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Once you’ve started to put some focus on eating a healthful diet, you might have the question: is my cookware helping or harming my healing journey? There is a lot of scary (and frankly, incorrect) information about cookware out there that has caused some confusion. Hopefully this article will arm you with research-based information about each type of cookware material, what use it might be best suited to, and how to best care for it.
Before we get started I want to make a couple of disclaimers. First, there is no such thing as non-toxic cookware. As you’ll learn from reading this article, each type of cookware material has its benefits and downsides, and there is no material that is perfectly ideal for everyone or all cooking situations. Second, shifting to incorporate new or different types of cookware in your kitchen is not something that needs to be expensive or done overnight. It is my intention that you use this information to either smartly use what you already own, or to slowly guide and plan your long-term cookware purchases. Cooking is a skill and practice that most of us will carry with us for our lifetimes, and it is worth thinking about which tools will serve our needs best.
When iron ore is melted with steel and carbon and formed in a mold, it is called cast-iron. Cast-iron is a desirable cooking material because it is incredibly dense and retains heat well, and it can seamlessly move from the stovetop to the oven. It is virtually indestructible, highly affordable, and if maintained properly, can last decades, if not a lifetime.
Not all cast-iron cookware is manufactured the same. A traditional cast-iron pan is molded and then sandblasted, composed of the same material throughout. These traditional pans have a rougher texture and need heavy oiling to build up a smooth cooking surface over time (let’s be real – this will never be “non-stick,” but a properly cared-for cast-iron pan is lovely to cook with). You know a traditional cast-iron pan because it is typically black, heavy, and having a similar rough texture all over (here is a link to my favorite traditional cast-iron skillet, made by Lodge).
A second style of cast-iron pan is molded from the same iron, but the cooking surface (and sometimes the outer surface of the pan) is coated with a vitreous enamel, made of glass, that forms a smooth cooking surface. This results in cookware that has the heat-regulating properties of cast-iron, but a smoother cooking surface that requires less care (read: still not “non-stick”). You know an enameled cast-iron pan because they come in pretty colors and the inner cooking surface is on the smoother side (here is my favorite enameled cast-iron skillet, made by Staub).
Now for the downsides of cast-iron cookware. Traditional cast-iron cookware has a tendency to rust if not cared for properly, and both traditional and enameled cast-iron cookware pieces are quite heavy (especially when compared to stainless steel and aluminum) and difficult to use for those who lack the strength to handle them.
Benefits and risks of cooking with cast-iron
Depending on who you are, cooking with cast-iron may be a health benefit or a risk. Like all alloy (mixed-metal) cookware, cast-iron leaches metals (in this case mostly iron) into the foods it is cooked with. If you have a condition that comes with a greater risk of anemia (like Hashimoto’s or lupus), cast-iron cookware might be a smart option–a 2021 systematic review found that prevalence of anemia was lower in those who used cast-iron cookware, and that food cooked in cast-iron cookware contained significantly higher amounts of iron . Cast-iron cookware was more effective at raising the iron content of meat than that of vegetables, and the highest increases in iron were seen when the food being cooked contained an acid  (this is because acid exposed to the iron cooking surface aids in iron release).
Now, there are certain individuals who need to avoid excessive iron. For example, those with hemochromatosis (a genetic condition causing iron overload) may want to avoid use of cast-iron cookware as it can make this issue worse.
It should be noted that if you are looking to increase your iron intake by using cast-iron cookware, you should consider using a traditional cast-iron pan instead of an enameled one. The enamel layer reduces the amount of iron that is transferred to your food. The opposite strategy may be used if you are looking to reduce your iron intake (such as in the case of hemochromatosis). Using an enameled pan will reduce the amount of iron transferred to your food.
Caring for cast-iron
There are many methods for maintaining a traditional cast-iron pan, but my favorite is to use a stainless-steel chainmail scrubber to work off any bits of cooked-on food while the pan is still warm, and then giving a quick rinse and wipe with warm water. Occasionally I’ll need to use a small amount of soap and scrub a bit, and in that case I’ll dry the pan immediately and add a thin coating of coconut oil before storing. I prefer this method to the “season and wipe out” method, which you can read more about here. If you have a traditional cast-iron pan, you won’t want to let it be exposed to water or acidic foods for very long, or it can develop rust.
Enameled cast-iron pans can be cleaned with soap and water like most other pans, and a soft scrubber can be used to work off any stubborn bits. You can also use a baking soda paste if necessary. Be sure that if your pan has any non-enameled parts, that they don’t stay submerged in water and get dried (and possibly lightly oiled) after use.
Recommendation: I find cast-iron cookware to perform really well for specific uses. I recommend having a Dutch-oven that can go from the stovetop to the oven with soups and/or braises (my favorite enameled piece is this Staub, but I also own this Lodge which is an affordable alternative) as well as a traditional or enameled skillet. One thing to remember is that while cast-iron is lovely to cook with, it is not the perfect solution for everything (especially those items that are cooked with lots of acidity, or are delicate and in need of a less-sticky cooking surface).
Aluminum alloys are popular for manufacturing cookware due to their quick heating properties, low cost, and low weight. Unlike cast-iron, aluminum alloy cookware is usually made from a mix of metals with aluminum being predominant. Aluminum alloys are very light and compared to other metals, pretty soft. This means they are not as durable, and break down especially quickly when exposed to acidic compounds.
Some cookware is manufactured with an aluminum core, but clad or coated in a different material (like stainless steel) that keeps the aluminum from coming into contact with food.
Risks of cooking with aluminum cookware
Aluminum exposure has been shown to be toxic to human health and thought to be part of the development of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s . A 1996 study sought to compare the aluminum exposure from tea, stewed rhubarb, and blackcurrant juice prepared in either new, 10-year old, or 30-year old aluminum cookware . Their findings were that the aluminum content in these foods prepared in aluminum cookware was often 10 times higher than levels previously associated with the development of Alzheimer’s disease 
Issues with aluminum alloy cookware does not only stem from aluminum content, as they contain other metals as well. A 2020 study sought to determine the toxicity of water boiled in aluminum alloy cookware by measuring the root growth of onions after being exposed to water that had been boiled in aluminum pots . They found that levels of cadmium, copper, arsenic, lead, nickel, and aluminum in the boiled water from all ages of the test pots (new to 6-years old) were above allowable limits set by the WHO and EPA, with the oldest pots demonstrating the highest levels . Root growth in the onions in the boiled water was stunted compared to those grown in tap water, demonstrating possible cytotoxicity of heavy metals leached into the boiling water .
Caring for aluminum cookware
If you choose to cook with aluminum, be careful to check your pots for signs of wear or pitting, as this can be a sign that they are breaking down and releasing more metals. The studies I referenced above noticed higher levels of aluminum leaching in older pots, so the age of your aluminum cookware should definitely be a consideration.
Aluminum cookware should be cleaned with dish soap and a soft scrubber. Don’t use anything abrasive, like steel wool, to prevent breaking down the alloy and releasing metals.
Recommendation: This is one of the cookware materials I think it would be smart to phase out. Personally, I’ve been working to swap out my aluminum cookware slowly over the last decade due to concerns over aluminum exposure. The only pieces I still have are some baking items that I only use for specific occasions, and pieces that contain an aluminum core that does not come into contact with food (like All-Clad saucepans). If you aren’t ready to give up some aluminum pieces yet, try using a silpat or wax paper to reduce food contact on your baking sheets and consider carefully what you cook and how you care for them.
Copper is a popular component of cookware due to its quick heating properties, appearance, and antimicrobial effects. Although the use of copper cookware has fallen out of fashion in modern times, copper pipes are very common in many areas, and some cookware manufacturers still produce pieces in this metal.
True copper cookware is unusual today, as most copper pots and pans are now lined with stainless steel, to get the beautiful look on the outside and a safe cooking surface on the inside. One downside to copper cookware is that it does not work with induction cooktops.
Benefits and risks of cooking with copper cookware
Copper is an essential micronutrient, but can be problematic in excess, as extreme intakes are known to cause liver and kidney problems and may lead to increased risk of neurological conditions .
Caring for copper cookware
Copper cookware that is lined with anything other than stainless steel should be cleaned carefully, like aluminum cookware, with soap and a soft scrubber. Similarly, don’t use anything abrasive like steel wool to prevent breaking down the lining and releasing metals. If your cookware is lined with stainless steel, you can be more aggressive about cleaning as this is a harder surface that can take more scrubbing.
For the outside of your copper cookware, you can either allow it to patina or maintain a polished finish with a product like Bar Keeper’s Friend.
Recommendation: If you have any unlined copper cookware, I would not cook with it due to concerns of toxicity. Well-maintained, lined copper cookware can be a beautiful and functional addition to your kitchen, however. Make sure to do your research and purchase from a reputable brand. Unfortunately I don’t own any copper cookware, so I don’t have a specific recommendation.
One of the biggest complaints about cookware is that food gets stuck to the cooking surface, and as such, cookware that is “nonstick,” or easily releases food from the cooking surface, is very popular. There are a few different ways cookware manufactures achieve a nonstick cooking surface, and I’ll cover them all in this section.
- PTFE (polytetrafluoroethylene) is a chemical discovered in the 1930s that has been used to create nonstick cookware (it is a primary ingredient in Teflon, a patented nonstick material you are likely familiar with). Cookware using this material is usually made of aluminum, stainless steel, or cast iron and then has a layer sprayed on the inside to create a super slick cooking surface. This is the coating most people are familiar with when they think of nonstick cookware.
- Ceramic is a coating made of silica that creates a thick, glossy surface that when new, releases food and cleans easily. Like pots and pans made with PTFE, ceramic nonstick cookware is usually made of a metal and then glazed on the inside to create a nonstick cooking surface. It performs well, but is not as slick as cookware made with PTFE.
- Carbon steel has a long tradition of use in European kitchens and restaurants. Very similar to cast iron, carbon steel pans are mostly iron with a very small percentage of carbon. Instead of being coated in a nonstick material, the entire pan is made from the same metal and when seasoned properly, has a very slick cooking surface due to being made from sheets of metal, instead of cast, although not as slick as PTFE or ceramic-coated products.
Benefits and risks of nonstick cookware
The major benefit to using nonstick cookware is that it makes certain cooking tasks far easier and can greatly reduce cleanup time. Anytime you have to sear a delicate piece of meat or fish, or cook anything that can easily burn/stick (like eggs!), a nonstick pan can be a game-changer.
A lot of folks in the wellness community are concerned about nonstick cookware as concerns about toxicity with PTFE, or Teflon, have been written about extensively. Most of us have also had the experience of using a PTFE-coated pan only to notice the cooking surface scratching or flaking off, which pretty obviously indicates that we are ingesting whatever the surface is made from. In my research I found the issue is a little more nuanced than many believe. First, PFOA is a known toxin and environmental pollutant that is used in the production of PTFE. It isn’t contained in the final PTFE product, but historically sickened many who were downstream of the environmental pollution. Since 2015 PFOA has been completely phased-out of making nonstick cookware .
So what about the toxicity of PTFE? Studies have shown PTFE to be non-toxic and inert until heated to 500 degrees F, when it begins giving off toxic gasses that have sickened those with exposure, historically workers in factories that produce cookware . Another concern is what happens to the breakdown of PTFE when it is damaged by utensils or cleaning, and is ingested along with a meal. Despite most people believing the toxicity of PTFE is “common knowledge,” there are actually no studies with conclusive evidence demonstrating that ingested PTFE is harmful.
Ceramic cookware is a little different in that the cook surface is actually designed to wear off and be ingested. You can think of the surface as “self-lubricating” in that a little bit of silicone wears off each time you use the pan, in order to prevent the food from sticking. While silicone used in food and cookware applications has “Generally Regarded As Safe” status, there have been no studies on the toxicity of silicone used in food applications or cookware.
Lastly, carbon steel does not have a surface to wear off as it is made of metal (very similar to cast-iron). The benefits and risks of using carbon steel are similar to that of cast iron – for those who are anemic, using cookware that may improve iron content of food may be helpful, but for those with hemochromatosis (iron overload), it may present a problem.
Caring for nonstick cookware
PTFE-coated pans can only be used up to 500 degrees F, otherwise they start to emit toxic gasses. If you use cookware with this coating, be sure to heat them slowly and within the temperature range cited by the manufacturer as safe. Do not use metal or sharp utensils, or clean with anything abrasive like steel wool. Dishsoap, a soft scrubber, and warm water should work well, and you should discontinue using any piece of cookware that has scratching or shows signs of deterioration of the cooking surface.
The care for ceramic cookware is similar, since the cooking surface does not last forever, you’ll want to find the balance between getting the food bits off and degrading the surface before its use has run up. Because the cooking surface is designed to be “used up,” be aware that you’ll want to avoid damaging the surface and be on the lookout that it may be not performing well and past its life cycle.
Carbon steel can be cared for similar to cast iron – season your pan well, and then avoid using dish soap or aggressive cleaning techniques in order to preserve and maintain the nonstick qualities of the cooking surface. Unlike with PTFE and ceramic-coated pans, if you need to reset your pan by cleaning it well and re-seasoning you can do so. Like cast-iron, well-maintained carbon steel pans can last a lifetime.
Recommendation: I’m not a fan of PTFE-coated cookware because of toxicity concerns, but also because they have a short life-cycle (even if meticulously cared for). While ceramic cookware seems like a good alternative, I would avoid it for anyone who has a history of being chemically sensitive, since we don’t have a lot of safety data about long-term ingestion of the cooking surface, and again, the short life cycle is built-in. If you already own any PTFE-coated cookware, I would use it (provided it is in good condition) until you have an alternative. Ceramic may be a good option for those who want a good nonstick surface that is easier to maintain than carbon steel, and are alright with the unknown long-term safety data on ingesting the silicone layer.
Carbon steel pans are new to me so admittedly I don’t have a lot of experience with them, but I think they seem like a good option considering both toxicity and longevity, if you are open to the maintenance. I’ve got this one on order and I’ll be posting an update on Instagram after I have some experience using it.
Stainless steel cookware
In order to protect against rust and corrosion, stainless steel is an alloy of predominantly iron, with carbon, chromium, nickel, and sometimes other metals. It is incredibly popular as a food-contact and cookware surface as it is very easy to care for, lightweight, and less-reactive to most ingredients that pose problems with other types of cookware (like acids!).
Stainless steel, compared to other alloys, is a poor conductor of heat, and many products using stainless steel contain a core of aluminum or copper in order to increase performance. One important thing to know about stainless steel cookware is that it is not non-stick. There is a learning curve to knowing how much fat to use, what foods to cook, and what heat level a dish can tolerate before burning on and sticking to a stainless steel pan.
Benefits and risks of stainless steel cookware
One misconception about stainless steel is that it is completely non-reactive, when in fact, just like other metals used in cookware, it can leach minerals. One study found that in the presence of an acidic solution, stainless steel released both chromium and nickel , while a second study determined this metal release was likely under the threshold for those who are allergic to chromium or nickel, but still advised caution . If you have an allergy to either of these metals, you might want to avoid using stainless steel, or at least minimize your use and clean non-abrasively.
Stainless steel cookware can also marginally improve the iron content of foods , so this may be another thing to consider if you are a person who generally lacks iron or tends towards iron overload.
Recommendation: I enjoy using stainless steel cookware for applications where sticking isn’t an issue (like sauce pans, soup pots, and roasting trays). You’ll also find this material in the cooking insert in an Instant Pot. The pieces of stainless cookware I have in my kitchen (roasting tray, saucepan, and soup pot) are from All-Clad.
Glass cookware is used by some because it is non-reactive. Compared to metal, glass heats much more slowly, and retains heat longer. Unfortunately this often results in uneven cooking, especially when used for baking.
Benefits and risks of glass cookware
Glass is nonporous, inert, and does not release anything when in contact with food. For beginner cooks, glass can help accuracy as the food can be seen through the pan, reducing the risk of overcooking or burning. That being said, using glass cookware comes with a risk of breaking or shattering (especially at high heat). Brands of glass cookware (like Pyrex) say their products are formulated to be shatterproof, but there are reports of them breaking under use.
Recommendation: Glass baking dishes can be nice to have on hand for roasting vegetables, but I would not use them for high-heat cooking. I find that glass is best suited to storage, and keep a large selection of Pyrex container and Ball canning jars as my primary food storage.
Outfitting a kitchen takes time!
I’ve been taking steps towards using different cookware in my kitchen over the last 12 years. There have been times when I’ve needed to make-do with what I had because I didn’t have the budget to replace it, or because what I had was in good enough repair and I didn’t want to be wasteful. As you’ve learned from this article, there is no perfect, non-toxic cookware solution. As a starting place, I recommend thinking about which pieces you use (or are likely to use, if you are new to cooking!) most often and start there. Some items, like cast-iron pans, are likely to last a lifetime with good care. Others may need occasional replacement, and these moments are a perfect opportunity to evaluate what other options may be out there. Happy cooking!
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