Cast iron pans are a favorite of many chefs and home cooks because they’re durable, versatile, nonstick, and relatively inexpensive. They can go from stovetop to oven with ease and are fantastic for searing meat. But as always, safety is paramount when it comes to your family’s health. Some concerns about cast iron pans stem from leaching iron into the food. Let’s take a closer look at what we know so far!
What are cast iron pans, and why are they used?
Cast iron pans are forged by melting blocks of iron and steel together and then poured into a sand mold. Machining each pan from solid blocks of this metal was how early cookware makers could produce their products. While cast iron has been around for a long time, it has become more popular today for its durability, better heat retention, and ability to sustain high temperatures. Cast iron is a common choice for searing or frying due to its excellent heat retention abilities. It makes an ideal long-cooking stew because it has incredible heat retention abilities. Cast iron pans can also develop a nonstick surface given proper handling and care; this means that less oil is required to prevent food from sticking to it – perfect if you want to fry potatoes.
Is cast iron safe for cooking?
In short: Yes, cast iron cookware is generally safe to use with proper care.
You’ve probably heard that cooking in a cast iron pan releases iron into your food, constituting a health hazard. While cast iron can leach into food from cookware, particularly from cooking acidic food, research has shown that one is more likely to be iron deficient; this means the chances of iron overload is quite slim. However, if you are genetically more likely to overload on iron or are a frequent red meat eater, it may be helpful to learn more about your daily iron intake.
Depending on the age of the cast iron pan, the acidity of the food cooked, and how long it was cooked, the amount of iron leaching into your food can be significant, and in some cases, even exceeding the recommended dietary intake. Acidic foods such as tomatoes, vinegar, and citrus will result in more leaching, while an older, more seasoned pan will leach less. So, to reduce the leaching of iron, make sure it’s well seasoned so that the coating acts as a barrier between the food and the iron cooking surface.
Aside from iron leaching, another common concern raised is that cast iron pans can easily collect moisture and develop rust. If you’re not careful, you could be consuming the rust that got into the food while cooking. However, nothing will likely happen from consuming a small amount of rust, according to toxicologist James H. Woods, Ph.D. No studies show any association of health issues with eating food prepared in rusted cookware, and its connection to tetanus is a myth. While tetanus is a potentially fatal infection of the nervous system, it’s caused by bacteria, not rust itself. These are bacteria usually found in soil and animal feces – which just so happens to be where you’ll find rusty nails too! Like preventing iron leaching, seasoning your pan would reduce its exposure to moisture and reduce the chances of rust developing.
Is cast iron safer than nonstick?
It depends on how you’re using the cooking pan and if you’re susceptible to iron overload since iron may leach into your food when cooking with a cast iron pan. The coating from a nonstick pan is made from a chemical known as Teflon. Teflon is a safe and relatively stable compound that withstands high temperatures. However, at temperatures above 570°F (300 °C), Teflon coatings on nonstick cookware start to break down, releasing toxic chemicals into the air. Inhaling these fumes may lead to Polymer Fume Fever, also known as “Teflonsyndrom”. This means that if you’re planning to cook at a temperature above 570°F (300 °C), it would be better to use a cast iron instead as it has no problem withstanding high temperatures.
Some misconceptions mislead many into thinking Teflon pans are toxic. However, concerns over toxins have to do with another synthetic chemical compound – Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). The chemical PFOA was once used in the process of making Teflon. It is potentially a health concern as it can stay in the human body for a prolonged period. Even though PFOA is essentially burned off from the final product during the process, it has been replaced with a safer alternative in all Teflon products since 2013. This is due to growing evidence linking it to an increased risk for cancer among humans.
How to tell if your pan is made out of cast iron?
- Use a magnet: iron is highly magnetic. Although you can’t be sure if it’s iron since other materials such as steel are also magnetic, it’d help you eliminate some possibilities, such as Aluminum.
- Handles: Cast iron pans have shorter handles, and they are mostly cast with the pan; that is, the handle is a single piece with the pan and not riveted or screwed on.
- Weight: Cast iron pans are typically much heavier and thicker than pans made of another material. It would be helpful if you had similar-sized cookware for weight comparison.
- The most accurate way is to look for the cookware brand and model and check directly with the manufacturer.
What is enameled cast iron?
Enameled cast iron cookware has a glaze applied to the iron surface. This eliminates the need to season the pan as the enamel coating will limit iron leaching into food and prevent rusting, allowing for more thorough cleaning. Due to its low porosity, it’s also naturally nonstick, making the cooking experience smoother. However, enamel-coated cast iron cookware can be expensive, costing three or four times its bare cast iron counterpart. If safety is your utmost concern, you should go for it as it is non-reactive and is thus wholly non-toxic and safe to cook any food.
What shouldn’t you cook in cast iron pans?
You can cook anything with cast iron pans if the pan is seasoned since the food will not directly contact the iron metal. However, if you’re using a new cast iron pan, you might want to avoid cooking acidic food as it may react with iron and cause the metal to leach into the food. As mentioned, the additional iron intake is unlikely to pose a health hazard. That said, it does change the food’s flavor with a metallic taste and may create pores on the pan’s surface. Some of the commonly used acidic foods are tomatoes, vinegar, and citrus.
Tips on maintaining your cast iron pan
Cast iron is a durable material that can last for decades, but it still requires maintenance and care.
Keep it dry: If you don’t clean your pan promptly after using it or if there’s water left inside the pan after washing, rust spots can form on its surface over time. Once you’re done using it, simply wash with a bit of soap and water and dry on high heat before storing it in an area that’s not humid.
Reseason frequently: Don’t forget to season your cast iron pans often, especially if they are new. The layer of seasoning will naturally form and thicken over time as you use the pan. This will help create a layer between the iron surface and your food to prevent iron leaching and reduce the chances for rust spots to form.
- Stainless steel: Stainless steel is excellent for sautéing and browning food. It is durable and scratch-resistant. It’s also dishwasher safe, making it easy to clean.
- Stoneware: For thousands of years, stoneware has been used for cooking and baking. It can be heated evenly without burning the food on its surface because it’s nonstick once properly seasoned and is immune to scratches and knife marks!
- Ceramic cookware: Ceramic cookware has excellent nonstick properties, but the downside is it scratches pretty easily if you aren’t careful. It would be best to be more cautious when doing the cleaning because they are not as sturdy.
- Silicone cookware: Silicone is an excellent alternative to metal and wooden utensils because it’s heat-resistant and can withstand high temperatures. However, it doesn’t stand up well to direct heat, so it’s more commonly used in bakeware and utensils instead of pots and pans.
Cast iron pans are old-fashioned, tried and tested cooking pans used for centuries. Cast iron pans are traditionally used for cooking because they can distribute heat evenly without sticking or burning, making them perfect for searing meat, frying eggs, and omelets, or even baking biscuits with a few drops of oil or butter. The key takeaway? They are one of the most durable and versatile cookware without much safety concern as long as they are maintained well. If you’ve read this post in its entirety, you should have the knowledge necessary to make your own decision about what’s best for your cooking needs. Do consult with the manufacturer if you still have any doubts!