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How to Use a Skillet to Improve Every Meal of the Day

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Photo: Campbell's; Illustration: Allie Pakrosnis/Thrillist

Whether you swear by a hi-tech nonstick pan or a passed-down cast iron, your skillet is about as crucial to your kitchen as your fridge. But if you’re someone who only breaks out a skillet to fry an egg, you’re missing out on a world of simple dishes and tricks that can elevate any meal -- if you know how to work your equipment. The skillet is a 10-inch (or 12-inch) canvas for easy-to-master culinary creativity, suitable for any time of the day. We broke down the tricks to know for using your skillet at every mealtime, plus some recipes for practicing those newfound skills. 

BREAKFAST

Choose the right pan

When it comes to that most important meal of the day, chances are you’ll want to reach for a nonstick skillet, rather than cast iron or stainless steel. The nonstick coating will make it easier to flip eggs, pancakes & crepes, and easily release frittatas (like this cheddar broccoli recipe made with Campbell's® soup). Acidic foods (like tomatoes) especially can eat away at the seasoning on a cast iron, so unless yours is seriously well-seasoned, keep that shakshuka in a nonstick or stainless (just make sure it’s oven-safe). On the other hand, cast iron has a better thermal emissivity, meaning it radiates heat instead of just conducting it (heating via contact). Therefore, home fries should go in your cast iron, which will cook the center of the potatoes and not just the surface.

Nail the flip

Few things are more crowd-pleasing than a perfect omelet flip. But when the pan is hot and the clock is ticking, it’s easy for things to go wrong. That’s why it’s worth practicing in a low-stakes environment. The technique is taught in culinary school by taking a bag of dried beans, throwing them into a pan, then flip and repeat ’til you have it down. Remember to be confident, since a soft-handed flip will just dump your omelet onto the stove. Once you’ve got the technique figured out, give it a test run on a batch of buttermilk pancakes before upgrading to your omelet of choice.

Learn your potato basics

Potato cooking methods vary wildly, so improving your skills will come down to experience and repetition. When it comes to hash browns, squeezing out the moisture from the shredded potatoes pre-fry is key. Salting right before you flip can also decrease the sogginess. For that other breakfast potato, home fries, start by boiling small cubes in salt water, drain, then shake up the pot with a lid on to give them a rougher edge. This will give the potatoes a better surface for absorbing oil once you’ve transferred them to your skillet. 

LUNCH

Fry a sandwich

Yes, you can put your sandwiches in a pan. Pan-frying them is the perfect finishing move, giving you melty cheese and a golden-brown outer crust. A grilled cheese is an always popular choice, but you can fry any type of sandwich by easily improvising a panini press. Just heat up a smaller, empty skillet (preferably a cast iron for the extra weight), then gently place it on top of your sandwich in another pan to press. Buttering the outside of the bread will give you a tastier crust, but for a healthier option you can also spray the pan with just enough oil to prevent sticking. For even more smushing, add some add extra weight to the pile (a full tea kettle makes a decent and fireproof weight). An added bonus of frying: it makes your sandwiches the perfect vehicle for dipping into soup, like Campbell’s® Condensed Tomato Soup.

Rethink cold salads 

Your lunchtime salad could use a skillet upgrade. For a dash of protein, fry up some bacon and chop it fine. The next option is to char your toppings, cooking them in a thin layer of oil over high heat. (You can even save the flavored oil for dressing.) If that’s still not enough skillet-ing, you can always take the whole salad and toss it in a deep pan to steam, lettuce and all. This method works best for salads with crunchy veggies (like peppers, broccoli, and carrots) and heartier lettuces (like kale or escarole) that will keep some texture after cooking down. Add your vegetables and about ¼ cup of water to the skillet, cover, and let it steam -- just be careful not to cook for too long, or unevenly. Start checking it after about 3 minutes and toss as needed. 

Photo: Shutterstock; Illustration: Allie Pakrosnis/Thrillist

DINNER

Get the perfect sear with cast iron

Dinner is where the cast iron skillet shines, since it holds heat well and allows for more even cooking. (As an added perk, it’s basically indestructible and builds a natural non-stick seasoning over time.) It also transitions between stovetop and oven, making it more versatile than other types of skillets. Basically, searing a big slab of meat like steak or pork chops is what cast iron was made for. When searing, make sure you have the heat on high (this is another point for the cast iron, since nonstick coatings can be unsafe at high temperatures). Try not to crowd the pan, since steam coming off the meat can interrupt the caramelization of its neighbors. Finally, resist the temptation to fuss with the meat. Giving it a few uninterrupted minutes to cook will ensure your crust is thorough. After a few minutes, shake the pan -- if it unsticks easily, it’s ready to be flipped.

Cook your whole meal in a skillet

The one-pan meal is a home cook's best friend and a skillet is the perfect versatile vessel for pulling it off because of its ability to sear, saute, and simmer. The best skillet to use here is a 12-inch one with a lid, which will give you enough room to maneuver a meal's worth of ingredients. Many one-pan recipes are a protein-rice combo, allowing you to simmer the rice in the juices of the meat you just cooked. For a faster cook time, it's worth trying instant rice, like in this Chicken BLT Skillet that uses a can of Campbell's® soup to give the rice a creamy, risotto-like texture. If you want to go even more minimalist, check out this chicken & rice recipe made with Campbell's® Condensed Cream of Chicken Soup that cooks in just 15 minutes, giving you more time to admire your lack of dishes.

Upgrade your meat with pan sauces

The main benefit of skillet cooking versus grilling is that you get to keep your juices. Plus, those bits of meat left stuck to the pan are the most caramelized parts, so they pack lots of flavor. You’ll just need to unstick them from their pan prison to unlock it. That process is known as deglazing, and it’s fairly simple: just pour some broth/stock, wine, or vinegar into the pan after draining the fat (acidic liquids will do a better job of loosening the drippings). Then simmer on low to reduce the sauce. For a simple starting point, try this pork medallions recipe, which uses balsamic vinegar and chicken broth in the deglazing.

Photo: Shutterstock/Joshua Resnick; Illustration: Allie Pakrosnis/Thrillist

DESSERT

Don’t be afraid to bake in cast iron

Almost any pie recipe can be converted to work in cast iron, as long as you keep in mind that most pie dishes are 9 inches in diameter and skillets are usually 10 inches. That means you’ll need more dough to cover that diameter and the deeper dish, but don’t feel like you have to make the crust go all the way up the sides. Since cast iron will radiate heat differently than a pie dish, you’ll want to bake it on the bottom rack of the oven for an even crust. Don’t stop at pies, either: cobblers, rolls, and even giant chocolate chip cookies can be baked in a cast iron skillet. 

Turn fruit into something sweeter

Caramelizing fruit in a skillet is quick, easy, and (relatively) good for you. Almost any fruit can be cooked this way with some butter, salt and sugar, although the process usually works best with just under-ripe fruits that are a bit firmer and won’t lose their texture (think apples or pears). Again, be mindful of acidity -- if you consistently caramelize citrus fruit like oranges, you could be eating away at your cast iron’s seasoning, so keep those in a nonstick. Before tossing your fruit in the skillet, make sure to cut it into smaller, uniformly-sized pieces or slices so it cooks evenly. Then, once you’ve mastered the process, you can start turning those caramelized fruits into tarts or toppings for more complex desserts.

SNACKS

Make your skillet part of the presentation

If you’re going big on snacks, save yourself the extra cleanup by using the skillet as your serving dish. A bean dip; buffalo chicken dip; or this broccoli, cheese & bacon dip make a great addition to any barbecue or tailgate, and can be cooked in a cast iron pan on the stove or in the oven. For an even simpler option, make skillet nachos by cooking ground beef, beans, corn, and tomatoes in a pan, sprinkling with shredded cheese, and serve with tortilla chips.