How to Choose the Safest, Healthiest, Best-Cooking Cookware

Eating at home is a lot more enjoyable if you have the right cooking gear. Here are tips on finding the best.

March 18, 2010

Fed up with your current cookware? Choose replacements that won't ruin your cooking, or contaminate it with chemicals.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Cooking at home is an fun way to eat tasty foods, save a lot of money, and cut fatty and salty food out of your diet. But if you’re always dealing with food sticking, boiling over, or burning to the bottom of your pots, it’s probably time to reevaluate your cookware.

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What’s more, the chemicals used to make nonstick pans have recently been linked to a number of health ailments, including infertility, high cholesterol, and thyroid problems, in addition to producing fumes that are toxic to birds. So, if your nonstick pans are starting to wear out or look too scratched, it’s definitely time to replace them.

But that may be just the starting point of your cookware upgrade. "Every type of pot and pan has a particular material that's best suited to it," says Amy Topel, an instructor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at New York University and a former chef at various New York City restaurants. "For that reason, I recommend never buying an entire set of cookware in any one material." When you do that, she says, you could wind up spending hundreds of dollars for pots and pans that might not be appropriate for what you need.

Keep reading for advice on choosing healthy cookware to match your cooking needs.

To help you outfit your kitchen properly, here is Topel’s expert advice on the best kinds of best pots and pans for cooking everything from fish and pasta sauces to muffins and popovers:

Skillets. For cooking foods that require even heat like eggs and fish, Topel suggests standard cast iron. But for sauteeing foods like tomatoes and other acidic vegetables, she recommends stainless steel–coated aluminum pans, or stainless steel skillets with an aluminum-plated bottom. "Aluminum is a great conductor of heat, and it's very lightweight," she says, "but it can be reactive with a lot of foods." For instance, white foods, such as cauliflower, endive, or creamy pasta sauces, can turn gray if cooked in pure aluminum, and aluminum can react with tomatoes, which are acidic. Stainless steel, on the other hand, is completely nonreactive but doesn't transmit heat as well. So skillets that combine the two substances provide the benefits of both without the drawbacks.

Dutch ovens. If you've been cooking soups and stews in a 100-percent stainless steel Dutch oven, Topel says, use it instead for boiling pasta and not much else. "Stainless steel is really only good for boiling water," she says. Its uneven heat distribution too often causes foods to burn and stick to the bottom. Likewise, standard cast-iron Dutch ovens aren't ideal because even boiling nonreactive foods in them can cause your stews to taste metallic. "We divide cooking into dry heat and moist heat, and cast iron doesn’t work if you're cooking with moist heat," she says, as is the case with soups and stews. All things considered, the best material for Dutch ovens is enamel-coated cast iron, says Topel. "It gives you the even heat and heat retention that you get with cast-iron, but the enamel coating keeps your food from tasting like iron." Enamel-coated cast iron is also good for cooking beans and grains.

Sauce pots and roasting pans. Plain stainless-steel pots are great for boiling pasta, says Topel, but if you cook a lot of sauces, go for stainless steel–lined aluminum pans like those made by All Clad. If they’re too much on the pocketbook, the less-expensive stainless steel pots with aluminum-plated bottoms work nicely. Just be careful: The heat distribution may not be as even. Another good material for roasting pans is carbon steel. Basically steel with a high carbon content, this material is similar to cast iron in that it heats evenly and quickly. But it also has to be seasoned the way cast iron does, which is to coat it in vegetable oil and leave it in the oven for an hour. Carbon steel is also Topel’s best pick for woks, if you like to cook Asian food.

Bakeware. These days chemical nonstick baking sheets and muffin tins are being replaced on store shelves with silicone bakeware, a synthetic material that, according to manufacturers, can tolerate temperatures up to 600 degrees F. There isn't much safety information on silicone, though, so you should be careful. "For baking, aluminum is fine because you don’t often bake things that are acidic," says Topel. If you do, line the pan or baking sheet with parchment paper to keep food from reacting. Topel recommends aluminum for cooking cupcakes, but prefers cast-iron muffin tins for cornbread and popovers. "For those, you want to get a lot of heat fast, and cast iron heats evenly, quickly," says Topel.

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