In this article, we are going to give you an overview of the best quality pans and pots that can make your daily healthy cooking much easier. The characteristics of a pan and its (non)toxicity depend on the material that was used to make it, as well as on the quality of the material.
Even though we will focus on the frying pans, we will also touch upon the utensils that are used for baking and boiling, as almost always the same safety principles apply regardless of the method of cooking.
We categorized the pans, keeping the basic principles of healthy cooking, so they have to match the following criteria:
- allow cooking with as little oil as possible
- shouldn’t release any toxic chemicals into the food during food preparation
- the cooking surface should be durable, it shouldn’t be damaged easily
A general rule of thumb for healthy non-toxic materials is that they can withstand high temperatures. Non-stick surfaces, like Teflon, which are not recommended for use because of potential toxicity, officially don’t withstand temperatures above 260C, and some experts claim, that the damage starts happening at 200C already.
Let’s take a look at the materials that are commonly used for cooking pans, and which of them are the best, non-toxic options for healthy cooking.
The safest cooking pans:
Cast iron pans
Cast iron is a traditional material that’s been used in many regions of the world for centuries. It’s perfect for cooking on fire and on gas, and you can also put it into the oven, as long as the pan is made from 100% cast iron, and no other materials, like plastic, are used for handles. Cast iron pans are perfect for slow cooking as well.
This is also the material that doesn’t leak any chemicals into your food, even if the surface gets slightly damaged. It can, however, “leak” iron into your food, though the amount is safe for consumption. In fact, some experts recommend cooking in cast iron for people who have iron deficiency, because small amounts of iron are transferred to the food.
However, exactly for the same reason, it’s important not to keep food in the cast iron pans for too long after cooking, and rather remove it to a different vessel. If you leave your cooked food in a cast iron pan for too long, it will discolour your dish, and add a bit or a metal flavour.
From the cooking perspective, cast iron pans cook very fast and even, because of their weight and heat distribution.
Some cooking blogs claim that cast iron is a non-stick material, but it’s not exactly true and will depend a lot on your stove. Cast iron might be not the best choice if you try to cook without oil completely, but it’s great if you want to cook with a minimum amount of fat.
It’s important to note that cast iron pans need seasoning. Seasoning is the process when the pan is heated with a large amount of oil. This process “seals” the surface and prevents food from sticking to it. Because of the seasoning, it’s not recommended to cook acidic foods in it, because it will be damaged. Examples of acidic dishes are tomato sauce, lemon-based dishes, foods with a large amount of vinegar etc. Using a small amount of vinegar during glazing is in order.
The biggest disadvantage of the cast iron pans is their maintenance. Cast iron pans can’t be washed in a dishwasher, and non-natural soaps can’t be used for cleaning because they will damage the seasoning. One of the best ways to clean a cast iron pan is to rub it with a natural scrub, like coffee grinds from your coffee machine. After cooking and washing it’s also important not to leave any liquid in the pan, and always pat it dry. If even a few drops of water remain on the surface, it will lead to rusting.
The best option when it comes to cast iron, are the pans with ceramic coating. They are easy to maintain because no seasoning is required, the maintenance is easy, and the surface is very close to a non-stick. A famous Dutch oven is exactly that: a cast iron pot with ceramic coating. These types of pans are extremely costly, but they last, literally, for generations.
Here are some recommended cast iron pans:
Carbon steel pans
Carbon steel is also considered to be the safest material and it has similar qualities to cast iron. This type of material is often the choice number one by professional chefs because it can last literally forever, and when it’s seasoned right, it also has non-stick capabilities. Carbon steel is also lighter than cast iron, which makes it a preferred choice for woks and pancake pans.
Carbon steel can also be used on any types of stoves and surfaces. It does, however, has the same disadvantages as cast iron. Namely, it needs good seasoning, which can be destroyed by acidic foods, and careful maintenance. It also can’t be washed in a dishwasher, no dishwashing soaps can be applied, and if any water is left in it, the pan will rust. Leaving the cooked food in a carbon steel pan will lead to food discolouration and metal-like flavour as well, so it’s important to remove your meals from the pans soon after they were cooked.
Here are some recommended carbon steel pans
Stainless steel pans
Stainless steel is also a popular choice in professional kitchens, due to its durability. You will find a bit of controversial information about the safety of stainless steel, yet it will be the material most of the cooking pots are made of, including pressure cookers.
Although the risk is minimal, poorly constructed stainless steel cookware can potentially leach a small amount of nickel into food. So, the most important thing when choosing a stainless steel pot is its quality, because the brand you choose should guarantee that it used a good quality material, not scrap metals.
Many cheaper producers, who claim that their pans are made from stainless steel, actually sell pans made from aluminium, which is “sandwiched” between stainless steel sheets. Usually, it’s easy to judge by its weight: aluminium pans will always be very light, while good-quality stainless steel can’t be.
From a cooking point of view, the main disadvantage of stainless steel, is that the surface can become quite sticky. Stainless steel pans work best for the dishes, that are cooked with liquid, like water or sauces, hence it’s a good choice for curries, pastas and soups. If you want to prepare a stir-fry, for example, the use of oil will be inevitable.
Stainless steel is very easy to take care of: you can wash it in a dishwasher, and use any cleaning soaps you wish. Such pans will never rust, no seasoning is required and you can cook acidic foods in it without worries. Stainless steel also doesn’t affect the color and the flavour of the food.
Here are some recommended stainless steel pans:
Generally safe cooking pans, but need special care:
Generally, a ceramic surface is very safe for cooking. Here, it’s important to note that most of the pans that are sold as ceramic, or with a ceramic coating are actually made from an aluminium base. Basically, a pan is shaped from aluminium, and then it’s dipped into the coating. It means that if the surface gets damaged (for example, scratched or cracked), you risk exposure to aluminium. If you choose a high-quality pan with a thick ceramic coating, of course, the risk of damage is much smaller.
With this type of coating, it’s very important to take good care of the pan. Be careful when using it on an electric stove, which can reach very high temperatures very fast (extreme heat damages the surface). Wash it without a scrubber and only use wooden or silicone spatulas when cooking.
Depending on the quality of the surface, ceramic-coated pans can be used for cooking without oil, as they have non-stick properties.
As I mentioned previously, the best ceramic-coated pans are when the pan base is made from cast iron, like a Dutch oven – in this case, there is no danger of toxicity even if the surface gets damaged.
Here are some recommended ceramic-coated pans:
Granite cookware is often promoted as a better alternative for ceramic pans, because it has the properties of a non-stick pan. This type of material, however, is a bit tricky.
To be precise, “granite” pans are not actually made of granite. They are made of metal, mostly aluminium or steel, and covered with a coating, which resembles granite by its look. This coating can be a ceramic coating, but it can also be a classic, non-stick Teflon coating. It’s impossible to distinguish it by the looks, so you’ll have to read the details of the pan materials, and look for labels like “PFOA and PTFE free, lead-free”, or for the brands, that explicitly say that they use ceramic coating only.
Overall, granite cookware with a ceramic coating, when the base is made from safe metals without lead, is a safe option for a cooking pan. When using it, make sure to use only wooden spatulas, because it’s easy to damage the surface.
Earthware and Clay Pots
Earthware is traditional cookware that can still be found in many rural kitchens around the world. These pots are made from clay, which is a 100% natural and safe material. Cooking with it, however, requires special skills, and might not be the best choice for beginner cooks. The surface is very sticky, and also absorbs moisture and smells. If the earthware is not glazed, it also requires a lot of maintenance. It performs best on an open fire and on a gas stove.
Glazed earthware is a popular choice to use in the oven, it’s a great material for slow cooked meals. The meals prepared in earthware have a particular flavour and qualities to it, and that’s why many seasoned cooks keep such pots in their kitchen.
Earthware can be a great choice not just for cooking, but also for storing foods and drinks. Traditionally, clay pots have been used for storing water, as it keeps it cool, as well as for yoghurt fermentation and preparation of special dishes.