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A Cast Iron Love Affair

Published October 8th, 2011 in Eat for Health

by Tammera J. Karr, PhD

Did you grow up with cast iron skillets in your home? Well I did, and still use them daily. This summer I had the opportunity to chat with two colleagues, one of them came to America from Hungary; Agnes recounted the story of throwing away her mother-in-laws cast iron when she got married. As I sat in horror, she continued to tell how she was convinced the oil was rancid and she couldn’t get it clean.  This brought to mind my mom and all the varied ways I saw her clean her cast iron.  My dear friend has been forgiven her crime, but I will be watchful of my precious cast iron when she comes to visit.

Mom loved cooking with cast iron, not only could she fry, sauté, bake and simmer in it, but it went camping, fishing and to the branding pens. If there was no water around then a hand full of salt was tossed in the pan and scrubbed around. Soap was rarely used, if food was stuck on the bottom, mom would warm it on the stove top with water and use a turner to scrape it clean.  On occasion it may have even been used as an instrument of enforcement. This may explain the odd shape to my brother’s head.

For me cast iron is the first and perfect non-stick cookware. And somehow it feels American.

Where did it start?

Cast-iron vessels have been used for cooking for hundreds of years.  Ancient China, around 513 B.C., is the earliest known development and use of cast iron. It was the Chinese who invented furnaces capable of producing the intense heat required to melt and work iron.

The same process for creating cast iron arrived in Europe about 1100 A.D., cast iron was so valuable during the medieval age that cast iron implements, including cookware and utensils, were bequeathed in wills, estates and listed as part of the estates assets. Cast iron cauldrons and cooking pots were treasured as kitchen items for their durability and heat retention, thus improving the quality of meals. Before the introduction of the kitchen stove in the middle of the 19th century, meals were cooked in the hearth or fireplace, and cooking pots and pans were designed for the hearth. One of the very first manufacturing industries in North American was the production of cast iron cookware. The Lodge Manufacturing company is currently the only major manufacturer of cast iron cookware in the United States, the rest are made in Asia or Europe.

Is it good for you?

Researchers have found cooking in iron skillets increases the iron content of foods. Acidic foods generally have higher moisture content, foods like applesauce and spaghetti sauce, were found to absorb the most iron. The study showed for 100 grams of each (about 3 oz.), the applesauce increased in iron content from 0.35 mg. to 7.3 mg., and the spaghetti sauce jumped from 0.6 mg. to 5.7 mg., a scrambled egg went from 1.49mg. to 4.76 mg., chili with meat and beans went from 0.96mg. to 6.27 mg. of iron.

Foods cooked for longer periods of time absorbed more iron than food heated quickly. Researchers found foods prepared with a newer iron skillet absorbed more iron than those cooked in an older one. Hamburger, corn tortillas, cornbread, and liver with onions didn’t absorb as much iron. This was probably due to the shorter cooking times, and the fact that they were either turned once or not at all, resulting in less contact with the iron.

It’s all in the Seasoning: 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 onto 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.

How to season your pan? After a good cleaning to remove the factory coating, I set my new skillet on the stove top or in the oven on 3500, I add a heavy layer of olive oil to the inside bottom and sides and let the oil soak into the pores of the pan. I wipe out the extra oil after 1 hour of cook time and additional cooling time – a favorite storage place is in the oven. I will only use this pan for frying hash browns, potatoes or bacon for the first few uses to add to the seasoning.

Health Warning: If you have hemochromatosis or hepatitis C you should avoid cast iron as the increase in iron exacerbates damage to the liver.

If you can’t bring yourself to use the ol’ cast iron, take some time to check it out on eBay, many of the older pans are going for some serious money, they are almost as valuable as gold!

To Your Good Health and Old Fashioned American Cookware.

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