Preparing Plant-Based Meals In Cast Iron Cookware
Are you wondering whether cast iron cooking is a good option for vegans? A lot of the touted benefits of cast iron cooking seem to be geared towards omnivores searing steaks so it’s understandable why you’ve never looked into it.
After years of using stainless steel cookware, I’ve discovered a love of cast iron. Cooking in it is different than the pots and pans you’ve most likely been using.
Below I’ll go over the many benefits of cast iron cooking for vegans as well as how to properly choose, season, and maintain your cast iron skillets.
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11 Benefits Of Cooking In Cast Iron For Vegans
Here are the numerous benefits of cooking in cast iron pans and skillets you may have never thought of.
Cast iron cookware is made up of 97% iron and doesn’t give off any toxic fumes like Teflon-coated pans. Teflon is made from PFOA’s which create a great non-stick barrier on pans but they quickly wear out and need replacing.
If you continue to use a scratched or damaged Teflon-coated pan, you may be putting yourself at risk of ingesting some of the chemicals.
Also, after the pans are damaged and thrown away, the chemical coating lives on and can make its way into our drinking water supply. The EPA recommends limiting our exposure to PFOA ingestion.
Cast iron skillets seem to last forever. Many families pass down grandma’s favorite skillet as a family heirloom.
The secondary cast iron collector’s market even has cast iron pieces form the early 1800’s that are still good as new. Despite the age of the pan, you can restore it and cook with it even today.
They’re unlikely to warp and can take a beating before cracking. After you acquire some cast iron cookware for yourself, you’ll likely never have to buy another piece again.
3. Extra Iron
Cooking in cast iron can add a significant amount of iron to your diet. This is great for vegans who need to get more iron into their diet.
In fact, researchers found that giving populations in third world countries that suffer from anemia a cast iron to cook with, helped prevent iron deficiency anemia.
One word of caution is that people who have hemochromatosis where they already absorb too much iron from their food should never cook in cast iron.
A cast iron that has been seasoned properly is practically non-stick.
Oil on your pan gets heated up until fat polymerization. This polymerized oil is hard and bonds to the iron, creating a nonstick surface.
With proper seasoning and regular use, cast iron gives you all of the non-stick properties you’re looking for without the over-engineered chemicals.
5. Easy Cleaning
Often, with stainless steel, food sticks unless you use a lot of oil. Once it sticks, it’s tough to get the burnt food off without hours of soaking and elbow grease.
Once your cast iron has been seasoned, there won’t be much food that sticks to your pan. Unless you overheat the cast iron or cook really acidic foods, your pan should clean up with a quick scrub.
6. Oven Safe
Cast iron can move from the stove to the oven to the fire. As long as your piece doesn’t have a wooden handle or other style knobs, you’re able to make a one-pan meal where you start on the stovetop and finish it in the oven.
This is perfect for when you don’t want to dirty up multiple dishes. I use this option when making veggie mac or baked risotto.
Being oven-safe makes cast iron perfect for baking. Check out these cast iron baking tips to prevent sticking.
7. Low Oil Cooking Possible
It may sound counterintuitive that you can cook low-oil in cast iron when you need oil in order to get the non-stick finish.
Once the seasoning is built up, you can cook dishes with very little oil, sometimes no oil at all. Just make sure you wipe a little oil on your cast iron before you put it away so that it stays protected and prevents rust.
You don’t need to worry about the seasoning transferring oil to your dishes either. Once the oil is polymerized, it only wears off in minute amounts.
8. Less Waste
If you’re used to non-stick coated pans, chances are, you’re familiar with buying new ones every few months. Over time, the coating wears off or gets damaged, rendering it dangerous to continue using.
If you go through two pans a year for over 30 years, that’s 60 pans in the landfill for one person. This really adds up if you have multiple non-stick kitchenware that needs to be replaced.
Cooking with cast iron is the eco-choice and will save you lots of money in the long run. While a brand new cast iron skillet may cost you more than a cheap non-stick pan, picking a cast iron pan up at the thrift store is the most economical way to go.
9. Energy Efficient
Cast iron is a poor conductor of heat. This means that it holds onto heat and the temperature isn’t easily changed. Contrast this to copper pans where you can raise and lower the temperature on the stovetop quickly.
Because of this, cast iron requires preheating but once it’s heated, it’ll hold onto that heat and keep your food evenly warm. In order to achieve this even heating and avoid hotspots, make sure you give your cast iron 15-20 minutes to heat up before using it.
10. Able To Use Metal Utensils
With the rise in popularity of chemical non-stick pans, soft nylon and silicon utensils became essential so as not to damage the pans.
Bare cast iron is tough. Metal utensils hold up longer and won’t get melted like plastic ones or wear out fast like silicone. You can rest easy and use your metal utensils with cast iron because it can handle it.
Please note that metal utensils shouldn’t be used with enameled cast iron since the enamel coating could chip.
11. Makes You Stronger
Cast iron is heavy which is typically a detractor for using it. A 10 inch cast iron skillet weighs an average of 5 lbs.
This makes them sturdy and stable for cooking but not great for recipes where you have to flip or lift up the pan.
For instance, if you wanted to cook authentic stir-fry in a wok, I’d go for a carbon steel wok rather than the 12 lb cast iron version.
Regularly lifting cast iron pans and pots will help build up your muscles. Just make sure you can handle it before you have a hot skillet in your hands.
Cast Iron vs Enameled Cast Iron: Which One Is Best?
Uncoated cast iron is good for just about everything except its kryptonite, acidic foods. Cooking acidic foods like tomato sauce in an uncoated cast iron can strip your seasoning and impart a metallic taste to your food.
Acidic foods cooked in cast iron can increase the food’s iron content 6 times or more depending on how long it’s cooked for.
That’s why I recommend having at least one enamel coated cast iron pot in your collection to cook all of your acidic meals. I use the versatile enameled dutch oven. Uncoated cast iron can handle everything else.
Benefits Of Enameled Cast Iron
Enameled cast iron has many benefits. It’s a great option for someone who wants a little less maintenance or if you cook alkaline/acidic dishes.
- Can cook acidic foods in it.
- Doesn’t require seasoning.
- Comes in lots of colors rather than black iron.
- Will not rust.
Cons of Enameled Cast Iron
There are some detractors of enameled cast iron. Having a combination of both uncoated and enameled cast iron gives you the best of both worlds.
- The porcelain glass enamel coating can become damaged if dropped.
- Must use wooden, silicone, or nylon cooking utensils so you don’t scratch the enamel.
- Food sticks at hight heat so better off with lower cooking temperatures.
- Preheating an enameled cast iron cookware too hot can damage it. Especially important to note if you intend to sear at high heat.
Cast Iron vs Carbon Steel: What’s The Difference?
Cast iron and carbon steel are very similar in makeup. They are both around 97% iron but it’s the carbon content that makes them different.
Cast iron has between 2-3.5% carbon whereas carbon steel has less than 2% carbon. That small difference makes the cookware vastly different from one another.
- Carbon steel is much lighter than cast iron.
- Carbon steel heats up and cools down faster.
- Cast iron has better heat retention because it’s thicker.
- Carbon steel has a smoother surface.
- Both can go from stovetop to oven.
- Both work on induction stovetops.
- Both require seasoning or they’ll rust and food will stick.
So which one should you go with?
It depends on what type of cooking you’re doing. Both cast iron and carbon steel do well baking inside an oven but are very different when on the stovetop.
The ability of cast iron to hold heat makes it more grill-like. Anything that requires intense heat does well. Once the cast iron is hot, it stays hot.
Authentic stir fry requires intense heat and the ability to move the wok around. This is best done in carbon steel.
The high heat cooking in carbon steel also produces more smoke. Many restaurants use carbon steel for its ability to sear and do well under high-heat cooking.
Keep in mind that most homes don’t have industrial venting fans or the high BTU output burners that restaurants have to deal with heat and smoke.
Should you get cast iron or carbon steel?
For the home cook, I recommend cast iron. It’s so versatile and you can do almost anything in it from baking, casseroles, lasagna, pizza, and even stir frying. The key is to give the cast iron time to heat up.
Otherwise, carbon steel is good for searing, cooking eggs, and delicate fish; all things vegans don’t need to worry about.
Best Starter Cast Iron Cookware
It can get overwhelming figuring out what brand, size, and style of cast iron you should get. You have to decide between new, vintage, basic brands, and luxury brand cast iron.
I typically stick to Lodge brand and vintage cast iron pieces that you find in thrift stores. For new cast iron, the Lodge brand is American-made, affordable, and perfect for beginners.
Here are the basic cast iron pieces I recommend to start out:
Cast Iron Skillet
Between a 9 inch and 13.25 inch cast iron skillet is a good place to start. The 9 inch is great for making cornbread or cooking for one.
A 10.25-inch skillet is the perfect size for baking cakes. My most used skillet size is the 12-inch skillet. It’s large enough to make dinners for the family but not too large where I don’t want to lift it.
Enameled Cast Iron Dutch Oven
There are two common sizes of enameled dutch ovens. The 6 quart round enameled cast iron is large enough for a small family and cooking for one.
The 7 quart oval enameled cast iron can feed a large family. Both cast irons are great for baking bread as well.
Cast Iron Griddle Pan
I prefer a griddle pan over a grill pan. Griddle pans are flat bottomed without a wall. They’re great for making pancakes, crepes, and grilling. Best yet, they’re super easy to clean.
Grill pans are great for getting sear marks into foods but they don’t cook better than a flat bottomed pan.
Tip: Look for cast iron sets to get your skillets and griddle at a bundled price.
Testing Vintage Cast Iron For Lead
If you’re lucky enough to find a cast iron skillet or pan at a thrift store, you may not realize that you should test it for lead before going through the seasoning process. This goes for all cast iron where you don’t personally know the origin.
Why would cast iron have lead?
Cast iron has a higher melting point than lead and it holds an even temperature at high heat. This makes it perfect for people who melt lead to make their own bullets or toy soldiers.
If those cast iron pieces accidentally get donated, sold at an estate sale, or thrown away without drilling holes in it rendering it unusable, the cookware may make its way back into a kitchen.
How To Test Cast Iron For Lead
It’s actually a simple process involving lead test swabs you can get off of Amazon. Each lead testing kit will have its own directions but you basically swab the interior of the cast iron pan. If it contains lead, it will normally show us as red on the swab card.
If your cast iron pan has lead it must never be used for cooking. There is no way to remove 100% of the lead from the cast iron even if you strip and re-season your pan.
If your pan tests positive for lead and you don’t want to keep it, it’s suggested that you drill holes in it first before discarding so that no one else accidentally finds and starts using it.
How To Season Cast Iron For The First Time
No matter whether you got your cast iron brand new or second hand, you’re going to want to clean and season it. Yes, even preseasoned cast iron needs to be seasoned.
Often the factory preseasoning is uneven and not as nonstick. You don’t need to remove the factory seasoning, just add to it to make it even better.
There’s also no telling what has happened to the pans traveling from the factory to the store or in the years it was used by someone else.
1. Wash & Dry Your Cast Iron
Preheat your oven to 200 degrees. Remove any labels or stickers from your cast iron. Wash it with warm soapy water and towel dry.
2. Initial Bake
Once your oven is preheated and your cast iron is washed/dried, put it into the 200 degree oven for 20 minutes.
3. Oil Liberally
After 20 minutes is up, wear heat protecting gloves while you remove your cast iron from the oven. Leave the oven on.
Once it’s out, oil it liberally with Crisco All-Vegetable Shortening. Yes, the same Crisco in a can you grew up with.
I recommend using an old lint-free towel or t-shirt that you can toss afterwards to apply the oil.
4. Remove As Much Oil As Possible
Use another lint-free towel to try to wipe out as much oil as you can. Wipe like you made a mistake and now want no oil in the pan.
It may seem counterintuitive to try to wipe away the oil after having just applied it but this keeps your seasoning layer from being too thick and flaking.
Don’t worry, there will still be plenty of oil leftover in your pan for seasoning. The most common mistake of seasoning is too much oil.
5. Place Cast Iron Back In The Oven
Once oiled, place the cast iron back into the 200 degree oven upside down. You may want to place a baking sheet or foil on the rack beneath the cast iron to catch excess oil that drips.
Change the temperature to 300 degrees. Once your oven reaches 300 degrees, remove the cast iron with heat-safe gloves or oven mitts. Continue to leave the oven on.
Wipe it out again with a towel to remove as much oil as possible. This step makes sure all excess oil has been removed.
Having too much oil creates spots and flakey seasoning in your cast iron. Less is more.
6. Seasoning Bake
Place the cast iron back into the 300 degree oven upside down. Now increase the temperature to 450 degrees.
Once the temperature reaches 450 degrees, set your timer for one hour. Allow your cast iron to cook for the entire hour.
It may get a little smokey so make sure you have your vent fans on so you don’t set off smoke alarms.
7. Cooling Off
After the hour is up, avoid opening up the oven. Simply turn the oven off and allow your cast iron to remain in the oven until it cools down completely.
If you don’t have time for this or want to do a second seasoning coating more quickly, at least wait until the oven has cooled down to 200 degrees before taking the cast iron out.
8. Do A Second & Third Coat
A second and third seasoning coat will give you a well-seasoned pan. For these coats, start back at step 3 and avoid the initial soap/water cleaning.
Once complete, your pan may look light brown or gray. Don’t worry, that’s completely normal. The more you cook with high fat foods in your cast iron, the darker black your pan will get.
What is the best oil to season a cast iron skillet?
I use and recommend vegetable shortening (Crisco) to season a cast iron skillet. The initial seasoning that creates the non-stick coating does best with a vegetable oil like shortening or canola oil.
Olive oil, avocado oil, and coconut oil are great to cook with but not for the initial seasoning. Low smoke point oils are problematic in creating a good seasoning coat.
Another popular seasoning oil is flaxseed oil. I initially used this to season my cast iron but I found it to eventually create a lot of flakes on my pans.
After scrubbing out the pans and re-seasoning them with vegetable shortening, I haven’t had this issue. Flaxseed oil is much more expensive and requires 5-6 coats to get a similar seasoning of 3 coats of vegetable shortening.
Is cast iron supposed to smoke when seasoning?
What oil you used during the seasoning process will determine how much smoke is produced. Your oven is set no higher than 450 degrees for seasoning but many oils’ smoke points are lower than this.
The smoke point of vegetable shortening is around 360 degrees but the Crisco brand vegetable shortening says it can go up to 490 degrees.
Flaxseed oil’s smoke point is 450 degrees. Other plant oils have much lower smoke points and aren’t recommended for the seasoning process.
Make sure you keep your above stove vent fans on or open some windows to help with the air flow.
What temperature do I season my cast iron?
Season a cast iron with vegetable shortening at 450 degrees for one hour. Let it cool down in the oven. Repeat the seasoning process two to three times.
How often do you season a cast iron?
If your pan has been seasoned correctly, it shouldn’t have to go through another seasoning. Frequent use and cooking with oils deposits additional seasoning automatically.
You may need to go through a re-seasoning process again if you’re having food sticking issues or flakey seasoning.
How To Season A Rusty Cast Iron Skillet
If your cast iron skillet is rusty, it can still be seasoned. It simply requires a little bit more prep work before going through the steps.
Is rust on cast iron dangerous?
Not really. Most people associate rust with tetanus but it’s the anaerobic bacteria Clostridium tetani that causes issues. According to the CDC, this bacteria is mostly found in soil and animal waste, not in rust.
I wouldn’t suggest cooking and eating food out of a rusted pan but the pan itself is completely salvageable.
How To Clean A Cast Iron With Rust
If your cast iron has light rust or rust spots, the simplest way of cleaning it is to use fine steel wool (grade #00). Scrub the rusted areas until you get down to bare iron.
Once you’re at bare iron, wash and season your cast iron like explained above in the seasoning section.
Using Vinegar On Cast Iron
For seriously rusted cast iron pans, a vinegar soak may be the best option.
Mix equal parts white vinegar and water in a bucket. Make sure the bucket is large enough to submerge the skillet entirely.
You can leave your cast iron cookware in the vinegar soak for up to 8 hrs but it’s essential to check early and often.
Vinegar is eco-friendly and dissolves the rust effectively but once the rust is gone, it’s going to start dissolving your pan. Leaving your cast iron in vinegar for too long is how you get pitted surfaces and other pan damage.
How To Care For Cast Iron: Guide For Beginners
Cast iron requires some maintenance and care in order to keep the seasoning layer in tip-top shape.
- After you’re done cooking and your pan is still warm, scrape off any food residue and rinse in warm water.
- For really stuck-on food, lightly use a chainmail scrub so you don’t remove your seasoning. This set has both and is what I use.
- Dry your pan on low heat and then coat with a thin layer of oil. Make sure your pan is completely dry before oiling or you’ll get rust. I typically use canola oil since it’s inexpensive and does the job well. You’ll need less than a teaspoon to coat the entire pan.
- Store in a cool dry place until ready to use again. If you’re stacking pans, place a cloth between each pan to protect the finish. I use this heavy-duty pan rack to store my cast iron pans.
Here are the most commonly asked questions regarding cleaning and maintaining cast iron.
Can you use soap on cast iron?
Yes, you can use small amounts of mild soap to clean cast iron without negative effect.
Over time, soap will remove the seasoning so you may need to re-season more frequently than if you cleaned your pan without.
Should you oil cast iron after every use?
Yes, providing a very light layer of oil to the interior cooking side of the cast iron skillet prevents rust and keeps your skillet ready for the next time you want to cook.
I want to emphasize light on the oil. It’s far less than the amount of oil as when you originally seasoned. Apply less than a teaspoon of oil and then get a clean cloth to rub off as much as you can.
The exterior and handle of the cast iron skillet doesn’t need to be oiled as frequently. You can apply a light layer of oil to the exterior every 5 or 6 uses.
Can you ruin a cast iron skillet?
Yes, it is possible to ruin a cast iron skillet if you drop it and it gets a crack in it. Even if the crack is small, heat can cause the pan to contract or expand which is a dangerous situation when filled with hot food.
Besides this, most other solutions usually involve stripping away rust and re-seasoning the skillet.
How To Clean A Cast iron With Burnt On
Burnt-on food and grime can be difficult to get off your cast iron pan. There are a few methods you can try that are effective:
- Boiling Water
- Sea Salt
- Baking Soda
Boiling Water Method For Cleaning Cast Iron
This is the most traditional method for cleaning burnt food. After you’ve scraped as much stuck food off as you can, add warm or hot water to the hot pan.
It’s important that you don’t add cold water to a hot cast iron pan or you risk it cracking or warping.
Place the pan back on a burner and boil the water. As the water is boiling, use a metal spatula to gently release the burnt-on food.
Depending on how much burnt food is stuck to the pan, you may need to do a water change. Make sure you’re not scraping too vigorously with the metal spatula or you risk removing your pan’s seasoning.
Cleaning Cast Iron With A Potato And Salt
For lightly stuck on food, the salt method of cleaning is less abrasive to your seasoning.
Sprinkle about 1 cup of coarse salt into your warm skillet. Cut a potato in half and place the cut end into the skillet to scrub around.
Potatoes contain natural oxalic acid which is great for dissolving rust. Oxalic acid is even used in commercial cleaning products but this natural potato salt method is cast iron safe.
The salt acts like a gently abrasive scrub for your pan. Alternatively, if you don’ have a potato, use metal kitchen tongs holding a clean kitchen rag to scrub.
Once all of the bits of food are unstuck rinse the skillet out with warm water and dry it off immediately on a burner and lightly re-oil.
Can you use baking soda to clean cast iron?
Yes, you can use baking soda to clean cast iron. Baking soda is non-abrasive and can even remove rust.
Some people do a gentle baking soda rinse in their cast iron if they’re going from a savory to a sweet recipe so their pan doesn’t impart any unwanted flavors.
Sprinkle a little bit of baking soda into the cast iron then add some warm water. Scrub the pan with the baking soda gently so that you don’t remove the seasoning.
Then rinse, dry on a low burner, and lightly re-oil.
What do I do if my cast iron is sticky?
If your cast iron is sticky, this means there is excess oil buildup on your pan.
The easiest way to fix this is to preheat your oven to 450 degrees. Then place your cast iron upside down in the heated oven for one hour. Let it cool down in the oven naturally.
The extra oil will drip out of the pan so place a baking sheet or foil underneath the pan to catch it.
What Not To Cook In A Cast Iron
While cast iron is versatile enough for almost all cooking situations, there are a few times where uncoated cast iron isn’t the best.
Long-Simmering Acidic Dishes
Cast iron doesn’t do well with long-simmering acidic dishes. The longer you cook acidic foods in them, the more iron it’ll leach into your food giving it a metallic taste.
A well-seasoned cast iron skillet should be fine cooking tomatoes or lemon dishes for 15 minutes or so. It was only after 30 minutes of simmering tomato sauce that taste testers were able to detect a distinct metallic taste.
But if simmering homemade tomato sauce is what you love doing, use an enameled cast iron dutch oven instead. The enamel is the protective seasoning and doesn’t wear away with acid.
Super Sticky Foods (at first)
One of the major touted benefits of cast iron is it’s nonstick coating. People often get frustrated that after going through the seasoning process food still sometimes sticks.
Part of the problem is that while the pan is seasoned, some foods are a lot more sticky than others. Until you’ve used your pan for a while and build up a seasoning from frequent use, it’s recommended to stay away from making dishes that have a tendency to stick.
Even if you clean your cast iron pan properly, there still may be the slightest residual odor from that spicy curry you made.
This isn’t usually a problem if you make a lot of savory foods. It comes more into play when you want to use the same skillet for both curry and vanilla cake.
If you like baking desserts in cast iron, you may want to pick up a second skillet just for baking. That way you won’t ever have to worry about your sweet dessert smelling faintly like last night’s dinner.
Another option to get rid of lingering smells is to pop your cast iron in a 400 degree oven for around 10 minutes.
Overall, cast iron cooking isn’t as difficult and scary as you think it is. It takes a little bit of education and prep work but the end result is non-toxic and better for the environment.
Vegans can especially benefit from cooking in cast iron since iron is a mineral many vegans don’t get enough of in their diets. It’s always best to check with your medical doctor though.
Have you cooked in a cast iron skillet before? Let me know what you thought in the comments.