Growing up, all the pots and pans in our house were either stainless steel, aluminum, or teflon. I don't think I was even aware that cast iron existed. I was perfectly content using teflon for most of my cooking and baking needs... That is, until my bird died.
A few years ago, I purchased a loaf pan for making bread. It was teflon coated. I remembered that as a kid, my mother would roast eggplant for her eggplant salad by putting it in a loaf pan directly on the stove top, charring the eggplant that way. I learned the hard way that putting a loaf pan with teflon directly onto a fire was a terrible idea by the noxious fumes that emerged from my kitchen. A few hours later, we noticed that our little blue budgy, Buddy, was dead.
We put two and two together- those fumes from that pan must have killed the bird! Immediately, we googled teflon and dead birds and came up with a bunch of hits. Teflon toxicity is a known thing- at high heat, teflon releases poisonous gases that can kill a bird on the spot, and can be damaging to people who breathe it in. I was pregnant with Ike at the time. I was so panicky, thinking that maybe I'd caused my baby some damage from those poisonous fumes in our kitchen!
Since that point, I was very, very wary of teflon. Yes, I discovered that doing what I did was probably not the best idea, that a loaf pan meant for ovens was not meant to go on the stove top, that standard usage would probably not have caused those noxious fumes. I also discovered, however, that teflon releases poisons when it reaches high temperatures, like when you leave a pot on the stove without oil for a few minutes because you forgot it. Not that we do this intentionally, but I am sure everyone has done it their fair share of times, especially if they have little kids that know how to take mom away from the kitchen at all the wrong times...
Teflon, in short, is bad news. As in it is poisonous and can have many short term and long term effects on your health. Get it out of your kitchen if you're still using it... (See here for more info about teflon toxins, or just google Polytetrafluoroethylene or PTFE, teflon's scientific name.)
Is Cheaper Really Cheaper?
A little bit before that whole incident with Buddy the budgy a few years ago, I was in need of some pots and pans. I saw some being advertised for very very cheap- only fifteen dollars for a set of four pans. It seemed too good to be true.
Turns out it was.
After using it for only a few short weeks, the Teflon coating started flaking off. Not knowing what exactly was in that coating but knowing that I didn't want any of those bits in my food, I tossed that set out. Good deal it certainly was not.
I also purchased aluminum pans when I needed new pots and didn't have much money to lay out. Whatever I cooked in it must have interacted with the aluminum in the pan and eaten through the metal, because after a short while, the pot became riddled with holes and no longer usable.
When purchasing pots and pans, its easy to think that buying cheap stuff is the best bet, but in my experience, cheap stuff is destined for the trash and you'll just end up needing to buy pots and pans again if you don't spend money on decent quality cookware.
Enter cast iron.
Why Cast Iron?
Cast iron is terrific for cooking. Cast iron is heavy duty (extra emphasis on the heavy, as it certainly isn't light), high quality cookware. Cast iron is what our grandparents used to cook with, its one of the oldest types of cooking implements still used today.
What makes cast iron special is four-fold.
Cast iron is very durable. If you have cast iron cookware, you most likely will be able to bequeath it to your grandchildren after your death. Yes, it lasts that long. I actually only know one person who ever managed to break her cast iron pan- Miriam, you've got talent! If you buy cast iron pots, you won't need to buy new pots, hopefully for the rest of your life.
Cast iron is very versatile. Cast iron pots and pans can both be used on the stove top as well as within the oven, so if you have a recipe that first calls for boiling or frying, and then baking, a cast iron pot is perfect for that. Cast iron can also be used directly in a bonfire. I have a cast iron griddle/grill that I put directly over a bonfire to cook with, as well as on my stove top. A dutch oven can also be used directly in a bonfire.
Cast iron cooking implements put small amounts of iron in your food, which can help people like myself who are anemic. Even though cast iron cookware isn't so cheap, if using them can eliminate the need to take iron pills, buying a cast iron pot is cheaper than buying iron supplements. I don't have any proof of this working yet though- ever since discovering how anemic I was, I started using cast iron for 75% of my cooking, often even 3 times a day, and now I want to do a blood test to check my current iron levels. I'm sure they are very much improved.
I do know that there is some controversy over cast iron. Sarah, from the Healthy Home Economist wrote a post about why cast iron is not safe to use. Her answer boils down to- if you use too much cast iron for your cooking and you don't have regular menstrual cycles, either because you're post menopausal, or because you're a man, then you can get too much iron in your body, which is unhealthy and comes with many side effects.
Personally, I think that isn't a reason to not use cast iron. Namely because my iron is low enough and has been low enough my whole life that having an iron overload from using cast iron is very unlikely for me. Perhaps finally I'll have normal iron levels.
As for men, if you donate blood once every so often, you should be fine and not need to worry about iron overload. It makes me wonder, actually, if that was part of the reasoning behind the old "medicine" of "bloodletting". Maybe it was to release excess iron from the blood, which could make you sick.
Cast iron is different from your standard pot because it is very porous, full of tiny little holes. There is something that you do to it called seasoning, which involves coating it with oil, then heating the pan. By doing so, the oil gets absorbed into the little holes in the metal, and that oil ends up acting as protective and non stick coating, making the surface of the pot or pan very similar to teflon. Only without all the poison. The nice thing about cast iron's non stick surface (in addition to being non toxic) is that unlike teflon, which gets ruined a little bit more every time you use it, eventually not being non stick anymore, cast iron becomes more and more non stick every time you use it, making an old cast iron pot/pan be even better than a new one.
Another benefit of cast iron is that it disperses heat well, heats evenly, and retains its heat for a long time.
In case you were wondering what type of cast iron cookware I have, I have a large covered dutch oven, a covered cast iron skillet (seen above), and a reversible 2 flame griddle/grill.
If you want to get the benefits of cast iron listed above, don't take one that is enamel coated. (Enamel coating on the outside of the pot/pan is ok.) For the benefits of cast iron, you want the cooking surface of the pan to be iron.
Tomorrow- how to season and care for your cast iron cookware, and how to get it cheaply.
Do you use teflon in your house? Are you worried about the health ramifications? Why or why not?
Do you have any cast iron cookware? What cast iron stuff do you have? Are you happy with your cast iron cooking implements?
If you use cast iron, are you worried about iron overload? Why or why not?
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