The Best (And Worst) Cookware Materials | Chris Kresser

The Best (And Worst) Cookware Materials

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Image Credit: Penny De Los Santos

 

With the wide range of cookware available on the market today, it is easy to see why consumers may be confused about which materials to look for. I am frequently asked about my opinion on various cookware materials, particularly regarding their safety and potential toxicity. In addition to the health issues with various cookware, there are also differences in quality, durability, and ease of use that may influence your decision on what type of material to use. With all these different factors in mind, choosing the best cookware can be challenging.

While many popular brands and styles of pots and pans are perfectly safe and versatile in their uses, there are a few types that may pose health risks if used regularly. In this article, I will clear up any confusion about which types of pots and pans are safest and easiest to use for all types of cooking.

The following are my picks for the three best and three worst types of cookware.

Best Materials

Enamel

Enamel cookware is ideal for dishes where heat retention and balance are required. The best quality can be found in enameled cast iron, but enameled ceramic or steel are other great choices. It is one of the safest types of cookware that comes close to a non-stick surface, making it easy to use and clean up after cooking. The cooking surface is nonreactive, so there is no need to worry about dangerous chemicals or metals leaching into food.

Though it can take a long time to heat up, the heat is distributed evenly and is easily maintained, making it a versatile cookware material for many types of dishes. Enamel cookware can also easily go from stovetop to oven, so these pots and pans are great for slow cooking or braising.

The major downside of enamel cookware is it tends to be very expensive, particularly when made by a reputable brand like Le Creuset. That said, high quality enamel pots and pans can be a worthwhile investment, as they are extremely durable and will last for many years. I personally love my enamel cookware and use it on a regular basis to create many of my meals.

My top picks for enamel cookware are the Le Creuset 5-1/2-Quart Round French Oven and the Le Creuset Stoneware Square Baking Dish.

Cast Iron

Cast iron is another popular and traditional style of cookware that has been used for hundreds of years. Cast iron is durable and provides great conductivity and heat retention. It is perfect for cooking dishes that need to go from stove-top to oven, and is excellent for searing meat. Cast iron tends to be far less expensive than enamel, but lasts just as long and can be used for a variety of recipes.

People with iron overload should probably not use iron skillets, as inorganic iron can leach into the food, particularly when cooking with liquids and acidic ingredients like citrus or tomato. However, the amount of iron that is released into the food is generally safe for those who do not have any issues with excess iron.

Cast iron does require some extra effort in its maintenance. A cast iron pan should be seasoned by coating with an oil like coconut oil, tallow, or lard (do not use butter), and then putting it in a 300° oven for three hours. While it is heating, you should remove it at least three times to wipe it clean and re-grease it. Seasoning your cast iron cookware will help give it a natural nonstick coating and will prevent rusting. Never use soap on a seasoned cast iron pan, simply wipe it out with a nonabrasive sponge or washcloth, or use salt as an abrasive if extra cleaning is needed.

Some popular cast iron cookware items are the Lodge Logic 10-Inch Chef’s Skillet and the Lodge Logic Square Grill Pan.

Stainless Steel

Stainless steel can be used for any type of cooking, but is especially useful for quick dishes, browning meat, or for recipes that require gauging the color of a broth or a sauce. If you are just looking to sauté something quickly, stainless steel is your best choice. Stainless steel is great for quickly heating things up, is far less expensive than ceramic, and is easier to clean and maintain than cast iron.

Stainless steel can withstand dishwashers and abrasive cleansers without scratching or denting, so clean up is relatively painless. Stainless steel is quite durable, and even the less expensive brands will last a long time. Also, stainless steel is one of the few metal cookwares that are nonreactive, so the metal doesn’t interact with the food or affect the final flavor of the dish.

One of the major drawbacks of using stainless steel for cooking is that many types can be prone to sticking if the cookware is not used correctly. It is important to add adequate oil to the pan, and allow it to get hot before adding the food, in order to minimize sticking. Unfortunately, compared to enamel and cast iron, stainless steel is not a great conductor of heat and doesn’t distribute heat as evenly.

Be sure to find a stainless steel pan that does not have any non-stick coatings. My favorite stainless steel items are the All-Clad Stainless 10-Inch Fry Pan and the All Clad Stainless Steel 1-1/2-Quart Sauce Pan with Lid.

Worst Materials

Teflon

If there is one cookware material I would never use, it’s one with a non-stick plastic coating like Teflon. While non-stick cookware is a tempting purchase due to its inexpensive price point and easy clean up, the health risks from using this type of material for cooking overshadow any time or effort you may save in the kitchen.

Teflon, made of the chemical known as PFOA, is the most persistent synthetic chemical known to man, and is found in the blood of nearly every person tested. (1) Animal studies have shown that PFOA causes cancer, liver damage, growth defects, immune system damage, and death in lab rats and monkeys. An EPA advisory panel reported that PFOA is a “likely carcinogen” in humans. (2)

Besides just leaching chemicals into the food, Teflon cookware has also been shown to release dangerous chemicals into the air during use. Toxic fumes released from heated non-stick cookware has been shown to be deadly to birds, with many hundreds of birds dying every year from “Teflon toxicosis.” (3) Even more scary is that DuPont’s own scientists have admitted that polymer fume fever in humans is possible at 662°F, a temperature easily exceeded when a pan is preheated on a burner or placed beneath a broiler. (4)

There is no amount of time or stuck-on food that could be saved that would make up for the likely dangers that cooking with Teflon brings, and any cookware made with this toxic material should be thrown out immediately. It amazes me that this product is still allowed on the market, considering the warnings from the EPA about its toxicity.

Aluminum

Aluminum cookware, while not as toxic as Teflon, may pose some health risks as well, and is not recommended for use in cooking. Aluminum cookware has been shown to leach a significant amount of aluminum into food during cooking, which could pose a toxicity threat. This raises some concerns due to the effects of aluminum on the human nervous system and the hypothesized connection between aluminum exposures and Alzheimer’s disease. (5) Studies in animals show that the nervous system is a sensitive target of aluminum toxicity. (6) While there is yet to be a scientific consensus on the dangers of low level aluminum ingestion, avoiding aluminum exposure in cooking is generally a good idea for optimal health.

Depending on the type of food cooked in aluminum cookware, levels of aluminum in the food will be highly varied. Leafy vegetables and acidic foods, such as tomatoes and citrus products, absorb the most aluminum during cooking. (7) If you absolutely must use an aluminum pan, avoid cooking highly acidic or basic foods, and do not scrape the pan with a spatula or metal spoon.

Copper

While copper may be a safer choice than Teflon or aluminum, I do not recommend using copper cookware due to leaching concerns. An excess of copper can cause a variety of health problems, many stemming from a copper-zinc imbalance. Some symptoms of this imbalance include behavior disorders, depression, acne, eczema, headaches, and poor immune function to name a few. You can learn more about the symptoms of copper-zinc imbalance by listening to my podcast on the topic.

Most copper cookware these days is coated with stainless steel to improve durability and ease of cleaning. Despite this steel coating, copper should never be used to cook acidic food, since over time the acid can cause copper to leach into the food. Older copper cookware may be coated with tin or nickel, which is unsafe for food use and should not be used for cooking. If you are unsure of the age of your copper pots and pans, it is probably safer to just discard them. Regardless of whether your pot is new or old, the risk of copper leaching into your food is still significant, so replacing your copper cookware with a safer alternative is recommended.

Good cookware is worth the investment!

While enamel, cast iron, and stainless steel tend to be more expensive, they are durable, versatile, and safe. I feel it is worth investing a little extra money into high quality cookware, and I am confident these non-toxic kitchen tools will last you and your family a lifetime.

What kinds of cookware do you use in your kitchen? Do you plan to make any changes having read this article?

Image Credit: Penny De Los Santos

207 Comments

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  1. “Older copper cookware may be coated with tin or nickel, which is unsafe for food use and should not be used for cooking.”

    With that being said, should i be concerned that the fast-food restaurant i work at uses nickel-plated, brass fryer baskets and utensils? Should i also be concerned that it’s a widely accepted industry standard for restaurants, and restaurant supply stores?

  2. Great article – thanks!
    We are seriously considering the stainless steel set made by Tramontina…it is ALUMINUM CORE, are the concerns the same for copper core (as you mentioned?)
    And for red sauces/acidic you’d recommend the enamel?
    Thanks again!

  3. One of the best cookware materials I seem to love is the Romertopf. It leaves your meats so juicy and tender. The meat always falls of the bone and gives you that juiciness that you look in for all your meats.

  4. [Marked as spam by Antispam Bee | Spam reason: Server IP]
    I’ve been having a debate with my wife concerning the handles of some brands of cookware. I maintain that two piece handles, where part is silicone and part is stainless steel, allow food crud to build up and grow bacteria. It’s next to impossible to be sure that the cracks have been thoroughly cleaned. I prefer one piece handles, since they are less likely to get food build up. Please share your thoughts with us on this. Thanks!

  5. Chris-

    I am wondering about the safety of the All-Clad Stainless 7-inch Nonstick French Skillet? It is PFOA-free, but still nonstick. Does that mean it is safe to use or might it still leach harmful chemicals into food?

    Thanks!
    Kayla

  6. I really don’t understand the “enameled cookware”?

    Also, it seems that cast iron leeches iron; teflon coated leeches aluminum; and stainless steel leeches nickel or copper (sorry cannot remember). What is left???? Confused! 🙂

  7. You can find great prices on enameled cookware like Le Creuset at discount stores like Marshall’s and Tuesday Morning. I shop for almost all my cooking items at these stores because you can find high-end quality ( I have seen all-clad and logic cast iron too) cookware at GREAT prices!!!

  8. I noticed that skillets with lids are often expensive. I obtained a great variety of lids from flea market and Good Will stores and bought skillets in a normal store. The best skillet for light vegetable cooking is a stainless still one (in order to cook with tomatoes) with a thick aluminum bottom or copper or sandwiched bottom .Never saw any advantage in all-clad things. Let others to be ripped-off. I also have one stainless still 8″ pot (half gallon) with a copper bottom to make stews with tomatoes. I have never paid for any item more than $25, often much less. The best cookware for soups – a thin, big and light stainless-still pot. It is a fan to own and use a well-seasoned cast iron skillet, something like a Wagner or Grishwold #8 for cooking in oil. Check that out http://blackirondude.blogspot.com/2008/05/seasoning-cast-iron-cookware.html and http://www.richsoil.com/cast-iron.jsp.

    • Yeah if we’re talking price here’s what I did: That single-item 20% off coupon from Bed Bath and Beyond is good for Calphalon products. All-Clad is excluded from use with the coupon unfortunately. However they have a full 10 piece set of Calphalon, commercial, stainless. The set is already cheaper than buying them one piece at a time and of course at 20% off… The largest skillet is only 12″ though which is about enough to cook for 2. On a separate visit, armed with another coupon I grabbed a 15 incher.

      • Sure, coupons is a way to go as well. A still pan would last at least a life-time, if you feel like there is one you just love, why not to get it. My big skillets are just 10″, probably it is why I didn’t pay much.

  9. Hello! Great information and from everyone who contributed; however, now I am even more confused. I use glass (pyrex) for baking in the oven (meat loaves, etc.). But still looking for stove top items like skillets with tops, and the larger quart sizes for soups and lightly cooking veges, etc. Really, what IS the best type of cooke ware that is not too expensive, no risks, no PFOA’s or PTFE’s???? Sorry, just confused.

    • Hi Christina, I can understand how easily it is to be confused over what is the best choice in cookware. Might I recommend the Classic Kitchen Cookware which will help clear up some of the confusion. Cook on!

  10. “You should also avoid so-called “green pans.” The manufacturers purport that these PFOA-free products are healthier and “earth-friendly.” But many still contain the moisture-repellent chemical PTFE – another harmful toxin.”

    http://blog.grasslandbeef.com/are-you-using-the-kitchen-tool-linked-with-cancer-and-infertility?utm_campaign=KitchenTools&utm_source=newsletter&utm_source=July+22+Newsletter+-+New+Template&utm_campaign=120722&utm_medium=email

    I am still wondering about nano-ceramic, Corning Ware ceramic and Corning Ware clear tempered glass.

  11. Only slightly off topic: Last week on Science Friday they were interviewing scientists who’d made a coating so that you could get all of the ketchup out of a bottle. They were praising its versatility as it could be used for ketchup, mayo, de-icing airplanes… Haha airplane de-icer in your condiments. I’ll stick with my own pureed vegies.

  12. Chris, I’m curious about your POV on teflon. I was concerned about my 2 commercial teflon pans a year or so ago. While they represent a small portion of my total stock, they represent the 2 workhorses in terms of frequency of use. In my research, the studies I turned up could only refer to chemical release during the production process, not during use. In fact they had to reheat a finished pan to something like 800 degrees in order to recreate any release of chemicals at all. I think here in your own post you or someone else mentions a heat of 600 degrees. I don’t know about you but my oven tops out at 450 degrees and a thermometer in the thick of the flame on my stove-top wont reach anywhere near that level.

    I’m torn between searching for a reason to get rid of the teflon and the research that I’ve seen. Research meant to help legislate against teflon couldn’t produce the necessary result. Can you site any better or more recent research on this product?

    • Interesting comment, Ro. I’d love to hear Chris’s input on this. I’m trying to transition us from teflon to all stainless steel, but there’s just no denying that for many foods (especially fried eggs), teflon is FAR easier to cook with. Although I’m loving the stainless steel in terms of clean-up: it’s so great to be able to actually scrub the pan to get it clean, which of course you can’t do to teflon without damaging it.

      • Teach me Anthony! My set it mostly stainless and eggs are virtually impossible unless I’m doing scrabbled and keeping them moving in the pan. I cook a lot and my stainless skillets sit on the sideline while my stainless pots see more regular action. For skillets I use teflon with wooden implements so as not to scrape the finish. I don’t love the idea of teflon but like I said, the research I found couldn’t point to any potential harm within several degrees of normal kitchen use. Frying eggs with a blow torch may have a different impact.

        • I have a brand-new 8″ stainless steel pan. I just got it last week, so I’m still figuring out how to cook fried eggs in it. I’ve done it a few times, but each time I’ve ended up with a little bit of stickage, enough that I had to use a spatula to unstick them, which is super frustrating, because it tends to break the yolks, and it defeats the whole purpose of an egg pan, which is to be able to flip the eggs by just flicking your wrist.

          Anyway, from what I’ve read, with enough butter (~1 Tbsp) and the right level of heat (somewhere around medium or a bit less) and with the pan pre-heated before you put the eggs in, you should be able to make it work.

          • I’ve heard to have the eggs at room temperature, also. I’ve never gone to the effort, but let us know how it goes for you.

            • I have some input on Eggs in stainless. Eggs don’t have to be stored in the fridge generally, but the eggs that are in grocery stores are expected to keep a very long time, so they are trying to squeeze the longest life out of them. If you get fresher eggs you will probably eat them long before they go bad. This is one of those problems we’ve created by by supporting modern food systems. If thin stainless is used, eggs will almost certainly stick. With a thicker stainless pan or more likely with a thick laminated bottom, you should be able to cook eggs without sticking. If the eggs are actually fried, as in cooked quickly in hot oil, they will probably stick no matter what. If plenty of butter or other fat is used though and the temperature is kept very low, they will stick very little if at all. I actually prefer to “fry” my eggs sunny side up with a very small splash of water in the pan and a lid (thanks grandma Fran!). That way the steam cooks the tops of the eggs. Using a low temperature takes some patience, but I think the eggs are much, much better and I would imagine the proteins in the whites come through less damaged.

              For scrambled eggs I really prefer a seasoned cast iron pan, but they can be cooked in unseasoned stainless without sticking. First off, use enough oil. Most people who read this blog are probably less fat phobic than average, but I know it took me some re-conditioning to use enough oil after growing up in the fat phobic 80’s. Another common mistake is having the pan too cold. It should be pretty hot because the scrambled egg liquid will cool the pan quickly. Heat pan, then add oil, then the eggs. Over stirring is another common cause of sticking. Each time the eggs are stirred, the layer of oil between the pan the eggs becomes thinner. I allow the eggs to jell for a time, then push them aside with the spatula to allow new egg to run onto the bottom of the pan. Toward the end of cooking, simply lift and fold the eggs a couple of times to finish. Scramble the eggs in the bowl, not in the pan! Almost everyone fidgets with their scrambled eggs at the wrong time and in the wrong amounts. I also don’t like the eggs browned at all which takes some attention to timing since they will brown if left too long before lifting from the pan, but will begin sticking if they are stirred too often. Like most things, success is in the details. Finally, this whole system will not work if you cook too many eggs at once. If I have a lot of people to cook for, I’ll cook the scrambled eggs a few at a time. Even for a few eggs, a large pan is better. Of course it is easier to use a teflon pan, but using stainless or cast iron will force you to pay attention to detail and superb tender scrambled eggs with no browning, and little if any sticking can be produced. I’m also convinced that over cooked eggs are difficult to digest, at least for me. Oh yeah, and a little water or milk beaten into the eggs is an improvement in my book.

          • You can make an egg warmer quickly by running hot water over it, the skillet should be hot, not medium, approximately 350F, you can put some pork fat on the skillet, wait when it just starts smoking, wipe it off, add batter ,sprinkle some salt on the pan surface, than immediately put eggs on it . May be you can put some chopped deli meat first on the skillet and add eggs on the top. In order to be less sticky, stainless still should be absolutely clean, unlike cast iron, in order to be sure it is the case, use some abrasive paste when washing your stainless pan. I even managed to make cripes on my stainless Marta Stuart skillet with thick copper bottom. When you cook something else, fish for example, dust it with a flour or crumbs, dry not cold food sticks less.
            Last thing – I don’t turn mine sunny eggs, just carefully brake yolks in couple places in order for it to be slightly more done.

            • Thanks Galina. Super useful information on making better use of the stainless. Yeah I use Bar Keepers Friend in a thick paste to keep it spotless.

          • Galina, great tips! Yes, I make sure to have enough grease to splash up on the eggs a bit to slightly cook the tops.

        • Ro,
          My cooking became more enjoyable after I discovered that particular heat-resistant Norpro nylon spatula http://www.amazon.com/Norpro-99DC-My-Favorite-Spatula/dp/B003KIVYHC/ref=sr_1_1?s=home-garden&ie=UTF8&qid=1342878074&sr=1-1&keywords=norpro+spatulas.I bought it by chance in some restaurant-supply store, loved it, bought three more for my mother, my son and his girlfriend. I use it on my un-coated cast aluminum(great material!), stainless still (I don’t want too many scratches) and newly seasoned cast iron. It is unbelievably convenient, narrow with much thinner age than wooden ones or any silicon type. I quit using Teflon or any un-sticky skillet because the gradual loss of un-stickiness was driving me nuts. They managed to turn skillets to be the most often sold kitchenware item! I am off out of paying for other people financial brilliance. However, nothing is close to the un-stickiness of a new Teflon or ceramic item, there is no way even perfectly seasoned cast iron will replicate that, but you can develop skill how to use what you have intelligently and skillfully and get pretty much the same result plus the satisfaction from your growing skills and your skillet getting better with use not worse.

    • The exact same goes for me! These Belgian “Greenpans” seem very nice, but are they as good as they are claimed to be? 🙂

  13. I looked into some stainless steal cookware and cuisinart and All-Clad are stainleess steel with ALUMINUM. As I understand it the aluminum is uncased or sandwiched with stainless. What are your thoughts on that.

    • I hope you don’e imply, Jack that you can’t figure out by yourself is sandwiched Aluminum dangerous or not.

  14. I’d like to add that people should stay away from the cutesy silicone bakeware. I assume most reading Chris’s blog aren’t baking cupcakes etc, however, it is worth mentioning. I live near the factory where they first started making the silicone bakeware. My uncle whom worked there emphatically told us not to use it, as the workers and Quality control guys at the factory became very ill making it and testing it. Can not give any scientific info, sorry.

  15. Hello !

    What about hard-anodized aluminum ? Is it as bad as plain aluminum ?

    Thanks for your insights on this.