Jane Says: Ditch Your Nonstick Cookware for Cast Iron

Our new food advice columnist explains why cast iron trumps nonstick every time.

Cast iron pan with ladle
The food tastes better, the pans last forever. What's not to like about cast iron? (Photo: Joff Lee/Getty Images)
Jane Lear is a regular contributor to TakePart. She was on staff at 'Gourmet' for almost 20 years.

I am blown away by the warm welcome I’ve received from the TakePart community—and by all of the smart, savvy questions I’ve received so far. In fact, it really didn’t hit me until this very instant that every week I get to answer...just one. How on earth do I choose? You have to understand that I’m the sort of person who can live with six or seven (okay, eight) swatches of paint on the living room walls for weeks while I make up my mind.

But this decision was actually very simple. I printed out all the questions (quaint, right?), scrambled the order of the pages, and spread them on the floor. Then I shut my eyes really tight and used my grandmother’s oyster knife as a divining rod.

Before I rev up, though, I want to say that for all of you who have medical queries, please, please consult your doctor or, if appropriate, a nutritionist or an authoritative online source such as the Harvard Health Letter. Your questions are absolutely fascinating, and I would love to help—if I could. But I’m just not qualified.

Now, down to business. I was happy to see that the tip of my oyster knife landed on a question that provoked a couple of other comments. It’s from Suzan Gallegos Brumfield, and she asks “What are the best replacement pans for nonstick cookware?” She also wonders if Teflon is bad for you.

The nonstick cookware made years ago was cheap, flimsy, and scratched very easily. The fact that I could inadvertently garnish everything from scrambled eggs to a stir-fry with flakes of the dark coating was enough to turn me—and many other cooks—off big time. For an in-depth-but-not-so-technical-you’ve-lost-me look at the safety issues, check out what Cook’s Illustrated has to say about the matter; this piece is a few years old, but still highly relevant.

Today’s nonstick cookware is worlds better than it was a generation ago, although the rule of thumb is to not spend a great deal of money because the coating gradually wears off. If you, like me, try to limit the disposables in your life, this presents a new set of problems. The so-called “green” nonstick skillets available are terrific in theory...but not in practice. About six months ago, I compounded my disposable dilemma by testing a couple of eco-friendly alternatives, and ended up chucking them—along with dinner—into the trash.

Yes, right, alternatives. In short, I tend to rely on cast iron pans for searing, frying, and making cornbread, and enamel-coated cast iron cookware for things like oatmeal, rice, and braises.

Stuff you should know about cast iron cookware: My pans are old and made by manufacturers such as Lodge, Wagner, and Griswold. They all happen to be so well seasoned they are as slick and impermeable as a politician’s grin. If you want that patina, troll yard sales or online sources until you find the sizes you’re looking for. I’ve only used the “preseasoned” cookware made by Lodge a couple of times, and it seems to work fine. And even though you won’t be able to pretend it’s a family heirloom, it certainly makes the mere idea of cast iron more approachable to someone who’s unsure about how to season a pan properly or who simply wants a frittata for lunch. Today.

There is a real mystique about cleaning cast iron. Personally, I think all that business about wiping it out, then filming it with oil until you use it again is disgusting. Guess what happens? Unless you use that pan all the time, the oil coating is going to turn rancid. Aside from tasting vile, rancid oil forms free radicals in the body, and we all know by now that those are harmful. I’ll take a modern-day nonstick pan over rancid oil any time.

So how do I clean my cast iron? I wash it, very gently, with dish detergent. (I have wanted to confess this unorthodoxy for years.) That said, I don’t use an abrasive scrubby, and would never let cast iron soak or sit in the sink for hours or put it in the dishwasher. After washing, I work it over with a kitchen towel, then put it in the oven to get dry as a bone.

Stuff you should know about enamel-coated cast iron cookware: I try not to name-drop, but it’s no secret I’m a longtime fan of Le Creuset. It’s not nearly as sexy, mysterious, or inexpensive as unadorned cast iron, which is why I’m not giving it the same amount of space. But its signature pale interior allows you to easily gauge the doneness of whatever you’re cooking, and unlike cast iron, it won’t react to an acidic tomato or fruit sauce, giving it an off flavor or unappealing color. And I never ever get tired of how it cleans up like a dream. The only tough part is having to pick a color.

Got questions for Jane? Post them in the comments below and she'll answer one next week!

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