Thursday, November 8, 2007

Converting From Non-Stick

Most non-stick cookware is coated with teflon, the primary chemical of which is called perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). This allows for wonderful things like omelettes, crepes, and muffins to cook or bake without sticking to it's surface. A great technological marvel. However, if heated above a certain temperature, this chemical gives off a toxic fume that has been known to kill birds (more susceptible due to their unique anatomy), and can cause respiratory problems in humans. A response to a query in the Austin Chronicle breaks down the potential dangers to using Teflon pretty well.
The main problem seems to be that when Teflon is heated to temperatures higher than about 450 degrees (twice the temperature of boiling water) it produces toxic particles and fumes that can deposit in the lungs. At higher temperatures, 680 degrees, other worrisome substances are given off, but many of them are poorly investigated. These temperatures can be reached if a pan is left sitting on a normal kitchen stove burner set on "high" for as little as five minutes. The "take-home" lesson is to use Teflon only to cook at lower temperatures.
I'd heard about the dangers of teflon on non-stick pans for a while, but I chose to ignore them. How bad could it really be? I was talking to a friend about it and her husband, who had done a significant amount of research on the topic, was dead set against using non-stick. That brought back my nagging doubts. Should I be dead set against it, too? It's actually quite easy to overheat an empty pan, so how could I be sure I wasn't heating the surface beyond safe levels? When I got pregnant, I decided it was time to switch over.

Our non-stick pots and pans were getting old, anyway. Once they become scratched, it's time to get rid of them because scratches increase the chances of getting toxic bits in your food. There are pros and cons to every kind of cookware, but the health risks were the issues that influenced my decisions the most. I did a lot of research and decided on 3 different kinds of pans.

Calphalon Contemporary Stainless Steel 8-Piece Cookware Set - While I didn't necessarily want a set, this one fit the bill at a lower price than buying the few individual pieces I wanted. The going price was about the same everywhere I checked, so I bought it at Bed Bath and Beyond with a 20% coupon, and it came with a bonus $50 BBB gift card. I chose this stainless steel set as the foundation for our cookware collection because I wanted a metal that has fewer health risks (proven or not). Unlike other sets, this one is dishwasher safe. While they're relatively easy to clean, they can be hard to keep in pristine condition. I'm hardly interested in that, though. If I want to stare at something, I'll go stare at MetaBaby.

A few cleaning tips:
  • Always wipe dry after washing to prevent spotting. Spots and marks can be removed with equal parts vinegar and water.
  • Do not use brushes or sponges that can scratch the surface.
  • To avoid salts stains, do not add salt to your food until the contents are boiling.
  • Remove calcium deposits by boiling water with some white vinegar. Allow your pan to cool, then wash with warm, soapy water.
Pros: Easy to clean, no health concerns, dishwasher safe, handles on pans stay cool while cooking, stovetop & oven friendly, browns food nicely, safe to use with acidic foods (e.g., tomatoes)

Cons: Difficult to keep in pristine condition, not non-stick, clear lids not as useful as I anticipated

Pre Seasoned Cast Iron Skillet - A seasoned cast iron skillet has the benefit of being naturally non-stick once seasoned. It's truly easy to maintain. Just wipe it down after use, preferably while warm, and never use soap on it. It took a bit of getting used to because it's not very reactive to changes in temperature. That is, if you lower the heat, it takes a while for the temperature to adjust accordingly.

Pros: Inexpensive, conducts heat evenly, stovetop & oven friendly, browns food nicely, increases iron in food, non-stick if seasoned, can last forever if cared for properly

Cons: Heavy, can rust if not dried after washing, slow to adjust to heat changes, can't use with acidic foods (e.g., tomato) because leaches too much iron into the food, not dishwasher safe

Le Creuset 5.5 quart round oven - I had wanted one of these pots for ages. I finally decided to bite the bullet when I made the transition. The going price seemed to be the same everywhere, but I found this pot on sale at Bloomingdale's, where I also had a gift card. I ended up paying 50% of the original price out of my own pocket, so it felt like destiny.
This pot goes from stove-top to oven without a hitch. It cleans in no time, and is a great size to do a variety of foods, so I end up using it almost daily. This is definitely my "go to" pot. And all at a bargain price. That said, I love this one so much, if something happened to it today, I'd go out and buy another one tomorrow.
I purchased a Le Creuset, but there are other manufacturers out there. I'm sure used ones would be well worth a try, too. Here are some cleaning tips for any type of enameled cast iron.

Pros: Easy to clean, no health concerns, stovetop & oven friendly, browns food nicely, safe to use with acidic foods, non-stick, can last forever if cared for properly, conducts heat evenly

Cons: Heavy, dishwasher safe (but too heavy to try), paint can chip

Here are a few types of cookware that I don't have any personal experience with, but appear interesting.

Soapstone Cookware - Oven-, stovetop-, grill-safe; ; not dishwasher safe; natural non-stick surface after curing; easy to clean

La Chamba Cookware - Made of natural clay; not dishwasher safe; oven-, microwave-, grill-safe

If you have any experience with these or other types of safe cookware, I'd love to hear your thoughts.


Me said...

non-stick pans are a waste, I prefer stainless or "black steel" pans from restaurant supply stores.