I was recently at a friend's house, and I expressed some concern when I saw her put some non-stick pans on the stove and heat them up with nothing in them.
"What kinds of pans should I be using?" she asked.
The answer isn't as simple as one might think. Keep reading if you're interested...
First off, for me, the known risks of non-stick pans (to say nothing of the unknown risks) outweigh the benefits. Even Good Housekeeping, a publication not known for its alternative health orientation or incisive critical edge, allows that non-stick pans can be dangerous. Good Housekeeping documents the circumstances under which they are known to be dangerous; in doing so, I believe that they make a strong case against using these pans at all. They come up with combinations of overly-precise and overly-vague measurements to make their distinctions, such as "RISKY: Empty pan, preheated 507° F, Heated on high for 1 3/4 minutes in a lightweight pan". Seriously, Good Housekeeping? One burner's "high" is nothing like another's; one person's lightweight pan is nothing like another's; but it's worth specifying 1 3/4 minutes rather than 1 minute or 2 minutes? Read their article and judge for yourself. Or read what others have to say about non-stick toxicity.
So, my take on non-stick pans is that they may be safe to use if all of the following are true: (a) you use them only occasionally on low heat, for things that are very prone to sticking, like fried eggs and fish; (b) you never use metal implements in them, or even near them; (c) you always use an exhaust fan with the non-stick pans; (d) you are obsessive about cleaning and storing them in a way that prevents scratching; and (e) you feel able to ensure that everyone in your household is just as neurotic as you are about (a) - (d). Even then, they may not be safe. Not worth it, in my opinion, ESPECIALLY if you have kids or pets, who are even more sensitive to these sorts of environmental toxins than healthy adults are (remember why they kept canaries in coal mines?).
One more kind of pan to stay away from: pans with (uncoated) aluminum cooking surfaces. Similar story: they may be safe to use with certain kinds of foods under certain circumstances, but in other cases they're clearly unsafe, and in my opinion they're not worth the trouble and potential risk.
Anodized aluminum is probably better, but as the coating wears away, you are left with uncoated aluminum. See above. Not worth the trouble.
What does that leave?
In my opinion, the most versatile all-purpose pans are multi-ply or "clad" pans with stainless steel interiors. Stainless is non-reactive, for the most part, so you won't be poisoning yourself. Stainless on its own is not a great heat conductor; to help these pans heat more quickly and uniformly, other outer layers of these pans are made of better conductors, generally aluminum and sometimes copper. Often the outermost layer is made of stainless, too, since it's easy to clean. Pans with stainless interior and exterior, with say an aluminum layer in between, can be thrown (um, placed) in the dishwasher—big win! These get my vote.
Some folks will make a case for buying only European and American steel, and avoiding stainless steel from China, since some Chinese steel may be of lower quality and may contain toxins and impurities of various sorts. I haven't formed a strong opinion about this. That said, it may be tricky and/or expensive to find non-Chinese stainless pans. (If you have thoughts or experiences, please comment below.)
Pans with enameled interiors can be great, too, like the classic Le Creuset dutch oven, which is fantastic for searing then braising, which you may want to do when making a stew or braise, although a multi-ply stockpot would do okay here too. Be aware that more and more enameled cookware is being lined with "non-stick enamel", which may or may not be toxic…I really don't know, and I'm not sure anyone else really knows either.
Cast iron skillets can be great for low-acid, high-temperature or high-fat cooking. Avoid cooking with tomato sauce, vinegar, wine, lemon juice, etc. for more than a minute or two in these pans, since the acid will pull iron out of the pan and into your food! This will give your food a metallic taste, and also might cause potential issues for members of your household whose iron needs are already high. Excess iron may be a problem for more people in the US than iron deficiency! This isn't the same situation as with non-stick pans, though; iron is actually an essential nutrient, and iron toxicity is a subtler, longer-term issue, and is relatively easy to avoid. Cast iron skillets retain heat better than stainless ones; this can be great when searing steaks, for instance. Cast iron pans also develop a nice "seasoning" over time that can be almost as non-stick as a non-stick pan, so with enough fat, they can be used for things like frittatas.
Glass cookware has been around for a while. Glass is even more chemically inert than stainless, hence safe, but it transfers heat quite poorly, so I think it's not worth the trouble.
Every so often, there is a new miracle non-reactive cookware material of some sort. They are generally pricey, since there are often not many sources, and they tend to suffer from other problems like being extremely brittle. Meh.
Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, by Weston A. Price: Rather that theorizing abstractly about human nutrition, the author sought out isolated groups of healthy people around the world (this was in the 1930s, when there were still isolated groups of people), and documented their foodways. Price's book is jaw-dropping (literally). He describes group after group of people who are healthy in isolation, and become sick, miserable, and toothless when they adopt a "modern" diet. Aren't you curious what they were eating when they were healthy? Full write-up coming soon.
Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art, by Shizuo Tsuji and Yoshiki Tsuji: A masterwork on the subject of Japanese cuisine, and by extension, Japanese culture.
Winning Bicycle Racing, by Jack Simes: A short, fascinating book on the subject of bicycling, published in 1976, when the majority of men still wore moustaches. And as with any bicycling publication, there are some great facial expressions.
The Secret History of the World: As Laid Down by the Secret Societies, by Mark Booth: A truly fascinating, meticulously documented look at the evolution of human consciousness and religion. What are some of the connections among different religions' creation myths and pantheons? Why are there astrological and other "pagan" symbols in Christian rites? Did you know that "elohim", the Hebrew word in Genesis typically translated as "God", is actually a plural noun? And so on. N.B.: the book describes an almost exclusively male experience. I think Booth could have done more in the front material to explain this, or at least to notify the reader of the orientation.
The Sushi Economy: Globalization and the Making of a Modern Delicacy, by Sasha Issenberg: The history of sushi and the sushi supply chain, detailing the journey that your fish takes from the cold ocean to your neighborhood sushi bar, often by way of Tokyo. Sasha Issenberg focuses on the lives of the people involved in the sushi trade. Fascinating and well-written.
The Story of Sushi: An Unlikely Saga of Raw Fish and Rice, by Trevor Corson: The story of some students at a sushi academy—and more generally, the story of sushi itself. A wonderful book, entertaining, thorougly and carefully researched, and instructive. It makes me want to eat sushi. Or write about it. Similar, but only a bit, to The Making of a Chef, by Michael Ruhlman.
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