Working as a private chef and teaching in people’s homes is an on-going anthropological experience that never ceases to fascinate me.
I can’t tell you how many times a client will tell me that they only use organic produce and grass fed meats, but when I arrive to cook it, the only pan in their kitchen is a flimsy nonstick skillet that looks like it made contact with a very feral feline.
Most of us know by now that Teflon and other nonstick coatings made up of perfluorooctanoic (PFOA) or acidpolytetrafluoroetheylene (PTFE) are a big no-no for your health. According to the Environmental Working Group, chemicals in this family (PFC’s) can cause birth defects, abnormal thyroid levels, liver inflammation and weakened immune defenses, among other issues.
So if you’re going to spend money on organic vegetables and grass-fed meat, does it make sense to go home and cook it on something that is just as toxic as pesticides? Mmm…better not.
As awareness has grown about the carcinogenic effects of PFOA, it’s been removed from many nonstick products on the market. But as the demand for safer options grows, so too does the second danger: “green” products that are no better than their chemical cousins.
The subject of nonstick cookware has been a huge challenge for me as a chef. I try to use it as little as possible in my own kitchen. But the fact of the matter is that there are some things you just can’t do as well without that freakish water-resistant surface. And on days when I’m not doing this, I have better things to do with my time than spend the afternoon scraping congealed egg off my cast iron skillet.
Unfortunately, as I feared, many of the new “eco” models out there just don’t function as well as some of their toxic predecessors (many of them manufactured by brands who have been making cookware, toxic or otherwise, for years). Cooks Illustrated did one of their amazing hyper-anal evaluations of these pans and found that many of the ones I’d seen raved over on wellness blogs did not perform. And the ones that did turned out to be not much cleaner than generic alternatives. (Sigh of exasperation emoji).
So as someone who spends more time than most in the kitchen, and cares a lot about the quality of what comes out of there, but also has an autoimmune disease that’s forced me to put the kibosh on unnecessary chemicals, I thought it was high time I gave you my healthy hedonist take on this clean kitchen conundrum.
Read on for the best non-toxic nonstick pans, what to look for when shopping for clean cookware, and most importantly, how to USE these products in the safest and most delicious ways once home.
From one healthy egg-scrambling hedonist, to another,
First let’s establish the safest materials that you should feel good about purchasing for your kitchen:
Ceramic (available as solid cookware, or as a nonstick coating)
Glass (used mostly for bakeware)
Silicone (seen in non-stick friendly utensils, and as a new “green” nonstick coating for pans)
This list goes for any cookware, not just high-heat skillets. Terracotta and clay are also great materials for baking and fit the general philosophy that any material that’s been used for centuries of culinary delights, before convenience took the wheel of our consumer culture, are probably a safe bet for today.
As for the baddies, let’s take them one-by-one:
PFOA: This is the most notorious ingredient that put Teflon on the wellness angry heat map. It’s carcinogenic when under the duress of high temperatures, which one might think would be problematic for using in, um, cookware. Due to mounting concerns, the main manufacturer agreed to phase out this chemical by 2015. But many others in the PFC family still exist, and can be found in water resistant outerwear, stain-resistant carpets (and cleaners), fast food wrappers, popcorn microwave bags, among other sneaky places.
PTFE: A cousin chemical to the above, and also used in Teflon and other nonstick coatings. According to EWG, the issue of this chemical flaking into your food is a secondary concern to what it does to the air around you. When placed over a high flame, the coating begins to breakdown and emit such toxic fumes that they’ve been known to kill pet birds in the vicinity (poor Polly!). Humans experience flu-like symptoms from exposure.
Aluminum: While the flecks themselves might be innocuous, tearing nonstick coating does create a secondary problem: the small matter of what lies beneath them. That material is often aluminum. Back in 1970, researchers found a connection between the aluminum in our diet (mostly from canned food) and the development of Alzheimer’s disease. Like any heavy metal, aluminum slowly builds in your body. So small daily doses do eventually add up. Outside the kitchen, I’ve begun limiting my exposure by switching to natural toothpaste and deodorant, since many contain aluminum.
In the kitchen, I buy aluminum-free baking powder and don’t drink bubbly water or soda out of a can (though, how this stacks up to plastic bottles in the grand scheme of things, I don’t know). To mitigate the issue for cookware, manufacturers have created a new process of “anodized aluminum” which is said to be nontoxic and heat resistant. But some aluminum does still leach into the food, even if it’s less.
I still use aluminum baking sheets, but I’ll always cover them in parchment paper rather than have the food in direct contact (as does my pal Pamela). This is also just plain easier for cleanup, and if I’m being honest, this practice began more from laziness than for my health. Aluminum foil tears easily, so it’s not great for lining pans that you don’t want to get messy. I still use it for a few things, like roasting beets, but otherwise, parchment all the way.
When I was researching nonstick pans, I weighed the options across the following healthy hedonism criteria: functionality, affordability, and toxicity. Unfortunately, there’s always some give and take across the board in these areas. And at the end of the day, I’m not sure it’s worth throwing out all your old nonstick pans. It’s just a matter of using them in a safer way. Scroll to the end of the post for what regular nonstick items I’ve kept in my home, and how I’ve avoided the worst effects of them.
1.Lodge Cast Iron $
Pros: I won’t beat around the bush and make you read to the end of the article to give you my verdict. These multipurpose cast iron skillets (and Dutch ovens) are the best bang for your buck, and what I use for the majority of my stovetop operations. Salty Southern grandmothers have been using these products for generations. When cared for properly, they develop a seasoned patina that is naturally nonstick. And the good news is, they actually leach something good into your diet: iron! My favorite is the 15-inch for roasts, frittatas and searing protein. It also doubles as a casserole or paella pan. I keep a smaller one on hand for frying eggs, which requires a level of heat that I’m not comfortable using on any nonstick, no matter how green the claim.
Cons: Some people find these pans annoying to clean since you can’t use soap. But once you get used to the seasoning process, your food will taste so much better for it. Here’s a little how-to I wrote in the early days of the blog. People talk about how you shouldn’t use high acid ingredients like tomatoes on cast iron since it messes with the PH and will give you a metallic flavor. I’ve honestly have never had this problem and have cooked a variety of things from this to this using tomatoes.
2. Le Creuset Enameled Cast Iron $$$$
Pros: These Le Creuset pans are the high end, spiffed up version of the above. (Think Carrie Underwood in 2005, versus Carrie Underwood now.) Not only is the bottom coated in their signature enamel (in a variety of colors) but the cast iron cooktop uses a coating that makes it dishwasher safe (i.e. you can use soap).
Cons: While I love my Dutch oven, as far as nonstick skillets are concerned, I’m not sure the enameled versions are worth the upsell. I’ve found that these pans are better maintained when you treat them like true cast iron (skip the dishwasher, and rub with oil after each use). But if you can afford it, you’ll be very pleased! Most traditional nonstick skillets have plastic handles and aren’t made to go in the oven. Lodge and Le Creuset items can do it all, and will last a lifetime.
Pros: A 12-inch skillet will only run you $40, and of those selected in the top tier of Cooks Illustrated’s evaluation, this was the most affordable of the lot. It was also the only top-ranking pan that used Silicon copolymer as the coating instead of PTFE.
Cons: Apparently, the coating did deteriorate slightly over time and had some scratch marks. I would treat this pan as you would a traditional nonstick: use only wood or silicon spatulas and avoid metal.
Pros: I used these pans extensively at one of my client’s homes, and found them to be fairly easy to clean at the beginning. They got more brittle as time went on, which was a lot more noticeable on the tan surface than it would have been on one of the darker pans. The coating is ceramic, with anodized aluminum base, so the fact that it scratched was a little more worrisome.
Cons: Overall, I would have to agree with the CI assessment: the pans were great for sautéing but didn’t radiate enough heat to properly sear fish or steak. For a small omelet pan though, the 8-inch would work just fine.
Pros: This is the one pan that actually might be as green as it says it is. No coating necessary, the Xtrema cookware is 100 percent solid ceramic. I included this pan on my list mainly because Katie raved about it, and because it’s the highest on the clean scale. I think the best product is this 10-inch braiser. It would work like a skillet, baking pan, or Dutch oven.
Cons: Unfortunately, one virtual glance at these pans and I was skeptical. They don’t look at all like normal skillets. The sides are too straight, more resembling a saucepan than something that would be easy to use for sautéing. Also, as even Katie noted, they break and chip easily, like any glass or ceramic products. But I think the biggest knock is that they’re expensive. If I’m going to be dropping this type of cash (quiche), I’d much rather just invest in a LeCreuset.
I should also note that Scanpan rated the highest in functionality across the board by both CI and The Wall Street Journal. But considering it uses PTFE still, I don’t think it’s worth spending $140 just to go from two toxins to one.
There is really only one task that a nonstick cast iron skillet can’t perform well: scrambling eggs, or the extended version of that, making omelets. A second, is homemade veggie burgers, which tend to be very fragile. I use my large and small cast iron skillets for anything else—searing delicate fish, making frittatas, and pretty much everything in between. For those pesky eggs, I still use a traditional nonstick pan (this one from Calphalon). One day I might swap it for an Earth Pan, since I know for sure that it doesn’t use PTFE. But honestly, I wouldn’t use it any differently. For any nonstick pan that’s not cast iron, I recommend avoiding high heat and metal utensils.
A scratched pan that has been begging you to replace it for years is one thing. But I wouldn’t worry about replacing your whole nonstick arsenal overnight. If you want the convenience of nonstick cooking for certain foods, there’s no point in switching to an alternative that’s just marginally safer, and might not give you the convenience you were after in the first place. The key is to use these pans less, and use them right. For a low and slow scramble on weekends, you’ll probably be fine using whatever you have.
What do you use in the kitchen? Do you care more about functionality or toxicity? How do you weigh both? Would love to hear from you in the comments!