- Food and Cooking
Is Cast Iron Superior to Teflon?
Yes it is.
Why is Cast Iron Superior to Teflon?
Of course nobody can get away with making a blanket statement like that without some well-reasoned arguments to back it up, especially after Madison Avenue has spent bajillions of dollars to convince us that Teflon-coated cookware is the answer to all our culinary problems. The real question is how in the world were they able to convince us that there was something better than cast iron to cook on in the first place. Well, in spite of its utility, cast iron cookware does have one major disadvantage: it is heavy. Astonishingly heavy. As in: you-can-skip-your-weightlifting-workout-if-you-cook-dinner-with-cast-iron heavy. So yeah, I can see why somebody might want to trade in his trusty skillets and Dutch ovens for something that won’t cause permanent injuries if he drops it on his foot in the morning. Aside from the weight (which, personally, I view as a plus rather than a minus), there is also the fact that the cast iron conducts heat all the way up the handle, and there’s absolutely no way to tell how hot that handle is by looking at it. You just have to assume that if there’s a fire under the pan, the handle will hurt you if you touch it, and if there’s no fire under the pan, someone probably just finished cooking something, and the handle will hurt you if you touch it. I can see why some folks, especially folks with kids, might not enjoy this level of risk in their kitchens.
It’s also true that Teflon (the chemical) hit the scene right around the end of WWII, and the first Teflon coated frying pan was introduced in 1961, back when “better living through chemistry” was not only part of DuPont’s slogan but almost a mantra for mainstream suburban America. “Artificially Flavored” was printed in large type on candy and chewing gum as a selling point. Everyone wanted to be the first to have the next big thing. Teflon-coated cookware was one of those modern conveniences that every home had to have. It allowed your pans to be lighter and easier to use, and you supposedly didn’t have to use as much (any?) oil in your cooking, so it would help keep your family healthy, unlike that old cast iron stuff that requires all that grease.
The thing is, cast iron doesn’t actually need all that much grease when you use it, and while Teflon claims to require no lubricant to keep stuff from sticking, it has a set of properties that can cause other health issues for you and your family.
The Problem with Teflon
Teflon is a polymerized fluorocarbon. That may not mean much to you, but consider that when they get too hot, fluorocarbons become greenhouse gases, and they do not quickly break down. Teflon starts to release several fluorocarbon gasses in trace amounts when it reaches about 392° Fahrenheit through a process called “pyrolysis,” which is a fancy scientific word for “burning.” (This is a bit of an oversimplification, of course.) The gaseous byproducts of overheated Teflon can make people sick with nausea and intestinal distress, kind of like having the flu, and they can kill your pet parakeet. You know the old saying about the canary in the coal mine? Right. Now, the nasty chemicals don’t really start pouring out until your Teflon pan reaches about 500° F, and usually people fry their meat at or about 425° F, so, no problem. Except how many of you ever put the food in the frying pan before you get the pan nice and hot? Exactly. Try cracking an egg into a cold frying pan, and then turn on the gas and see what happens. An empty pan can get hotter than 600° F when you heat it up. Do the math. Of course the FDA says you have nothing to worry about, so that should make everyone feel much better.
And then of course, there’s the unavoidable fact that sometimes, stuff sticks to Teflon, in spite of its supposed nonstick properties. I’ve had more than one omelet ruined when I tried to fold it over and part of it stuck to the Teflon pan I was using.
Cast Iron Cookware and Accesories
The quintessential cast iron skillet. They come in different sizes, too.
The Advantages of Cast Iron
First, you get no pyrolitic diffusion of fluorocarbons when you cook with cast iron, even if you let it sit on the burner for a while before you put the food in. Then there’s the aforementioned weight. Sure, some folks look at that as a disadvantage, but some people wear weights strapped to their wrists and ankles to get exercise while they go about their daily routine, too. I say get your exercise while you cook. You can bake cornbread, or cake, or even brownies in a cast iron skillet. You can’t do that with a Teflon pan: the handle will melt. Besides the many, many ways you can use your cast iron cookware for its intended purpose, if you get a little creative, you’ll find there are also many other uses for your cast iron.
And finally, I’ve found that cast iron cookware, when properly taken care of, is actually more reliably nonstick than that Teflon junk any day of the week. The problem is that most people have forgotten, or never knew, how to look after their cast iron cookware, or else can’t be bothered to do it properly. It’s not that hard, but it requires a bit of a paradigm shift that many folks are reluctant to accept.
Care and Feeding of your Cast Iron Skillet
First—and this is very important—do not wash your cast iron skillet. Oh, you can, and should, clean it periodically, but for the love of all that’s holy, don't put your cast iron cookware into a sink full of soapy dishwater! The soap will break down the oils that coat the surface of your skillet (soap is supposed to do that) and not only will this expose your skillet to the air, leading to what chemists call “oxidation” (that’s “rust” to you and me), the soap will permeate the cast iron and you will taste it the next time you cook with that pan. Yuck. There are ways you can get rid of that residual soap, but it’s so much easier never to put it there in the first place.
So how do you clean your skillet if you’re not allowed to wash it? And won’t there be germs left behind? I’m glad you asked. All you need are plain tap water and something flat to scrape the skillet with. Just run the pan under cold water, and scrape off any accumulated grease, bacon bits, or whatever with a flat scraping device. The edge of a credit card will work, as will a spatula with a straight edge to it. Once your skillet is scraped clean, turn off the water and go back to the stove. Turn on a burner and set your skillet on it. Soon, the residual water will begin to evaporate. Once it’s all gone, put a small amount of olive oil (or whatever oil you usually use to cook with) in the pan. Wad up some paper towels (you can use a cloth if you prefer, but you’ll need to launder it), and use the wad to get that oil all over the surface of the skillet, even the sides. You’ll know you’ve got it all covered because it will be uniformly shiny. Now put it back on the burner and watch closely. Soon the oil will begin to smoke. As soon as it does, take the skillet off the burner. Tadaa, you’ve re-seasoned your skillet, and the heat has killed off any tenacious germs that the water didn’t rise away down the drain. You can now store the skillet in your cupboard and it will be ready and rust-free the next time you want to whip up a hearty breakfast, bake a round loaf of cornbread, or even bean a burglar on the noggin.