The Best (And Worst) Cookware Materials | Chris Kresser
HCTP Banner

The Best (And Worst) Cookware Materials

by

Last updated on

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

Join the conversation

  1. How about glass bake wear? Also, when baking cakes I often seen Aluminum pan sold by Wilton. I didn’t know these were a problem. I thought also some glazes have lead. Enamels have glaze?

    • I was wondering the same thing – I have loads of Corning Vision and while lots of people dont like them they are great when you learn to use them. Almost as good as cast iron as far as heat retention, but food stick to them easily.

  2. USA pans makes an alumized baking sheet that is PFOA, PTFE and bpa free. Would this combined with unbleached parchment paper be a good non-toxic alternative?

  3. Chris, I would love to know your thoughts on water supply pipes. My family will be building a house soon. Is copper okay for water or could it leech enough to cause the health issues you described here? It seems our only other choices are plastics. Thanks!

  4. What about IPAC EXDURA LOTUS ROCK echo fry pan.
    It says that the pan is PFOA/PTFE free and is non-reactive. The following link says that they are only sold by Marshalls (where I found mine), T-J Maxx, and Home Goods. Carbon Steel is used to make this pan.

    http://lotusrock.com/what-is-lotus-rock/

  5. Does anyone know anything about Neoflam? (www.neoflam.com.au) They say they use a non stick ceramic coating made of sand, stone and silica, and that they are absolutely FREE of any harmful chemicals. I own a few of them and I want to believe they are safe because they are extremely easy to cook with but does anyone have any info on how safe their coating might be?

  6. Absolutely! Cast iron is the best. You can clean it with a sandblaster if you want to, and it heats very evenly. You also get a good workout by lifting the cookware. Lots of people buy cast iron, and then decide to go with cookware that is lighter and prettier, making used cookware extremely inexpensive.

  7. Thank you for the great article. Looking for your thoughts and suggestions on:
    1. Slow-cookers -any preferred brands or inserts as some have ceramic inserts and others allow you to brown your food on the stove directly in the insert prior to running the slow-cooker. Trying to sort of which one is best.
    2. Dinnerware – I have read that lead is used in the glaze of most plates and this residue is transferred to the food as the plate is heated and the glaze degrades over time.
    I look forward to your comments and suggestions of brands

  8. If I have a stainless steel pot that has “caught” (ie I didn’t watch it carefully enough and the food started burning), my all time favourite cleaning tip is to put some Electric Soda (sodium bicarbonate) crystals into water and boil. The burn just comes off.

  9. Hi Chris. What do you think of salad master pans? I used to sell them and they did a test to show how even stainless steel goes into the water. They l

  10. Your information is excellent! Our daughter and family want to purchase a new frying pan that is not toxic. They have children under four and believe investing in a few good pans is well worth it. You gave us the information we need to make an intelligent decision. It is not easy to find facts put out so clearly. Thank you very much!

  11. Chris, I know that stainless cooking pans are considered safe — but what about the ones that have aluminum interiors sandwiched between outer & inner layers of steel to more evenly conduct heat?

    Can that aluminum leach into either the food or the air?

    Kay

  12. I am in Australia, not sure what brands avail here.
    Have Haemochromotosis and have been using Bessemer collection of pans for years, have been thinking may be better to change. They are all nonstick. Have been reading thru this blog and writing notes, I am leaning towards ceramic. Like the sound of Silit Sillirgan, but would have to trade in my car to afford it if it’s available here. 😉

  13. Also with Le Cressuet (spelling!) the reason I haven’t bought these is my husband has high iron. Unless I missed it the article didn’t mention this?
    I’ve read about bioavailability (very very briefly!) but I still feel it may be an issue? I hope I have this correct.

  14. Hi Chris
    clay pots aren’t covered here, check out miriam eathern cookware (think I’ve got the name right!), 100% lead free.
    I have stainless steel 18/10 with an aliminium core (I have read this is ok as the aliminium is not coming into contacting with food? do you agree?). Still issues of other things leeching from stainless steel, but can’t win them all? (nickel, chronium)

    Next I’ve got to look at all my oven trays etc :/

  15. Dear Chris Kresser,
    I would like to know if you are just using scare mongering tactics for low income families. Have you even considered about the families who can’t even afford to buy stainless steel pans. Also have you even though about the families who’ve already invested in non-stick frying pans coated with Teflon. Are you telling me that the have just wasted their own money for buying “crap” in your owns words.

    Do you even have any medical proof, as I can’t see any in the article you wrote. Even if there is any medical proof, how old are the studies that you’ve used in this article.

    The comparison that I’ve made between your article and other articles that I’ve read about direct and indirect links to cancer, in particular, is that we are individuals and YOU don’t have the power to try and force individuals into trying what YOU want them to do. Don’t you get that each individual has their own right into what product they can buy. Also, are you one of those people who gives information in a community that is already feeling the pressure from other health related topics.

    That’s all I have to say and thank you for taking the time to read this.

    Yours truly,
    Gregory Shilov

    • There was one point that I have forgotten to raise and it is about throwing away all Teflon coated pans and students.

      Students up and down the country are using these pans to cook with, bar a few exceptions, so this means that they can’t afford to go out and buy new stainless steel pans because they may have issues with saving money for monthly rent at accommodation and also dealing with the pressure of being at university and upcoming exams.

      With these upcoming exams, students will need reliable cookware in order to maintain strong levels of concentration while they are revising. So this means that if they are using a Teflon coated pan then this suggests to me that they trust the product that they are using.

      So are you advising students to throw away all Teflon coated pans and replace them with the alternative, for example stainless steel.

      • I’m certain if you look, you can find documentation regarding Teflon, and the fact that if you own a bird, you cannot use non-stick cookware, due to the fact that the fumes kill them. If they are fatal to birds, then they are clearly silently harming us as well. If that’s not enough evidence to sway you, then not much would. Cast iron Lodge pans are very affordable and available discounted in places like tjmaxx or marshalls — I’ve paid $10 for a brand new 10″. Thrift store prices.

    • I hardly take this article as “scare tactics” aimed at poor people. Simply information. You only have to overheat a teflon pan once and breathe in those caustic fumes to know that there’s something not right about it.
      I have a very nice set of cast iron pans. Each one was picked up for very little money at yard sales. I bought them, brought them home & seasoned them. They were each about $1. But once I splurged and paid $15, because the seller knew that the old cast iron pan was collectible, and it was a size I needed to complete a set.
      I would love an expensive set of LeCruset pans, and I could complain that “I’m being discriminated against because I’m poor.” But sometime you just have take responsibility for your own health. Besides, my yard sale cast iron does the job nicely. I’ll save my money for that expensive grass fed beef!

        • Hi Laura, Why would Chris suggest cast iron to cook with, when the iron is oxidized ie. you would be consuming rust. All because our ancestors cooked with cast iron doesn’t mean it’s healthy. what are your thoughts?

  16. Thanks for sharing the information. It truly is of a great help. I would be keen on learning more about the ceramic cookwares in the market these days. I have seen a lot with cast iron and aluminum. Like you have mentioned in your post, aluminum is not a preferred material; what are your thoughts on these products ? Most claim to be eco friendly and have ceramic non-stick interior; aluminum and silicone exterior. What would you recommend with these as there are not many products made from pure ceramic or cast irons?

  17. Is it possible to coat or paint an aluminum pan with a food-safe enamel? I have some old pieces of aluminum bakeware that I’m using as drawer organizers, but as they’re not all that pretty I’ve been looking for a way to paint them without rendering them unusable for baking. And after reading this article it may be a good idea in general. Would appliance paint work? Obviously our food touches the top of the oven, although the outside doesn’t go to 400-500F. Any ideas?