Healthiest Cookware OptionsPosted on March 20, 2021 by Jack
I get this question all the time, ‘what’s the healthiest cookware option’? It’s an uncomfortable moment for me because I don’t like making a purchasing suggestion or recommending a particular type of cookware over something else. There are too many factors to consider.
But I will say this: the healthiest cookware is the one you use.
I know my answer is somewhat dismissive, but honestly, my entire ‘thing’ in life is to get people to cook more. For me, it stands to reason that cooking for yourself at home with ingredients you purchased is inherently more healthy than eating out multiple times per week (or even per day)…and you will more than likely consume far less processed foods – a bonus your body will thank you for.
I think most people should start by using what is in the kitchen now and don’t make a big deal out of the differences between cast iron and a non-stick Teflon pan…unless of course that pan is in such a dilapidated state that really…the best thing to do is throw it in the garbage.
And that leads me nicely to this follow-up question…what type of cookware should you purchase when it is time for an upgrade?
I’m afraid I will disappoint you again with my answer – it depends.
I believe there are a few key factors you should consider when arriving at this point in your cooking life. Here they are in no particular order:
- Your budget
- Your stove and oven heating source (gas, induction, electric)
- Your relative strength (I mean this seriously…some pans are quite heavy and uncomfortable to lift – you will get tired of lifting them in a hurry – especially if the pot is filled with hot food you need to move from point A to point B)
- Your tolerance and patience for cleaning
- Your cooking style (use of oils, high heat cooking or low- to moderate heat cooking)
- Your storage space
- Your frequency of cooking and amounts you generally cook
I’m sure I left off a few considerations, but you get the point. No single cookware will fit perfectly in everyone’s kitchen based on the factors that should influence their purchase decision.
Take a few moments and consider your critical needs listed above. Then take some more time to begin thinking about that new pot or pan that you must have…and don’t pay much attention to the marketing fluff coming from the manufacturers.
For the past 100 or so years, manufacturers of home cookware have tried to create pots and pans that will conduct heat evenly and efficiently while remaining non-reactive. That’s a tall order and difficult to achieve within a price range that is acceptable for enough consumers to make the venture economically feasible. That’s the main reason this ultimate pot or pan does not exist.
So my first point is this: no cookware achieves the goal of conducting heat evenly while remaining 100% non-reactive.
As it turns out, most consumers have something else in mind that drives their purchasing decision.
The most popular type of cookware during the past 50 years has been some kind of nonstick pan. For some reason, most people desire a pan that will keep their food from sticking to the surface during cooking and cleaning.
Fair enough, but I think it is also important to emphasize two things: having food stick to the pot or pan is sometimes a good thing (it creates flavor) and other types of cookware that are not labeled as ‘non-stick’ are just as effective as those that are labeled ‘non-stick’.
That brings me to my second point: no cookware is 100% non-stick and most cookware is relatively good at the non-stick game.
Are you beginning to see why this is not a one-answer-fits-all type of article? Deciding on cookware really does depend a lot more on each person’s needs, limitations and cooking abilities.
So let’s move on and look a bit closer at the different cookware options.
Non-Stick Pans: Non-stick surfaces are created from thin layer of a chemical compound (Teflon or some other modern variation). These pans are notorious for having a short shelf life…they may be relatively inexpensive upfront, but you will need to buy a new pan every 3-4 years. Non-stick pans are also poor performers when cooking over high heat for two reasons: 1. Some non-stick coatings will begin to melt at higher cooking temperatures and emit toxins into the air (that’s a bad thing); 2. High heat – especially high heat from a direct source like a flame from a gas stove – will warp the pan and cause an uneven cooking surface…and that means uneven heat conduction and ultimately burning food (that’s also a bad thing). Non-stick pans are easily scratched by using abrasive tools – like a spatula scraping the surface. Abrasive cleaners and dishwashers will also wreak havoc on the thin non-stick coating and shorten the lifespan further. It’s not all bad news though. A good quality (usually heavy) non-stick pan is effective when cooking food at low- to medium-temperatures. A light coating of oil in a pre-heated pan (along with a tablespoon of water to prevent the oil from scorching) enhances the non-stick surface.
Green Pans: This is a type of modern non-stick pan. It has a thin layer of ceramic applied to the cooking surface rather than a chemical compound used in many non-stick pans. These pans are generally considered safer non-stick options than most non-stick pans, but they still perform poorly at higher temperatures. They are also susceptible to cracking and chipping when dropped or scratched. They are not suited for the dishwasher or using abrasive cleaners. The life of a Green Pan is limited to about 3-4 years and they are more expensive than chemically-treated non-stick pans.
Ceramics (Earthenware, Stoneware and Glass): These types of cookware are stable and non-reactive…meaning they will not have an impact on your food’s taste/flavors. Great…but there is a catch – ceramic cookware is not so effective when cooking at higher temperatures. The high heat opens pores on the surface and that leads to sticking issues…and in some cases, a tendency to chip. You should also avoid any ceramic cookware that was made with a lead glazing (the lead could leech into your food). Ceramic cookware should be heated slowly over low- to moderately-low temperatures. They are very good for long cooking at a gentle heat. They are also effective when used in the oven, but they need to be completely cooled at room temperature before cleaning.
Enamelware: These types of pots and pans have a thin layer of powdered glass infused on steel or iron that creates a non-reactive surface with some degree of non-sticking. Enamelware holds heat well over a long time, making them particularly suited for slow cooking using lower temperatures either on the stovetop or in an oven. Enamelware is not good in conditions of rapid heating or cooling. They are highly susceptible to chipping, so care should be given to cooking utensils, and make sure you keep them away from the dishwasher.
Aluminum: The advantages of using aluminum in cookware is the lower cost and lighter weight. They are also excellent in terms of conducting heat, offering fast and even heating. Anodized aluminum means a thin protective layer has been applied to the cookware. This creates a partial non-stick surface. Aluminum cookware without treatment reacts to acids and alkaline foods, altering appearance and flavor.
Copper: There’s a reason many top chefs like to fill their kitchens with these beautiful pots and pans – they are long lasting and copper is the best material to conduct heat evenly. But they are also expensive – I mean really expensive. Most copper pans are lined with stainless steel or tin. They are not good when heated or cooled rapidly. They are also susceptible to rapid degradation when used in higher temperature cooking (230°C or 450°F). And it must be said, they are a pain in the arse to keep shiny and beautiful.
Iron and Carbon Steel: This type of cookware is a good conductor of heat, but they can be uneven conductors. Iron and carbon steel can also react to food, altering the flavors somewhat and discoloring the food. They will absorb and hold heat extremely well over longer periods of cooking, making them excellent for long-cooked recipes and using lower temperatures. A non-stick surface can be created when ‘seasoning’ the cookware. This is best accomplished by heating unsaturated oil for several hours in a moderate oven, then cooling and wiping clean. Depending on the use of the pan, plan on doing this task once or twice each year. You should also avoid abrasives and dishwashers to keep the surface ‘seasoned’. These pans represent a good investment – they may cost more upfront, but they will last many years if properly cared for.
Stainless Steel: This type of cookware combines Iron and carbon. They can be expensive options, but they will last a long time with proper care. Stainless steel offers decent heat conduction and non-reactive cooking surfaces. Overall, I think stainless steel is the closest to meeting the ultimate objective of a good pan. As is the case with the other types of cookware, make sure the pot or pan is preheated using moderate to low temperatures before adding food or liquids. Avoiding dishwashers will help prolong the life of your stainless steel cookware.
Cookware manufacturers will do whatever they can to convince you their particular pot or pan has the best non-stick surface…or the longest life…or the healthiest pan to use every day…or the easiest to clean…or the least expensive alternative. Some of these claims may even have a certain amount of truth. But in the end, the only thing that really matters is how (and if) you intend to use the cookware.
And that brings me to my final point: when it comes to the healthiest cookware option…well, I continue to stand by my earlier answer, the healthiest cookware is the one you use.
Author Note…I recently appeared on the Overcoming MS podcast to discuss this and a few other listener questions about food and cooking. You can listen to the podcast on all the major platforms or from this link: https://overcomingms.org/resource/podcast/s3e34-bonus-ask-jack-1