasoning Do?
Being mostly made from iron, carbon steel is quite porous. This means that in its natural state, it will absorb all of the flavors and smells from everything cooked in the pan. Over time these can permeate into other foods you cook in the same pan, impacting the taste of everything you cook.
Seasoning creates a protective layer that stops food and liquids being absorbed by the pan. Additionally, it also reduces the amount of iron that seeps into food during preparation – a bonus if you have any concerns about iron leaching into your food.
Another benefit to seasoning your carbon steel pan is that it creates a non stick surface. This makes cooking and cleaning a much more simple task!
Coincidentally, the fact that you need to season carbon steel pans is actually another check in the ‘yes’ column in answer to the question ‘is carbon steel safe?’ Because you are in complete control of the seasoning process, you can be sure that there are no unpleasant chemicals introduced by the manufacturer to create a non stick layer on your pan.
How to Season Carbon Steel Cookware in the Oven
You will Need:
- Stiff brush/scouring pad/steel wool
- Dish soap
- Canola Oil (though any cooking oil with a high smoke point will also work)
- Paper towels
- A baking tray or additional pan
- Oven mitts
Step 1 – Preheat your oven to 450°F.
Step 2 – Whilst the oven heats up, thoroughly wash your pan. If your pan is new, this will remove any residual material from the manufacturing process, as well as the wax protective covering that many new carbon steel pans are sold with. If you’ve been using your pan this thorough cleaning will help to remove any rust, food particles and previous layers of seasoning.
Step 3 – Once clean, dry completely using paper towels or a clean cloth. It’s essential that your pan is dry before moving to the next step.
Step 4 – Using a paper towel, rub approximately two tablespoons of oil over the surface of the pan, creating a light coat of oil. Make sure that the entire surface is evenly covered.
Step 5 – Place your pan upside down into the preheated oven. To catch any drippings, place another pan or baking tray lined with tinfoil on the bottom rack of the oven.
Step 6 – Leave the pan in the oven for 30 minutes, after which you should turn off the oven and leave the pan to cool before removing. Using oven mitts to protect your hands, remove the pan from the oven.
Step 7 – To build a solid seasoning layer you may want to repeat steps 3 to 6 up to four times. A properly seasoned pan will have a slick appearance that resembles wet paint.
Looking After Carbon Steel Cookware
Once you’ve seasoned your carbon steel pan you’re ready to go! To make sure that it serves you well for years to come, there are a few maintenance tips that you should follow:
Properly clean after use, but don’t use the dishwasher! –After you’re done cooking and it’s had chance to cool down, rinse your pan and remove any food debris using a soft cloth. To tackle tough stains use some kitchen salt. Avoid using soap and stay away from abrasive brushes as these can remove the seasoning layer. Do not use the dishwasher as it will destroy the seasoning.
Don’t leave to soak – Although the seasoning layer helps to prevent rust from building up on the surface, long exposure to water should be avoided. This is because overtime water may still seep through any gaps in the seasoning and cause rust. To avoid this, dry your carbon steel pan immediately after washing.
Steer clear of acidic foods. Foods with high acidity like tomatoes can damage the pan’s seasoning. If you can, use non-reactive cookware such as stainless steel when cooking acidic foods.