Monday, January 18, 2016

Pots and Pans

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 dangerousGood 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.

You can get sets of these pans for reasonable prices on Amazon (and elsewhere).

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.

What else?

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.

Thoughts? Questions? Please comment below!


Sharon said...

I've been contemplating carbon steel skillets after watching this review by America's Test Kitchen--

It's popular in Europe. It's lighter than cast iron (a plus for me). It's almost non-stick. Sounds great, it's just that I don't know how to research how safe metals are, so I haven't bought any yet.

Alex Lewin said...

Hi Sharon,

Thanks for posting.

Yah, carbon steel or blue steel would be safe. I don't have much experience with these, beyond a crèpe pan I have.

If you get some, I'd be curious to hear how they work for things besides crèpes!

Unknown said...

What about Thermolon, a ceramic non-stick coating, manufactured without PFOA? They are called the Green Pan? (but they aren't green :-) )

Alex Lewin said...

Thermolon may be okay, or it may not. And if it's not, we may not know for years. For a long time, I'm sure they thought teflon was okay. Granted we are now more sensitive to problems with non-stick, but still.

My inclination is to play it safe. If you can find an iron, steel, glass, or enamel that has the characteristics that you seek, I think the best bet is to go with that.

eliot said...

Alex. You should connect w the blog: I read labels for you. Your email was a little unclear as to whether you thought Le Creuset was safe. Apparently, sadly, it isnt. Someone needs to start at the other end: connect b w a socially oriented food scientist, who has no financial stake in the question, & ask what's safe. Ceramic has been used for thousands of years. There must be a way to produce safe ceramic cookware

eliot said...

Alex. You should connect w the blog: I read labels for you. Your email was a little unclear as to whether you thought Le Creuset was safe. Apparently, sadly, it isnt. Someone needs to start at the other end: connect b w a socially oriented food scientist, who has no financial stake in the question, & ask what's safe. Ceramic has been used for thousands of years. There must be a way to produce safe ceramic cookware

Alex Lewin said...

Eliot, thanks for the tip! I am reading through that blog right now. It's good stuff. Their conclusion about Le Creuset sounds more to me like "I don't know". There are even questions about stainless steel, for folks very sensitive to nickel.

Ultimately everyone makes their own choice. And I reserve the right to change my mind about anything as time goes on!

Still, I feel like the easiest improvement most people can make is to eliminate non-stick and aluminum from their arsenals of pots and pans.

eliot said...

Dear Alex,
Its true that she doesn't draw definitive conclusions about Le Creuset. However she does mention that they contain substances that if they leach, are toxic on some level. Plus that the company failed to respond to her more detailed inquiries, which to me is an answer in and of itself.

I agree that eliminating nonstick and aluminum are a good place to start. The problem really is that so many people love nonstick, that its so prevalent. If a truly safe nonstick could be found, it would help many. What floors me, beyond the safety issue, is that pretty much all cookware I see in stores now, even expensive brands, are so ridiculously thin, that they're just junk. Another key thing for people to remember in terms of healthy cooking, is that low temp cooking is best, all around, whichever pot you use.

Alex Lewin said...

Yup, agreed!

Marhum Akter said...


I’d like to thank you for this post! So much important information in one place! I don’t have so much experience with pans and the materials they’re made of but I can agree that carbon steel or blue steel would be safe. As for me, I have only a crèpe pan – what can you say about it?

best stainless steel cookware

Sara Jones said...

Wow !!! Great post ! it's right that... "Glass cookware has been around for a while". You can continue to use what you have been using.But ... The ceramic Cookware finish will not be hurt by any cookware. Further, ceramic is a tough material ! Thanks all !

Alex Lewin said...

Sara, thanks for your post. I haven't used ceramic cookware myself, but I do have a ceramic knife that I'm quite careful with, because I know that they are quite fragile if dropped or stuck at the wrong angle. I can only assume that the same is true of ceramic cookware.

Alex Lewin said...

Marhum, Yes, steel is a classic material for crèpe pans. Blue steel pans aren't very popular in the US--I don't know why!

eliot said...

If you go with glass, don't buy pyrex. Its not your Mom's pyrex anymore!
Starting in 1998 they switched to cheaper materials and people have had problems with them shattering and literally exploding. I'm currently researching 2 companies that make glass cookware: luminarc and visions. Curious if anyone has info on either.