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10 Cast-iron cookware myths modern Southern cooks are tired of hearing

Heather Barnett is a freelance writer and foodie whose work has been featured in blogs, websites, magazines, and TV and radio ads. She spends her free time relaxing with her soulmate, Keith; her dog, Mosby "The Fly Slayer;" and Felix th...

Forget everything you thought you knew about cooking with cast-iron skillets

A lot of cooks avoid cast iron because they believe they're a pain, while others are overly devoted to it because they think they're superior in ways they aren't. Regardless of what side of the cast-iron fence you're on, there are a few things Southern cooks are done hearing about one of our favorite kitchen tools.

Myth 1: Cast iron seems strong, but is actually delicate

The myth here revolves around the misconception that cast iron breaks easily and is difficult to maintain because there are a lot of "rules." It can rust to the point of being unsalvageable, chip or even crack or break easily, so it's basically the kitchen equivalent of a Fabergé egg.

Fact: If you can handle nonstick skillets, this bad boy is a breeze

Yes, cast-iron skillets can rust. But that's easy enough to prevent. If you get your cast iron wet, you have to make sure it's well dried.

While there are some things you shouldn't use on cast iron or you'll risk scratching off the seasoning, it's very durable. In fact, if you drop heavy enough cast iron, I'd be more worried about your stove or tile floor than the cookware.

Myth 2: Cast iron is hard to clean

This myth took traction thanks to a lot of very aggressive advice from certain TV chefs who may have put too fine a point on a few things.

Fact: It's actually pretty simple to clean

To clean it: In general, use hot water with a stiff (plastic-bristled) brush. If something is stuck on, pour a little kosher salt into the mix. If you absolutely have to, you can even gently use steel wool and reseason it (last resort only, though). Dry it with paper towels, rub it down with a thin layer of vegetable shortening or oil and pop it into a 200 degree F oven for about 30 minutes. Let it dry for about an hour in the oven, then store it in a clean, dry place. Unless I really have a stuck-on mess, it takes me no longer than cleaning a regular pan (except for the oven time). And it's totally worth it.

The only thing you absolutely cannot do (ever, ever, under any circumstance… seriously, ladies, I mean ever) is let it soak in water or stay wet.

Myth 3: Rusted cast iron is trash

This myth likely has its roots in what happens to your car or other thin or less durable metals when they rust out.

Fact: Rusted cast iron is salvageable

You remove rust from a cast-iron kitchen tool the same way you remove stuck-on food. Pour in some kosher salt and use a soft-bristled brush to rub off the rust spots. If it's really stuck-on, you can gently use a bit of steel wool (again, this is a last resort). Then just reseason it. I advise a couple reseasoning sessions before use if you have to use steel wool.

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Myth 4: Soap will ruin cast iron

One of the properties of cast iron that makes it so great to work with is the seasoning factor. It decreases the likelihood food will stick to cast iron.

Fact: Using soap isn't the end of the world

If you do have to use soap, it's not going to damage the actual metal. It may destroy some of your seasoning. But a little mild dish soap is fine (if you're cleaning and drying your cast-iron properly — more seasoning will be added anyway).

Here's the deal. Soaps are designed to remove oil, but once you add heat to the equation, it polymerizes the oil, creating a plastic-like surface bonded to the metal. So if you haven't been properly maintaining it (i.e., not seasoning it properly each time you dry it), then soap could be a problem. But if you have it all seasoned up and suddenly need soap for a stuck-on mess, it won't harm your skillet.

Myth 5: Cast iron will cause iron poisoning/cast iron will give you your daily dose of iron

Many people think using cast iron will lead to an iron overdose because it leaches loads of iron into your food, which is only true for some. There are others who think it's good for you because it gives you your daily dose of iron, which is also not entirely true.

Fact: Iron leaching levels are safe for most, but they may not give you your daily dose

Cast iron does leach iron, but it may actually be healthy for people who don't have an affliction that causes iron overload. You should have your iron levels checked regularly (especially if you're a woman) regardless of whether you use cast iron.

But don't think using cast iron is a panacea for those with iron deficiencies either. The amount of iron leached actually depends on what you're cooking and for how long.

Myth 6: Steel wool will ruin cast iron

The belief is that steel wool scratches the metal, so should always be avoided.

Fact: In some circumstances, gentle use of steel wool is OK

This myth is true to the extent that it's really not the best thing. In general, you really should use kosher salt as an abrasive rather than steel wool (some also swear by Dobie pads, iron steel cloths, which are less abrasive than steel wool), but if kosher salt or one of these isn't working, gentle use of steel wool may be the only way to save a skillet. Just reseason it well (as though it were new) before you use it again.

More: 15 Foods you've been cooking all wrong

Myth 7: Cast iron is just as nonstick as Teflon

This myth comes from the fact that part of the reason you season a cast-iron skillet is that increases the nonstick nature of it.

Fact: It's nonstick, but may not be as good as Teflon

A really well-seasoned skillet may actually be almost as good as Teflon, but that's tough to maintain. It is more nonstick than, say, a stainless steel pan, but not as much as a gently used Teflon pan.

Myth 8: You can't use metal tools on cast iron

This probably has to do with the nonstick myth. You can't use metal on Teflon, right?

Fact: You absolutely can use metal utensils on cast iron (if you really want)

I suppose you could put some scrapes on an unseasoned cast-iron with metal tools, but most of what you'll really get rid of with metal utensils is a bit of seasoning, which you'll put back in a minute when you properly clean, season and dry it. Now, if you have an issue with the scraping sound, I can't blame you. I only use metal on mine when I might ruin plastic because it's a bit like fingernails on a chalkboard to me. But I'm not sure if my mom (or grandmother for that matter) has ever used anything but metal utensils.

Myth 9: You can never, ever cook acidic foods like tomatoes in cast iron

This is another one that is due to a lot of overblown claims by TV chefs, who claim cooking things like tomatoes or deglazing with vinegar or wine will give your food a metallic taste. The reality is a little more complicated.

Fact: In some circumstances, your cast iron will be fine with acidic foods

Those chefs may have had that experience if they didn't properly season or maintain their skillet. If you've got a new cast iron, I'd avoid tomatoes, vinegar and wine (and other citrus foods). Only a well-seasoned cast iron can actually take it. But it doesn't take years to get to that point either. Honestly, I'm calling foul on some people's experience with cast iron for saying this, but I've used a seasoned but virtually new cast-iron wok to make orange chicken (with OJ) sans any metallic flavor.

Now, if you go nuts and use it only for things like tomato-based, long-cook sauces or if you don't properly season, you'll probably have some issues. If you taste metal after cooking with it, question yourself, not the cast iron, first.

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Myth 10: Cast iron heats evenly

The big myth is that it heats evenly, but that's not actually true.

Fact: Cast iron gets really hot and hold the heat

Copper cookware heats evenly (the heat is evenly distributed across the entire surface… mostly). Cast-iron cookware does get screaming hot (burned myself on it once when I was a kid and I know the definition of screaming hot), but it doesn't exactly heat evenly — not like copper anyway. It distributes heat better than other metals (most of the metals you have in all likelihood) and most importantly, it retains heat. That's why if you need a good sear, cast iron is your friend. It won't drop temp drastically just because you add something cooler.

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