Reasons to Become a Cast Iron Fanatic!
We talk a LOT about food and recipes. But one thing we sometimes forget is that it’s not just food choices and marvelous recipes that matter, how we prepare it as a huge part of the picture.
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.
So with that established, let’s look at the 6 benefits of a favorite cooking vessel, the classic cast iron pan, as shared by Lily Nichols, a Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist, Certified Diabetes Educator, researcher, and food/cooking author.
In the past, we Cook’n authors have talked about how to season this cookware, what to make in it, and how to properly clean it. But now let’s talk about another biggie, how cast iron actually benefits what’s cooked in it.
1. Naturally Non-stick. Non-stick pans made with Teflon just aren’t healthy. 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 link PFCs to numerous health problems relating to hormones, liver dysfunction, and brain health. And nursing mothers especially need to be aware of PFCs, as they pass through breast milk.
Besides making their way into your food, PFCs end up in landfills and polluting waterways, meaning they end 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, MINUS the chemicals.
2. Fortifies Food With Iron. It’s not an old wives’ tale. Well established research shows when cooked in cast iron, acidic foods and those cooked for longer periods of time accumulate 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. 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.
3. Even Cooking Temperature. Cast iron pans are hefty; 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 dinner from accidentally burning.
Now here are three additional benefits to cast iron that make it a sure win:
4. They Are (nearly) Indestructible. With reasonable care, you can’t kill it. Even an old rusty pan returns to life with some elbow grease. 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 (aka patina).
And you don’t need to molly-coddle it with plastic or wooden utensils as you do non-stick pans. (By the way, 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!
5. Easy To Clean. If you believe cast iron is difficult to care for, here’s a simple 30 second solution: Once your food is ready, simply serve up, emptying the pan. With the pan still hot, run hot water into it and scrape off any food bits with your metal spatula or a stiff brush. 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.)
6. Cheap! Cast iron remains some of the most inexpensive cookware on the market. A new 10-inch cast iron skillet is around $25 (maybe $5 at a thrift store). And I found a 12-inch Lodge® cast iron skillet (pictured) on Walmart’s website marked down from $39.50 to $19.92! 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.
Now that you understand my fanaticism for cast iron, I’d love to get your opinion. And as a “thank you” for enduring my soapbox rant, here’s a 5-star cast iron skillet cornbread recipe we all rave about!
BROWN BUTTER CORNBREAD
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter
½ cup maple syrup
2 ¼ cups buttermilk
3 large eggs
1 ½ cups yellow cornmeal, fine or medium-coarse grind
¼ cup whole wheat flour
¾ cup all-purpose flour
1 ¾ tablespoons baking powder
1 ½ teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
Heat oven to 375 degrees. On the stovetop, in a 11- or 12-inch skillet (ovenproof and preferably cast iron), melt the butter over medium heat. Cook, swirling pan to lightly coat sides and bottom, until the foam subsides and the butter turns a deep nut brown. (Watch carefully to see that it does not burn.)
Pour brown butter into a large bowl. (Do not wipe out the pan.) Whisk the maple syrup into the butter, then whisk in buttermilk. The mixture should be cool to the touch; if not, let cool before whisking in the eggs. Then whisk in the cornmeal, flours, baking powder, salt and baking soda.
If the skillet is no longer hot (cast iron retains heat longer than other metals), reheat it briefly on the stove for a few minutes. Scrape batter back into it. Bake until the top is golden brown and a toothpick inserted into it emerges clean, 30 to 40 minutes. Cool in the skillet for 10 minutes before slicing.
DVO Newsletter Contributor since 2006
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