What Materials Make The Best Cookware? The Pros And Cons Of Common Cookware Materials
At Edye’s Naturals, we believe in the power of investing in our health. This means being mindful and educated regarding what we put in our bodies and what products we use. When we think of health, eating well is one of the first things that comes to mind. The basic reason for using cookware is to safely prepare meals; ideally the cookware also performs well by heating food evenly and efficiently over the entire surface of the pot or pan. Did you know that some popular cookware materials can leach into your food when cooking, and in turn be harmful to your health?
With many options to choose from, it can be challenging to select the right pots and pans. Let’s compare the pros and cons of different cookware materials.
- Long-lasting, durable, scratch and warp resistant
- Considered one of the safest types of cookware available
- Stainless steel by itself is not a great conductor of heat (manufacturers will add other metals to enhance the conduction and responsiveness)
*Conduction refers to the time it takes for the pan to heat up
*Responsiveness is the amount of time the pan goes from heating up to cooling or vise versa
Notes: Manufacturers combine these different metals in the middle layer (usually aluminum or copper) to improve heat conduction, while the interior and exterior layers are composed of stainless steel. The layers are known as cladding. Be mindful that with cheaper cookware, the bottom layer of metal is often pasted on towards the end of the production process instead of being sandwiched in between the layers of stainless steel. This compromises quality, as it will take longer for the pan to reach desired temperature, it will not heat evenly throughout, and it will not be as durable. For these reasons, cladded stainless steel is preferred. One common problem people have with all clad cookware is food sticking; use lots of oil and heat oil first before adding foods, as doing so makes for easy clean up.
Two terms to be aware of when shopping for stainless steel are 18/10 and 18/0. You can often find this grade stamped on the bottom of the cookware. The first number, 18 stands for 18% chromium, which is a strong white metal. The second number indicates the amount of nickel. Nickel is a silvery/white metal which adds shine and helps prevent corrosion. 18/10 combines iron with chromium, carbon and other metals. 18/0 doesn’t contain nickel, and can rust and dull over time (it is still considered good quality in general, and cheaper than 18/10). 18/10 is more resistant to corrosion, but can pit at the surface, exposing the aluminum underneath, which can leach into food over time. 18/10 is not suitable for conduction stoves; it is great for browning and braising meats and veggies, doesn’t react with acidic foods, and doesn’t leach (unless it becomes pitted).
-Can be used on all types of cooking surfaces
-Retains heat well, can handle high temperatures, and has non-stick properties
-Needs to heat up gradually to avoid warping
-Needs to be seasoned to polymerize and avoid rusting; with time it will change color and darken
-Can add a metallic taste to acidic foods
Notes: When cooking, start with a low heat setting and gradually increase it. Once up to the desired temperature, it will retain heat and doesn’t need a high temperature for cooking.
Always hand wash carbon steel to avoid rusting, and avoid use of harsh detergents. Clean by wiping with a towel to get off excess oil, no soap is needed; for baked on foods, rub some coarse salt and oil on the inside of the cookware (if this doesn’t work, add water to cover the bottom of the cookware surface, slowly bring the water to a boil, scrape with a wood utensil, and then dump the water and re-season).
-Bright, shiny and attractive (most copper cookware is hand-crafted)
-Heats evenly and thoroughly throughout the cookware surface, so food cooks uniformly
-Pre-heats quickly and cools down rapidly
-When coated properly, it doesn’t react with acidic foods
-Doesn’t need to be seasoned
-The most expensive type of cookware on the market
-Soft and malleable metal that’s difficult to keep smooth; if dropped or struck it can easily be bent out of shape
-The bottom of the cookware is prone to warping, in which case it will no longer heat evenly
-It is the only cookware that shouldn’t be placed on a flame to preheat without something in the pot
-Has a low melting point, so should always be used on low heat and doesn’t need preheating.
-Need to make sure copper cookware is coated for health reasons
Notes: Copper cookware is great quality and wonderful for making delicate dishes like sauces, seafood and chocolate. For this reason, French chefs have been using copper cookware for centuries! Yet, most chefs don’t love copper cookware since it’s hard to keep smooth. Wood utensils should be used to avoid scratching the cooking surface.
Due to being a softer metal, it may not be the best cookware for everyday use. It’s also not compatible with induction ranges. Never use uncoated copper cookware; the human body needs small amounts of copper to make enzymes that control neurotransmitters in the brain, yet copper can build up in the body and become toxic. Uncoated copper pot use can lead to liver, brain and kidney damage. Note that copper utensils and cups are safe uncoated, as they are not subject to high temperatures. Acidic foods like vinegar and tomatoes can leach from the uncoated copper cookware; iodine in salt also reacts with copper. Since copper is reactive, it is sometimes coated with tin. Tin linings will darken over time, yet will continue to be safe to use so long as the copper layer isn’t exposed. More commonly, copper cookware is coated with stainless steel, which is more durable. Nickel can also be used to line copper pots, but beware of this as it can be toxic. In general, when shopping for copper cookware be sure that it’s made with at least 90% copper and lined with either aluminum, steel, or tin.
-Great heat conductors, many times better than stainless steel
-Aluminum is the third most abundant element that occurs naturally on the planet; due to its abundance, aluminum cookware often has a low price point.
-Light weight metal and easy to handle
-Soft metal; can dent and scratch easily
-Can react with acidic foods like tomatoes, lemons and salt
-It’s a porous metal and can transfer flavors from foods that were cooked previously in the pan and leave a metallic taste.
-Need to hand wash, as it can reach to caustic detergents in the dishwasher
Notes: Aluminum cookware is sold in two ways: non-stick or anodized. Non-stick aluminum is exposed to air and naturally forms an oxide on the surface creating a thin layer which forms a barrier to keep it from corroding. Anodization is a process in which the surface of the aluminum cookware is electrically treated; this increases the thickness of the cookware and also makes it less porous and less sensitive to extreme temperature changes, warping and staining. The anodized process also creates a non-stick surface which also makes it easier to clean. Untreated aluminum or non-anodized aluminum tends to make sauces turn gray and doesn’t have a long life-span. The first sign that the aluminum is at the end of its life is discoloration from food made in the pan. Once aluminum starts to wear, it will leach food. For some people, leaching metal from the pan can cause health problems. The FDA considers it safe because what is absorbed is secreted through the kidneys. Note that Elderly people with kidney disease may not be able to filter out aluminum from their bodies and there may be a link to neurotoxins contributing to dementia. With all of this in mind, be aware that there haven’t been enough studies to confirm or deny the health outcomes of using aluminum cookware.
- Considered one of the safest types of cookware available
-Non-toxic, long lasted, and easily made by machine
-Retains heat and stays at a consistent temperature when a cooler food is introduced to the hot pan
-Releases iron while food is being cooked in it; the exact amount of iron that gets transferred to the food varies and may be small. Due to this property, iron cookware may benefit people who tend to be anemic.
-Durable (3-5x more durable than stainless steel!)
-Relatively inexpensive compared to other cookware
-Needs to be seasoned (meaning a protective coating is applied by building up layers of oil); without being seasoned it will rust and food will stick to it
-Should be cleaned and then seasoned immediately after cooking
-Foods that contain more moisture, acidity and need longer cooking time are best cooked in another type of cookware
-Heavier than most types of cookware
-Thicker than most other cookware, which can create hot spots and may heat unevenly (it is important to match the burner to the size of the pan to avoid hot spots)
Notes: Cast iron has been used in cooking for over 3,000 years! Cast iron is made from pig-iron (a byproduct of melting iron in a blast furnace with steel and then molding it). Cast iron is produced without the use of plastics or artificial coatings.
Unless it comes pre-seasoned, cast iron needs to be seasoned in the oven before cooking on it. To do this, rub oil all over the inside and outside of the pan and place it in the oven at 450 degrees; bake the pan for 1 hour and repeat this process 3-4 times. After the initial seasoning, clean the pan after each use by washing in soapy water, towel dry, and oil the entire surface of the pan; wipe off any excess oil and turn on the stove to heat to make sure the pan is completely dry. If water is allowed to settle on the pan, the iron expands and leads to rust. If rust occurs, make a solution of one part vinegar to one part water and scrub it off.
Well treated cast iron can last a lifetime and be passed down to the next generation.
Enameled Cast Iron
-Attractive cookware with many of the same benefits as raw cast iron; comes in a variety of colors and creates a modern, contemporary feel to the kitchen decor
-Unlike raw cast iron, enameling on the pan allows for cooled food to be safely stored in the refrigerator (be mindful that rapid changes in temperature can crack the enamel)
-Non-porous and will not absorb food odors or flavors
-The enamel can chip or crack over time
-It must be handled more gently than untreated cast iron
-Hand washing is recommended to preserve the enameled surface
-It’s much more expensive than untreated cast iron
Notes: This type of cast iron has a lacquered coating made from a food-safe glaze that is bonded between two coats of iron. Enameled cast iron performs similarly to untreated cast iron, with a few exceptions: the coating protects the pan from rust, so it doesn’t need to be seasoned; it will not build up a non-stick finish with seasoning, and therefore requires more oil to prevent sticking; and the glaze will heat the iron underneath more evenly than raw cast iron.
When placed directly on the burner, the iron expands faster than the enamel, so cooking should be done on low to medium heat. It is important to add a little water to the pan during the pre-cooking stage to prevent the glaze from chipping or cracking. The enameled coating is less conductive than iron, so it will take longer to heat than raw cast iron, but is still great at retaining heat.
-Lightweight and easy to handle
-Very durable; resistant to scratches, dents and corrosion
-Can withstand high heat and is less likely to warp over time
-Non-reactive; will not leach chemicals into food, or alter the taste of food
-Non-stick and easy to clean
-Has excellent heat distribution, making for even cooking
-Tends to be more expensive than other cookware, making it more difficult for people to afford
-Requires careful cleaning; harsh abrasives or cleaning agents can damage the surface of the cookware
-May be more limited in terms of styles and design
Notes: This type of cookware has been gaining popularity in recent years due to its many benefits. It’s a favorite among chefs and home cooks alike for being durable, non-toxic, and for its even heating. Since it heats up quickly, it is recommended to use low to medium heat to prevent burning food. Be sure to avoid metal utensils to prevent scratching titanium cookware. Always wash titanium cookware by hand.
-Easier to clean
-Less oil is needed while cooking, which can be beneficial for those looking to lower their fat intake
-More affordable than most other cookware
-Not as durable as other types of cookware, and the coating can rub off over time
-Health concerns; toxic chemicals in the coating can leach into food
-Limited heat use; not suitable for high-temperature cooking
-Not dishwasher safe
Notes: This type of cookware has been popular since the 1960’s due to its convenience. Unfortunately, non-stick cookware presents greater health concerns than other types. The coating used in this type of cookware contains chemicals that have been linked to cancer, infertility and liver damage. These chemicals can be released when the cookware is heated to high temperatures or scratched.
If you must use this type of cookware, be mindful to avoid high heat, prevent scratches (use silicone, plastic or wooden utensils), clean carefully and replace when worn. While it is an affordable and convenient option, non-stick cookware comes with health concerns and durability issues. It’s important to consider other types of cookware that may be more durable and certainly healthier in the long run.
The Bottom Line: Invest in High-Quality Cookware
You should be able to enjoy cooking and eating without worrying about harmful chemicals leaching into your food. As you can see, there are plenty of non-toxic cookware options to choose from; consider the pros and cons and your personal lifestyle when choosing what type of cookware is right for you.
Additionally, investing in high-quality cookware is a sustainable choice, as you’ll be less likely to need to replace it frequently, and therefore are helping to reduce waste and save resources. While it may be more expensive up front, think of your cookware as an investment; it’s better for your wallet, health and environment in the long run. When you choose high-quality cookware, made from non-toxic materials, you can cook with confidence and enjoy healthy meals for yourself and your loved ones.