Cooking in Cast Iron – Granny had it Right

 Author: Ron Baughman: cooking in cast iron – granny had it right

   We recently discovered an article about Cast Iron Skillets on the Americas Test Kitchens site mentioning potential  hazards of using teflon cookware. As the debate about teflon pan safety has been ongoing for years, and since we own a number of these pans, we decided to catch up on some recent research. As I have been replacing my current cookware with Cast Iron it was worth taking the time to see if this was indeed justified.

Cooking in cast iron has been done for ages and other than providing a little extra iron in the diet has little health risk associated with use. A well seasoned pan will develop a great non-stick surface with usage and other than its weight, which provides some additional safety in the kitchen, is no more difficult to take care of than their chemically treated cousins.

On the teflon side, the issue appears to be the production of PFOA used in the production of non-stick coatings at elevated temperatures. The EPA in 2006, in conjunction with the manufacturers, has been working to eliminate PFOA usage by 2015. The issue of elevated temperatures was highlighted in an article from the Environmental Working Group dated May 2003.

According to the EWG study non-stick pans have been shown to produce toxic gases when heated to temperatures above 464 degrees, which can occur on a normal electric stove when preheating a pan on high heat (no one does this, right?) . Some cooking takes place at high heats, especially if you like grill marks on your food, or like stir-fry. In addition to the heat issue are the pans surface integrity and I’ve read a number of articles recommending not using pans with scratches.

With the above in mind, here is my take on replacement.

Weight:
Sure cast iron cookware weighs more, but it’s less likely to get pulled off the stove and pour that hot liquid down the front of your kid.

Durability:
No contest here. You can always renew the surface of a cast iron pan, not so the non-stick which should be discarded if it’s scratched, unless you like little black bits masquerading as pepper in your food. You can also use metal utensils in the food preparation if you like de-glazing for gravy.

Cleaning:
One issue people seem to have about Cast Iron Cookware centers on cleaning. You can’t put it in the dishwasher as it will rust. I know there are some adventurous types that have done this with a well seasoned pot but I sure wouldn’t. A lot of non-stick manufacturers also recommend against dishwashers as well due to the abrasive effects of dishwasher soap. The same non-stick cleaning technique applies equally as well to cast iron in that a mild detergent and hot water works well. Just remember to dry though thoroughly and apply a quick hit of some kind of cooking spray.

Treat it like any good piece of cookware. As long as it’s clean and dried thoroughly it won’t rust, and if well seasoned won’t mind some hot water and mild detergent. If it does require more than the usual cleaning, sand it down and re-season it.

Seasoning:
Cast iron requires seasoning in order to maintain its inherent non-stick properties. Most cookware sold today comes pre-seasoned already, but a quick rub of oil on new cookware and an hours rest in a 350 oven is usually a good idea to start with.

Acidic food:
I’ve cooked spaghetti sauces and chili in mine for years and as long as you don’t let it sit for two weeks in the pot and clean it there shouldn’t be any problem. Alternating different foods is also an excellent idea.

Heat:
You can get a lot more mileage cooking with cast iron over lower heats than any other cookware. It heats uniformly which aids in cooking. I rarely ever have to go above a medium heat with my Dutch oven when browning meat or preparing soups.

There’s also enameled cast iron cookware if you don’t want the re-seasoning issue with the standard black iron cookware.

Whether it’s a home cook or a master chef, pots and pans are a significant investment in food preparation and require care to maintain all the great food that is produced by them. Cast iron cookware is a great investment and the perceived extra care required is outweighed by the need to replace the cookware every few years due to normal wear.

References:

EWG finds heated Teflon pans can turn toxic faster than DuPont claims
Published May 2003 by the Environmental Working Group
http://www.ewg.org/reports/toxicteflon

2010/2015 PFOA Stewardship Program
http://www.epa.gov/opptintr/pfoa/pubs/stewardship/index.html

Americas Test Kitchen, Season 8, Cast Iron Skillets
http://www.americastestkitchen.com/equipment-reviews/detail.php?docid=10685&extcode=M**ASCA00

About the Author:

Ron is the owner of The Cast Iron Pan Store, a site devoted to the preparation of healthy (for the most part) foods using cast iron cooking, and providing a wide assortment of cast iron cookware. His wife of 33 years, Roberta also enjoys cast iron cooking as long as he cooks and cleans.


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