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Extension Agent: Cooking with cast iron

By By Erika Bochat
Oct. 1, 2013 at 5:01 a.m.

Erika Bochat

I have three cast-iron pieces of cookware sitting alternately on my gas stove top and in my oven and enjoy using them just about every day. The double burner griddle is a favorite for searing meats and vegetables.

The 8-inch skillet is the best non-stick pan we have for eggs, and I inherited my handled comal from my paternal grandmother, and I don't heat up a (wheat) flour tortilla without thinking of her. Is it like that for you with your kitchen cookware?

Bare cast-iron vessels have been used for cooking for hundreds of years. Cast-iron cookware was especially popular among homemakers and housekeepers during the first half of the 20th century.

Most American households had at least one cast-iron cooking pan, and such brands as Griswold and Wagner Ware were especially popular. The Lodge Manufacturing company is currently the only major manufacturer of cast-iron cookware in the U.S., as most other cookware suppliers use pots and pans made in Asia or Europe.

As with other things, cast iron fell out of favor in the '60s and '70s, as teflon-coated aluminum non-stick cookware was introduced and quickly became the item of choice in many kitchens. Today, cast iron comprises only a small fraction of cookware, which can be purchased from kitchen suppliers.

The durability and reliability of cast iron as a cooking tool has ensured its survival, and cast-iron cookware is still recommended by most cooks and chefs as an essential part of any kitchen. Cast iron's ability to withstand and maintain very high cooking temperatures makes it a common choice for searing or frying, and its excellent heat retention makes it a good option for long-cooking stews.

Because cast-iron skillets can develop a "non-stick" surface, they are also a good choice for egg dishes. Other uses of cast-iron pans include baking cornbread, cobblers and cakes.

Most bare cast-iron pots and pans are cast from a single piece of metal in order to provide even distribution of heat. This quality allows most bare cast-iron pans to serve as dual-purpose stovetop fryers and oven baking dishes.

Many recipes call for the use of a cast-iron skillet or pot, especially so that the dish can be initially seared or fried on the stovetop then transferred into the oven, pan and all, to finish baking. Likewise, cast-iron skillets can double as baking dishes.

But beware, cast iron is a very slow conductor of heat and forms hot spots if heated too quickly or on an undersized burner. Even though it has excellent heat retention properties, the entire pan will eventually become extremely hot, including the iron handle or handles.

A seasoned pan has a stick-resistant coating created by polymerized oils and fats. Seasoning is a process by which a layer of animal fat or vegetable oil is applied and cooked into cast iron cookware. The seasoning layer protects the cookware from rusting, provides a non-stick surface for cooking and prevents food from interacting with the iron of the pan.

Most cast iron cookware requires reseasoning yearly to ensure a non-stick surface and to protect the surface from rust. Ordinary cookware cleaning techniques, like scouring or washing in a dishwasher, can remove or damage the seasoning on a bare cast iron pan, so these pans should not be cleaned like most other cookware.

Some cast-iron aficionados advocate never cleaning cast iron pans at all, simply wiping them out after each use or washing them with hot water and a stiff brush. Others advocate washing with mild soap and water, and then reapplying a thin layer of fat or oil. A third approach is to scrub with coarse salt or baking soda and a paper towel or clean cloth.

Studies show that cooking in cast iron can leach iron into food. Foods that are high in moisture, very acidic or are long-cooked leach the most. For many people, the extra iron is beneficial, but for a small minority of people who are sensitive to iron, it can be harmful.

The most quoted study on the effects of cast-iron cookware on iron levels is the July 1986 study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association. The pan used in that study had only been seasoned by daily usage for a couple of weeks prior to the study. As the study pointed out, better seasoned pans leach less iron. Unfortunately, there is no data on iron leaching in decadesold pans.

Sources: Geerligs, PD; Brabin, BJ (2003 Aug). "Food prepared in iron cooking pots as an intervention for reducing iron deficiency anemia in developing countries: a systematic review.". J Hum Nutr Diet. Retrieved 5 December 2012.

Andrew Weil MD (March 21, 2006). "Cooking with Cast-Iron?. DrWeil.com. Retrieved January 25, 2011

Erika Bochat is a Victoria County extension agent - Family and Consumer Sciences.

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