Chances are, even if you buy mainly organic produce and eat a healthy wholefood diet, you’re still cooking your dinner using problematic pots, pans, and other cookware. Most people own at least one piece of Teflon or other non-stick cookware, and these aren’t the only things to watch out for if you’re a health-conscious and eco-conscious consumer.
If you’re buying cookware for the first time, or replacing older and broken items, here are some questions to consider:
- What is the cookware made from?
- Are the materials recycled and/or recyclable?
- Is the cookware treated with toxic chemicals?
- Does the manufacturing and/or use of the cookware harm humans, other animals, and/or the environment?
Below, we offer curated cookware products in our ecoHome Directory, but be sure to check out the rest of this post for detailed information on the most common problems with cookware (Teflon, other toxic coatings, lead glazes, etc.), the different types of cookware available, and some of the best options for eco-friendly cookware.
Our top picks for eco-friendly Cookware
|Product||Highlights||Leaf Score||Product Link|
Xtrema®Read the Review
| ||View on Amazon|
Corning WareRead the Review
| ||View on Amazon|
Lodge Cast Iron CookwareRead the Review
| ||View on Amazon|
Cuisinart Multiclad Pro 12-Piece Stainless Steel Cookware SetRead the Review
| ||View on Amazon|
Le CreusetRead the Review
| ||View on Amazon|
Emile HenryRead the Review
| ||View on Amazon|
De Buyer Carbon Steel Frying panRead the Review
| ||View on Amazon|
GreenPan Paris Pro 11-Piece Cookware SetRead the Review
| ||View on Amazon|
Beka Cookware VitaRead the Review
| ||View on Amazon|
Things to consider in Cookware
Cookware – What to Watch out for
From baking sheets to muffin pans, frying pans to woks, non-stick cookware coated with perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) are common items found in most kitchens. These cooking products, often sold under the Teflon brand, as well as Tefal, Silverstone, Anolon, Circulon, and Calphalon, can release toxic fumes that can kill pet birds, even when used under normal cooking conditions. Accidentally overheat them for a long period of time and you may end up in hospital with ‘Teflon Flu’ or ‘polymer fume fever’, a condition characterized by severe respiratory distress (R).
Conventional non-stick cookware is just one of the things to watch out for when choosing cookware, however. There are also concerns about aluminum pots and pans, lead glazes on imported goods, and even stainless steel. Let’s take a closer look at each of these in turn.
Teflon and non-stick cookware
Fluoropolymers repel oil and water and are used as non-stick coatings for cookware and food packaging. Teflon, manufactured by DuPont Co., is the best-known brand name of non-stick coatings made with polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). DuPont Co. discovered the compound in 1938 and the coating quickly became popular because, let’s face it, non-stick pans make for easier cooking and clean-up.
Top tip: Beware non-stick pans that claim to be Teflon-free. This may be true, in that the pans don’t use the brand-name Teflon, but they mays till use a PTFE non-stick coating.
These fluoropolymer coatings are generally made using poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and were originally applied to cookware using solvents such as perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). After significant research showing undesirable health effects of PFOA, and a not inconsiderable lawsuit (R), DuPont and other manufacturers phased out their use of this chemical in the production of non-stick coatings as part of the PFOA Stewardship Program, launched in 2006 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). DuPont and seven other leading PFOA-using companies promised to eliminate PFOA use and emissions by 2015. All of the companies met this target. In fact, Teflon products have been PFOA-free since 2013 (R), although this hardly excuses the several decades in which this company and other PTFE-producing manufacturers allegedly hid evidence showing the negative health effects of the chemicals (R).
Rather worryingly, a report in The New York Times from October 2017 noted that Nancy Beck, a Trump appointee in the EPA, made changes to the rules regarding PFOA which make it harder to regulate (R). Specifically, the changes to the rules make it more difficult to track the health consequences of PFOA contamination. Beck previously worked as a lobbyist for the American Chemistry Council, whose members include those making and using PFOA, such as DuPont, as well as other chemical giants such as Dow Chemical, Monsanto, ExxonMobil Chemical, and Bayer (R).
Why is PFOA such a problem? Studies show that residual PFOA is not completely removed during the fabrication of non-stick coatings for cookware. This means that, when heated under normal cooking temperatures, non-stick cookware made with PFOA releases PFOA.
PTFE starts to dissociate at about 600 degrees Fahrenheit (300 degrees Celsius), whereupon toxic fumes such as PFOA begin to be released into the air. This might seem like a very high temperature, but it only takes a couple of minutes of heating an empty pan for it to reach 500 degrees F and cooking a steak can require a temperature of around 600 degrees F. As such, even seemingly normal cooking conditions can easily lead to PFOA and other toxic fumes being released into the air from PTFE coatings.
PFOA is a greenhouse gas and has adverse effects on health, including being a probable carcinogen (R). It is also a suspected hormone disrupter, with its effects made worse by the fact that it lingers in the body and in the environment. Most adults have some PFOA in their blood, and the chemical has also been found in newborns and in marine animals and polar bears (R).
So, if Teflon and other non-stick products are now made without PFOA, are these products safe and non-toxic? Not quite.
Polymer Flu Fever
PFOA was certainly a major health concern associated with these non-stick coatings, but it wasn’t the only toxic fume released from PTFE.
In fact, since PFOA has been phased out and there are still reports of bird deaths related to new non-stick cookware, this offers pretty solid evidence that the mix of toxic fumes released from a PFOA-free pan coated with PTFE remains dangerous. As such, if you have a pet bird in the home, you probably still want to avoid using Teflon or similar non-stick cookware. For the rest of us, these polymer coatings, which can include polyethersulphone, PTFE, and bisphenol A/epichlorohydrin, also pose health risks. Indeed, there’s even a medical term for the negative effects of breathing in these toxic gases: Polymer fume fever. Or, more colloquially, Teflon flu.
Polymer flu fever is caused by inhalation of toxic fumes, typically from overheating of a polytetrafluoroethylene-coated cooking pan. Case reports detail people admitted to hospital in serious respiratory distress after being exposed to such fumes for several hours. In some cases individuals have been hospitalized after accidentally leaving a pan on a hot stove overnight, with the Teflon coating burning away (R, R).
Even if you are simply exposed to PTFE fumes during normal use of non-stick cookware, this may still pose a risk to health.
PFASs and Pregnancy
Non-stick coatings appear to be particularly deleterious for female reproductive health, although this imbalance may simply be due to a lack of research investigating male reproductive health effects. Regardless, PFOA and PFOS exposure has been linked to a nearly two-fold increase in the risk of preterm birth (R). Risk of preterm birth was also increased with higher exposure to perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA), perfluoroheptane sulfonate (PFHpS) and perfluorodecanoic acid (PFDA), and there appears to be an increased risk of low birth weight with exposure to PFASs.
Research also suggests that PFASs have a negative effect on blood glucose regulation in pregnancy, increasing the risk of gestational diabetes (R). In one case-control study, women exposed to PFASs in the late 1990s had a higher risk of type 2 diabetes in the following years. Higher exposure to perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) was associated with a 62 percent increase in the risk of type 2 diabetes, and higher exposure to perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) was associated with a 54 percent increased risk (R).
People who use oral contraceptives also appear to have higher levels of PFASs, possibly because menstrual blood provides a way for the body to eliminate these chemicals and there is often less blood loss with the use of oral contraceptives (R).
How bad are PTFE non-stick pans?
Manufacturers of non-stick cookware may well point to studies that find little or no toxicity risk from their products (R), However, it’s important to note that these studies use new cookware or more favorable statistical analysis to create a healthier impression of products than might otherwise be presented. It’s also possible that current guidelines vastly underestimate the negative impact of these chemicals on our health, given the paucity of research.
Often, the results of studies looking at PFOA emissions don’t accurately reflect how the age of a pan affects the release of toxic gases or chemicals into air and food. Indeed, one study looked at levels of chemicals from cookware in the breastmilk of volunteers in Jordan and found that women who used older non-stick cookware at home had higher levels of PFOS and PFOA, as did older women (R).
Unfortunately, avoiding PFOAs and other toxic fumes isn’t as simple as just throwing out non-stick pans after a few years of use. In fact, some newer pans might actually release greater amounts of PFOA, with residual traces of PFOA decreasing as the pan is used over time and possibly increasing again as the pan degrades (R). Although this almost suggests that there is a sweet spot for all pans in terms of their emissions of toxic fumes, this sweet spot is likely short-lived and hard to predict for an individual item of non-stick cookware.
In one study, researchers measured perfluoroalkyl carboxylates (PFCAs), particularly PFOA, and fluorotelomer alcohols, released from nonstick cookware under normal cooking temperatures (179 to 233 degrees Celsius) (R):
- PFOA was released at 7-337 nanograms (11-503 pg/cm2) per pan from four brands of nonstick frying pans.
- 6:2 FTOH and 8:2 FTOH were released from four brands of frying pans.
This same study also found that 5-34 ng of PFOA was released from a prepacked microwave popcorn bag, but not from plain white corn kernels popped in a polypropylene container. Two out of four brands of prepacked microwave popcorn also released 6:2 FTOH and 8:2 FTOH.
Interestingly, in one pan in this study, PFOA emissions decreased significantly with repeated use, while all the other pans showed no such decrease. In fact, more than 5 ng of PFOA was released during the fourth use of both brands of pans.
Temperature is a clear factor influencing just how much of these toxic fumes is released, with higher temperatures greatly increasing emissions (R).
Surprisingly, there doesn’t seem to be much, if any, negative impact on health if you accidentally ingest intact particles of non-stick coatings that flake off scratched cookware. That’s because solid PTFE flakes are inert. In fact, some researchers are investigating the use of PTFE for weight management and PTFE has long been used for other health applications.
PTFE is widely considered to be the most inert material known and could be used to add bulk to food, thereby increasing satiety and reducing calorie intake (R). What’s more, some researchers are investigating the use of high-density PTFE in rebuilding cartilage and soft tissue (R), and the material is often used for surgical applications, including in cosmetic surgery.
Due to concerns over its toxicity, PFOA has largely been replaced in the production of PTFE non-stick coatings. Unfortunately, while long-chain PFASs like PFOA have mostly been phased out due to concerns about bioaccumulation and impact on reproductive health, they continue to linger in the environment. What’s more, short-chain PFASs have also been seen to be highly mobile in soil and water and to be extremely persistent in the environment (R). This leads to rapid contamination of drinking water, with largely unknown effects on human health and the health of other animals and the wider environment.
And, again, it’s worth noting that PFOAs are just one type of toxic fume associated with non-stick coatings. According to the Madrid Statement on Poly- and Perfluoroalkyl Substances (PFASs), published by hundreds of concerned scientists from across the world, “PFASs are man-made and found everywhere [and] are highly persistent, as they contain perfluorinated chains that only degrade very slowly, if at all, under environmental conditions. It is documented that some polyfluorinated chemicals break down to form perfluorinated ones” (R). In addition to urging governments to better regulate PFSAs and scientists to investigate these chemicals further, the signatories to this statement also suggest that the individual consumer, “Whenever possible, avoid products containing, or manufactured using, PFASs. These include many products that are stain-resistant, waterproof, or nonstick. [In addition] Question the use of such fluorinated “performance” chemicals added to consumer products”.
In recent years, numerous companies have developed non-stick coatings that are free from PFOA, PTFE, and other toxic substances. Some of these seem like an excellent alternative to Teflon and other conventional non-stick coatings, but some remain problematic. There is often very little, if any, data available on these new alternatives, and some are suspected to have similar toxicity (R). These ‘green’ non-stick coatings are discussed further below. One good option, made simply with a spray-on silicon dioxide coating, is Thermolon, used by GreenPan.
Specialized camping cookware is extremely useful in that it tends to be much lighter than, say, a cast iron pot and can transfer heat quickly, meaning you need less fuel to cook food quickly. There’s a trade-off, however, because these lightweight camping pots and pans tend to be made with uncoated aluminum that can leach aluminum into food.
In one study, aluminum cookware released up to six times the specific release limit (SRL) of 5 mg aluminum per kilogram of food specified by the Council of Europe (R). In another study, researchers found that while cooking oil and tap water in aluminum pans didn’t cause leaching in excess of the SRL, cooking an acidic solution did. In fact, a dilute 0.5% citric acid solution exceeded the limit at a whopping 638 mg/L, meaning that the Tolerable Weekly Intake (TWI) of aluminum would be exceeded by 298 percent for a child weighing 15 kg (and amount to 63.8 percent of the TWI for an adult weighing 70 kg), assuming a daily uptake of 10 mL marinade containing lemon juice over a period of one week. Shockingly, using camping dishes to prepare a fish dish with a lemon juice marinade would result in the TWI being exceeded by 871 percent for a 15 kg child and by 187 percent for a 70 kg adult (R).
It should be said that only around 0.1 percent of orally ingested aluminum is thought to be absorbed from the gastrointestinal tract (R). However, aluminum exposure is already thought to be above the TWI for many adults and children (R).
Why does aluminum exposure matter? Well, this metal has no nutritional role to play in human health and has been linked to problems with the central nervous system and immune function. Aluminum appears to increase oxidative damage and deplete antioxidant enzymes including glutathione. It is also used as an adjuvant in vaccines, to prompt the immune system to respond and produce antibodies to inert viruses. Over the last few decades, various studies have found links between aluminum exposure (dietary, environmental, or through vaccines) and concerns over aluminum and Alzheimer’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and multiple sclerosis (R), as well as autism spectrum disorders in genetically predisposed children (R).
While the links between aluminum and health effects in adults and children remain controversial and in need of further study, the precautionary principle suggests it is best to take steps to reduce exposure to aluminum. This means avoiding the use of aluminum cookware or choosing anodized aluminum cookware where the metal is bonded and inert (this cookware would need replacing regularly as the product degrades and begins to leach aluminum).
Artisanal cookware and lead glazes
Cookware imported for sale in the US has to be tested and certified for safety. However, any individual can buy locally-made cookware and bring it back into the country for their own personal use. Although rare, there are reports of cookware from Vietnam, Cameroon, Mexico, China, Europe and elsewhere leading to heavy metal poisoning in people in the US (R).
Researchers noted in one study that artisanal aluminum cookware from Cameroon, made from scrap metal, released significant quantities of lead, and that intact aluminum cookware from several other developing countries also released lead and other metals during cooking (R).
Out of 42 items, 15 released more than a microgram of lead per serving (250 mL) when tested by boiling a dilute acidic solution in the pots for 2 hours. One pot from Vietnam released a horrifying 33, 1126 and 1426 mcg per serving in successive tests. Ten of the pots released more than a mcg of cadmium per serving, and 15 released more than a mcg of arsenic per serving.
The average aluminum exposure was 125 mg per serving, which is more than six times the World Health Organization’s Provisional Tolerable Weekly Intake of 20mg/day for a 70kg adult; 40 of the 42 items tested exceeded this level. Simply coating the metal reduced aluminum exposure by more than 98 percent, with similar reductions for other metals. This kind of study highlights the potential risk of toxicity from cookware where coating has been eroded.
Lead poisoning is also a possibility with cookware imported from some countries. In one case report, a woman developed serious lead poisoning after repeatedly drinking hot water and lemon (an acidic solution) from a ceramic mug with a leaded glaze (R). The acid broke down the glaze over time, and the lead poisoning was also exacerbated by the woman’s use of a maca powder supplement. While many companies offer maca that has been carefully screened for contaminants, some untested products contain high levels of lead and other heavy metals.
All in all, avoiding Teflon and PTFE-coated non-stick cookware, as well as aluminum cookware seems smart. What does that leave us with? Let’s take a look
What’s the Alternative? Non-toxic cookware
Inexpensive, safe, non-toxic cookware is readily available, if you know what to look for. In general, cookware made from the following materials is a better option than non-stick or aluminum pots and pans:
- Cast iron (with caveats)
- Anodized aluminum
- Ceramic (watch out for coatings)
- Stainless steel (with caveats)
- Silicone cookware
- Porcelain enamel
- Carbon steel.
Replacing all of your problematic cookware with eco-conscious, safe, non-toxic products can be a costly and time-consuming process. The best approach is to compile a list of your current cookware items and prioritize replacing those that you use most frequently. Aim to replace one item every month or so, watching out for sales, yard-sale finds, or hand-me-downs from friends and family. By checking items off your list throughout the year, you’ll soon have a much healthier, happier kitchen.
And, if you can’t replace all your non-stick Teflon cookware right away, you can minimize your risk of exposure to toxic fumes by:
- Always cook in a well-ventilated area
- Never using non-stick Teflon cookware in the oven
- Keeping pots and pans on a low to moderate heat (read manufacturers’ instructions)
- Heating pots and pans for a short amount of time only
- Never heating a non-stick PTFE pan without food or oil in it (an empty pan released fumes)
- Prioritizing replacement of pots and pans that are scratched and no longer truly non-stick.
As a side note, problematic non-stick chemicals also pop up in some unlikely places, such as some types of dental floss, microwave popcorn bags (as mentioned above), pizza boxes, other food containers, carpet treatments, and windshield cleaning solution. The non-stick insert in some rice cookers may also feature these toxic chemicals.
Pros and Cons of Cast Iron Cookware
Cast iron is an excellent option for eco-friendly cookware. It is hard-wearing and long-lasting (which makes up for its slightly higher price point) and easy to cook with as it can be heated to high temperatures and distributes heat evenly. It might also add flavor to your food!
Cast iron can last for generations if you follow some basic care practices and well-seasoned cast iron has some natural non-stick properties, which can help reduce how much oil you need while cooking. To maintain ‘seasoning’, avoid using soap to clean cast iron cookware. Instead, wipe away grease and food residues and rinse the pan in warm water once it is cool. To re-season a pan, place it over a moderate to high heat for a minute or two, add oil to coat the pan, then remove from the heat and let it cool. Wipe away any residual grease and then use as normal next time you cook.
It’s important to note that cast iron may increase the iron content of food, which can be either a bonus or a disadvantage, depending on your current iron status. More iron is released from cast iron cookware if you use it to cook acidic foods such as tomato sauce. For people with low iron levels (including many children in developing countries), cast iron cookware offers an easy way to boost iron intake (R). For anyone in danger of iron overload, however, it’s best to avoid cast iron pots and pans.
Pros and Cons of Anodized Aluminum Cookware
Anodized aluminum cookware has a naturally smooth surface, making it an excellent alternative to coated non-stick cookware. It also makes it much easier to clean and, unlike regular aluminum, anodized aluminum is non-porous and non-reactive, meaning that it doesn’t leach heavy metals into your food.
Unfortunately, this kind of cookware can break down over time, which will pose a risk of aluminum leaching into food. This is exacerbated by cooking acidic foods in anodized aluminum pans. So, it’s best to buy this kind of cookware new and take care over what you cook in it and how you clean it (avoid using acidic cleaning products such as vinegar, for example).
Pros and Cons of Glass Cookware
Glass cookware is non-toxic, durable, eco-friendly, and fun to cook with as you can see what’s happening in your dish. You can also store and easily reheat dishes in glassware, without the risks associated with plastic storage containers. Glass cookware is usually dishwasher safe and looks great in the kitchen, assuming you keep it in good condition!
Some downsides of glass include uneven heat distribution (glass is a poor heat conductor), meaning that it is best suited to dishes like baked pasta, quick breads, and pot pies. It can also be hard to find glass replacements for all your cookware needs, but availability is improving as more people look for alternatives to non-stick cookware.
Pyrex is one of the best-known names in glass cookware, and for good reason. This glassware was originally made by the Corning Glass Company, which was founded in 1851 in Massachusetts. The company specialized in glass, ceramics, and similar materials for industrial, laboratory, and kitchen use. They made glass for telescope lenses, windshields, and for the familiar Pyrex measuring jugs, casserole dishes, lasagna pans, and other cookware.
The company changed its name from Corning Glass Works to Corning Incorporated in 1989, and in 1998 sold their CorningWare, Corelle, and Pyrex brands to World Kitchen, while maintaining around an 8 percent interest in the company.
Pyrex is heat-tempered glass that can handle changes in temperature. It was originally developed for use as lantern glass for railroads, where the glass needed to be able to content with the heat of a flame and the cold air in winter. As the story goes, it was the wife of a Corning scientist who recognized the potential for Pyrex as cookware in 1913, when she asked for some glass to use in place of a casserole dish.
Pyrex itself was made commercially available as kitchenware in 1915 and is robust, versatile, and reliable. As with all glass, it doesn’t conduct heat well or uniformly, which makes it good for keeping stock warm or baking a lasagna, but not at all suited to baking anything that needs a crisp bottom, such as a pizza or most pies.
Look out for Pyrex ware at your local thrift store, kitchen store, or online. Or, treat yourself to beautiful glassware from Emile Henry.
Pros and Cons of Pure Ceramic Cookware
Ceramic cookware can be a little confusing as this term is often used to describe both pure ceramic pots and pans or cookware made from a metal such as hard anodized aluminum coated with fire-hardened clay.
Corning Ware (now CorningWare®) was the original ceramic cookware and was accidentally invented by Donald Stookey in 1953. Stookey worked in the Corning Research and Development Division and one day accidentally heated a piece of photosensitive glass to 900 degrees Fahrenheit, instead of the usual 600 F. The glass turned a milky white and Stookey, who was about to discard the sample, dropped it on the laboratory floor, whereupon it bounced instead of shattering. Thus, Pyroceram was discovered – a white glass-ceramic material capable of withstanding a thermal shock (sudden temperature change) of up to 450 °C (840 °F).
Pyroceram was subsequently marketed as Corning Ware from 1958 onwards, with the most recognizable piece a classic white ceramic casserole dish with the blue cornflower logo. This cookware is non-reactive to acidic foods, does not leach metal or any other substance into foods, is non-porous, and is easy to clean by hand or in the dishwasher. It is excellent for cooking tomato sauces and white wine reductions and does not alter the flavor of food, unlike metal pots and pans. Unlike most other types of ceramic, glass-ceramic based Corning Ware can be taken from the refrigerator or freezer and used directly on the stovetop, in an oven or microwave, or under a broiler, without risk of thermal shock and cracking or explosion. Some newer Emile Henry items can also be moved from the freezer directly to the oven, but check their care and use guide first.
When Corning Ware was bought by World Kitchen in 1998 it became CorningWare® and was transitioned in 2000/2001 to stoneware, which is also easy to clean, non-reactive to acidic foods, and can be used for cooking, serving, and storing food. However, this stoneware was not suitable for use on the stovetop, unlike classic Corning Ware. Responding to consumer demand, a stovetop-safe line of CorningWare® was introduced in December 2008, manufactured in France by Keraglass/Eurokera for Corelle Brands.
So, if you are looking for pure ceramic cookware to use on a stovetop, go for Corning Ware (made prior to 2000), or CorningWare®’s stovetop range made after 2008 or Emile Henry’s new Flame range. You can find traditional Corning Ware items in thrift stores and online, and gently used older Corning Ware is becoming something of a collectors’ item. It’s also important to note that although Corning Ware casserole dish lids were made with Pyrex or with Pyroceram, most are now made with tempered borosilicate or soda-lime glass, which have a lower tolerance for thermal shock and cannot be used over or under direct heat.
Corning also made the Corelle brand of tempered glass dishware and glassware – introduced in 1970 –made from a material called Vitrelle, which consisted of three layers of laminated glass. Corelle cookware is durable, lightweight, and resistant to breaking, chipping, scratching, and staining. It has been made in over 2,000 patterns since the 1970s and is microwave, oven, refrigerator, freezer and dishwasher safe. Corelle offer a three-year replacement guarantee for any Vitrelle item (if it breaks through normal use).
Pros and Cons of Metal-Ceramic Cookware
As for metal-ceramic cookware, it is versatile, typically stove-top safe and oven safe, distributes heat well and is non-toxic and eco-friendly. And, for those who don’t like to use oil while cooking, non-stick ceramic cookware is available!
Almost all non-stick ceramic ware uses coatings made with silicon and oxygen, rather than the toxic chemicals used in Teflon. That said, it’s always best to check the label on non-stick ceramic cookware.
One potential downside of metallic-ceramic cookware is that it is quite vulnerable to sudden temperature changes, unlike the classic Corning Ware. So, avoid putting a refrigerated dish of leftovers straight into a hot oven, and don’t rinse a hot dish with cold water without first giving it a chance to cool down.
It’s also best to avoid using chipped metallic-ceramic cookware unless you’re sure it is made with anodized aluminum or other inert metal that is non-porous and non-reactive. Although some high-quality ceramic cookware can last generations, most items tend not to last as long as other types of cookware and even if they do it might still be best to replace older items. That’s because, over time, anodized aluminum can break down, especially if exposed to acidic foods, which might pose a risk of aluminum exposure.
Le Creuset is the go-to for metal-ceramic cookware, offering that classic French farmhouse kitchen look in a gorgeous array of colors to suit any kitchen aesthetic. Ceramor is another good option, with a diverse product range including the Xtrema line of high quality black coated bakeware. Read more about Xtrema here. GreenPan may also be considered in this category of metal-ceramic cookware as they produce a range of hard-anodized aluminum and/or stainless steel pots and pans coated with Thermolon, a silicon-dioxide coating sprayed on and baked to form a non-stick ceramic coating.
Emile Henry also have a fashionable and attractive line of French ceramic cookware and bakeware, including the Flame Top range of stovetop-suitable ceramics. The range include the Potato Pot, which can be used to cook potatoes, chestnuts, and various other delights right on the stovetop. It is suitable for induction hobs, if used with an induction disk, and can also be used in the oven. These pots should be heated for five minutes on a low heat and should not be used empty. The glaze is highly resistant to scratching, so it’s fine to use metal utensils with these pots. It is not resistant to thermal shock, though, so take care not to move it from a hot stove or oven to cold kitchen counter/cold water or vice versa. These pots are dishwasher safe.
Pros and Cons of Stainless-Steel Cookware
Stainless steel is a great option for non-toxic, long-lasting, durable cookware ideal for boiling, sautéing, and baking. It is especially good for small-batch baking as it retains heat well and cooks foods evenly. Stainless steel is also easy to clean and care for, making it especially helpful for novice cooks, such as students living away from home for the first time. Just clean with hot soapy water after use, or scrub down with steel wool to remove any layers of oil that have accumulated.
One downside of stainless steel is that you typically need to use more oil to avoid food sticking to the pan. Learning to cook on a lower heat can help prevent food from sticking, but more advanced cooks might want to season their stainless steel to create a natural non-stick coating for frying pans or saucepans.
To season a stainless-steel pan:
- Heat the pan on a moderate heat and then add a generous amount of oil.
- Let the oil reach its smoking point, then turn off the burner and let the pan cool.
- Once the pan is cool, pour off the oil and wipe the pan clean.
The surface of the pan should now be reflective and is seasoned to be non-stick. It will stay non-stick as long as the pan isn’t cleaned with soap. This is because when the pan heats, the metal expands. The oil then sticks to the surface as the pan cools and the metal contracts. A seasoned stainless-steel pan is great for cooking tofu scrambles, eggs, and crepes.
Stainless steel cookware extends not just to pots and frying pans but even to griddles, lasagna pans, roasting trays, muffin tins, and baking sheets.
One other possible downside of stainless steel is that it may leach heavy metals into food. This is more likely if you cook acidic foods in a stainless-steel pot for a long time. Stainless steel can contain iron, chromium, and nickel, the latter having no nutritional benefit in the body. Nickel has also been linked to adverse health effects, including sensitization to allergic (contact) dermatitis in some people (R).
Anyone who is nickel sensitive should consider an alternative to stainless steel. This is because, while there is stainless steel cookware available that is either very low in nickel or nickel-free, such cookware is extremely prone to corrosion. Nickel is included in the stainless-steel alloy largely to help with rust resistance. It also helps increase the hardness of the stainless steel and gives it a polished look and feel.
In general, stainless steel consists of around 10 percent chromium, along with nickel and iron. Chromium also helps protect against rust and enhances durability. The ratio of nickel and chromium determines the ‘grade’ of stainless steel. Cookware may be listed as 18/8, 18/10, or even 18/1, with the first number indicating the percentage of chromium and the second the percentage of nickel.
To make things even more confusing, stainless steel is also classified as being in the 200, 300, or 400 series. The 200 series has manganese in place of nickel, which makes cookware less expensive but more prone to corrosion. The 300 series (sometimes labeled as 304 or 316) is a higher quality range that is much more resistant to corrosion. Surgical grade steel is 316, for example, as the alloy contains some titanium and/or molybdenum to increase resistance to salt water (saline) erosion.
The cheapest stainless-steel cookware is usually in the 400 series. This alloy is more corrosive as it is almost entirely nickel-free. It is often found in mixing bowls, kitchen utensils, and cheap stockpots.
One of the best options for stainless steel cookware is to go for a 3-ply design layering stainless steel, aluminum, and stainless steel. This layering helps to seal in the aluminum, so you don’t need to worry about leaching, while harnessing aluminum’s better heat conductivity to produce a more homogenous cooking surface. This type of design is also easier to clean, dishwasher safe, and is sturdier and polished.
Pros and Cons of Silicone Cookware
Silicone cookware is a great alternative to non-stick muffin pans and cake tins. Unlike paper cupcake and muffin wrappers, silicone can be reused time and again. It is excellent for oil-free or low-fat cooking as it is naturally non-stick and easy to clean, meaning you don’t have to grease the cookware before use. Silicone cookware does not affect the flavor of food, react with food or drinks, or release any odors or toxic fumes during cooking.
Silicone is a synthetic rubber that contains bonded silicon and oxygen, both of which are natural elements. Bonded silicon is abundant in sand and rock, and silicone bakeware is heat-resistant, oven safe, and freezer safe.
One downside to silicone cookware is that it should not be used at temperatures above 428 degrees Fahrenheit (220 degrees Celsius). Another downside is that it doesn’t biodegrade and cannot currently be recycled. It also needs to be dried well before being stored, or it may degrade and develop discoloration and tackiness.
Pros and Cons of Porcelain Enamel Cookware
Porcelain enamel cookware refers to cookware made of aluminum, steel, stainless steel, or iron, coated with porcelain enamel, a type of glass. Porcelain itself is a type of ceramic made from a type of white clay called kaolin, plus feldspars, quartz, steatite, and other rocks. To make regular porcelain, the whole mixture is baked at 1300-1400 degrees. Porcelain enamel is made when the porcelain is melted together with a stronger metal. This makes porcelain enamel cookware both light and strong, with low porosity, so it is naturally non-stick.
Porcelain enamel is a fun addition to the kitchen as it is available in a variety of colors and does not fade or peel when used according to instructions. It is easy to clean, naturally non-stick, and resistant to stains and scratches, as long as it is treated well.
High quality porcelain enamel cookware has a thick enamel coating that makes it hardwearing and easy to cook with. Lower quality porcelain enamel has a thinner coating that can crack and chip easily, which significantly affects the cooking experience. Dropping porcelain enamel cookware can also crack or chip the surface. Some porcelain enamel cookware has non-stick coatings, including Teflon, so be sure to check labels.
The best option is either porcelain enamel with a cast iron or stainless-steel interior, or enamelware, a variety of cookware with a porcelain enamel coating inside and outside. This coating creates a seamless, non-porous interior that is resistant to acidic food, heat, and humidity. This makes enamelware an excellent choice for baking and roasting, serving, and storing foods.
Avoid using enamelware over high heat for long periods of time as this can melt the coating. Also, be careful to never let the pot boil dry as this can crack the finish. It is best to clean porcelain enamel cookware right away as the surface can crack and chip if food residues are left to dry inside the pot or pan. Avoid using steel wool scrubbers or other abrasive cleaning items on porcelain enamel. Some porcelain enamel cookware is dishwasher safe, just be sure to check first and to wipe out food residues before putting porcelain enamel in the dishwasher. As porcelain enamel is part metal, it is typically not microwave safe.
Pros and Cons of Carbon Steel Cookware
Carbon steel pans are a well-kept secret for professional chefs, and for good reason. There’s nothing quite like a carbon steel skillet for cooking up delicious home pan fries or whatever else your heart desires. Carbon steel is like the lighter, less clunky cousin of cast iron and, indeed, contains more iron than a cast iron pan! While cast iron is around 97-98 percent iron and 2-3 percent carbon, carbon steel is typically 99 percent iron and 1 percent carbon (R). You wouldn’t think this would make much of a difference, but it does.
Carbon steel and cast iron both have an unfinished, industrial quality that contrasts with more light and colorful porcelain enamel, glass, or ceramic cookware. Made from raw, heavy-gauge steel, carbon steel cookware is tough, durable, and… prone to rust. As with cast iron, seasoning is essential for carbon steel cookware. The good news is that because carbon steel is less porous than cast iron, it takes on seasoning quickly. The bad news is that it can also lose seasoning quickly. In commercial kitchens, it’s not unheard of for chefs to season a carbon steel pan several times in an evening.
One thing to note when buying new carbon steel is that manufacturers will normal use a beeswax or mineral coating to prevent the cookware from rusting on its journey from the forge to your kitchen. It is essential to remove this coating before seasoning, otherwise your seasoning simply won’t take. Beeswax and other coatings can be removed by scrubbing with steel wool and hot water. Then season as you would with cast iron. Seasoned pans are available, but such seasoning is often irregular and needs repeating at home anyway.
While cast iron and carbon steel are pretty similar, carbon steel is lighter, which makes it easier to move around. A 12” cast iron pan might weight over 7 pounds, while a similar sized carbon steel pan weighs in at around 5 pounds. Carbon steel pans also tend to have sloped sides, which makes them preferable for sautéing as it’s easier to flip food off a sloped edge. Cast iron pans have vertical walls, making them better for pan pizzas, cornbread, frittatas, and for shallow frying, and so forth. Both pans can be moved from stove top to oven, however, and both are suitable for the grill, campfire, and broiler.
Carbon steel is often thinner and smoother than modern cast iron (but similar to vintage cast iron), so is more aesthetically pleasing to some cookware connoisseurs. One downside of this is that carbon steel doesn’t always conduct heat homogenously (because of its relative thinness to cast iron). This can be a positive, however, as you can use a smaller burner ring and move food in and out of the center of the pan (where the heat is focused) according to need. It’s also best to avoid cooking acidic ingredients for long periods of time in carbon steel as it is, like cast iron, very reactive. So, tomato sauce and a wine reduction might be best suited to a ceramic pan instead.
Carbon steel is very cost effective compared to other types of cookware. New carbon steel cookware is often cheaper than ceramic, porcelain enamel, and anodized aluminum, but last for generations. This makes it particularly eco-friendly. Avoid very cheap carbon steel pans, though, as these are typically very thin, which makes for poor heat distribution.
All in all, if you already have cast iron pans, there’s probably not much point in purchasing carbon steel cookware. If you’re replacing other types of cookware, however, carbon steel pans are an excellent eco-friendly option.
‘Green’ non-stick cookware
Due to concerns over PTFE and PFOA, several companies have developed non-stick coatings for cookware that they claim are safe and non-toxic. One of the best examples comes from GreenPan, who released a product line in the U.S. in 2007 featuring Thermolon. This ceramic non-stick coating is marketed as safe and non-toxic as it is mostly comprised of silicon and oxygen (with some pigments and other food contact-safe ingredients).
Cuisinart’s Ceramica is another example of a non-stick ceramic coating, first used in the company’s Green Gourmet line. The coating does not contain PTFE or PFOA and was introduced in 2008. The Belgian cookware manufacturer Beka has also come out with its own Bekadur Ceramica coating and product line, and Ecolution have a bakeware range that uses their proprietary Free + Clear™ surface coating made without BPA, PFOA, and PTFE. They also have a cookware range that uses PFOA-free Hydrolon™ non-stick coating, although this coating appears to still be based on PTFE.
This last product highlights an important distinction: a product may be marketed as Teflon-free or PFOA-free, but that does not mean it is PTFE-free, nor free from other possible toxins. Indeed, a company that markets a product in this way without also making other reasonable, provable claims over safety or environmentally friendly manufacturing practices might be considered ‘greenwashing’. Indeed, even Teflon has been made without PFOA since 2013!
So, while these newer non-stick coatings are often made with naturally occurring elements rather than PTFE and PFOA, it is important to check labels instead of going with marketing hype. The precise nature of the coatings is proprietary, but writing to manufacturers often reveals that where a product claims to be PFOA-free but not PTFE-free, the coating is indeed PTFE, just applied with a water-based solvent instead of PFOA. For anyone with a pet bird in the house, the difference could be deadly.
Some of these newer coatings also appear to make use of nanotechnology to create a smooth, non-porous, non-stick coating. Preliminary studies suggest that nanoparticles from these coatings can leach into food, especially when cookware is used at high temperatures and with repeated use as the surface is scratched or otherwise degrades (R).
NP2 is another type of ‘green’ non-stick coating developed in recent years. The Tramontina Eco-friendly Cookware line uses NP² non-stick technology, which is silicon-based and suitable for use up to 350 degrees F (177 degrees C). NP2 was designed by AkzoNobel as a PTFE-free, eco-friendly, polymer based, silicon hybrid non-stick coating in 2008. Despite having been around for more than a decade, there is no publicly available research on the health and safety of this polymer, nor any clear description of its exact composition.
It may well be that these newer non-stick coatings are indeed as eco-friendly, safe, and non-toxic as their manufacturers claim. The reality is, though, that we just don’t have any good, independent, scientific research to back up these claims. As such, it seems smart to stick to tried and tested cookware where any non-stick coating comes from natural seasoning or is ceramic in nature.
Other considerations for the eco-conscious consumer
As well as your own personal health, and the health of human and non-human family members, there are other reasons to choose green or eco-conscious cookware as well.
By not buying Teflon-coated cookware and cookware involving the use of other unpleasant chemicals, you also help protect workers who would otherwise be producing those goods. Occupational exposure has been linked to silicosis, a preventable lung condition that can be fatal and for which there is no effective treatment. People with silicosis may experience shortness of breath, dizziness, cough, weight loss, and fever, and even lung failure (R).
What to do with old cookware
When it comes to the environmental impact of cookware, it’s not just your choice of new kitchen items you need to think about. Old cookware can be hard, if not impossible, to recycle, meaning that it simply ends up in landfill, possibly leaching heavy metals and toxins into the soil and water supply. Your best option is to send cookware that you no longer need but that is still usable to a thrift store or directly to a charity. If the cookware is broken or otherwise unusable, it’s best to call your city for advice on how best to dispose of it.
Depending on the type of cookware, you may be able to drop items off at a scrap metal recycling facility. Many recycling centers do not take Teflon coated pans, however, as the coating has to be removed before the metal can be recycled. Some recycling facilities also only accept non-ferrous cookware, i.e. if it contains any iron, they won’t accept it. (Test cookware with a magnet; if it’s magnetic, it contains iron.)
Unfortunately, although glass is one of the healthier options for cookware, it’s very difficult to recycle. Broken glass cookware cannot be put in glass recycling along with jars and bottles. That’s because it has been treated to be more durable, which means it does not melt at the same temperature as ‘packaging’ glass. Pyrex and other glass cookware is considered a contaminant, therefore, as it would make the melted material unusable. At present, there is little option but to put broken glass cookware in the trash to go to a landfill.
That said, you might also consider repurposing some of your old cookware. For example, broken ceramics can be used as drainage in the bottom of large plant pots or upcycled to create a mosaic or sculpture. Be careful, though, as ceramic edges are sharp!
Old saucepans and frying pans can also be used as flower pots or to catch rain water, or even as impromptu musical instruments, crow-scarers, or a dinner gong. Here are some more fun ideas on how to upcycle old cookware.
Green Cookware Certifications
Cookware certifications are few and far between. Some companies, such as Green Gourmet, state the percentage of recycled materials in their cookware and guarantee that their products are free from Teflon, PTFEs, or other undesirable coatings. Watch out for semantics here as some products might listed as Teflon-free but still contain PTFEs. One example of this is the Ozeri Stone Earth Frying Pan range and similar products that claim to be Teflon-free and make a big show of being PFOA-free, but which still make use of PTFE non-stick coatings. It takes a bit of digging to find this out, and it’s still not clear what the PTFE coating is made with; the marketing says, ‘an inert coating inspired by nature’, which isn’t terribly helpful. So, while such products may be as good as the manufacturers’ claims, there’s still a chance that they will release undesirable fumes if heated above the recommended temperature.
Some companies are certified as conforming to international regular food contact standards set by the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) and/or the German LFGB, or standards laid out by the Swiss government or the KTR (authoritative test institute certified by Korea Laboratory Accreditation). One of the companies listed in the ecoHome directory (Xtrema®) is certified to meet California Prop 65 standards, meaning that it is certified free from over 800 problematic compounds.
There is no clear consensus on green certifications for cookware. In general, choosing eco-friendly cookware means checking the basic components of the product (steel, carbon steel, cast-iron, etc.), checking the coating (if any), and considering how you’ll be using the product and its expected lifespan with such use.
The more information a manufacturer offers about their cookware, and the longer the warranty available, the more likely it is that this is a higher quality product. Beware cheap cookware that has no warranty and no clear product details listing its composition.
Check out the ecoHome directory for conscientious cookware choices.
Companies to Consider for Conscientious Cookware
As a general rule, your best options for conscientious cookware are carbon steel and cast iron, paired with ceramic (uncoated) or porcelain enamel cookware for cooking more acidic foods. Glass cookware is excellent for baking, as is carbon steel and cast iron (especially for crispier roasting and baking needs).
Some of the best brands to look out for are:
- Carbon steel: De Buyer
- Cast iron: Lodge
- Ceramic cookware:
- Stainless steel: Cuisinart Pro.
If cookware featuring newer PTFE-free non-stick coatings appeal to you, check out the following brands: