Most real food foodies I know practically worship their cast iron pans, and I don't blame you if you fall in that camp. This cookware is cheap, traditional, and (allegedly) healthier.
Cast iron pans have been used for hundreds of years. They tend to retain heat for cooking and can be used over an open flame.
A typical 12 inch cast iron skillet retails for about $24. Not bad compared to stainless that starts at about $40.
I get tons of questions on Facebook asking what kind of cookware I use and recommend. Even though they are less expensive than other types of pans, I personally haven't fallen in love with cast iron pans – here's why:
Cast iron pans are heavy
The same cast iron skillet above can weigh as much as 8 pounds without being laden with food. Transferring food to a plate from a pan of this weight is dangerous to the integrity of your wrists as well as for the risk of dropping burning hot food or the pan itself.
I'm not convinced of their health benefits
The Journal of the American Dietetic Association tested 20 different foods cooked in cast iron and other metal pans. They found that every food cooked in cast iron had a much higher iron content than foods cooked in other types of metal. For example, a scrambled egg raw has about 1.49 mg of iron but after cooking in the cast iron skillet that number jumped to 4.76 mg. (source)
Additional iron can be a health benefit to those with anemia or otherwise low iron levels including pregnant, menstruating and postpartum women; children; athletes; and vegetarians. On the flip side, consuming too much iron causes a build-up in the body that can increase the risk of cirrhosis, liver cancer, cardiac arrhythmias and diabetes – especially in adult men and menopausal women.
For people who already get plenty of iron from a healthy nutrient dense diet, added iron may not be necessary and even toxic. The standard American diet is overly supplemented with iron-enriched cereals and other packaged processed foods.
Unfortunately, it doesn't makes sense to cook mom and junior's food in cast iron and cook dad and grandma's dinner in another pan.
Cast iron pans are high maintenance
There is plenty of information on the internet devoted to how to season a cast iron pan. Even though many skillets come pre-seasoned, the pan will still require being continuously seasoned with good fats that won’t go rancid.
Cleaning a cast iron pan is also a time investment. To remove burned-on food you should scrub with a mild abrasive, like coarse salt, and a nonmetal brush to preserve the nonstick surface. Soap can be used (but rarely) and the pan needs to be dried immediately after washing. If left in the sink holding water, the pan can start to rust quickly (which then calls for re-seasoning from scratch).
I've got a lot going on, and I simply don't have the time to deal with high maintenance pans. Do you?
What I use instead:
Stainless is durable, scratch resistant, non-reactive and much lighter weight than cast iron.
Enamel coated cast iron
The enamel coating negates all of the disadvantages with seasoning and cleaning but has amazing heat retention and makes helps the toughest cuts of meat to melt into your mouth.
Scan pan (until…)
A few years ago, I discovered a new non-stick pan: Scanpan. Made of an aluminum core with a titanium coating, is touted to be a safer choice than regular non-stick. Though aluminum use in food has been linked to diseases like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, the Scanpan aluminum was fully coated and sealed; it never comes into contact with the food.
My hubby and I loved the non-stick, un-scratchable performance. I felt good about this pan for a long while. Then I decided to do some more research.
I discovered the coating does contain PTFE, aka Teflon. I found out that, “Teflon, made by Dupont, is one of the best-known nonstick cookware brands using PTFE, but not the only one. Calphalon, Scanpan and All Clad’s nonstick pans all use PTFE coatings.” (source) Since the surface of the ScanPan is quite durable, it's likely that the risk of toxicity is much lower than cheaper Teflon-coated pans, however, overheating the Scanpan can release the PTFE – something I was no longer willing to risk.
So back to the drawing board. I've found two new pans that will meet our daily cooking needs AND would be healthier for my family.
First, this All Clad stainless skillet. I use plenty of fat when I’m cooking so this will be a great solution for everyday use. Plus this pan is great when you're browning meat and then deglazing the pan for the sauce.
Next, I purchased a Cuisinart GreenGourmet hard-anodized nonstick skillet. The coating on this skillet is free from PTFE and PFOA, another synthetic chemical found in most nonstick coatings.
This pan works great with fast clean up for eggs and other sticky foods. It's also perfect for reheating leftovers – in lieu of a microwave. While it's not likely to last much longer than a year (I've had two of these before), the price is right for replacing a high use pan that is also non-toxic…until someone invents the perfect nontoxic, non-stick, pan.
Do you use cast iron in your kitchen? What are your favorite pots and pans?