Buying a Cast-Iron Pan Is the Easiest Way to Improve Your Cooking

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You can stock your kitchen with every type of modern slicer, dicer, and immersion circulator you want, but the piece of cooking equipment that comes most highly recommended by chefs has been around for centuries: the cast-iron skillet. Like the name suggests, this essential cooking tool is molded from molten iron and coated with a protective seasoning. The result is a durable, versatile piece of cookware that’s perfect for making everything from dump cakes to sunny-side up eggs.

If you’re used to steel or aluminum frying pans, cooking with cast-iron may sound intimidating. But don’t let horror stories of skillets tarnished by dishwashers or a few hours in the sink turn you off: The metal does require some special knowledge to maintain, but what you get in return is well worth the effort. “You can cook practically anything with it,” Dominique DeVito, author of The Cast Iron Skillet Cookbook, tells Mental Floss. “It’s definitely a kitchen staple.”

So what is it exactly about cast-iron that entitles it to a spot on your stovetop? Here are some points to consider.

DURABILITY

Iron is prized by engineers for its high-tensile strength, so you can bet it will hold up to whatever you throw at in the kitchen. But the metal does have one crucial weakness home cooks need to be aware of: water. Iron combines easily with oxygen, which is how you get iron oxide or rust. When iron is exposed to water, that liquid mixes with gases in the air to create a weak carbonic acid. The acid corrodes the iron, and the oxygen in the water bonds with the newly dissolved iron and forms iron oxide. While it won’t necessarily poison you, rust isn’t something you want flavoring your dinner.

Fortunately, keeping your skillet rust-free is easy to do. All cast-iron pans need to be seasoned before they’re ready to hit the stove. To season a pan, you can coat it with a thin layer of neutral fat like vegetable oil and heat in the oven. During the frontier days, DIY seasoning was the only option for cast-iron owners, but today most pans come pre-seasoned.

The difference between an unreliable skillet and one that’s built to last usually comes down to the quality of the seasoning. DeVito recommends cast-iron products from Lodge, which has been making cookware in the U.S. since 1896. “They put out a nice finished product that’s consistent and smooth,” she says. “It becomes something that you have an expectation about. I know that every time I go to my Lodge, it’s going to perform.”

But even well-seasoned cast-iron benefits from a little extra care from time to time. Before re-seasoning a skillet, DeVito suggests wiping it clean of any grease or caked-on food that’s left over from whatever you cooked last. Instead of scrubbing it with a soapy sponge, she washes her pan with hot water and a brush. Tough plastic works well for this, as well as chain-link metal that you can use like a hand towel to wipe down the pan. After she cleans it, DeVito likes to dry her cast-iron by placing it over low heat on her gas stovetop for a few minutes. Once it’s dry, she rubs it with a quarter teaspoon of vegetable oil using a paper towel, lets it sit over low heat for a few minutes more, and then wipes off the excess oil with another dry paper towel.

While it may not fit into your regular dishwashing routine, treating cast-iron cookware correctly pays off. A well-maintained pan is tough enough to withstand super high heat, meaning you can start cooking a dish on the stove and finish it in the oven in the same pan. The iron itself will endure any type of utensil you use on it, whether it’s a wooden spoon, metal tongs, or a plastic spatula. And if you ever damage the skillet’s seasoning or allow it to rust, it can be restored without too much trouble. “Ideally, you should be able to hand it down to your kids,” DeVito says.

HEALTH BENEFITS

Cast-iron offers health benefits beyond the nutritional value of the food it cooks. The first is a healthy dose of iron added to your meals. If you have an iron deficiency, like close to 10 million people in the U.S. do, your doctor may recommend incorporating more meat, beans, and leafy greens into your diet. In addition to eating iron-rich foods, you could also try preparing more meals in a cast-iron skillet. As the metal heats up, small amounts of iron leach out and enrich your food. The is especially apparent with acidic, higher-moisture ingredients like applesauce and tomato sauce. The iron you get is definitely not enough to replace dietary iron, but it’s a nice bonus if you’re looking for more ways to sneak the nutrient into your meals.

With cast-iron, you know the only thing being added to your food is an essential mineral. Nonstick Teflon pans, on the other hand, are made from substances that aren’t safe to be eaten. (Though you don’t really need to worry about these chemicals contaminating your food unless you’re really abusing the pan.) If your cast-iron is seasoned well enough, it will produce the same nonstick effects as Teflon without the unwanted chemicals.

And that brings us to the final health benefit: Cooking with cast-iron requires less oil than conventional pans. Because oil is already baked into the cast-iron’s exterior, you don’t have to worry about meat and vegetables getting stuck to the surface. You can either add a small amount of oil or no oil at all so you don’t end up adding more fat to your dinner than necessary.

COOKING QUALITY

Even without the industrial strength and bonus minerals, the cast-iron skillet would still be prized by cooks for the incredible effects it has on food. This is because of the way it reacts to heat. Iron is much thicker and denser than materials like copper and aluminum, so it takes longer to heat up. But once the metal has been heated through, it packs a lot more thermal energy than most metals heated to the same temperature. All that harnessed energy is the key to achieving crisp, golden-brown sears on foods like steak, hamburger patties, eggplant, and scallops.

And just as cast-iron takes a while to get hot, it’s also slow cooling down. That means that once you’ve left your pan to sit over a raging burner or in a screaming-hot oven for long enough, you can trust it to maintain that heat, even after filling it with cold or room-temperature ingredients. The cooling effects food has on other metals is one of the most common culprits that leaves foods pale and flabby rather than brown and crunchy.

Even when a hard sear isn’t your end goal, a cast-iron skillet is often still the best tool for the job. The versatile design makes it a great option for baking, shallow-frying, and sautéeing. A few of the items DeVito likes to cook in her cast-iron include cakes, pies, cornbread, eggs, hash browns, bacon, and vegetables. “I use it for a lot of things, like reheating leftovers and improvising with whatever I have in the fridge,” she says. “You could put a lid on it and cook rice or pasta in there—you really could put almost anything in there.”

COST

With so many desirable qualities, you may expect a cast-iron pan to rank up there with other rite-of-passage kitchen items in terms of price. But it's actually easy to find a cast-iron pan for less than other pans that don’t perform as well or last as long. Lodge, the brand DeVito recommends, has 10-inch skillets available for around $25 on Amazon. You can find fancier cast-iron pans from brands like Le Creuset selling for over $150, but when it comes to this kitchen essential, simplicity is hard to beat.

Why You Should Never Charge Your Phone in Public USB Ports Without a USB Data Blocker

Creative-Family/iStock via Getty Images
Creative-Family/iStock via Getty Images

The USB charging ports that have popped up at airports, coffee shops, and even outdoor stations around cities in recent years are definitely a lifesaver when your smartphone is down to its last bit of juice. A dead phone is annoying at best and downright dangerous at worst, so it’s totally understandable why you’d jump at the chance to revive it at your earliest opportunity.

However, those public ports might not be as benevolent as they seem. According to Afar, hackers can load malware onto those stations—or on the cables left plugged into the stations—which can then deliver passwords and other data right from your device to the hacker’s. If you have used a public port recently, don’t panic; TechCrunch reports that these cases are fairly rare. Having said that, it’s definitely better not to risk it, especially considering what a nightmare it would be to have your identity stolen.

The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office explains that the easiest way to prevent becoming a victim of this type of scam, often referred to as juice-jacking, is simply to abstain from using public USB charging ports. Instead, invest in a portable charger, or plug your own charger into an actual AC power outlet.

But unoccupied power outlets are notoriously hard to come by in public places, and portable chargers themselves can also run out of battery life. Luckily, there’s a small, inexpensive device called a data blocker that will enable you to use public USB charging ports without worrying about juice-jacking. It looks a little like a flash drive with an extra slot, but it lacks the two wires usually found in USB chargers that can download and upload data. That way, your device will charge without transferring any information.

You can get two of them for $11 from Amazon here.

[h/t Afar]

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

12 Creative Ways to Spend Your FSA Money Before the Deadline

stockfour/iStock via Getty Images
stockfour/iStock via Getty Images

If you have a Flexible Spending Account (FSA), chances are, time is running out for you to use that cash. Depending on your employer’s rules, if you don’t spend your FSA money by the end of the grace period, you potentially lose some of it. Lost cash is never a good thing.

For those unfamiliar, an FSA is an employer-sponsored spending account. You deposit pre-tax dollars into the account, and you can spend that money on a number of health care expenses. It’s kind of like a Health Savings Account (HSA), but with a few big differences—namely, your HSA funds roll over from year to year, so there’s no deadline to spend it all. With an FSA, though, most of your funds expire at the end of the year. Bummer.

The good news is: The law allows employers to roll $500 over into the new year and also offer a grace period of up to two and a half months to use that cash (March 15). Depending on your employer, you might not even have that long, though. The deadline is fast approaching for many account holders, so if you have to use your FSA money soon, here are a handful of creative ways to spend it.

1. Buy some new shades.

Head to the optometrist, get an eye prescription, then use your FSA funds to buy some new specs or shades. Contact lenses and solution are also covered.

You can also buy reading glasses with your FSA money, and you don’t even need a prescription.

2. Try acupuncture.

Scientists are divided on the efficacy of acupuncture, but some studies show it’s useful for treating chronic pain, arthritis, and even depression. If you’ve been curious about the treatment, now's a good time to try it: Your FSA money will cover acupuncture sessions in some cases. You can even buy an acupressure mat without a prescription.

If you’d rather go to a chiropractor, your FSA funds cover those visits, too.

3. Stock up on staples.

If you’re running low on standard over-the-counter meds, good news: Most of them are FSA-eligible. This includes headache medicine, pain relievers, antacids, heartburn meds, and anything else your heart (or other parts of your body) desires.

There’s one big caveat, though: Most of these require a prescription in order to be eligible, so you may have to make an appointment with your doctor first. The FSA store tells you which over-the-counter items require a prescription.

4. Treat your feet.

Give your feet a break with a pair of massaging gel shoe inserts. They’re FSA-eligible, along with a few other foot care products, including arch braces, toe cushions, and callus trimmers.

In some cases, foot massagers or circulators may be covered, too. For example, here’s one that’s available via the FSA store, no prescription necessary.

5. Get clear skin.

Yep—acne treatments, toner, and other skin care products are all eligible for FSA spending. Again, most of these require a prescription for reimbursement, but don’t let that deter you. Your doctor is familiar with the rules and you shouldn’t have trouble getting a prescription. And, as WageWorks points out, your prescription also lasts for a year. Check the rules of your FSA plan to see if you need a separate prescription for each item, or if you can include multiple products or drug categories on a single prescription.

While we’re on the topic of faces, lip balm is another great way to spend your FSA funds—and you don’t need a prescription for that. There’s also no prescription necessary for this vibrating face massager.

6. Fill your medicine cabinet.

If your medicine cabinet is getting bare, or you don’t have one to begin with, stock it with a handful of FSA-eligible items. Here are some items that don’t require a prescription:

You can also stock up on first aid kits. You don’t need a prescription to buy those, and many of them come with pain relievers and other medicine.

7. Make sure you’re covered in the bedroom.

Condoms are FSA-eligible, and so are pregnancy tests, monitors, and fertility kits. Female contraceptives are also covered when you have a prescription.

8. Prepare for your upcoming vacation.

If you have a vacation planned this year, use your FSA money to stock up on trip essentials. For example:

9. Get a better night’s sleep.

If you have trouble sleeping, sleep aids are eligible, though you’ll need a prescription. If you want to try a sleep mask, many of them are eligible without a prescription. For example, there’s this relaxing sleep mask and this thermal eye mask.

For those nights you’re sleeping off a cold or flu, a vaporizer can make a big difference, and those are eligible, too (no prescription required). Bed warmers like this one are often covered, too.

Your FSA funds likely cover more than you realize, so if you have to use them up by the deadline, get creative. This list should help you get started, and many drugstores will tell you which items are FSA-eligible when you shop online.

10. Go to the dentist.

While basics like toothpaste and cosmetic procedures like whitening treatments aren’t FSA eligible, most of the expenses you incur at your dentist’s office are. That includes co-pays and deductibles as well as fees for cleanings, x-rays, fillings, and even the cost of braces. There are also some products you can buy over-the-counter without ever visiting the dentist. Some mouthguards that prevent you from grinding your teeth at night are eligible, as are cleaning solutions for retainers and dentures.

11. Try some new gadgets.

If you still have some extra cash to burn, it’s a great time to try some expensive high-tech devices that you’ve been curious about but might not otherwise want to splurge on. The list includes light therapy treatments for acne, vibrating nausea relief bands, electrical stimulation devices for chronic pain, cloud-connected stethoscopes, and smart thermometers.

12. Head to Amazon.

There are plenty of FSA-eligible items available on Amazon, including items for foot health, cold and allergy medication, eye care, and first-aid kits. Find out more details on how to spend your FSA money on Amazon here.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don't return, so we're only happy if you're happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

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