Cook for yourself or your family? Then you know how tough it is to cook with health in mind.
First, it turns out that ingredients are only as safe as that day’s headlines.
Margarine’s better for you than butter. Until it isn’t.
Fats are bad for you. Except for the fats that are good for you.
And don’t get us started on cookware. Aluminum’s great until someone associates it with Alzheimer’s.
Teflon’s hot. Until you find out about the toxic gasses it emits when you heat it.
What’s a thoughtful, responsible cook to do?
Well, for starters, try ceramic skillets.
Understanding the Challenge
Even if health weren’t an issue, choosing cookware would be a balancing act.
You’re looking for your perfect combination of light weight, heat conduction, retention, convenience, durability, versatility, and cost.
Add healthfulness into the mix and it gets even more complicated.
But it doesn’t have to be.
You just have to know what you’re looking for.
On Your Stovetop: Ceramic Skillets vs. Stoneware
If you’re a cook of a certain age, when you hear “ceramics,” you think “stoneware.”
That’s right, as far as it goes. All stoneware is ceramic. But not all ceramics are stoneware.
Stoneware is typically clay and water. Think an unglazed baking dish.
Over time, the term has been expanded to include glassware like Pyrex or Corningware.
This kind of stoneware is great in the oven. But set it on a stovetop burner and it’ll shatter.
Enter the newer ceramics, which come in two varieties.
Pure ceramics are generally made just like stoneware, from minerals like clay and water.
But they’re also kiln-fired, making them harder and more durable, suitable for the stovetop, the oven, and the microwave.
Ceramic coated utensils are made out of metal, often stainless steel with an aluminum core. Then they’re dipped in a chemical bath that leaves them coated with a hard polymer film.
They’re usually rated for 250 to 450 degrees, depending in part on the handle material. But some manufacturers of newer generation ceramics claim their products can withstand oven temperatures up to 2700 degrees – 500 degrees hotter than it takes to start melting steel.
However, their metallic core makes them unsuitable to the microwave.
Both types have some downsides. Pure ceramic cookware can be broken if it’s mistreated.
And the ceramic coating on coated cookware will degrade over time.
But on virtually every other count, ceramics deliver important health benefits.
Ceramic skillets are free of PFTE and PFOA.
The original, Teflon-branded non-stick cookware sold in the 1960s and ’70s was made by bonding aluminum with PFTE (polytetrafluoroethylene, if you must know).
And about three-quarters of all non-stick cookware sold today contains a layer containing PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid).
Both have major health strikes against them.
Both contain fluoride, which is used in pesticides and fertilizer. It’s been found by the CDC to significantly increase the risk of hip fractures.
Clearly not something you want to ingest much of.
But when these non-stick pans are heated for as few as three minutes, they start releasing toxins into the air, including carcinogens and at least one greenhouse gas.
The fumes are known to kill birds.
In people, they’re associated with everything from birth defects and high cholesterol to pancreatic cancer.
Score one for ceramic skillets.
Uncoated metal cookware presents another set of problems that ceramic skillets avoid.
Aluminum leaches into food, particularly at higher temperatures. The aluminum you ingest weakens your bones and interferes with your ability to absorb calcium.
It’s also been associated with dementia-related diseases.
Anodized aluminum is only a little better. It has a coating that degrades over time
Copper, often used in high-end cookware, can also leach into food, causing digestive problems.
And even stainless steel often contains heavy metals like nickel, chromium, and molybdenum. These can leach into food, though generally at low levels.
Cast iron can also leach into food, especially when it’s exposed to acid, like cooking tomatoes.
Iron, in this case, may actually be considered a healthy food additive. But it can affect the way food tastes.
While they may not be completely non-stick, ceramic skillets allow you to cook with substantially less fat than the same dishes made of stainless steel, aluminum or cast iron cookware.
And lower fat cooking is healthier cooking.
More Even Heating
We’re inclined to think of even heating as a quality that makes cooking faster, easier and better. We don’t necessarily think about it in terms of health.
But uneven heating leads to overcooked or undercooked food. Sometimes both, in the same dish.
And depending on what you’re cooking and the extent of the over/undercooking, that can have big health downsides, from bacteria in rare meat to the carcinogens emitted by charred food.
Not a problem for ceramic skillets.
Healthier for the Environment
Metal mining is dirty and destructive. So much so that the EPA has rated the metal mining industry as the nation’s worst toxic polluter.
And consider that cookware generally incorporates multiple metals in a very energy-intensive process.
That makes pure ceramic skillets healthier for the environment and the people who cook in it.
Easier to Clean
Lots of non-stick cookware claims to be dishwasher safe.
But over time, extremely hot water and harsh detergents will degrade the non-stick coating.
That’s why many experts strongly suggest hand-washing your non-stick cookware.
But handwashing may not get dishes clean enough.
For most people, water temps much above 100 degrees are simply too hot to handle.
But really clean dishes require water in the neighborhood of 130 to 170 degrees, the temperature of most dishwashers.
As you’ve probably guessed, ceramic skillets can be safely washed in a dishwasher.
It can be a health issue.
Some cookware requires a certain amount of maintenance (aside from cleaning) to maintain its desirable properties.
Pure copper, for example, heats incredibly well. But it requires a lining – usually tin – to protect from copper’s toxicity. And the lining has to be carefully maintained and expensively replaced periodically.
(We applaud routine, do-it-yourself maintenance. But re-tinning copper cookware doesn’t fall into that category.)
Even cast iron has to be seasoned initially and reseasoned periodically to minimize the leaching that can occur when you cook with acids.
Ceramic skillets don’t require that kind of maintenance.
The manufacturers of non-stick coatings used to recommend only plastic or nylon utensils.
Many now claim to be safe for metal utensils. But the reality is, if you scratch a non-stick coating, you risk sticking (obviously) and releasing toxins.
And metal utensils are more apt to scratch.
Unfortunately, plastic utensils are themselves more easily scratched. And even when you think they’re clean, they tend to hold onto food and bacteria.
Another nod to ceramic cookware, including ceramic skillets.
Of course, ultimately you still have to find your perfect combination of cookware qualities.
Whatever you decide, please use the comments to let us know where you land, and why.