Welcome back to Luca’s Friday Corner, where my hubby Luca shares all of his manly knowledge about cooking, health, and anything to do with holistic living.
Cast iron cookware is just one of the many things we discovered when we went Paleo. We used to buy the cheapest non-stick pans and not think twice about it. But since the beginning of our Primal diet, the core thing we understood straight away was that this diet wasn’t really a diet. It’s more of a lifestyle, where we try to avoid anything with potentially dangerous materials or ingredients.
It all started with the food, but soon we found ourselves looking into soaps and cleaning products, we started reconsidering items in the kitchen and avoiding plastic when possible (a plastic mini blog series is coming soon!). We opted for glass bowls and bamboo wood spatulas and spoons as much as we possibly could (without going way over our budget).
We’ve recently started reconsidering where we prepare our meals: our cookware. We have stainless steel pots, so that’s fine, but there was a lot of room for improvement in the frying pan section. They were all aluminum!
Like everyone, we went through lots of them during the years: we sometimes forgot them on the fire and burnt food on them, other times we just left them on the hob warming up some oil or butter until they overheated smelling ghastly.
The truth is, cast aluminum pans are really delicate, and almost nobody knows how to take care of them.
They shouldn’t be cleaned under hot water or scoured when hot because the coating is really delicate at high temperatures. Yet, I still have to meet a person who doesn’t do that.
We’ve even decided to set a “weird” rule in our house: when guests want to wash up, they can wash everything ban the pans. It might sound crazy, but after two or three frying pans left with scratches after these acts of gratitude, we were left with no choice but to impose this “strange” rule.
We Said “No” To Coated Aluminum Cookware
Leaving aside the extra care this kind of cookware needs in order to remain in optimal shape, there is evidence that the PTFE coating is harmful to our health under certain everyday conditions. The PTFE structure starts being damaged from 200°C (392°F) releasing gases and ultra‑fine particles that can get embedded deeply in the lungs.
Besides, because aluminum is a very good heat conductor, it is more susceptible to having different temperatures on the cooking surface. This can happen when for instance we have the pan not perfectly aligned with the electric or induction hob. Or in the case of a gas hob, the heat of the flame is localized in one round area, but not across the whole surface.
It’s for this reason that cast aluminum pans have a grooved bottom, generally in the shape of a spiral: to diffuse the heat better.
As a side note, we also said “no” to bare aluminum cookware. There are in fact some health concerns regarding aluminum exposure causing breast cancer and Alzheimer disease. It appears that some aluminum could leach from the cookware, and who needs extra aluminum in the body? Although not scientifically proved, these claims are alarming enough, so we decided to avoid it altogether.
The Start Of Our Love Affair With Cast Iron Cookware
You’ll be surprised to hear that here in the Canary Islands it’s pretty impossible to find cast iron cookware. In England, they were all over the place, but not here. Luckily, we spotted an enameled cast iron frying pan at Ikea when we were shopping for our new home. We were actually on the hunt for a new pan, so it was perfect timing!
We heard so much of cast iron cookware, yet we never tried it. It was quite pricey compared to a standard aluminum frying pan, but in the end we went for it.
In general, cast iron cookware needs to be seasoned, but in theory this process can be avoided if the cast iron is enameled.
However, we got tricked by the pan’s appearance: being darker on the inside, it looked like bare iron, but it wasn’t. As we are both professional procrastinators, we postponed the seasoning of the pan for almost a year! But when one of the two aluminum pans got badly overheated, turned black and started smelling venomous, we were finally “forced” to use the cast iron frying pan.
After a couple of cooking sessions, the pan started to show what it was really like, and oh boy, what a wonder! What really struck us the most was how evenly this frying pan cooks with no hot spots in the center. Actually, no, I’m lying: its weight struck us the most. I can no longer flip vegetables in the air! That pan is seriously heavy, but it’s a great workout for our arms.
Cast Iron Cookware, In Depth.
Cast iron cookware is manufactured by pouring molten iron into molds made of sand. Once the iron is cooled down, the sand is blasted away, leaving solidified iron with quite a rough surface. All the rough edges are then eliminated, and the item is ready.
From here onward, I’ll have to distinguish between bare cast iron and enameled cast iron. The first one is generally cheaper and very durable. It can literally last for several lifetimes. But the main drawback is that it needs to be properly seasoned for two reasons: firstly, it wouldn’t be anti stick at all (in fact, it would be super sticky if you didn’t season it); secondly, it would rust due to the humidity in the air or just after being washed. Once seasoned, this cookware assumes the typical black coloring, meaning that burnt fat is stored in the porosity of the material, and the surface of the pan becomes super smooth.
Keep in mind that bare cast iron cookware isn’t very good for cooking acidic foods, which makes it less versatile than the more practical enameled version.
So, in order to solve the inherent problems of the bare cast iron, namely the seasoning and the proneness to rust, at the beginning of the 19th century the first enameled cast iron cookware appeared. The vitreous enamel (or porcelain enamel) suddenly took away all the problems and made cast iron cookware so much more practical.
The enamel often comes in very bright colors, and sometimes the inside is black or dark gray to resemble the bare cast iron finishing once seasoned. This is the version of the cast iron frying pan we own, and I just can’t praise it enough. It did need seasoning, though, as it wasn’t totally anti‑stick when we got it. Nothing extreme, but after a week of usage and generous oiling the pan was amazing, and it’s getting better and better.
One downside, compared to the bare cast iron cookware, is that the enamel can chip: it’s better to avoid high temperatures as the expansion rate of the iron core is different from the one of the outer enamel. It’s also important to avoid too‑cheap‑to‑be‑true cookware because it will most certainly have a very thin layer of enamel.
A great advantage of both bare and enameled cast iron cookware is that they hold the temperature extremely well and distribute it across the entire cooking surface. Having an equal temperature at any point of your pan will allow you to cook the same foods more evenly at a lower, more constant temperature. It will also reduce your electricity or gas bill in the long run.
The taste Of Food Cooked In Cast Iron Cookware
Many people praise the food cooked in cast iron cookware, and for a good reason! The taste of your dishes will gain an extra dimension, that’s no joke. It will awaken an incredible depth in the taste that you simply can’t get from a conventional non-stick aluminum frying pan. Everything will taste so different, in a good way. Even a couple of fried eggs.
Cast iron is perfect for browning, thanks to the precise and even cooking temperature.
How to clean Your Cast Iron Cookware?
Water only is best for both bare and enameled cast iron cookware. You can be harsher with the bare one, as it doesn’t have any coating on it, and the worst thing that can happen is that you will need to re‑season it. As for the enameled ones, I personally prefer not to scour ours too much, even though I know that the coating can withstand much more (in fact, in the same line of products there is a chromed metal spatula).
This is my cleaning routine that I find is the easiest and quickest one:
2. I fill it with cold water and leave it in the sink overnight.
3. The next morning, all the remaining crust of grease comes off with a medium-hard plastic brush.
4. If you need to clean it during the day, leave it full of water for around an hour.
The pan must remain a little greasy to the touch, otherwise it will stick next time you cook. It’s for this reason that I avoid using any kind of detergent or hot water. Once dry, apply some vegetable oil on the cooking surface to prevent rust that my appear, generally on the borders: it’s iron after all.
We also have a separate kitchen towel to dry our cast iron cookware as it absorbs some grease from the pan, and we wouldn’t want to use the same towel to dry glasses, for instance.
Are There Any Downsides To Cast Iron Cookware?
Like everything, cast iron cookware has downsides, too. The first one you will notice is its weight. Just consider this: with the same diameter of 280 mm or 11”, our aluminum frying pan weighs 720 g (1.6 lbs), while the cast iron one weighs a whopping 2.9 kg (6.4 lbs): 4 times more!
Or, in other words, if you drop the aluminum one, you’ll bend it. If you drop the cast iron one, you’ll very likely break some tile or mark the floor. Don’t try it at home, folks!
Another downside is that cast iron is not for everybody for health reasons: as I already mentioned, bare cast iron cookware can leach considerable quantities of dietary iron into the food, depending on the food acidity, how long the food has been cooking, and its humidity. Anemic people or those with iron deficiencies (women close to menopause, for example) benefit from the leach, but people suffering from hemochromatosis (iron overload) should avoid it not to further increase their iron levels in the blood.
However, the above concern doesn’t apply to the enameled version because the enamel stops any leaches.
There are also cosmetic considerations, valid only for the enameled cookware: the enamel sooner or later will chip, crack or simply discolor. Generally on the outside where the cookware is more likely to be hit and where it gets in contact with the heating element of the hob. If it happens on the inside, it’s very likely that you’ll have to discard your cast iron item.
An extra word on gas hobs: the gas will naturally leave CO deposits on the enamel, and with the time it will become impossible to take them off. But that’s just a cosmetic problem.
See It As An Investment!
Enameled cast iron cookware is unfortunately quite pricey. The initial reasonably high purchase cost should be considered as an investment though, both because of durability and your health.
We got ours from Ikea, it’s called Senior (£30/30€/40$) and although it’s made in China and not even marked “Ikea”, we find it of very good quality.
Here it is while Vita is cooking an improvised paella!
Equally good items can be found on Amazon or similar online stores.
Get one! The more you use it, the more incredible it will become. In fact, so incredible that I’ve really started to question why there is even the need for potentially dangerous anti-stick coatings on a pan when there are enameled cast iron ones that do the trick perfectly.
October 26, 2014 UPDATE!
As I was writing in one of the comments below, I was drooling over an oval 7 quart Dutch oven that was for sale with a 70% discount in our local “expensive supermarket”. Its price was €39.99 plus 4 points of the supermarket (given with every 5€ spent). I read a few reviews online and I managed to convince Vita that we needed it.
Here it is!
Vita admitted that it’s one of those things that when you get them you wonder how you managed to do without them for all those years!
Have you got any experience with cast iron cookware that you’d like to share? Do you love them as much as we do? Or are you still using conventional cookware? Let us know!
Disclaimer: This post contains some affiliate links for your convenience. I only recommend things that I absolutely love myself, and they’ve all been bought with my hard-earned cash.