What’s Leaching Into Your Food From Cast-Iron?

I have deep affection for cast-iron.  It not only conjures up vivid fantasies of the frontier life I never lived – pig roasting, cauldron bubbling, Pa singing, but I find it sticks far less than other non-non-sticks and it brings its own nutrient along.

So despite my once monogamous relationship with Teflon (which is over), I now have a cupboard full of cast iron.   And besides the fact that each weighs as much as a small child, I’ve yet to find any substantial character flaws and instead keep discovering qualities that deepen my loyalty.

Stick happens but it’s easy to stop

This is one of the biggest reasons I was reluctant to use cast-iron, but stopping “stick” is actually pretty simple.  First start with a pan that’s well seasoned. (See here to learn how; if it’s not, there’s no chance at non-stick).  Then when the food is done, let it sit for 30-60 seconds, off the flame.  That’s it.  Think “cook&release” (from the heat). If the food’s still stuck despite your patience, add another 30 seconds of patience, then push hard with the utensil to prod it off the bottom. You cant damage the pan like you can Telfon, so give it some jabs until you get underneath the golden outer layer.  (I discovered this when I grabbed a phone call right at egg removal time, and two minutes later, the eggs had miraculously released themselves from the pan.  Why does this happen?  Because you’re giving the steam from the cooked food, enough time to soften the stuck bits.)

Good things leach out

This might be the only time when the leaching of anything into food is a good thing.  The iron bits that come off  (in very tiny amounts) are good for you. It’s iron your body can use – unlike say the Teflon bits that are a less useful nutrient.  (See that post.)

Lends farm-house flare

No pan says “I labored over a hot stove ” quite like cast-iron.   Not only is it always on my stove top but I use it as an alternative baking dish for quiche, berry crumble or pie. Take it straight from stove to table and serve.  See here. (I would avoid storing the food, though, in the cast iron, as it could take on a metalic taste.)

The brand I like best is LODGE, which is more expensive than cheap imports, but is not coated with a paint that could chip off .  (Find it at Whole Foods, Crate&Barrel, Lodge’s online store or simply check the back of your cupboard.)

What are you cooking with?

Related Posts
Spinach and Dill Omelet
(Recipe) – cooked in cast iron
Kale with Cranberries
(Recipe) – cooked in cast iron

Photo: A member of my cast iron family.

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  • Lisa

    Cast-iron also heats more evenly and retains the heat far better than any other material. Because of this though, be sure to remove the food (especially eggs) just before they’re done, since they will keep cooking after you remove the skillet from the flame.

  • Juliana

    Love the cast iron, hands down. In the past, I’ve bought it at garage sales, scrubbed with sand (ok husband did that when I pretended to be too weak and feeble), and then seasoned in the oven. But recently I too bought Lodge and wondered – what do they put in their seasoning, it just seems plasticky. It says they season with a soybean oil based thingie, but what else, that’s my real worry. Thanks for a great blog and a running conversation about an essential (and most enjoyable) part of life. Off to Bar Basque tomorrow. Can’t wait.

    • Michelle

      I called Lodge and asked customer service directly…. according to the very friendly woman from Tennessee, they use 100% soy oil (which is then baked into the pans)- no plasticisers, no petroleum, just soy.

  • Anna Z.

    I was going to make french toast and bacon for breakfast this past weekend and thought, why not use the cast iron skillet for a change? Best french toast I’ve ever made! I’ll never go back to that Teflon coated skillet again. And my arms get a good work-out schlepping that cast iron monster too!

  • Virginie

    I love my cast iron but sometimes worry I’m leaving a bacteria fest when I use paper towel to clean, rather than scrub brush and hot water. I have a pan that is a grill surface (not flat surface), so stuff tends to get stuck in the trough-type indentations of the grill. Would you recommend leaving bits down there anyway or scrubbing it each time with hot water and then re-oiling? Or is there another tip for cleaning cast iron grill pans?
    Thank you for this great blog!

    • Michelle

      If there are only a few bits in the trough and you use paper towel to wipe them off, I wouldn’t worry about bacteria remaining since you’ll be heating it again which will kill any surface bacteria. But if there are more bits left behind than a p-towel can easily pick up or grease has accumulated in the troughs, then I would def use a scrub brush+hot water (or salt which is even better!). Then when clean, pour some oil onto your hands and rub this over the pan and into the grooves. A little more work for sure, but food takes on such greater “meaning” when we put time (not to mention our fingers) into its prep.

    • Tomas

      I have used cast iron all my life…grew up with it. I’ve never hesitated to wash my pans with soap and water. I just dip in a small amount of soapy water, scrub out any crusts or bits of food, grease etc., then rinse. The pans always remain a bit greasy, but clean. It’s been 10 years or more since I last seasoned a pan.

  • http://6512andgrowing.wordpress.com/ 6512 and growing

    Boy am I happy to have found this blog!
    Eggs (of which we eat a lot of, having 7 backyard chickens), were the final frontier of cast iron. Which is to say: they always stick. I will try this resting thing.
    We have one teflon pan left, which I just hid from my husband when a friend told me last weekend that heating teflon pans has killed domestic, indoor birds. Could be urban legend, but was the horror story I needed to quit teflon.

    • Victoria

      It’s not urban legend. It’s absolutely true. Teflon is toxic.
      Just search on: teflon kills birds
      Just found this site, very nice, thanks.

  • http://www.showthelove.com jen Pleasants

    love it!!

  • Matt from Brown Bag

    I just want to chime in here and mention the one piece that hasn’t yet been brought up. There’s an often overlooked, completely amazing quality of those cast iron skillets and dutch ovens that continues to make me smile: they become heirlooms that you can pass down!! My mom’s skillets have been in the family for decades!!

    • Wildwildwest

      Reading your post brought back some pleasant and then very sad memories.

      My (now-deceased) grandmother gave me a cast iron dutch oven years ago.  It was more like a deep skillet, as it had a long handle on one side like a frying pan. I treasured it immensely…

      Then, years later, I had washed the pan and laid it in a plastic recycle trash bin, sitting on the floor, to dry. (Our kitchen was very tiny; very little room to spare)

      A few weeks later, I asked my room-mate if she had seen the pan, and she said no, not lately.  I told her where I had put it, and she said “you know, I wondered why that recycle trash bin was so heavy when I took it to the street a few weeks ago, on recycle pick-up day”…

  • Rick Lee

    Our oldest cast iron pan is about 39 years old – always in the family – its never been seasoned (except naturally)… we always use hot water with ordinary soap to clean it and probably most importantly, we have just let the carbon build up on the bottom over the years. Our former aluminum pans coated with some non-stick coating were “neat” but the coatings never lasted – hate to think what has happened to our insides! We have now added an even larger cast iron pan to our repertoire. Back to basics is a step forward.

    • Michelle

      “Back to basics is a step forward.” Love that! Thanks for putting the entire philosophy of this site into seven words…

  • http://web.me.com@vintagefinding Karen Burns

    I am so very much enjoying your blog! My daughter sent me a link to it and now I’m hooked, learning so much about foods, food prep, nutrients, etc. Keep up the excellent blogging!!
    PS I have a tiny cast iron skillet that was used by my mother to scramble one egg — perfect size!

  • roclafamilia

    Helpful blog, bookmarked the website with hopes to read more!

  • http://www.GreenGoblin.com GreenGoblin

    Really good information, thanks!

  • http://tamdoll.blogspot.com Tammy

    Love cast iron! I’ll put in another vote for Lodge – I get it at my local hardware store. Mr. got me something else and the pans keep giving me some problems, re-seasoning is not my favorite thing to do.

  • Michelle

    I have a cast iron pan with a small rust spot on the surface. What’s the best way to clean up and re-season the pan? Thanks for a great post!

    • Michelle

      It’s super simple to get rid of — scrub the rust off with a scrubby brush or steel wool, then take salt and scrub this around the entire pan along with hot water (to eliminate any traces of rust that might have gotten into the pores of other parts of the pan when you were scrubbing the rust off). Dry the pan, spread oil around to season it and it should be in perfect shape again.

  • http://pollyfoofoo.blogspot.com jen

    i’m really loving your blog! we’re on the same page with a lot of stuff. (i found you through angry chicken)

    i love cast iron. i had a skillet ages ago but didn’t understand how to maintain it so i gave up. a year or so ago i bought another one (Lodge) to give it a try. i only had sticking problems with a certain kind of sausage, otherwise all was fine until the black coating started flaking off showing brown underneath – just like in your photo above. i re-seasoned and it didn’t help. other than this, which i guess i should not be concerned about, i have no troubles and find it very easy to maintain.

    • Michelle

      Welcome Jen! It shouldn’t really flake … when mine start to show “brown” spots, i simply season the pan and it’s back to its unsticking self. Have you tried seasoning it super deeply? ie putting quite a bit of oil in, putting on a very low flame for about 15 seconds, then letting the oil soak in. This should do it … even with pesky sausages!

      • http://pollyfoofoo.blogspot.com jen

        hi michelle!

        it’s not sticking (except for that silly sausage but i just use more oil and start off at higher heat now) though there are brown spots. it looks like the black coating that is on a new cast iron skillet (as a result of the manufacturers’ seasoning i assume) has spots where it has worn or flaked off, showing the brown/silver underneath. i contacted Lodge and they told me to re-season, which i did, but it looks the same as before. i’ve scrubbed it with brillo and re-seasoned (according to the usual instructions) and still no difference but a bunch of scratches from the brillo.

        • Michelle

          If it’s not sticking badly (which it sounds like it’s not), then I wouldn’t be worried about tiny amounts of flaking (the cast iron is harmless), brown spots, or scratches or ware — mine has all of the above and with constant re-seasoning still works fine.

          • http://pollyfoofoo.blogspot.com jen

            awesome! thanks michelle. ♥

  • Hank

    I have three cast iron fry pans all heirlooms picked up at garage sales or second hand stores. I much prefer these to the new pans made by Lodge because long ago they used to grind the bottom of the pans smooth. The new Lodge pans seem to still have the texture of foundry sand.

    Seasoning is not the same as carbon buildup. Seasoning is done by letting oil soak into the pan, the cast iron is actually porous, and then heating it to polymerize the oil. Carbon buildup is burnt food or oil and in my experience is a source of sticking trouble. The pan should ideally be shiny black and smooth on the bottom. As mentioned earlier you cannot damage these things with scouring pads so use the coarsest steel wool or other scouring pad you can find. Get the thing really clean and smooth and then season with oil.

    I always have my eye out for more at every estate sale or second hand store that I visit but they are very seldom seen.

    • Michelle

      Thank you for that distinction between a pan built up with seasoning and a pan built up with carbon and food residue. Agree that a carbon and food-article-free pan releases food the best, but I found if I’ve cooked once with the pan and had limited food-residue, that I can get away with another cooking without “washing” and it wont stick.

  • ctb

    My cast iron skillets (I have 4 in graduated sizes) all came from thrift stores & yard sales – pre-seasoned. All they needed was some TLC to get them in working order.

    & they make the best, crispiest cornbread.

  • http://thelotuscafe.com howie simon

    If you like cooking with cast iron, you will love French carbon steel pans. Unlike cast iron skillets, they are light to handle. They have all the same great qualities to replace all your cookware sold as “non stick” as long as you season them when you buy then and wipe them with a light oil after you wash and dry them. We use the 7 inch diameter ones cooking for 1-2 people and the 9 inch ones for larger preparations. I buy mine online for less than $20 each. After using the same ones for over 4 years, they just get better to use and I wouldn’t allow our cooks to use anything else in Lotus Cafe.

    • Michelle

      I haven’t thought about carbon steel pans in a while, but I am now recalling a wok we grew up with that was carbon steel, that we had for decades. Thanks for reminding us of this material for pans, as I do think the weight factor is one of the biggest turn-offs for many with cast iron.

      • Patrice Stout

        I am wondering if the seasoned pans are leaching the highly heated vegetable oils into our foods in the form of free radicals. The reason people who know use coconut oil or animal fat (ghee, or butter) because of the high smoking point temperatures, instead of cooking with vegetable oils. I know of a doctor who recommends ceramic cookware instead.

  • http://www.med.umich.edu/yourchild kyla

    I have a small cast iron skillet given to me by my grandmother that originally belonged to _her_ grandmother. It’s a beautiful and cherished possession and in frequent use in our kitchen!

  • http://www.anaturalway.org Fred Belcher Jr

    I recently purchased a Swiss Diamond frying pan from Chef’s Catalog online and it is one fine piece of equipment. It is cast aluminum coated with a super non-stick (real)’diamond crystal’ coating that is pretty much indestructible. Cooks fried eggs with absolutely no grease needed (though, I do like them with organic butter for taste) and the heat distribution is always completely even. It is not cheap at $79 (free shipping) but it is a wise and healthy lifetime investment.

  • Amie

    Just discovered your blog – what a wonderful service you provide. I’d like to chime in on the wonders of cast iron. I’ve been using cast iron pots and pans almost exclusively for nearly a quarter century and one added benefit: the anemia I struggled with in my late teens and early twenties resolved itself. I’m convinced it’s due to all that cast iron cooking! It took a few months but I’ve never had an iron deficiency problem since.

    • Michelle

      Very interesting …. I’m actually just working on a post shedding light on the fact that even non-Teflon pans ARE Teflon! ie. it’s the same chemical used for most non-stick pans, they just don’t use the Teflon name. Once one learns how to cook with cast iron and make it non stick, it is a joy to cook with and just as easy to use (albiet a tad heavier!) than non-sticks.

  • fifty

    Years ago, A nutritionist told me (and I’ve since heard this in a couple of other places) that the iron in cast iron pans is in a form that’s unusable to the human body. Our iron needs aren’t met by leaching iron from cast iron pans. So love your cast iron pan for things other than the iron you ingest.

  • http://www.emmymadeinjapan.blogspot.com emmy

    The title of this post had me worried that my beloved Wagner was leaching more than just good-for-you ferrous. Whew, I don’t think I could ever give him up.

  • Michaelmalone007

    Iron in this form cannot be absorbed into the body… only heme or iron from an animal source.  I’ve a genetic disorder called Hemachromatosis and learned this the hard way :-_) Thanks for sharing… I have my mothers cast iron cookware and use them daily!!

    • Fuck off

      You don’t know shit, moron. You deserve your fate.

  • Iron Man

    The new Lodge is about as crappy as the other new stuff. It’s thick cast with a rough finish. scrounge the flea markets, antique malls, etc., and find some old Wagner or Griswolds, or any old skillets. with luck they’ll be cheaper than a new lodge and of far better quality. You want a skillet to be thin cast and with a glassy smooth cooking surface.

    • Yea we’ll do that

      Fucking loser