CAST IRON IS KING!

“If Teflon is nonstick, how do they get it to coat the pan?” I first heard this silly joke in high school while watching a cooking demonstration as the speaker slid an omelet out of a pan. I was impressed, not so much by the eggs but by the Teflon and its mysterious nonstick abilities.

There’s no real mystery to how they get Teflon to stick (layer after layer is sprayed onto a pan that, at its core, is porous) but there is a bit of mystery surrounding its safety. After years of debate and research a more poignant question is “why the hell are we still using these nonstick pans?”

I’m guilty; I don’t pretend to be perfect. In my home there are NO nonstick pans, but at work when I’m under the gun, I’ll throw down a nonstick pan and sauté away with it– especially when I’m on eggs. But after reading into the subject, I can’t do it anymore. I have to stop. I became a chef to feed people, not to poison them!

The old line of thought was that when a nonstick pan got scratched (badly) it was time to throw it out. This still holds true, but even a brand new pan, smooth as silk, is not necessarily safe. Teflon feels like some sort of a weird plastic and everyone knows that heating plastic is a no-no. But what the hell is Teflon anyway?

Teflon was an accidental invention by a Dupont scientist, Dr. Roy Plunkett. He created a solid form of Freon, or tetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), which he renamed Teflon. The stuff is slick and used in all sorts of strange, industrial applications. The Guinness Book of World Records has crowned Teflon resin as the world’s most slippery substance! Very impressive, but wait a minute…wasn’t Freon blamed for eating up the ozone layer? Banned from aerosol cans in the 80’s? I’m sure heating it up in a hot pan is perfectly safe!

Tefal AdvertisementIt wasn’t until the 1950’s that the firm version of Freon found its way onto the skillet. A Frenchman named Marc Gregoire credits his wife with the inspiration for this and what would later become the T-Fal line of cookware.

By the 1960’s, nonstick cookware was everywhere and it was also notorious for scratching and flaking easily. To Dupont’s credit, the company was slow and hesitant in approving Teflon for food preparation. Apparently nine years of testing went into the product’s safety, which won the FDA’s approval.

The debate over whether Teflon is indeed safe for food preparation continues today and for every study that says it’s poison, there’s one refuting the idea. But one issue remains constant, perfluorooctanoic acids, or PFOAs, have bad mojo! PFOAs are an essential ingredient in the manufacturing of Teflon and are also a vaporized fume released from exposing nonstick coatings to heat. PFOAs are documented to cause cancer in laboratory animals and inhalation makes people physically ill with flu-like symptoms. In addition, PFOAs are also linked to human birth defects, liver problems, immune system compromises and screwed up lipid levels! Yummy.

This all sounds like bad stuff to me and I’m not sure who exactly to trust, the corporate moneymakers or the hippy-health activists? But I’m getting pretty anti-Teflon. My suspicions were confirmed when I read about Dupont’s suggestions for safe use to avoid harmful fume exposure: a nonstick pan should never be heated prior to cooking (?!), never be used in a broiler (?!?!) and never go above 500° F (?!?!?!). Got it? Good. Just remember that Dupont is basically asking you to NEVER COOK WITH A NONSTICK PAN!

In 2006, after paying a 16.5 million dollar settlement to the EPA over not disclosing the health risks associated with PFOAs, Dupont announced it would stop using the harmful toxin in Teflon production. Along with several other companies who manufacture nonstick coatings, an agreement was reached to minimize the use of the stuff by 2010 and have it virtually eliminated by 2015.

Until a safe and proven alternative nonstick coat is developed, it is pretty clear that these pans need to go. Or maybe we just don’t need them at all? I was thinking about my aversion to plastic and how I refuse to eat any weird chemical preservatives. I like to keep things simple, natural and I prescribe to the food philosophy of wanting to only eat things my grandmother would recognize in her cupboard–exactly where I found the ultimate nonstick cookware: CAST IRON!

BACK TO BLACK

The cast iron pan is one of the cheapest, strongest and most useful pans in your kitchen. And it performs exceptionally well. Not a believer? Top chefs are using the hell out of ‘em!

On a recent stage at Campanile in Los Angeles, I was shocked to see stacks of cast iron skillets. No, and I mean NO, chemically treated nonstick pans were in sight. What I did see was the hot line sautéing veggies and lean proteins in the classic, heavy black pans. The chicken entrée was the classic Pollo al Mattone, or “Chicken Under a Brick”, and utilized three cast iron pans—one for searing and two for weight. Much better than the brick method!

I’ve been a lover of cast iron for years. I literally got my first pan out of someone’s “free” leftovers from a garage sale—one man’s junk is another man’s treasure. I took that heavy centurion home and gave it a gentle cleaning—its one and only. I then seasoned it properly and have been enjoying it ever since. When seasoned, cleaned and maintained (see tips below), a cast iron pan is the original and superior nonstick choice.

Get rid of your nonstick pans and stop breathing and eating the toxins! For less than $30 you can get a killer cast iron and be searing and sautéing the nonstick way naturally.

HOW TO SEASON A CAST IRON PAN

Seasoning a cast iron skillet sounds romantic, mysterious and dramatic. It also sounds like a pain in the ass (especially when you hear about pans that were seasoned for 50+ years). Don’t worry, it’s simple! Get your pan and coat it with some fat; anything will do but I’d recommend a cheap veggie oil. Rub a good amount of oil all over the pan (inside and out) and bake it, upside down, in the oven at about 375°F for one hour. Turn the oven off and let the pan cool on the rack. That’s it! You might want to open a window while you do the baking as hot oil can drip onto the bottom of your oven and smoke-up!

Now if the pan is brand new it won’t be totally perfect just yet, but after a few uses you’ll start to notice it retains an oily patina. This is what “seasoning” a pan is all about. Each time you use it (and clean it properly) you are adding to the seasoned effect. Before long you’ll have a full-on nonstick skillet that’s ready for the ultimate test–eggs!

CAST IRON CARE

Here is where most people screw up. DO NOT CLEAN YOUR CAST IRON PAN! Just give it a good rinse with hot water right after use. If you’ve got all sorts of nasty, crusty bits stuck to the surface of the pan, rub it down with some kosher salt and a side towel and maybe a soft brush if needed, but NEVER USE SOAP—it will kill the seasoning.

Dry the pan thoroughly and give it a film-coat of cooking oil before putting aside. Put a paper towel on the cooking surface and a lid on top to keep it dust-free and dry. That’s it.

Every once in a while someone will use my pan and leave water in it which inevitably rusts. That’s when I need to use a scrubby or even sand paper to dust it off. Since I just cut into the seasoning, the pan will need to be seasoned. Anytime you feel your pan’s nonstick action is getting compromised, pop it in the oven for another baking! You cannot season a pan too often.