Choosing and Caring for Pieces That Last
I was first introduced to nontoxic cookware by my friend Sabrina, whom I lived with after college. Sabrina, an amazing cook, taught me a lot about cooking and nutrition and introduced me to her favorite cooking utensil: a humble cast iron pan with a wooden handle. She loved it because it was one of the few possessions her grandmother had carried when she moved from Argentina in the 1950s. The pan was a beautifully utilitarian piece that Sabrina used nearly daily and kept well-seasoned. I became kind of obsessed with that little pan and its history of cooking meals for Sabrina’s family for so many years. I have since learned how to properly use and care for cast iron, and ditched nonstick pots and pans. Even though I now have a variety of nontoxic cookware in my kitchen, I find that I still end up using my humble cast iron skillet the most.
What Cookware Do You Use At Home?
Once Marilee started revealing the harmful effects of PFASs (Teflon and other chemicals used to make nonstick pans), I became curious about the types of pots and pans people use in their kitchens and why they pick them. I recently conducted an informal survey from our followers on Instagram and Facebook to find out what types of cookware they’re using at home. Of the 239 responses, we discovered that most people had a mix of pots, pans, and baking sheets in their kitchens. It was interesting to learn that many people have received their pots and pans as gifts. And Sabrina definitely isn’t the only one who has been using cast iron pans passed down from family members. Here’s the breakdown of what types of cookware people have in their kitchens:
- Cast Iron: 37%
- Stainless Steel: 32%
- Ceramic or Enameled Cast Iron: 17%
- Nonstick: 8%
- Glass: 5%
- Clay: <1%
We found that many homes use primarily cast iron or stainless steel pots, pans, and bakeware and had a mix-and-match set that they use for different reasons. I thought it was interesting that several customers mentioned how they use nonstick pans only when cooking eggs – which I understand from firsthand experience can be hard to clean off a pan! While I sympathize with the frustration of cleaning a tough pan, I know that using nontoxic cookware is a bigger priority. And once you learn the best methods for caring for your nontoxic cookware, you’ll find that cleaning them is no trouble at all.
The Following Nontoxic Cookware Options Will:
- last indefinitely (and even become heirloom pieces)
- cook your food efficiently
- clean up easily (eggs included!)
- not release harmful chemicals into your food or air (the most important part)
Cooking on my cast iron pans always makes me feel just a little like I’m camping or cooking for a hungry group of pioneers on our way to populate Western America. These pans are classics and it’s not unusual to find them used at yard sales, antique shops, or the back of your mom’s cabinet. Don’t be turned away by a rusted cast iron skillet – you can “season” it to bring it back to life and use it for years to come.
Cast iron skillets are virtually unbreakable, unscratchable, and otherwise, unruinable. You can use them on the stovetop or in the oven. You don’t have to be worried about being gentle with a cast iron skillet – you can even use metal utensils when you are cooking with these pans. Another advantage of cast iron is that it imparts small amounts of iron into your food as you cook with it. Iron is an essential nutrient – and this is a great way to get an extra daily dose. Plus, like nonstick pots and pans, cast iron pans are relatively inexpensive to purchase, even though they last forever.
Tips for Using
On the stovetop, I use my cast iron skillets for cooking eggs, fish, or meat, as well as veggie burgers. In the oven, I use the cast iron skillet to make focaccia, cornbread, frittatas, or dutch babies. The secret to using cast iron is keeping it seasoned, which is the closest you will get to a nontoxic “nonstick” coating. This means baking your pan at 350° F for an hour or more, covered in a quality oil (coconut oil is my preferred choice) – check out this seasoning tutorial for more information. Once you season it, you will get many uses out of it before you have to re-season.
How to Clean
I’ve heard that people avoid using cast iron skillets because the cleanup process sounds bizarre. Please don’t avoid these pans because of the unusual cleaning method! You’ll find that after you get used to the new method, you’ll wish everything was so simple to clean. Once your pan has been seasoned (see above), you want to avoid using soap as much as possible, as it will wear down the seasoning. Soap breaks down grease and oil – and you want to preserve that “nonstick” finish! Instead of using soap, simply scrape out any leftover food residue using a wooden spatula, then wipe clean and smooth with a rag. If there is still a stuck-on mess in the pan, sprinkle with coarse salt and use a rag to agitate the cooked-on pieces. Alternatively, you can soak in plain water and scrub with a brush to help break down food. Dry thoroughly to avoid rust spots, then add a small amount of oil to replenish any seasoning, as necessary. If you want more detailed instructions, read this cleaning tutorial. I keep a clean washcloth between my cast iron skillets when I put them in the cabinet. Not only does the rag provide a buffer, keep the seasoning from the lower pan from rubbing off on the bottom of the upper pan (which may cause smoking when you heat the pan next), but it’s also handy for wiping excess grease before I put them away. A good, seasoned pan should have a slight sheen whenever you put it away, but it should not look greasy.
Quality stainless steel pots and pans are generally aluminum in the core and treated with a stainless covering, which thickens the pan and provides nontoxic, even cooking of nearly anything. You can use stainless steel to cook acidic foods like tomatoes, use vinegar or lemon, as long as it is nickel-free.1 Otherwise, it is considered fairly non-reactive and is a good cookware option. Stainless steel pans are useful if you are searing meat or creating any type of browning or crisping. These pans are also great for making sauces because they are easy to deglaze with an acid.
Compared to ceramic or cast iron, stainless steel pots and pans can be lighter weight, which makes them great when you have to lift a large pan to change burners or serve. They can also be used in the oven, even at high temperatures.
Tips for Using
Stainless steel is my go-to when I’m making a stir fry or cooking veggies on the stovetop. It’s also great for anything that has a sauce, though I avoid cooking acidic foods (like tomatoes) in stainless steel if there is any nickel in the pan. Stainless steel pots are great for cooking pasta or soups. These pots and pans heat evenly and can be used on high heat – ideal for boiling or sautéing. I like to use ghee, avocado oil, or coconut oil for these uses, which can withstand high cooking temperatures without spoiling.
How to Clean
When it comes to cleaning, stainless steel is straightforward. You can soak any greasy or overcooked messes in warm soapy water until the food releases. For tough burns or stains, sprinkle a scoop of Oxygen Boost, fill with water and let sit. These pans are dishwasher-friendly and easy to handwash as well. We love this one from MadeIn cookware!
Enameled Cast Iron or Steel
Enameled pans, dutch ovens, and casserole dishes have become popular as wedding gifts, as they can be expensive “investment” pieces, particularly compared with other pots and pans. These pieces have a solid metal core (cast iron or steel) and are coated with an easy-to-clean enamel finish.
Enameled cast iron cookware comes in a variety of colors, sizes, and uses. Some of the enameled cast iron has an enamel bottom with a cast iron cooking surface, which has to be seasoned like a traditional cast iron pan. Other enameled pieces have an enamel coating on the cooking surface as well – as is the case with Dutch Oven style cookware. These pieces are easy to clean, maintain, and can become family heirlooms. However, be careful to avoid scratching the enamel surface with metal utensils.
Tips for Using
With enameled cast iron or steel, remember: “low and slow”. Cook these on low heats for foods that will cook slowly – as opposed to cooking quickly on a high heat. These pieces are ideal for winter stews, risotto, or sauces. You can also use them in the oven. For example, I use my enamel Dutch Oven when I roast a whole chicken.
How to Clean
Cleaning enameled cookware is relatively simple. Soak in soapy water as needed, then scrub with a gentle brush or sponge. If you have an enamel-bottom cast iron pan, treat it as a regular cast iron pan (see above).
Some “glass” cookware is tempered with ceramic to make it more durable than just glass, but still just as safe. Corningware makes Visions (stovetop) and Pyrex cookware, both of which are considered glass cookware. Corningware is guaranteed lead-free.
Glass is non-toxic, inert, and safe. It doesn’t absorb food odors or flavors or react with acid-based foods like tomato sauces. It’s dishwasher-safe and you can use it in the freezer or oven, as well as on the stovetop.
Tips for Using
Glass is great for water-based cooking (boiling or making sauces). Avoid using it when cooking with high temperatures and stir frying. Verify with the manufacturer that the glass is lead-free.
How to Clean
Glass is generally very easy to clean. If you have burned-on food, then follow general cleaning tips below.
General Cleaning Tips for Nontoxic Cookware
With the exception of my cast iron pans, I use Branch Basics All-Purpose spray to clean my dishes, including pots and pans. For baked on food, always spray liberally with All-Purpose and let sit 5-10 minutes or more, then wipe and repeat if necessary. I also use Oxygen Boost (in a paste with water) for extra scrubbing power. If your stainless steel, glass, or enameled pan ever looks “stained” with brown speckles over time, you can remove them by using Oxygen Boost, Branch Basics All-Purpose, and a clean rag (see below). For the how-to (whether you are handwashing or using a dishwasher), check out Dishwashing 101.
Do you have nonstick cookware at home? Learn ways to reduce your exposure to PFASs by cooking and caring for them carefully: What You Can Do Until You Can Replace Your Nonstick Cookware.