Are cast iron pans safe to use? Cast iron skillets have been used for decades due to their amazing durability, versatility, and capability to retain heat. Be it searing scallops, cooking eggs or bacon, the cast iron skillet is the first choice of home cooks as well as chefs.
Despite iron skillets’ incredible popularity, some people associate them with few health hazards or risks, the most common being cast iron skillet diarrhea.
Thus, in this article, we are going to find out how good or bad cast iron skillets actually are for cooking.
What Are the Advantages of Cooking In Cast Iron?
#1 – Chemical-free:
Cast iron skillets are free of harmful chemicals that leach into food in the case of non-stick pans that contain perfluorocarbons. Such chemicals are often linked to liver damage and even lethal diseases such as cancer.
#2 – Non-stick:
Cast iron skillets are naturally non-stick in nature. Once seasoned well, cast iron cookware works just like Teflon-coating non-stick cookware, minus the chemical coating.
#3 – Durable:
Cast iron has a longer life span and can last up to a hundred years.
#4 – Multipurpose:
Cast iron pans can be used on the stove as well as in the oven at any temperature.
#5 – Affordable:
Cast iron cookware is less expensive in comparison with other cookware types such as stainless steel.
#6 – Maintenance:
Cast iron skillets are easy to clean, as simply rinsing with water will lift the food off the surface.
#7 – Iron Content:
As cast iron cookware adds some iron content to the food while cooking, it is considered a great choice for those suffering from iron deficiency. This means if you ever wondered, “Does cast iron help anemia?” the answer is yes it does.
How Much Iron Does Cooking With Cast Iron Provide?
In this study, a variety of food items were cooked to find out how much iron you get from cooking with cast iron cookware.
On average 3mg to 8mg of iron per 100g of any food such as spaghetti sauce or applesauce was collected when cooked in a cast iron skillet. The milligrams of iron transferred from the skillet to the food depend on factors such as acidity, moisture in food, and cooking time.
Acidic foods such as tomato sauce, scrambled eggs, chili, applesauce, stews, etc. pick up more iron, i.e., up to 6 to 8mg per cup of the food.
Contrary to this, non-acidic foods such as green beans, rice, pancakes, etc., don’t pick up as much iron when cooked in a cast iron pot.
Besides, the longer you cook the food and the higher the moisture, the greater the amount of iron content transferred to the food.
What Are the Drawbacks of Cast Iron?
The drawbacks of cast iron include:
- Prone to rusting
- Requires seasoning
- Poor tensile strength
- Poor impact resistance
- High weight-to-strength ratio
- Poor machinability in comparison to steel (white cast iron is non-machinable)
- Due to the slow cooling of thick sections, the parts of cast iron are section sensitive
What Are the Signs of Iron Overload?
The signs and symptoms of hemochromatosis, or iron overload, include:
- Joint pain
- Weight loss
- Liver failure
- Heart failure
- Abdominal pain
- High blood sugar levels
- Gray or bronze skin color
- Loss of sex drive or libido
- Reduction in the size of testicles in men
- Reduced or absence of menstruation in women
Is Cast Iron a Safer Option Than Nonstick?
Yes, cast iron is a safer option than nonstick. The reason is, cast iron skillets can handle much higher heat in comparison to non-stick pans.
Therefore, cast iron is better for searing or cooking foods that require a high level of heat. Non-stick pans, when heated above 260 °C (500 °F), can release toxic fumes (perfluorooctanoic acid- PFOA). The difference is due to the material that both cookware is made of.
Non-stick pans are generally made of different materials such as carbon steel, aluminum, stainless steel, or copper. These pans are then coated with polytetrafluoroethylene, aka Teflon, for a smooth and non-stick surface.
When heated above 500F, this Teflon coating starts to break down. Also, there are a lot of health concerns associated with this PTFE coating. Thus, non-stick cookware is only good for low-temperature cooking.
Cast iron skillets or pans, on the other hand, originally have non-stick properties. However, iron cast pans require proper seasoning for the pan to behave completely non-stick and leach less iron.
What Foods Should Not Be Cooked in a Cast Iron Skillet?
The following foods should not be cooked in a cast iron skillet:
Until your cast iron skillet is well-seasoned, you should avoid cooking sticky foods such as eggs in it. When a cast iron pan is new, even though it’s seasoned, it still tends to stick food to its porous surface.
This can make your eggs brown and turn your pan into a sticky mess. With time, as your cast iron pan gets well-seasoned you can cook eggs and other sticky foods in it just as effortlessly as in non-stick pans.
Cooking smelly foods such as fish, peppers, garlic, or stinky cheese can leave a strong aroma on the surface of the pan.
This smell can last up to a few next cooks. Thus, avoid cooking smelly foods in a cast iron skillet, or don’t cook something for a while that you might not enjoy with that lingering aroma.
Delicate fish like flounder, cod, or tilapia that can’t stand the heat shouldn’t be cooked in cast iron pans. Also, flaky fish filets can stick to the pan and damage its seasoning, making cleaning a mess.
Cooking acidic foods such as tomato sauce can damage the seasoning of the cast iron skillets, making iron leach into the food.
Preparing acidic foods that require a long cooking time can even impart a metallic flavor to the food. Thus, it’s said that acidic foods such as pasta sauce or tomato sauce should be avoided when cooking in a cast iron pan.
However, many people consider it a complete myth, stating that an old, well-seasoned cast iron skillet can handle acidic food well.
5 Safest Cookwares To Use
Some cookware could transfer harmful chemicals and heavy metals into food while cooking. Exposure to these chemicals and heavy metals also leads to health concerns and issues.
Therefore, it becomes important to find safe and non-toxic cookware sets for cooking. These are the safest cookware:
1 – Cast Iron
If you’re still questioning, are cast iron skillets healthy? Then yes, cast iron skillets or pans are typically considered safe and healthy to cook food in. Due to their resilience and durability, they last for decades and are the first choice of many people.
As iron can be transferred to food while cooking in cast iron cookware, it’s generally suggested to be avoided by people suffering from iron overload. In such cases, glass cookware or ceramic can be used for cooking acidic foods.
2 – Stainless Steel
Stainless steel (18/8 or 18/10 grade stainless steel) is another safe option for cooking, as nickel and chromium are the least likely to leach into food.
Stainless steel is used in almost every kitchen as it is lightweight, durable, convenient to use, and can be recycled. It’s also safe to cook acidic foods in stainless steel cookware. It’s advised to store this food in a non-metal storage container after cooking.
3 – Enamel-Coated Cast Iron
For those concerned about iron leaching, enamel-coated cast iron is the best and safest choice to make. Iron cast with a glass coating makes the cookware heat just like iron without iron being transferred to the food. Acidic foods can be safely cooked in enamel-coated cast iron pans.
4 – Copper
Copper pans, especially those that are lined with stainless steel are also quick-heating and transfer less chemicals to food while cooking. Due to good heat conduction quality, copper pans heat up quickly and evenly.
5 – Ceramic Cookware
Clay cookware or ceramic cookware is considered safe as it’s klin baked to a high heat, which makes the quartz sand surface non-stick.
This doesn’t leach any harmful chemicals or fumes, thus it’s considered a good non-toxic cookware option by many.
Is It Better To Cook in Cast Iron?
Cast iron gets screaming hot and stays hot for a longer period of time, so it is an ideal cookware for food that needs high heat. The heat levels in cast iron don’t fluctuate as much as in any other pans like aluminum.
Cast iron skillets are good for searing proteins like pork, beef, seafood, poultry, etc. You can also create a crispy crust on your baked goods like cornbread or baby pancakes using a cast iron pan.
Cooking in a cast iron skillet is the easiest way to add iron to your diet when you are looking to increase your iron intake. They are also durable and resilient. Thus, unless you are suffering from conditions like hemochromatosis (iron overload), it is safe and good to cook in cast iron cookware.
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Can Eggs Be Cooked in Cast Iron?
Yes, eggs can be cooked in a cast iron skillet. More often than not, non-stick or ceramic pans are the common choice for making eggs.
Some might be skeptical about cooking eggs in cast iron pans, thinking they may stick to the surface, making a mess.
However, if you’re using a well-seasoned cast iron pan, then you’ll get the perfect egg just like with a non-stick pan.
A new cast iron skillet with no seasoning makes the eggs stick to its porous surface, which isn’t the case with a seasoned skillet.
Does Cooking in Cast Iron Skillet Cause Diarrhea?
It’s said that deep frying in a cast iron skillet accelerates the oxidation of fats, making the food rancid. Rancid food is associated with symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pains, and digestive issues.
On the other hand, others consider them a safe and healthy option to add iron to the diet. All-in-all there’s so much debate surrounding these skillets that one might get totally confused over their use or discard.
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Can Cooking With Cast Iron Cause Cancer?
Generally, cast iron skillets are considered healthy and safe, though there are still some studies that link them with diseases such as cancer.
As we know by now, some iron is leached into the food while cooking in cast iron. Of course, we need iron in our diet in some amounts. Therefore, using cast iron is a good option, especially for those dealing with iron deficiency.
However, a study in 2014 found that high serum iron might be a risk factor for liver or breast cancer.
This study also shows a link between high levels of iron and cancer.
More research is needed on the topic to conclude and confirm these findings. Still, those with iron overload or high levels of iron in their blood should avoid cooking in cast iron skillets for safety purposes.
Can Cooking With Cast Iron Make You Sick?
It’s possible that cast iron may cause some health concerns, but it’s limited to people suffering from conditions such as hemochromatosis. People with an already existing iron overload are at risk of iron toxicity from using cast iron skillets.
It’s important to note that an old, well-seasoned cast iron skillet will leach low iron content. A newly seasoned cast iron pan can leach around 5 mg of iron per cup of food.
Can You Get Heavy Metal Poisoning From Cast Iron?
Generally, cast iron cookware is considered safe even though some of the iron may leach into the food.
The amount is usually not more than the required daily intake of iron by an average person, so it won’t cause any harm.
However, people with conditions such as hemochromatosis are at a higher risk of iron poisoning or toxicity from using cast iron cookware.
Is Cast Iron Unsanitary?
Whether cast iron is sanitary or unsanitary depends upon how well you use or care for the cookware.
If you rinse out your skillet thoroughly after each cook and heat it on the stovetop for a couple of minutes, it will maintain its hygiene.
Heating the skillet for a couple of minutes after washing or pre-heating it (160 degrees or above) before cooking every time will kill all the bacteria and viruses, ensuring it’s not unsanitary to use.
All-in-all we can say that a cast iron skillet is safe to use and a good option to opt for when you want to increase your iron intake.
But the use of cast iron should be avoided in the case of hemochromatosis. Children under 3 should also not be given food cooked in cast iron cookware, as this could increase their risk of pediatric iron toxicity.
Furthermore, consuming too much iron if you have hemochromatosis (iron overload) can also cause a menstrual halt in women and impotency in men.
Too much iron intake is also linked to heart disease, accelerated aging, and even cancer. Therefore, if you consume a lot of foods with high iron content, then you should limit cooking in a cast iron skillet.