Ok, I'm not going to mince words here. I've done the work. I've tried everything. And I can say, without a doubt in my mind that these French carbon steel pans from de Buyer are the best you can get, even if you spend twice what they cost.
Calling them "cheap" might be a bit of a stretch, but considering how they compare to the really pricey stuff that's comparable in quality, they're a great value and well deserving of being tagged as part of my Cheap Stuff That Works series.
I got a big load of All-Clad LTD pans for my first wedding. They're extremely high-quality pans and I still have them, some fifteen years later. They look great and function well. But the French carbon steel pans leave them in the dust, and the All-Clads are roughly double the price.
Check it out. This 12" pan is going for just shy of a hundred bucks (marked down from the ludicrous $155 list price) over at Amazon.com. That's a good price that you'd have to shop around for. But the same size on the French steel can be had for $69.95 from the Chef's Catalog website.
And it's a superior pan!
Ok, some things to know: first, the French carbon steel pans require, like cast iron, seasoning. That means they arrive clean and you have to dirty them up before you can use them. It's a really easy process that I've touched on before. There are tutorials all over the internet on how to do it, so I'm not going to get into it in much depth here. Basically, what I do is wipe the inside of the pan down with an oil-soaked paper towel, and then throw the pan in a 400° oven for a few hours. I try to do it when I'm using the oven for something, so I'm not wasting too much energy. You can do it over a burner as well, which is what the picture above shows.
The main way to season your pans is to cook with them. There's really no way to quickly get the seasoning that repeated usage over time produces.
Second, you shouldn't use soap to clean the pan. But if it's well-seasoned, you won't need to. A rinse with hot water and a good wipe with a wet scrubbie (or, alternately, salt) will do the job.
In order to allow the seasoning to set, you should avoid cooking food with a high acid content or deglazing with wine for the first few months. This is all part of the normal seasoning process, though, and once you've got a nice well-set crust on the pan, you can do anything you want (even use soap) and the seasoning won't go anywhere. It just takes a while for it to build up.
But once it's there, it's a thing of beauty. A well-seasoned pan is more non-stick than the best Teflon pan, and without the dubious chemicals found in the non-sticks. Pictured to the right is my big, honkin' 14-incher that I've had for about four years. The patina on there is so solid that I can use soap, scrape it with metal tongs, deglaze, whatever, and the seasoning isn't going anywhere. They're not pretty, these pans, but they work. If you want pans to hang on your pot rack and look shiny, these aren't the best choice. They're for cooks that use their gear for cooking.
The thick, heavy construction of these pans is wonderful for heat conductivity, comparable to cast iron, but they have the traditional shape that cast iron lacks, and can be manipulated a lot more easily. They also have just the most perfect slope to the sides, which causes a quick back-and-forth shake of the pan to flip the food nicely without having to actually pick the pan up off the burner.
There are quite a few products out there that are labelled "French steel" or "blue steel", and they're all pretty good, but I've had the best experience with these de Buyer brand pans which are part of a line this company is calling "Carbone Plus". They have a few lines, but this is the heaviest of the bunch, which, for the purposes for which this pan is suited, is what you want.
Eight to ten years ago, it was almost impossible to find these pans in the US. I worked in a restaurant back then which had them shipped in from France at great expense. Now, they're everywhere. I see them at Williams-Sonoma, Sur la Table, Chef's Catalog, and lots of the online shops. Shop around, though, because some of the fancier places are charging 25% or more over what discount outlets charge. The deal at this link, where you get an 8", a 10" and a 12" inch for $140, seems pretty good, considering that's still less than the list price of ONE 12" All-Clad.
Check them out. You'll thank me later.