Why Cooking with Cast Iron is Good for You (and When It Isn't)

Cast iron: the healthier non-stick pan

Over the past several years, I've upgraded lots of the ingredients in my pantry and my cooking tools.  But one thing in my kitchen still bothers me: my rotating collection of non-stick pans, which I keep around for those few recipes where stainless steel just won't cut it.  As much as I try to avoid it, they eventually get scratched, and I know are leaching all kinds of nonsense into my beautiful, home-cooked meals.  

So last week, I finally invested in a piece of cookware that is naturally non-stick and has been a cook's favorite for centuries: a 10-inch cast iron skillet.  Although I've cooked with cast iron for years professionally and have a cast iron pot, this was my first cast iron pan purchase and I'm in love.  

Pump up your iron

In addition to its lack of industrial chemical coating, this skillet is healthy because it adds an essential nutrient to your meals.  It almost sounds too logical to be true, but cooking in a cast iron pan is actually a good way to get more iron into your diet.  

One study that tested 20 different foods cooked in cast iron, found that all of them increased in iron content, often by several milligrams.  If you are eating lots of iron-rich animal foods, fortified cereals or supplements, you probably don't want or need more iron. (Too much iron, like many nutrients, can be a bad thing; as always talk to your doctor).  

However, if you've been told by your medical practitioner to increase your iron intake, in addition to iron-rich foods like liver, red meat, chickpeas, lentils, leafy greens and blackstrap molasses, start to cook more in a cast iron pan.  Particularly those with anemia, pregnant, menstruating or postpartum woman, children, vegetarians/vegans/red-meat abstainers and athletes are often told to get more iron.

But first let's talk about why many people aren't cooking with cast iron at home.

Reasons people don't like cast iron

  • it's heavy (this is especially a deterrent for those with twig arms like me)
  • it gets washed differently than other pans
  • it can rust
  • there's confusion and mystery about how to use them

However, in addition to its ability to add just a touch more iron to food, there are other reasons to use cast iron.

Why I like cast iron

  • Food doesn't stick.  Ok, so you are aren't going to get Teflon or Reagan levels of of non-stickiness, but you can definitely fry an egg or crisp up some quinoa cakes in this pan, without making a big mess.  The oil seasoning on the pan prevents food from sticking; the longer you own and season the pan, the more non-stick it will become.
  • It's totally cheapsville.  A cast iron pan will generally run you between $20-30.  (I just added the Lodge brand one I have to my Amazon affiliate store because it's on sale for $15.92 as of this writing)
  • Yes, you can wash it.  A long soak in the sink or harsh scrubbing with industrial soap can strip the seasoning.  But gently wiping out with a paper towel or quickly washing with a sponge in soapy water is OK.  Just pop it on the stove again and heat for a few minutes to help it dry out completely and wipe with a fresh touch of oil (The Kitchn has a good detailed post on cleaning cast iron.)
  • If you give it love, it will love you back.  Unlike the no-good heartbreakers in country music songs, cast iron will stick around for good if you take care of.  Dry and oil it after each use, don't soak it in the sink, and don't cook an acidic tomato sauce in it for 4 hours and you'll be good to go.  

Could a cast iron pan be good for you?  Maybe!  If not, you can pass it along to your grandchildren one day, because unlike those cheap-o nonstick pans that stay unscratched for like 6 weeks, a cast iron pan is totally a legacy piece.

Want to learn how to use cast-iron?  

Join me at my upcoming Clean Eating: Filling Fats classes (March 13May 18) to see and taste cast iron-made chickpea crepes plus more nutritious and filling recipes for breakfast, lunch and dinner.