Usually when we talk about eating a balanced diet, we talk about food. Eat more of this, less of that, that kind of thing. But there is one nutrient that vegetarians and vegans can add to their balanced diets just by changing pans.
I’m talking about iron, of course, and the vegetarian’s friend, the cast iron pan. Yes, cast iron is a powerful way to get plenty of iron, all without eating any meat. It’s also a great way to cook.
Your Grandmother probably cooked in cast iron, and if you are really lucky, you inherited her pans. The indestructibility of cast iron makes is a lifetime investment, and beyond. I have some I inherited from my Mother in Law that go back to her Mother, and they aren’t going anywhere.
Cooking foods in cast iron measurably adds iron to them, especially if they are a bit acidic. In a study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association in 1986, researchers measured the increase in iron in certain foods cooked in the pans. A 3 ounce serving of spaghetti sauce cooked in cast iron increased from .6 mg iron to 5.7 mg. 3 ounces of applesauce went from .35 mg to 7.3 mg. Scrambled eggs increased from 1.49 mg to 4.79 mg, and pancakes went from .63 mg to 1.31 mg. Plain white rice went from .67 mg per serving to 1.97mg, tripling it.
Since women of childbearing age need 18 mg per day, and most other adults need 8 mg, cooking in iron makes great sense. Other iron tips include eating some vitamin C with your iron containing foods. Good vegetarian source include cooked soy beans (8.8 mg per cup) lentils (6.6mg per cup) leafy greens like chard (4.0 mg per cooked cup) and dried fruits and molasses.
If you drink caffeine, don’t have it with iron containing foods, and don’t eat too much bran. It’s better to eat whole grain foods throughout the day than to eat large doses of bran, since the phytates in bran can keep you from absorbing your iron.
Cast iron cookery may be a lost art these days, after everyone went to teflon and non-stick pans during our fat-phobic years. Better to go back to leaching good for you iron into your stir-fry than the chemicals in the other stuff. Cast iron takes a little more effort to maintain, but its worth it. Don’t buy an enameled one if you are looking for iron, it has to be naked iron touching the food.
So, when you get your cast iron pan, you may have to season it. Lodge makes a pre-seasoned line now, which is very popular. It’s not hard to season a pan, but it’s like training a puppy, you have to do it consistently at first. So, when you get your pan, heat the oven to 200 F, rub the pan with a thin coating of shortening, and put the pan in the oven for an hour or two. Don’t use too much fat, or you might get a film. Some people recommend setting it upside down on a foil lined baking pan so that any extra oil will drain out, but that is a production. What is happening in the oven is that the pores of the metal actually open up in the heat, and the oil bonds with it to make non-stick coating.
After that, every time you use the pan, wipe it out, never scour. I know, sometimes things stick anyway, and you might have to give it a rub with a scrubbie in spots. It’s all good. Just do your best to not damage the seasoned surface, and then dry it and rub it down with more shortening. I like to keep my skillets in the oven-then they don’t get dusty, and when I preheat the oven for baking, the pans get heated with their coating of oil. Then I just take the hot pan out and put it on the back of the stove to cool.
If you don’t have a cast iron Dutch oven, I recommend buying one, they are not expensive. Use it for all your spaghetti sauces and soups like this one. Just season it afterward.
And you may just feel better every day.
Spicy Black Bean and Collard Soup in Cast Iron
This is a basic bean soup, you can use other beans as well. Simmering for a long time increases the iron content, so cooking beans in iron is a both delicious and good for you!
Makes about 8 cups
1 cup black beans, sorted and rinsed
1 small chipotle chile canned in adobo, chopped
1 large carrot, chopped
1 medium yellow onion, diced
2 stalks celery, sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon oregano
14 ounces canned diced tomatoes
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 bunch collard greens, chopped
1. Sort and wash beans. Put in a cast iron dutch oven. Soak overnight or quick soak by covering with an inch of water, bringing to a boil, and turning off for 1 hour. Pour off the soaking water and cover with water by an inch, and bring to a boil.
2. Reduce the beans to a simmer and add the chipotle, onion, carrot, and celery. Cover the pot and cook until the beans are almost tender, about 30 minutes. Add more water if necessary. Add the, garlic, cumin, oregano, tomatoes, salt and crushed chiles. Simmer for about 20 minutes.
3. Add the chopped collards and cook for about 5 minutes, just until the greens are soft and dark green. Adjust seasonings and serve with cornbread or rice. This freezes well, also. Makes about 8 cups.
Did the 1986 ADA study describe how well seasoned the cast iron was? It would seem that the amount of iron that would leach off the surface would be modified as the surface condition changed. I’d also worry about transferring the data to some of the modern cast iron that has a surface coating as it comes from the factory. This coating may also reduce the amount of iron transferred to the food.
There also is a need for people to understand that enameled cast iron, like Le Cruset and Staub, will not put any iron into your diet. I run into this situation in cooking classes where students think that all cast iron pots are the same.
They did not. I find that cooking something like the soup recipe here usually calls for some re-seasoning, anything besides frying takes some of the seasoning off.
I think it’s just a good practice to cook with the pans and get some iron in the food, even though it is hard to measure.
You are right, the enameled stuff is not about iron in the food, just hefty hot cookware.
Great post on Cast Iron Pans! I just learned that you can use them like a sizzling hot plate by putting it in a hot oven for several minutes! Such a simple idea.
It’s too bad we all got into nonstick and forgot about them for a while. We could have been getting iron instead of chemicals.
I have a cast iron wok that I got as a present 25 years ago, it is great!
Do you know any cookbooks with vegetarian recipes for Dutch ovens?
Well, the new Lodge Cookbook that’s just being released has two recipes from me included in the book- a veggie chili made in a Dutch Oven and a Pizza made in a cast iron skillet. But, most of the recipes are not vegetarian. I would recommend just using cast iron for anything you cook-saute in it, make soups, stews, spaghetti sauce. Hope that helps!