Sometimes we can get so focused on what food we should or should not be eating that we lose sight of the bigger picture. It’s not just the food that matters, it’s how we prepare it.
And the pots and pans we cook with are just as important as the food that goes in them.
If you’re spending your hard earned cash on quality local and organic foods, I sure hope you’re using cookware that enhances the health benefits.
In today’s post, I explore the benefits of one of my favorite cooking vessels, the classic cast iron pan. In addition to covering the benefits of cooking in cast iron, I delve into some of the issues with other types of cookware.
Non-stick pans made with Teflon are everywhere these days, but they aren’t good for our health. When heated to high temperatures, and especially when the pan is dry (like when you’re preheating a pan before searing meat or stir-frying), they release chemicals into the air called perfluorinated compounds (PFCs). Scratched non-stick releases even more PFCs into your food. Studies have linked certain PFCs, namely PFOA and PFOS, to numerous health problems relating to hormones, liver dysfunction, and brain health. PFCs are particularly important for mothers to avoid, as it passes through breastmilk. (Environ Sci Technol, 2006)
PFC bioaccumulation has become an increasing public health concern as emerging evidence suggests reproductive toxicity, neurotoxicity and hepatotoxicity, and some PFCs are considered to be likely human carcinogens. – Public Health, 2010
These chemicals not only make their way into your food, but they end up down the drain and in landfills, polluting waterways and ending up back in the food chain (like fish that live in contaminated water). Even worse, they take many years to biodegrade.
But, back to the bright side… When “seasoned” properly, cast iron pans are naturally non-stick, just without the chemicals. For more on seasoning and caring for cast iron, see #2.
I grew up cooking in cast iron, mostly because that’s what my mom used, and I got used to how easy it is to clean. I remember the first time I cooked a meal in a stainless steel pan I couldn’t believe how much “elbow grease” I had to use to scour off the brown bits. With cast iron, food releases from the pan easily, making clean up a breeze.
Some people find cast iron difficult to care for, so here’s my simple solution. Once your food is ready, simply serve up, emptying the pan. With the pan still hot (and presumably holding it by the handle with a hot mitt) take the pan to the sink and under hot running water, scrape off any food bits with your metal spatula. Return the pan to the stove to dry, wipe with a paper towel dipped in a little oil, and enjoy your meal. (That last sentence is how you maintain the seasoning on your cast iron pan. If you don’t dry the pan and add a little oil, the pan can rust.)
The above method literally takes 30 seconds and saves me from having to scrub the pan and damage the seasoning. If I happen to be lazy and leave the pan dirty, no big deal. I’ll do the above (wash, dry, wipe with oil) and set the pan on the stove on low for 5 minutes to restore the seasoning. Lodge also has a great tutorial on caring for cast iron.
How would it sound to have a pan that actually fortifies your food?
Cast iron is it!
While it’s well accepted that cast iron increases iron content of food, few sources actually quantify the change, which always made me question if that was an old wives’ tale. In a little known study from 1965, researchers measured the iron content of 7 foods cooked in cast iron or glass. Acidic foods and those cooked for longer periods of time accumulated the most iron. Tomato sauce, for example, had 87.5 mg of iron when cooked in a cast iron pan, but a mere 3.0 mg when cooked in a glass pan (per 100g serving, which is less than ½ cup). Even non-acidic and quick cooking foods, like eggs and fried potatoes, averaged a five-fold increase in iron content when cooked in an iron skillet.
This is especially good news for menstruating females or pregnant moms who have increased iron needs or, for whatever reason, don’t eat enough iron-rich foods.
Cast iron remains some of the most inexpensive cookware on the market. A brand new 10 inch cast iron skillet is a mere $25 (and probably $5 at a thrift store). On the other end of the spectrum, a quality heavy-bottomed stainless steel pan that same size will run you over $100. And, because cast iron lasts forever, it’s a one-time purchase. I’ll explain in #5.
Let me paint you a picture to illustrate my point. A few years ago, I came across a cast iron pan that had been sitting out in the elements for at least a decade. This thing was so corroded, it was almost beyond repair. I’m not really sure what inspired me to attempt to refurbish this thing. A metal scraper was too wimpy to take off the centimeter-thick layer of iron oxide, so I resorted to a thick chunk of scrap steel to scrape off the worst of it (do I sound like a hobo yet?). Then with a little help from a wire brush and a lot of determination, I had that pan looking good as new in an afternoon.
That same pan is part of our outdoor gear and is regularly placed directly over a campfire when we car camp. Like I said, nearly indestructible. And unlike any other cookware, cast iron improves with age. With each use, the cooking surface becomes more smooth, allowing oil to seep into the surface and continually improve the seasoning (or as some like to call it, the patina).
But Teflon coated non-stick pans? If you use a metal spatula by accident once, the thing is trashed. Really though, stop cooking with scratched non-stick (see #1) Even if your non-stick is unscratched, any cookware that requires you use plastic utensils is icky. Cooking with a plastic spatula melts tiny bits of plastic into your food. Ew! Really, there’s no reason to own a non-stick pan (or plastic spatulas) when you have cast iron!
Cast iron pans are noticeably hefty and their weight is part of their magic, allowing them to hold heat longer than most other pans. This works well, whether you’re searing a steak at a high temp, or simmering a stew on low. If you don’t have the most reliable stove, a cast iron pan can help prevent you from accidentally burning dinner. Non-burnt dinner is always a win!
Now that you understand my fanaticism for cast iron, I’d love to get your opinion.
Until next week,
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