Cast Iron vs. ‘Non-stick’ cookware

My mom used to quote her mom as saying something like “Nonstick cookware gets its name from the fact that the nonstick coating never sticks to the pan!” However, I remember being excited when my family got our first set of non-stick cookware.  It was light, smooth, and new-unlike our old cast iron skillet. I quickly learned that one has to use a plastic spatula on the pan. Well, I’m not exactly the most careful person, and it only took one time of leaving the spatula in the heated pan for a little too long, for its edge to melt a bit. Darn! Then there was the fact that after the first few months of use, food began to stick to these non-stick pans. Crap! What a letdown.  We started using a little butter or oil in the pan, but the pans kind of lost their “new cookware” mystique. Then the scratches began appearing on them from a parent or sibling using a fork or metal spoon to help serve the food from these pans. Bare aluminum began to show.  My mother had instilled a suspicion of aluminum cookware in us from an early age because of its possible link to Alzheimer’s disease.

The last straw came when my younger brother’s pet love birds got sick and the vet asked if my mom if we used Teflon cookware.  He explained that cooking with Teflon pots and pans can release toxic chemicals into the air and that these are harmful to birds. So, we promptly stopped using the now-not-so-new set of pots and pans and returned to cast iron and stainless steel. Fast forward a few years. When I moved back to be closer to my sweetheart (who is now my wife) Julie, one of the first things I did was buy a cast iron pan for us to cook with. Thankfully Julie liked cast iron too, (or just graciously put up with my infatuation with it), and kept her keen eye out for it at second-hand stores.

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The pan on left was bought at a thrift store. The pan on right was bought new. We have been using both for about two years now and they have both developed fairly good nonstick coatings of cooked on oil.

I’ve been talking about my own journey towards using cast iron pans, but I’ve not told you why I think cast iron is less environmentally damaging then “non-stick” cookware. First, the manufacturing process for iron uses less energy that of aluminum. out this link to learn more about the energy ‘embodied in materials:  http://www.tenshadesofgreen.org/shade4.html). Second, non-stick aluminum cookware gets a Teflon coating.  This would be all well and good except that the manufacture of Teflon has released a toxic chemical known as C8 into the Ohio River. According to a West Virginia Gazette article authored by Ken Ward Jr. a scientific panel found that C8 levels are positively correlated to increased occurrences of kidney and testicular cancers.

If none of these reasons sway one to ditch this wannabe line of cookware, then maybe some simple frugal reasoning will.  At some point, Teflon coatings get scratched and wear away. Ignoring the environmental/health implications of this fact, one can easily realize that this leaves one with the choice to either use ugly “nonstick” cookware that came whose coating came unstuck, or one can go and buy another set of cookware. If this imaginary person decides to go with non-stick again, vowing to take better care of it this time, they are probably setting themselves up for another round of disappointments and having to purchase more subpar cookware. It is for these reasons that I advocate the use of cast iron as an alternative to the vicious cycle of using, wearing out, and throwing away set after set of ‘non-stick’ cookware.

A good cast iron pan will last and outlast a lifetime of cooking.  I hear people talking about inheriting their grandmother’s cast iron, but I don’t really hear people talking about getting their grandmother’s nonstick aluminum ware. Because of its longevity, the owner of a cast iron skillet can save the money, headache, and gas that it would take to shop for new non-stick pans every few years. This also means that cast iron pans are less likely to end up in landfills than nonstick cookware; furthermore, cast iron would rust away and decompose rather quickly in a landfill whereas its ‘nonstick’ counterpart would remain in the landfill for generations, releasing Teflon related chemicals into the environment. Yum.

While I do love cast iron, I must note that it does require more care than some other forms of cookware. Here is a website with a great set of pointers about caring for cast iron http://frugalliving.about.com/od/doityourself/a/Cast_Iron_Care.htm .  It is good to remember that cast iron can endure a lot of mistakes that one may make while learning how to use it.  If your pan becomes coated in rust and caked on food due to misuse, neglect, and downright laziness on the users part, it can be scoured and re-seasoned and returned to a “like-new” condition.

While they are heavier and thus more difficult to lift than their aluminum counterparts, their benefits far out weigh this minor drawback. Whereas aluminum and Teflon are potentially harmful to humans and animals, cast iron cookware releases trace amounts of iron into food and this is actually helpful to humans as iron is a beneficial mineral in trace amounts.  Cast iron is also said to heat more evenly and thus cook more evenly than aluminum cook ware.  It also retains heat longer.  When I make grilled cheese sandwiches, I turn the burner off after flipping the sandwiches once, I then leave a lid on the pan, and the retained heat in the cast iron is ample enough to melt the cheese. I also use the even heating qualities of cast iron to my advantage when baking granola; there seems to be less burning/charring in these than when I used to cook it on an aluminum cookie sheet.

So, retire in your old feeble Teflon cookware and keep your eye out for gently used cast skillets and such your local thrift stores, estate sales, and yard sales.  My wife and I have bought only one of our five cast iron pans new-the other four were procured in a used state and could easily be twice or three time our age. Experience the superiority cast iron for yourself; I feel that you won’t be disappointed.

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You know these look awesome.

Pictures courtesy of Julie Brewer.

P.S. For those worried about the effects of C8 on birds, check out this link for more info on C8 and Teflon: http://www.organic-nature-news.com/dangers-of-teflon.html. This website confirms what my younger brother’s birds learned the hard way: when heated, scratched Teflon pans (and if someone’s succeeded in never scratching one of these wimpy coatings, I will bow down and kiss their feet from hence forth) release toxins that harm the sensitive throats and lungs of birds.

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About isaaczika

Isaac is a new resident of Darke County, Ohio and he enjoys gardening, reading, making music, and cooking with his wife and best friend Julie Brewer.
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