Stovetop Cookware – How They Stack Up

How many pots and pans do you use in a day?  One? Three? More?  Pots and pans often don’t get much thought, but they are the cornerstone of our kitchens. The success of the finished product we cook can often be dependent on the pan it was cooked in. Thin pans that don’t distribute heat evenly can cause food to cook unevenly and burn. Some pan finishes create a nice searing finish without the use of oil. Other pans perform consistently, regardless of what we are cooking in them. Here are a few things to keep in mind when buying pans.

Choosing the cookware that is right for you can be daunting. Size, weight, material, and application are all factors that should be considered when buying.  How many people am I cooking for? Are heavy pans too cumbersome for me to lift?  Should I get a non-stick finish?  What style pan is best for the food I am cooking?  Below will answer some of your questions.

TEFLON PANS – The most well-known non-stick surface for pans is Teflon. Teflon is a name brand, but the white waxy plastic substance is called polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE).  A 2017 study published in the journal Polymer Degradation and Stability, concluded PTFE  (Teflon) surfaces are generally stable but will break down over time and release toxic fumes. After being linked to several illnesses in a class-action lawsuit (it seeped into the groundwater at the DuPont plant where it was manufactured),  DuPont phased out the use of one of the chemicals in the non-stick finish, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). Over 3,500 lawsuits regarding this chemical filed against DuPont have been settled.[i] (It was discontinued in cookware in 2015, but still is used today in waterproofing clothing, mascara, sunscreens, and fast food packaging and is a stain-resistant agent in carpeting).  PTFE, however, is still used to make nonstick cookware and over time, when heated over 500º, will break down and releases toxic fumes.[ii]  Environmental Working Group reports two carcinogens are among the toxic fumes released when a pan with a PFTE finish is on high heat anywhere from two to 15 minutes. The fumes can cause respiratory irritation in humans and can be fatal in birds, so if you have a pet bird, these are not the pans you want! If you do have pans with a PTFE coating, don’t use metal utensils, as it can damage the pan’s surface, and keep the temperature of the pan under 500º.  A PTFE-coated pan consistently heated to about 500º should hold up for about 2.3 years according to a 2001 study published in Nature. After that, they should be tossed out. With all the pitfalls of Teflon PTFE, PFOA coated pans, we strongly suggest choosing a different cookware option.

CERAMIC – Ceramic pans’ non-stick finish is actually silicon. The core of the pan is either made of copper or aluminum for heat conductivity, with layers of a ceramic coating.  The pan takes longer to heat up than others, but retains heat well and is evenly distributed. According to the manufacturers, clean-up is easy. Ceramic pans are safe in the oven up to 500º. Many are safe to use in the microwave (check with manufacturer’s instructions). Vegetables, tofu, and more can be seared in a ceramic pan. Ceramic works well both on the stovetop and in the oven, so foods such as rice dishes, potatoes, and casseroles can start out on the stovetop finish in the oven for a nice golden top. Ceramic cookware varies in price but is generally very affordable.

ALUMINUM – Aluminum pans are lightweight and conduct heat quickly. They will react to acidic foods like tomatoes, citrus, and vinegar, as well as leafy vegetables and aluminum, which can leach into the food – even more so if the surface is worn and pitted.  A small number of metals including aluminum in the body can be tolerated and is removed by the kidneys.[iii]  The Alzheimer’s Association reports ”using aluminum cookware is not a major risk for the disease.” But again, we strongly suggest you avoid any material that will leach into foods or beverages.

ANODIZED ALUMINUM –  These are aluminum pans that have had an acid solution that is applied and exposed to an electric current that creates an aluminum oxide finish on the pan. This creates a durable, scratch-resistant, non-stick, non-porous finish, and the pans are lightweight. As long as the finish isn’t marred or damaged, no aluminum will leach into food. Anodized aluminum cookware will last for many years. Prices vary depending on quality and durability, but most are very affordable. We offer the same recommendation here. If there is a risk of the pan reacting with the food you are cooking, you are better of avoiding it and looking for another option.

COPPER – Copper is an excellent conductor of heat and distributes the heat evenly. Copper is not recommended for direct contact with food because the metal can leach into food. So if you must have copper cookware,  look for copper pans with a coating of stainless steel or other finish on the inside so food does not come in direct contact with the copper. Copper cookware is pricy but cared for properly, it will last a lifetime.

STAINLESS STEEL – Stainless steel is not a natural material but a steel alloy that is made by combining carbon, chromium, nickel, and other metals.  You may see 18/10 or 18/8 stamped on stainless steel pans. The first number indicates how much chromium is in the stainless steel. Chromium adds to the durability of the pan and makes it rust-resistant. The second number is the amount of nickel in the stainless steel. Nickel makes the pan hard, rust-resistant, and creates its polished finish.  Both are good, but 18/10 is the better of the two. Because stainless steel itself does not conduct heat well, the base of the pan generally has three to five layers of aluminum and/or copper that are fused or “clad” together which makes the pan a good heat conductor and distributes heat evenly. It is durable, non-reactive, and high-heat resistant.   Food can stick to a stainless steel surface, particularly if it is cooked at higher heat, but can be dislodged fairly easily.  A good quality set of these pans are kitchen workhorses, and will last a lifetime. Be sure they have additional layers of heat-conducting metals on the bottom. Stainless steel pans vary in price from moderate to very expensive, with professional sets running into the thousands of dollars.

CAST IRON – Properly cared for cast iron cookware can last a lifetime.  It is the perfect pan for browning potatoes, searing tofu, and stir-frying vegetables. Some cast-iron pans are already seasoned when purchased and others need to be seasoned before using them for the first time.  This is done by rubbing a small amount of oil inside and outside the pan and then baking it in the oven. As long as the pan is seasoned, food should not stick to it.  Hand wash the pan and dry thoroughly after each use. The finish is durable and will not be marred using metal utensils. Maintain the cast iron finish by occasionally seasoning the pan by rubbing 1 teaspoon of oil on the pan with a paper towel and heat pan with high heat on the stovetop or in the oven. The oil embeds into the pan and makes the surface stick-free and prevents the pan from coming into contact with moisture that will rust the pan. Cast iron holds heat well and tolerates high heat cooking.  The iron can leach into the food depending on how much acid and moisture are in the food, how long it is cooked, and how well your pan is seasoned.  When it comes to health, there are very few dangers with the use of cast iron pans. In fact, the pan may promote health by increasing the iron content in your food, a benefit for children and premenopausal women.”[iv]  Dr. Neal Barnard’s has a different take on cast iron cookware – If it is used occasionally (like once a month), it’s ok. He does not recommend using it more often. According to Dr. Barnard, a substantial amount of iron is being leached into the food when using cast iron skillets, and too much iron is harmful to the heart and brain[v].

Caring for your pans is just as important as choosing the right pans suited for you.  Cool the pan completely before washing to avoid warping.  Wash pots and pans by hand in soapy warm water.  Although some manufactures say their pans are dishwasher safe, the harsh detergents and high heat can ruin their finish over time. Remove food residue using soap and a nylon scouring pad or soft sponge. If food particles still remain on the pan, sprinkle the pan with baking soda, add water, and bring it to a boil. Then remove the residue with a nylon scouring pad or soft sponge. Steel wool and other metal scouring pads will damage any pan’s finish and should not be used.  Use wooden or silicone utensils on nonstick finishes.  Replace cookware when there are visible signs of the finish is flaking, peeling, chipping, or has many scratches.

The price of a set of pots and pans can vary greatly.  A good set of cookware can be an investment of several hundred dollars. Other sets of cookware can be had for under $100. As with anything else, you get what you pay for.  To help ease your wallet, buy good quality pots and pans when they are on sale  Sometimes good cookware can be found at places like TJ Max or Marshalls. If purchasing a set is out of your price range or has pieces in it you won’t use, start by investing in a good skillet and later add a saucepan.  Add additional pieces to meet your needs.

[i] DuPont Lawsuits (re PFOA Pollution in the USA). Business and Human Rights Resource Center. Retrieved from http://www.business-humanrights.org.

[ii] Shimizu T, Hamada O, Sasaki A, et al Polymer fume fever Case Reports 2012;2012:bcr2012007790.

[iii] www.alzheimers.org.uk/aluminum.

[iv] Coleone, J.  (2019, Sept. 20). What Are the Dangers of Cooking in Cast Iron Pans?  Retrieved from https://www.livestrong.com

[v] Physicians Committee (July 26, 2013). Ask@Dr.NealBarnard: Cookware.

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Contributing Guest Writer: Jody Perrecone

Jody Perrecone is a certified nutrition consultant and graduated with honors from Bauman College. She graduated from CHIP (Complete Health Improvement Program) nearly two decades ago and has been an advocate for whole food plant-based nutrition ever since. She has a certification in plant-based nutrition from e-Cornell University and is the founder of Perrecone Wellness. Jody has a passion for helping her clients experience their best life with optimal nutrition and enjoys helping them on their journey. She also conducts WFPB cooking classes and has given numerous wellness presentations over the years to corporations, organizations, and even health food stores. She lives in Rockford, IL with her amazing husband and entertaining cat, Pico.