For so many things in the kitchen, shiney means good. Gleaming is modern. You’re a good cook if all that stuff is polished and perfect.
Enter carbon steel. It's a different paradigm.
Old school is old school for good reason. And, other than cooking with sticks on an open fire, you don’t get much more primeval than carbon steel. At least if you want to talk about la cuisine française classique.
Yes, it’s hobby-snobbery. I get it. I like that my pan comes from a family-owned company with roots well into the 19th century.
Carbon steel absolutely defies the mystique of the immaculate. When you first get it, you’re supposed to season the pan with oil (flax seed or vegetable shortening, opinions differ) to create the non-stick layer that also keeps the pan from rusting. If you're really pro, you do the coat/heat cycle maybe a dozen times. The pan turns a golden hue. It evolves and comes into a sacred space.
Except that for me the coating kept flaking off, leaving the untreated metal ugly and exposed. Ready to rust. Pride dragged me back to square one as I scrubbed it back to bare metal and set out to do it right the next time. Disappointment haunted all my dreams.
Finally, I just started cooking. Mostly with butter. Sometimes things sticked. Then they kinda stopped. When the pan got a little too grainy, I boiled some water to soften the residue. And then put a very light coat of oil (yes, flax seed since I have a little bottle of it now) and made sure the pan was pretty dry before I hung it up.
After a while, the thing told me its secret. Or at least the secret in my carbon steel pan. It likes being black. Really dark. Inside and out.
It also really does prefer butter over anything else. It also likes regular use. My regular cleanup routine is to simply to wipe out the pan with a paper towel.
Yes, it’s not all that uniform and there sometimes there’s more than a little build up of cooked-on stuff on the sides. I do take after it occasionally with a scrub pad to try and get it more or less smooth. But I think that’s more me than the pan.
So now my kitchen has at least one thing that doesn’t gleam. And more often than not, it has pride of place on the stove. My carbon steel makes food and that makes me happy. The black heart of carbon steel has soul.
Cooking has always been a part of my life.