Reader Stephanie writes:
Two questions for you. Is cast just cast, or is some cast really better than others? I’ve just always gone with the standard lower budget brand, both because I am wary of all things name-brand and over-priced, and because I don’t ‘get’ the enamel on the exterior since I do all of my cooking on the interior of the pan.
I remember a few years ago a friend of mine (a lawyer and I’m a teacher, so clearly different tax brackets) was worried about her young son being anemic. I kept telling her to cook with a cast iron skillet and she kept saying it wouldn’t be worth the expense. Obviously we were talking about different cast iron skillets, but it also made me wonder if there is some information available on how much iron actually leaches into the food.
Hey Stephanie! Thanks for the questions. Let’s take the first part first, as they used to say on the old game shows. Though I’m sure different manufacturers have different manufacturing processes, cast iron pans are very similar in the way they perform. Iron, not being a particularly good conductor, is slow to heat up. The flip side is that it’s also slow to cool down, and that has advantages in terms of a cast iron pan’s ability to maintain steady, even heat. A cast iron pan may be terrible to sauté in, but it’s great for applications like braising and deep frying where a steady temperature makes for a better result. Think of a copper sauté pan as a highly maneuverable hot rod and a cast iron skillet as an 18-wheeler. Very different vehicles for very different purposes.
The big difference between, say, a Lodge cast iron Dutch oven and a comparable pot from Le Creuset is that the Le Creuset is coated with enamel. That enamel coating is not only beautiful, it prevents sticking and makes the pan easier to clean both inside and out. Unlike cast iron you can soap it up to your heart’s content and never have to worry about a loss of performance. But then Lodge cast iron cookware is about a quarter of the price of Le Creuset.
Lately Lodge has come out with a line of pans that have an uncoated interior and an enamel-coated exterior. Their marketing materials probably claim some sort of functional benefit, but the real reason for the enamel is because it looks cooler and cleans up better. But there’s no difference in the way Lodge’s enamel coated pans perform — and they still need to be seasoned on the inside and treated with care.
Which brings me to the second part of your question. Cast iron pans have indeed be shown to contribute dietary iron to food (I thought it was a myth before I started looking into it over the weekend). As for how much, that varies greatly depending on the age of the pan and how well it’s been seasoned. New pans, since they tend not to have much seasoning on them, give up more iron than older pans.
That can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on how much iron you need. If you’re anemic you’ll probably benefit from a fair amount of extra iron. However if your system already has plenty there’s a risk of so-called iron toxicity which can have a number of unpleasant side effects similar to hereditary hemochromatosis, a condition that causes the digestive system to absorb too much iron. But for most people, the risks of taking in too much iron as a result of cooking in cast iron are extremely small, especially as the pan gets older and more seasoned.
So while inexpensive cast iron pans may offer your friend’s son a benefit, it’s going to be variable and impossible to measure. Iron supplements probably make more sense if there’s a health issue at stake, but a doctor is the person to ask about that, not a sarcastic, know-it-all pastry blogger. Thanks very much for the questions, Stephanie!