Whenever I tell a die-hard carnivore that I eat a mainly vegan diet, one of the first things they ask is, “but can you get enough iron?” (That usually comes right after the protein question.) And this can be tough to answer. Vegetarians and vegans aren’t much more likely than omnivores to get anemia, and a balanced diet can supply enough iron even without animal products. Still, it really is more difficult to get high-quality iron from a plant-based diet than a flesh-based one.
Whether you’re vegan or not, iron is one of those nutrients that you want to make sure to get enough of. The mineral is in every cell of your body, and your blood needs it to deliver precious oxygen to your organs, muscles and skin.
The good news is that with one simple solution, you can double, triple or quadruple the iron content of your food. In some cases, you can increase it by more than twenty-fold. Seriously. The answer? The humble iron skillet.
How an Iron Skillet Boosts Nutrient Content
It’s not rocket science: When you cook food in an iron skillet, it absorbs traces of the nutrient. (The same theory applies to all items you use for cooking or food storage, which is why Tupperware and other plastic containers are sort of scary.) The more acidic and moist the food, the more iron it will absorb. Many vegan foods, like fruits and vegetables, fit this description. And yes, the iron in a skillet is exactly the same type that your body needs.
For a serious iron fix, make applesauce in your skillet. In a study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, iron content jumped from 0.35 milligrams in raw applesauce ingredients to 7.38 milligrams in the finished product.
In total, 20 items were tested in the study. When cooked in cast-iron cookware, iron content of potatoes climbed from 0.42 milligrams to 0.8 milligrams; white rice went from 0.67 milligrams to 1.97 milligrams; and spaghetti sauce leapt from 0.61 milligrams to 5.77 milligrams. For perspective, most men and post-menopausal women need about 8 milligrams of iron per day, and menstruating women need about 18 milligrams per day.
Getting the Most Iron from Your Skillet
The more you stir during cooking, the more contact the food will have with the skillet — and the more iron it will absorb. Longer cooking times also lead to better iron absorption, which is why simmered sauces work so well. Using iron skillets for cornbread and other baked goods also ups the iron levels, but not by as much as cooking on a stove. Just don’t use an iron pot to deep-fry, as the mineral can turn your oil rancid and render your meal inedible.
You’ll get more iron out of a new skillet than an old one; so if you’re still using Grandma’s hand-me-down, it may be time to go shopping. Keep the pretty old pan for display, and cook with the new one.
Not for Small Children
As awesome as iron is for your body, children under 3 can get sick if they eat too much. Skip the iron skillet for babies and toddlers, as excess could give them nausea, diarrhea and vomiting, or even cause hemorrhaging. Iron toxicity is scary stuff, and it’s just not worth the risk for your little ones.
For adults, however, using a cast iron skillet can be one of the best ways to get more of the nutrient in your diet. On top of the added nutrition, you’ll spare yourself the risk of cooking in a pan treated with a chemical non-stick coating like Teflon. Nonstick surfaces are often made with carcinogenic substances, potentially harming your health and the environment. I use my own cast-iron skillet every day and, nutrient boost aside, I can tell you that it just makes food taste better.