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Paul’s Cooking Tips: Busting 3 big myths about cast iron skillets

San Antonio Express News logo San Antonio Express News 3 days ago By Paul Stephen, Staff writer

I recently had a conversation that reminded me of just how misunderstood cast-iron skillets can be. The simple truth: That hefty pan, whether it’s a hand-me-down family heirloom or a brand new purchase, is a lot tougher than some folks give it credit for.

The premise was a recipe that specifically asked for the cook to use a metal spatula to flip ingredients sizzling in cast-iron. And the myth that came up — metal utensils can damage the skillet’s seasoning — is one I’ve been hearing for years.

So to clear the air, or clean the pan, if you will, let’s take a look at three things you should really know about that workhorse of a kitchen tool.

For starters, a properly seasoned cast-iron skillet is not a slab of metal with a thin layer of oil on top. The process of seasoning a pan creates a reaction called polymerization — that’s when oil transforms into a near bulletproof layer of something much closer to plastic than grease. It’s fused to the surface of the metal and creates a nonstick barrier between your food and the iron. In other words, your not cooking directly on metal if your pan is properly seasoned.

So what does that mean? Well, unless you’re scraping around in there with power tools, you’re very unlikely to damage the seasoning (or the pan, for that matter) with the normal use metal utensils. Sure, you can use all the wood and silicone spoons and spatulas you want, but don’t be afraid to grab the stainless steel tools, either.

The second belief we need to debunk is that you should never wash the thing, especially in soapy water. And that’s simply not true. The layer of polymerized oil bonded to the surface of the pan is no longer susceptible to the grease-cutting power of dish soap.

Yes, you should skip the steel wool, but regular sponges, dish rags or scrubbies aren’t hard enough to damage the seasoning in your skillet. What can cause harm, however, is letting the pan soak in water. If there are any cracks or chips in the seasoning — which will happen over time — exposure to water can damage the metal below the seasoning.

Which brings us to the last point: Seasoning your cast-iron skillet is not a labor-intensive grind of a chore. With about 30 seconds of effort you can get a good initial seasoning that’s easy to maintain.

The process is simple. Place the pan over a high flame and let it heat completely through. Spread a little neutral oil such as canola, grapeseed or vegetable oil evenly over the surface of the skillet, using a paper towel to keep the layer relatively thin. You don’t want pools of oil in there. Once the oil starts to smoke, turn off the heat and give the pan a final wipe with a paper towel. Let it cool completely and you’re good to go. Do this after every washing, and you’ll never have to worry about the pan’s surface.

That well-seasoned skillet will come in handy for the latest batch of recipes I’ve been playing with to mark the upcoming COVID-19 impacted Thanksgiving feast. You’ll have to caramelize oodles of onions and spices to cook your way through four soul-satisfying renditions of mashed potatoes inspired by flavors from around the world.

Go ahead, y’all. Satisfy your carb craving with any of the following dishes.

Paul Stephen is a food and drink reporter and restaurant critic in the San Antonio and Bexar County area. To read more from Paul, become a subscriber. pstephen@express-news.net | Twitter: @pjbites | Instagram: @pjstephen

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