The safest cookware always seems to be the heaviest…ceramic/glazed enamel covered pans, and cast iron; however, carbon steel is a really good lighter weight alternative to cast iron. Some cast iron 12″ pans weigh 6 to 8 pounds, whereas their carbon steel counterpart might weigh 5 – 5.5 pounds!
Dealing with pain and chronic fatigue, or even frailty as one ages can make it harder to use and wash heavier cookware, but I don’t want to ingest more toxic substances than I have to…this just makes it even harder for my body to repair and detox every day as it’s meant to.
So why not use stainless steel? Its light and pretty and shiny, right?
Many people worry about using stainless steel because it leaches nickel, chromium, and other toxic heavy metals into your food, which the body must then work to detox and excrete. In response to this some companies now use a different kind of stainless steel that is nickel-free — but that stainless steel might not be free of other toxic metals used in the stainless steel alloy mix, such as chromium.
Others worry that cooking in cast iron or carbon steel results in iron leaching into your food – and excess iron can be a health hazard.
If you have ceramic cookware, or any ceramic or other kitchen items or dishes that you want to have tested for lead, visit Tamara Rubin’s page to find out how to send them to her for testing with an XRF lead-testing instrument, which is built to test ceramic and other materials, whereas lead swab kits commonly available, were developed to test lead in paint, not in ceramics.
Before I get into the nitty gritty details of cookware materials and what can leach into food, here’s a list of items I recommend.
I think everyone agrees that substances like chromium and nickel are not good for the body; however iron is something that is less discussed and less understood. So let’s take a look.
To give you an idea of how much iron leaches into your food, below you can see a comparison of iron in foods cooked in iron vs. non-iron pans (Brittin HC, Nossaman CE. Iron content of food cooked in iron utensils. J Am Diet Assoc. 1986 Jul.). The study found that “acidity, moisture content, and cooking time of food significantly affected the iron content of food cooked in iron utensils. Perhaps because of differing amounts of previous use***, cooking in different iron skillets resulted in some variation in the iron content of food.” This information is taken from page 45 of the study.
“Ranked in descending order, according to the percent increase in iron content due to cooking in the iron utensil, the foods are:
- applesauce (2535%)
- medium white sauce (1733%)
- spaghetti sauce (477%)
- chili with meat (390%)
- stew (320%)
- spaghetti sauce with meat (281%)
- Spanish rice (171%)
- scrambled eggs (166%)
- rice (129%)
- fried egg (89%)
- green beans (71%)
- pancakes (62%)
- bacon (49%)
- fried chicken (38%)
- poached egg (36%)
- fried potatoes (36%)
- hamburger (15%)
- tortillas (8%)
Foods that did not significantly (P<0.05) increase in iron content when cooked in the iron utensil:
- liver with onions
- cornbread, when batter was poured into a preheated pan
***I believe that the phrase “previous use” refers to the amount of seasoning built up in the iron pan. Seasoning is basically oxidized then polymerized polyunsaturated oil.
So, as examine.com says: “if you don’t want your cast iron pan to leach so much iron, make sure it’s well seasoned. Since acidic foods help transfer iron from the pan into your food, you want to put a barrier between the acid and the iron. And that barrier is seasoning… A pan that is newer and more likely to stick food will also leach more iron than an ancient and heavily seasoned pan.” As you can see in the excerpt from the study below, how old the pan is (meaning, how well or solidified the seasoning layer is (oxidized then polymerized polyunsaturated oil), can affect the amount of iron leached, depending on the food. Iron utensil A had been used more often prior to the study, whereas iron utensil B was newer and hadn’t been used as much. You can see that applesauce had the greatest change in iron leached, whereas spaghetti sauce had less of a change when comparing the two utensils.
My mom always wondered if the bits of seasoning that inevitably chip off the pan and are replaced with more seasoning) could be carcinogenic. The answer is ‘we don’t know,’ but I think that if one seasons or uses an iron pan, only safe oils should be used to build that seasoning layer (oils that can withstand high temps). Olive oil should be avoided, whereas butter, lard, and coconut oil are safe for high temps. The examine.com says: “Nobody knows exactly how much comes off over time, nor do they know what the health effects are of eating tiny bits of this type of broken down fat. If you heat the pan up fairly high over long periods, might carcinogenic fumes or free radicals develop from the oxidized oil? Would small amounts of these hypothetical byproducts even be of concern, given the natural antioxidant defenses our bodies employ? Seasoning is basically oxidized then polymerized polyunsaturated oil. The risks, if any, of eating tiny amounts of seasoning every day for years is unknown.”
So, what to do?
Stainless steel pans potentially leach toxic metals, and iron pans leach iron, and although iron is not super neurologically toxic, it can cause severe chronic or fatal disease as well if an individual has an excess amount (read this post to find out how much iron is too much.)
Ceramic pots and pans like the ones made by Xtrema appear to be the safest option.
Unglazed clay cookware is also available — from companies like Miriam’s Earth Cookware or VitaClay, but I don’t know if these are really ‘safe.’ Some seem to think they’re the worst, and some think they’re the best – as I have really no way to tell, I can’t recommend it or disprove of it.
If you’re not willing to use ceramic cookware, there are also a few selections in glazed enameled cast iron or glazed enameled steel from companies like Le Creuset. The glazed enameled cast iron is heavy, just like any cast iron, but iron will not leach into your food.
Glazed enamel sauce pots are quite heavy, as you can see:
Le Creuset sauce pot:
However, the Le Creuset enameled steel stock pots are much lighter, even though they are much larger.
Le Creuset stock pot:
- 6 quart 6.5 lbs
- 8 quart 7.5 lbs.
In my opinion, carbon steel pans are better than stainless steel (metals leaching) or cast iron or enameled cast iron (too heavy). If we accumulate too much iron in the body, at least we can donate blood to decrease our iron level. In his book Dr. Mercola states that each typical blood donation reduces ferritin (stored iron) by approx. 30 to 50 ng/mL.
From a sustainability standpoint, cast iron and carbon steel lose points because almost all manufacturers of cast iron and carbon steel pans use aluminum to sand blast the pan surfaces. I’m not concerned about aluminum residue remaining on the pan, but I am concerned that we are using yet more aluminum in our industry processes. However, I can’t believe this sandblasting process is more destructive than the process to mine and create stainless steel, but complete lifecycle impact on either would be extremely difficult to quantify. I’ve asked Xtrema to share their manufacturing process steps, but they have never responded to my request.
I find that one can find all the necessary pots and pans by combining all three safer material types (ceramic/glazed enamel, carbon steel, and cast iron).
For a list of cookware sizes and selections I recommend, click here.
I currently use a few cast iron pans of varying sizes that I found years ago at antique stores, but you can also find them online on eBay, Etsy, www.castironguys.com, www.wrinkledwillyreasures.com, or www.thepan-handler.com. I don’t have any cast iron pans with matching covers – so I repurpose metal pot covers. None of them fit well, but I get by ;). I do think these are best for frying foods (foods that don’t take a lot of time to cook), since the pans do leach iron. Iron is needed in our diet, but it seems that one quickly gets too much from cooking a variety of foods, especially applesauce, spaghetti sauce, chili, stew, rice or scrambled eggs.
So, vintage or new?
With most kitchen items, vintage is not typically safe or healthy. Many antique or vintage dishes contain lead, and there is a lot of vintage aluminum cookware out there. I think vintage cast iron is typically safe, but beware….
- I’ve come across vintage shops whose dealers spray-paint items to make them look prettier, etc!!!! It sounds heinous to think someone would paint an item intended for food use, but people do all sorts of crazy things…
- As http://tamararubin.com/2015/12/castiron/ points out, some l’lead-enthusiasts’ in the past have used cast iron pans for melting lead to make their own bullets or toys, because cast iron “has the unique quality of having a melting point much higher than that of lead, AND heats up evenly and easily maintains a high temperature well, and makes for a super sturdy and durable vessel]” and that this “leave[s] a lead-residue behind in the rougher, “micro-pitted” surface.” She recommends we test all vintage cast iron pans for lead and provides guidance on how to do so:
- She says: “Note: if it turns darker brighter orange (vs. the yellowish orange in the solution), that is just the swab picking up more of the iron of the pan – NOT the swab detecting lead—the reagent’s direct contact with lead always results in the swab turning a pink or red color,” and “if the pan was used to melt lead and thus still has any lead residue), a swab test WILL turn pink right away. “
Regarding ease of use, I find that vintage cast iron pans work incredibly better in terms of non-stick, compared with the most commonly known modern cast iron brand: Lodge. The pan surface of Lodge pans and other cheap modern cast iron brands are not smooth, but rather, they have a pebbly texture. Vintage cast iron pans often have a glassy smooth surface, but there are also some modern cast iron brands that also offers a smooth cooking surface.
- Butter Pat – these are the second lightest pans on the list. They have pour spouts, but their handle isn’t the most comfortable – it may dig into your hand a bit, but if you’re using a towel anyway, it might not matter. This pans probably has the best non-stick capability out of all of the pans, but all of the ones on this list will work well. 10″ pan weighs 4.8 lbs, and the 12″ pan weighs 6.9 lbs.
- Field Company – these are the lightest pans on the list. The lip isn’t the best for pouring, and there is no pour spout, but you can make it work. The handle is very comfortable. Their 10.25″ pan (No. 8) weighs 4.5 pounds. The 11 and 5/8″ pan weighs 6 pounds.
- Stargazer – These are the third lightest pans on the list. The pans don’t have a pour spout, but they don’t need one, because the entire rim of the pan is rolled for easy pouring. The handle is long, and will stay cool, however, if you have small hands, this handle could be very uncomfortable and could dig into your hand. If you have big hands, you might like the handle. The surface is probably the second most non-stick, but all of the pans on this list will work well. Their 10.5″ inch pan weighs 5.2 pounds.
- Smithey – Smithey pans are the heaviest pans on the list. The pans have pour spouts, but I don’t know if the handle is comfortable or not. I’m sure the surface is very non-stick, but I have no idea how it compares to the Butter Pat or Stargazer. The 10″ pan weighs 6 lbs. I think this is the only brand to put a heat ring on the bottom of the pan.
- SolidTeknics – the handles stay a bit more cool than other cast iron pans, especially in the 8″ pan. This surface is closest to vintage cast iron pans, according to some people. Update 2/13/18: the company has said that they have retired their cast iron production due to manufacturing challenges in Australia.
I’m really curious about unglazed cookware, like Miriam’s handmade unglazed ceramic cookware: www.miriamsearthencookware.com/mec-store/. I’m still not sure what to think of unglazed clay. Some seem to think its the worset, and some think it’s the best – as I have really no way to tell, I can’t recommend it or disprove of it. Unglazed pots may only be safe if we still lived in a non-toxic world – I just don’t know. The truth is, toxins are everywhere. In the Midwest during crop season, there is an even higher concentrations of glyphosate coming down in the rain than usual (another article here)!! Although it may be hard to find non-toxic glazed ceramic cookware, I think it is better than unglazed at this point. Whatever is in the clay when it’s harvested is going to end up in the food cooked in unglazed cookware. Miriam’s website and Vitaclay have extensive positive testing results on their website showing a lack of toxins in the clay, but again, I just don’t know.
Xtrema has glazed cookware that seems reasonable, but everything has a trade-off in the toxic world we have created. I’m curious how light or heavy they are. I’ve asked the company to share more details on the manufacturing process and a sustainability report, but they have not shared any information yet.
Although the substance and glaze is ‘inert’, having been fired at incredibly high temperatures, the glaze or enamel they use contains aluminum!! And we need to stop using aluminum!!
“ENAMEL INGREDIENTS INCLUDE:
Nitrates, Potash, Agile, Aluminate, Bentonite, and Clay.
This enamel is extremely hard wearing and hygienic because the surface is smooth and easy to clean. It is permanently fused to its base metal as a relatively thin coating while the traditional properties of glass are retained. The coating is fused into metal. It will not absorb cooking flavors, will not stain easily, and very easy to clean. This enamel (porcelain coating) is resistant to acid or alkaline attack.
LEACHING is the process of extracting minerals from a solid by dissolving them in a liquid, either in nature or through an industrial process.”
Xtrema publishes safety testing results here, mainly regarding lead and cadmium. Their website dedicates a page to the mining and manufacturing of steel., obviously in an attempt to point out how environmentally damaging it is – the thumbnail photos made me think of Lord of the Rings Mordor a little bit, if I blocked out the blue skies in some of the pictures – but then again, many of the images of our modern world remind me of Mordor…. The mining and manufacturing of aluminum is even more damaging, in my opinion, but anything we dig up and manufacture has impact, even if we’re digging up clay – but there are degrees of damage.
Steaming vegetables can easily be done in whatever pot or pan you have, by adding only a bit of water; and some cookware lines offer a steamer pot or basket. There are other products available as well, although I’d want to test them for lead before using, like this clay and wood pot/steamer, sold by Jia, Inc. via Amazon
Many people like brands like De buyer, Matfer Bourgeat, Mauviel, M’steel. There are a few artisan brands that make beautiful pans as well: Blanc Creatives, Blu Skillet, or De Buyer brand, or low carbon steel SolidTeknics). Blu Skillet Ironware is the only steel/iron cookware company I found that does not use aluminum in their manufacturing processes, except the cast iron manufacturer named Skeppshult. Instead of using aluminum to sandblast, Blu Skillet uses quartz sand. Here is a snapshot of what goes into creating a steel pan the Blu Skillet way, not necessarily in the order listed:
- wire brushing (steel is used)
- sandblasting (quartz sand is used)
- Bluing in the kiln (heat treatment)
- polishing in house (garnet sanding material is used)
- seasoning (organic coconut oil)
SolidTeknics is using a different kind of steel in their Noni line of pans that is nickel-free, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s free of other toxic metals used in the stainless steel alloy mix. I asked SolidTeknics for a list of metals used in their alloy, but they wouldn’t share because their patent is still pending. Perhaps they will share with the public at a later date.
Be aware when searching for SolidTeknics carbon steel pans on Amazon here, there are two different finishes to choose from. In the Smooth finished pans, the seasoning builds up and sometimes flakes off and you have to wipe it out sometimes before you use it. In the Satin finish, the texture holds the seasoning better. All of SolidTeknics initial AUS-ION pans were smooth finish, but now all of their pans are satin finish and have been for some time, and will continue to be. It is only the USA who have the ‘old stock smooth finish’ now (Amazon).
- Smooth = has not been shot peened, though non gmo organic rice bran oil has still been applied.
- Satin = a shot peened finish. Shot peening is a cold work process used to finish metal parts to prevent fatigue and stress corrosion failures and prolong product life for the pan. In shot peening, small spherical shot bombards the surface of the part to be finished which makes seasoning a very efficient process. Our factory then applies one layer of rice bran oil to the entire pan before disptaching it.
To care for carbon steel pans, see these articles:
- Cook’s Illustrated – The Chef’s Secret Weapon
- Serious Eats – Love Cast Iron Pans, Then You Should Know About Carbon Steel.
When I spent time on the Lakota reservation in South Dakota, I heard about traditional foods of the Lakota Native Americans, which fascinated me. Drying strips of bison, eating the intestines as a delicacy, foraging for chokecherries and prairie turnips, making pemmican, burying the stone bowls and stone ‘pounder’s used at various sites to make the pemmican, etc. I know I heard someone say something about cooking stews in a bag made of some animal organ….was it a bladder? a stomach? Sometimes I think about these things and wonder…
Solar stoves are another amazing cookware option. There are several types, but my favorites are manufactured and sold by GoSun, because their completely curved parabolic reflectors facilitate effective cooking even on overcast days. I include these here because the cooking surface is built into the stove’s design, so no other pots or pans are needed. I looked at the specs of their stoves, and I was disappointed to learn that their innovative parabolic reflectors are indeed made of aluminum, as is the extrusion of the stove’s thermal battery. I emailed the company, asking if there are any other materials that could be employed instead. Here is what they said:
“I am passing your suggestions along to our founder. We wish to leave the smallest imprint possible, while changing human behaviors for the better.
Thanks for sharing that, I didn’t know about the ore processing issues!”
In the meantime, their stoves are selling like hotcakes for RV owners, and campers, etc. How I wish tech solutions were truly environmentally friendly.
- Tamara Rubin
- The Duke of Permaculture, Paul Wheaton
- Miriam’s Earthen Cookware
- GreenMed Info
- Xtrema, Ceramcor
- Field Company
- Blu Skillet Ironworks
- Blanc Creatives
- De Buyer
- The Kitchen Professor
- GoSun Solar Stoves