The reasons why we love a classic cast-iron skillet include but are in no way limited to the following: Pizza. Burgers. Peach crisp. Giant biscuits.
But the advantages of cast iron go beyond the culinary. Cooking with it can actually be good for our health, experts say. Here’s why.
CAST IRON ISN’T ALL ABOUT FRYING
True, a cast-iron skillet is an excellent vehicle for frying. But its ability to retain heat also lends itself to healthy cooking, says Kerri-Ann Jennings, a Vermont-based registered dietitian and nutrition coach. That includes water-based methods such as braising and poaching as well as quick broiling and grilling, which don’t require much oil. (Go on, plop that entire pan on the grill. Just make sure to preheat it well in advance, as it tends to get hot spots if you don’t.)
“It’s the type of cookware that you can take from the stove to the oven,” says Jennings.
IT’S BASICALLY NONSTICK
A well-seasoned cast-iron pan creates a natural nonstick coating so you end up using less oil than with a standard stainless-steel pan. The bonus? “Cast iron cleans up so easily,” Jennings says. (How do you season a pan, you ask? Here’s how.)
And the more you use cast iron, the more seasoned it becomes, which is a good excuse for using it often, for almost any food.
YOU CAN AVOID NASTY, HARD-TO-PRONOUNCE CHEMICALS
OK, so there are times when only a true nonstick pan will do. However, certain chemicals typically used to make nonstick pans can be toxic and break down at high temperatures, which you don’t want.
One in particular, perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, has been deemed “possibly carcinogenic to humans” by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer. The good news? PFOA production in the United States has pretty much been phased out, though as the EPA points out, it might still be in imported nonstick cookware.
If you have an older nonstick pan, that might also be cause for concern. DuPont stopped using PFOA in its popular Teflon brand in January 2012. It now uses polytetrafluoroethylene, or PTFE, which the EPA says is safe. Still, at super high-heat, above 500 degrees, that coating “may begin to decompose and give off fumes,” according to the chemical company that makes Teflon.
YOU GET AN IRON BOOST (KIND OF)
You’ve probably heard at one point or another that cooking in a cast-iron pan releases iron into your food.
It’s not a myth, nor is it a bad thing, especially for women, kidsand vegetarians, who are more prone to being iron-deficient. Research has shown that cast-iron use does indeed impact the iron level in food. However, how much iron gets transferred and how much your body absorbs is up for debate.
“It’s not nothing,” says Jennings.
An often-cited study published in 1986 in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association compared 20 foods cooked in a seasoned iron skillet versus in a Corningware dish, and found that in all but two foods (cornbread and liver with onions), there was a bump upward in iron levels — from 8 percent more iron in fried tortillas to more than 2,000 percent (!) in applesauce.
“Foods with more moisture, more acidity, and longer cooking time increased more in iron content during cooking in iron cookware,” the study concluded.
But wait. We’re not even supposed to cook acidic foods in cast iron because they’ll taste metallic and ruin the seasoning on the pan, right? Nah, says Serious Eats’ J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, not for dishes or sauces with a relatively quick turnaround. But if you’re planning on simmering something for hours, that’s when a different vessel, say, enameled cast iron, will serve you better.
In the same study, researchers compared three foods cooked in two different iron pans, one that had been used daily for a week and one used only a few times prior to the study. While there was no big difference in the iron content of spaghetti sauce and scrambled eggs, applesauce cooked in the lightly used pan ended up with more than double the iron, suggesting that you’ll get more iron out of a newer pan than the broken-in one bequeathed to you by Grandma.
More recently, America’s Test Kitchen did its own experiment, simmering tomato sauce in a stainless-steel pan and in unseasoned and seasoned cast-iron pans. Lab tests showed the sauce cooked in the unseasoned pan — which isn’t ideal from a cooking standpoint — had 10 times more iron than the sauce in the seasoned pan, which in turn had only a few grams more iron than the sauce cooked in stainless steel.
So, it’s a little contradictory. From a culinary standpoint, you want a more seasoned cast-iron pan — but from a health perspective, you might get more iron from a new and/or unseasoned pan.
The bottom line, says Jennings? You’ll end up consuming at least some extra iron when you cook with cast iron in general. Just don’t depend on your pan to fulfill all your nutritional needs.
“You’re still going to need to eat leafy greens and beans and meat,” says Jennings.