Choosing safe cookware

dutch oven

When heated, cookware coated with Teflon and other non-stick surfaces may emit chemicals and toxins. Some chemicals never break down in the environment, and some are found in human blood.

The fumes released from overheated chemical non-stick finishes also can be fatal to birds, and a 2001 study published in Nature found that overheated chemical non-stick pans released greenhouse gas chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). The nonprofit Environmental Working Group notes that at 680░ F, Teflon gives off six toxic gases including two carcinogens.

If you are concerned about the effects of Teflon and other non-stick cookware on your health and the environment you should choose cast iron, stainless steel, enameled iron, and glass and ceramic cookware.

What to look out for

Since Teflon is only one variety of the non-stick chemical polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) used on cookware, watch out for "non-stick" labeling and ask if the coating is PTFE, even if it's not Teflon. Calphalon, Scanpan and All Clad's non-stick pans all use PTFE coatings.

Safe choices

Stainless Steel

Most chefs agree that stainless steel browns foods better than non-stick surfaces. In their 2001 review of sautÚ pans, Cooks Illustrated, an independent publication, chose a stainless steel pan over otherwise identical non-stick models. They also recommended stainless steel pan roasters over non-stick.

Cast Iron

Cast iron pans can go from stovetop to oven, are nonstick, and will last forever with proper care. It evenly distributes heat to food, making it ideal for browning, searing and frying. It's perfect for everything from pancakes to cornbread, and works for dishes such as frittatas and fried potatoes that may start on a burner and finish cooking in the oven.

Caring for cast iron
Cast iron isn't nonstick naturally — it becomes nonstick through a process called seasoning. Most cast iron cookware you buy today is preseasoned, so you can start using it immediately, but you'll still need to re-season it from time to time. This is done by oiling and baking it, which gives cast iron its signature shine. If the bottom of the pan starts looking crusty, rusty, or uneven, it's time to re-season.

You also have to reseason if you burn something in it badly and have to really scour it to get it clean, or if you neglect to dry it and it rusts, or if you buy a used piece of cast iron you want to rehabilitate.

How to reseason

  1. Heat the oven to 350║F, and position the oven rack in the top third of the oven.
  2. Open your windows — reseasoning creates smoke!
  3. Rub a thin layer of shortening, oil, or bacon grease all over the inner bottom and sides of the pan with a paper towel.
  4. Place your pan upside down on the top oven rack with a rimmed baking sheet or a roasting pan underneath to catch the drippings.
  5. Bake the pan this way for 1 hour. Then turn off the oven and allow it to cool with the pan inside. When the pan is correctly seasoned, the cooking surface should be smooth and shiny.

Note: Don't cook tomatoes or other highly acidic foods in cast iron, as that will destroy the pan's finish.

How to Clean

To maintain the finish on your cast iron pan, you must abide by the following rules:

  • When you're finished cooking, scrape out your pan with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula while it's still hot, and wipe it down with a little oil on a rag or paper towel to preserve the finish. Note: It may seem strange that you're supposed to use oil — and not soap — to clean your pans. But don't worry about getting sick from rotten food or rancid oil that's still on your pan — even if there were potentially harmful bacteria living on it, the pan gets hot enough when you cook with it to kill it.
  • If gentle scraping doesn't suffice, a little mild, well-diluted soap and a soft sponge or stiff nylon brush are OK, but don't scrub the pan. Avoid using soap or harsh abrasives on it and don't use scouring pads or steel wool. If necessary, you can soak it. After cleaning the pan, put it upside down in a 150░F oven until it is dry to prevent rust.
  • Don't ever put your pan in water while it's still extremely hot — it could crack.
  • After washing your pan, dry it well with a clean, dry dishtowel so that it won't rust.
  • If your pan needs re-seasoning, first use a nylon scouring pad or kosher salt and hot water to clean it. Dry it well and follow the seasoning directions as outlined above.

Other Cooking Surfaces

Because Teflon coated non-stick surfaces fail to brown foods there has been a push to find other "non-stick" cookware coating that will allow the use of higher temperatures and still be easy to clean. Some examples include ceramic titanium and porcelain enameled cast iron. Both of these surfaces are very durable, better at browning foods than PTFE (Teflon) non-stick coatings, and are dishwasher safe.

Glass and ceramic

For baking and other methods of cooking done in the oven, use glass, ceramic or clay cookware.

Sources: Chow.com, Environmental Working Group, and the Green Guide

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