They say you shouldn’t use metal in metal. But is that necessarily true?
More than any other cookware, the metal skillet has long been a staple in the American kitchen. Whether made of steel or iron, bare or coated, a good skillet heats evenly, retains heat well, and slides easily from burner to oven.
Much of the utility of a skillet (in case you are wondering, we use the terms “frying pan” and “skillet” interchangeably) derives from its cooking surface. To a large extent, the lifespan of that cooking surface depends on how well you use and care for the vessel.
Which begs the question: How okay is it to use a metal spatula in a metal frying pan?
You can flip and stir food with a metal utensil in a metal pan, as long as the pan’s cooking surface isn’t non-stick or enameled. Generally, metal utensils can be used on stainless steel, carbon steel, cast iron, and ceramic skillets.
Metal utensils have many merits. Chief among them is that—unlike flabby, twisty silicone and bulky, stiff wood—metal utensils are appropriately thin to slide under the stickiest of ingredients, dependably sturdy to carry the heaviest of foods, and, in the midst of cooking, sufficiently flexible to prevent you from mangling otherwise perfectly prepared delicate eggs or flaky fish fillets.
On top of that, they are also heat-resistant and dishwasher-safe.
Silicone spatulas will melt you leave them for a long time in (or perched on) the hot skillet, no matter what their manufacturers try to tell you in the product descriptions. Wooden spatulas, on the other hand, will swell, warp, splinter, and/or break in the dishwasher. A metal spatula, as you probably know by now, won’t bulge in either scenario.
Last but not least, if you’re not the type of cook to collect cookware, a metal utensil is always within hand’s reach for any kitchen task that involves a skillet: You can flip fish with a fork, stir pasta sauce with a spoon, and slice cast-iron-pan pizza with a knife (the seasoning should build back up the following time you use it).
So far, so good: We’ve established that metal utensils are more or less safe on stainless steel fry pans, seasoned carbon steel and cast iron skillets, and sol-gel-coated ceramic pans.
When does your usage of metal utensils become a problem, then?
When you’re a rough cook. If you cook with gusto but abuse your pans and pots, it’s probably smart to protect your beloved cookware somewhat by using silicone or wooden utensils instead of metal ones.
Or if you cook with vessels whose surfaces are prone to scratching and chipping, namely non-stick frying pans and enameled cast iron skillets. Once again, the solution is to use silicone or wooden utensils—lest you intend to damage your cookware irreparably.
Why You Shouldn’t Use Metal Utensils in Non-Stick Pans
Most non-stick frying pans are basically aluminum skillets whose cooking surface has been sprayed with polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), one of the most slippery surfaces known to man.
Although non-stick coatings consist of multiple layers and are sometimes touted as “scratch-resistant,” especially on higher-end pans, they are thin and quick to get damaged by the head of a metal spatula, the edges of a fork, or the blade of a knife. Which is why, when cooking with them, you should only use silicone or wooden utensils to flip and stir foods.
I know what some of you are thinking… “Come on, Jim! This is a scratch or two we’re talking about. What’s the big deal?”
The problem, especially when it comes to non-stick cookware, is that scratching the non-stick coating can expose the bare aluminum underneath. And aluminum, as you probably know by know, is a toxic and highly reactive metal.
A scratched non-stick pan can react with the acidity of your food and leach significant amounts of aluminum into your home-cooked meals, giving them a strong metallic aftertaste and making them unhealthy. This is especially true if you prepare recipes with canned tomatoes, lemon juice, vinegar, and wine; longer simmering times result in greater leaching.
When you’ve scratched your non-stick pan, you should throw it away and get a new one. And, since these pans don’t last forever in the first place—the coating starts to peel off after 1 to 3 years of daily use—the only way to make them worth your while is to use and care for them properly.
The Reason Enameled Skillets and Metal Utensils Don’t Get Along
Unlike non-stick frying pans, which are made of an aluminum body sprayed with PTFE, enameled cast iron skillets comprise what their name implies—a cast iron cooking vessel enameled with a vitreous coating colloquially known as “porcelain.”
This all sounds fancy, but the production process of enameled cast iron skillets is a rather uncomplicated one: Iron is melted in a 2,732°F (1,500°C) kiln. Once it’s red-hot, the molten iron is poured in a mold of compressed sand, where it cools until it’s solidified.
The result is a brand new cast iron cooking vessel. Most manufacturers smoothen the surface, and all apply a primer that allows the enamel to adhere to the metal. Once the primer has been applied, the cast iron skillets are sprayed with hot glass. They are then fired at 1472°F (800°C) until the coating has baked onto the metal.
The result is a cast iron skillet with an enameled coating that is tough and heat resistant, but also thin and brittle. If you hit it too hard with a metal utensil, the enamel can chip and crack, and will end up damaged.
Although you can still cook in an enameled cookware with a chipped or cracked coating, why risk damaging it in the first place? These vessels are expensive and should be used with the care and attention they deserve. Nine times out of ten, all it takes is to use a silicone or wooden spatula.
The Myth About Scratching Stainless Steel Cookware
Not every home cook knows that stainless steel is a poor conductor of heat. A frying pan made out of stainless steel alone would take forever to get hot, and would heat unevenly, too—with cold spots and hot spots.
To counteract this weakness, manufacturers use stainless steel for the interior and exterior to make their vessels resistant to corrosion and rust, but add a sheet of aluminum or copper as a disk attached to the bottom of the pan or as part of the pan’s structure (in the case of the latter, the pan is called a “clad” pan).
Since both aluminum and copper are reactive (and toxic) metals, it is only natural to wonder if a scratched stainless steel pan is safe to use. The fact of the matter is that, in 99% of the cases, it probably is.
The cooking surface of most stainless steel pans consists of a 1-3 mm thick metal sheet. This cooking surface can take scratches, but, unless you’re stirring your food with an electric drill, you’ll have a hard time piercing it enough to reveal an aluminum or copper core.