Wednesday, February 3, 2010

a fortifying post--why cast iron is good for you

For my birthday this year, I proclaimed to my family "No more kitchen supplies!". It seems that when you develop a hobby, be it cooking, or knitting, or biking, then all of the sudden, that's all you get for Christmas, birthdays, or any other celebration. No longer is the longed for sweater, a good novel, or a funny DVD. Well thankfully, my sister didn't listen to my birthday demand, and in the mail (thank god for free shipping from Amazon) came a brand new cast iron pan. And bless her soul! Cast iron is genius.

If you don't have a cast iron pan, I strongly recommend that you get one. They are extremely affordable, they cook very evenly, you can put them in the oven without the handle melting off, and if you take care of them they will last forever. They do require a little more maintenance than your regular kitchen utensil. You have to season them which means initially scrubbing the pan with hot soap and water, heating the pan, and smoking hot oil into layers, but this makes a natural non-stick layer. There are many methods for seasoning and this and this are good instructional videos.

When my pan had gotten a little out-of-control sticky, I went on a search of how to re-season it. I stumbled upon resources mentioning that cast iron cooking can contribute to iron intake because elemental iron leaches into the food that we cook. They go even further to suggest that cast iron could be part of the treatment for anemia. Fascinating. Time to scour the evidence. Unfortunately, a lot of the original papers that discuss the amount of iron in different foods from cast iron cooking are from the 80s and not available online. It would seem a little overkill to go to the library and find the original articles for a blog that five people read (but thank you if you are one of them). Even so, the abstracts suggest that cast iron does contribute significantly to the iron concentrations in various foods (1,2).

Interestingly though, are more recent studies that use cast iron as an attempted treatment to prevent iron deficient anemia in underdeveloped countries, since anemia is endemic in many parts of the world. A study completed in Ethiopia in the 1990s distributed cast iron or aluminum pots to families of children with iron deficiency anemia and measured the difference in hemoglobin concentrations after 12 months(everybody in the study also took oral iron supplements) (3). They also measured the amount of iron available in Ethiopian foods cooked in various vessels. The findings showed a significant difference in hemoglobin concentrations in those children that received cast iron-cooked food versus aluminum or clay. Vegetables and meat best extracted iron from the food into a digestible form. Beans for some reason, did not do as good of a job. Similar experiments repeated in other countries have yielded similar results, showing an excellent and easy way to combat low blood counts (4,5)

Fortunately, we do not live with the daily threats of malaria, hookworm and starvation. Even so, iron deficient anemia is prominent in our population especially in women of menstrual age, pregnant women, and those that do not get enough through their diet. In attempts to perfuse your vital organs with rich, red blood built with the powerful iron element, I leave you with this recipe. (Caution: do not eat steak with butter everyday. That is NOT good for your blood)

New York Strip Steaks with Balsamic Glaze

2 thick NY strip steaks
1 tbsp butter
1 medium shallot
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
salt and pepper to taste

1. Preheat your oven to 400 F
2. Preheat your cast iron pan to a medium-high/high heat
3. dry your steaks on a paper towel (the drier they are, the better sear you will get)
4. salt and pepper steaks generously on both sides
5. put half of the butter in the preheated pan and allow to melt
6. add steaks to pan
5. put steaks in pan; cook for about 4 minutes on each side
6. put steaks in oven for 2-5 minutes depending on how done you would like them
7. take steaks out of oven (be careful because the handle is very very hot) and put on a plate to rest, put the pan back on the stove over medium heat
8. with the pan drippings, put other half of butter (or if it too greasy for you already don't) and then saute shallot until transluscent
9. deglaze pan with balsamic vinegar. If the sauce is too dry add a bit of sherry or water
10. pour over steaks and serve


1.Burroughs, AL.; Chan, JJ. “Iron content of some Mexican-American foods. Effect of cooking in iron, glass, or aluminum utensils.” Journal of the American Dietetic Association, v. 60 issue 2, 1972, p. 123-6.

2.Brittin, HC.; Nossaman, CE. “Iron content of food cooked in iron utensils.” Journal of the American Dietetic Association, v. 86 issue 7, 1986, p. 897-901.

3. Adish, A., Esrey, S., Gyorkos, T., Jean-Baptiste, J., & Rojhani, A. (1999). Effect of consumption of food cooked in iron pots on iron status and growth of young children: a randomised trial. The Lancet, 353(9154), 712-6.

4. Borigato, E., & Martinez, F. (1998). Iron nutritional status is improved in Brazilian preterm infants fed food cooked in iron pots. The Journal of nutrition, 128(5), 855-9.

5. Geerligs, P., Brabin, B., Mkumbwa, A., Broadhead, R., & Cuevas, L. (2003). The effect on haemoglobin of the use of iron cooking pots in rural Malawian households in an area with high malaria prevalence: a randomized trial. Tropical Medicine and International Health, 8(4), 310-5.


  1. A question that may help you clear up the cast iron stickyness issue: How do you clean the skillet after use?


  2. good question. there are varying opinions on this but to best clean the skillet, you can just rinse with water and scrub with a paper towel or a sponge with no soap. then dry thoroughly and add a small layer of vegetable oil to prevent from rusting. some people say to wash with soap and water...this might just affect the seasoning on the pan

  3. How do YOU clean the pan? If you are washing it with soap, you are taking off the seasoning leading to the stickiness.

    My method is to add water to the pan, put it back on the stove until it just starts to boil. Throw in a copper scrub pad (Chore Boy) and scrub out the pan. Repeat until the pan is clean. Throw the pan back on the stove until it is dry. Remove from heat, add two teaspoons of vegetable oil and wipe the oil around the skillet using a paper towel.

    Make sure you keep a paper towel or paper plate between the skillets and on the top skillet to keep the dust off the skillet.

  4. Bill, I think your method is much more effective than mine. I just try to rinse it out and scrub it if it is sticky, then heat it up on the stove and add some veggie oil. I'm sure yours looks beautiful!

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