As a Professional Chef for 30 years, being a health-conscious Chef for most of it, and now Vegan Chef for the last few years, I’ve tried most pans generally available on the market. I’ve used Non-stick Pans in Commercial Kitchens, Aluminum, Stainless Steel, Copper, Carbon Steel, Cast-Iron, etc, and have used Ceramic, Glass, Diamond, Titanium, Gotham and a host of others in my home or that of family and friends.
I want to start out by saying there are some different schools of thinking in regards to which pans are the best:
1.) Durability is the Most Important
2.) Value is the Most Important
3.) Convenience is the Most Important
4.) Safety is the Most Important
All pans types can come in pretty durable versions that would likely work in a Professional Kitchen, and all forms of pans come in not-so-durable versions. For this blog, we want to focus on the Durable Pans, so as not to produce so much waste, and to make your cooking experience more enjoyable, and your food taste better. Also, Pans are supposed to last, at least your life time, and hopefully many others. There aren’t many things in life you can really pass on to generations in your family after you’re gone, that could be considered an Heirloom, but pans are certainly one of those things of value that can last, and become a treasured Family Heirloom. Some quality pans have Multi-Century Warranties, even, spanning generations.
Value is Subjective. If we are talking only cost, the cheapest may appear to be the best value. But true value comes with time. A pot or pan that costs you $20 and has to be replaced every few years is not going to be nearly the value a $200 pot will be that lasts your whole life and the lives of your children. That said, not all high quality cookware needs to cost hundreds of dollars. Many are far more affordable, if you just know what you’re looking for.
This is usually where the Plethora of Non-stick options comes in. These are things such as Teflon, Copper Infusions, Diamond Infusions, Titanium Infusions, Gotham Pans, HexClad, Stone & Marble Infusions, etc. These offer a very easy cooking experience, with quick & easy clean up. You don’t want to spend another moment in the Kitchen than you have to, and these pans get the job done and let you get on to more important things, such as family. They are very lightweight and no more difficult than picking up a plate.
These can come in highly durable forms that will last quite a while. However, all of them have some basic limitations. The Lifespan on these coatings is not generational, and many only last a few years, at best, before they have degraded significantly.
While many of the newer ones are almost impossible to chip during normal cooking, the chemicals leach into your food just as easily as the Iron in Cast Iron, or the Copper in Copperware. Also, the eventual wear that inevitably results from cooking long-term enters your food in far greater amounts. Though they may claim to be PFOA & PTFE-free etc, the chemicals they are replacing them with are just as dangerous, and they’re banking on the years it takes for that to become widely known, even though FDA studies have shown them to be problematic. These are “Forever” chemicals that remain pervasive in the environment forever, and contaminate our environmental water, from simply washing them and letting that water run down the drain. But it’s sometimes easier to live with The Devil We Know.
Paying attention to the Safety of Pots and Pans can help you avoid Cancers, Tumors, Endocrine Disruption, Weight Gain, Metabolic Diseases, Obesity, Diabetes, High Cholesterol, Hypercholesterolemia, Thyroid Disease, Impaired Brain Function, Alzheimer’s, Pre-Eclampsia, Ulcerative Colitis, Hypertension, Childhood Obesity, Childhood Development Problems, Neurobehavioral Problems, Delayed Puberty, Underdevelopment of Genital Organs, Fertility Problems, Pregnancy Complications, Low Birth Weight, Premature Birth, Testicular Problems, Abnormal Sperm, Hormonal Imbalances, Lowered Hormones, Immune System Functions, DNA Chain Breaks, Premature Aging, Liver Damage, etc, and can be transferred through the Fetus to the Unborn child. They Also Bioaccumulate and remain forever in our environment and are returned to us in our tap water. Titanium is often touted as the safest of these, but Titanium Dioxide Nanochrystals are linked to Immune Disruption and Precancerous Lesions in the digestive tract.
Many pots and pans today emphasize they are “Safe” and “Non-Toxic” because they are “PFOA” & “PTFE” free, but those are just one specific chemical of a much broader Chemical Base from which these products can be made, and the replacements all have the same structure and problems as what they’re replacing. Some of the many things that can be in non-stick and other coated pans are PFAS, PFOA, C8, PFCs, CAS, PTFE, BFRs, TFEs, MFAs, Aromatic Amine, Formaldehyde, Phenol, Isooctane, Fluorine, Fluorene, Fluoranthene, Phenanthrene, Pyrene, Naphthalene, Anthracene, Acenaphthese, Acenaphthylene, Idenopyrenes, Benzoperylenes, Chrysene, Benzofluroanthenes, Dibenzoanthracenes, Benzopyrenes, Benzoanthracenes, Acetic Acid, Ethanol, Synthetic Polymers, Chromium (VI) Hexavalent Chromium, Chromium (III), Lead, Cadmium, Nickel, Copper, Aluminum, Cobalt, Manganese, n-Heptane, Barium, Lithium, Zinc, Silver, Molybdenum, Tin, Vanadium, Arsenic, Beryllium, Mercury, Antimony, Thallium, other Toxic Metals, Ceramic Sol-Gels, Chemical Coatings, Glues, Paints, Dyes, Petalite, Unnatural Fillers, and any number of as-yet-to-be-determined-as-harmful chemicals.
Many of them claim to be “safe” up to 400 or 450F as well. Yet 350F is the point that there have been proven harmful fumes released from these synthetic compounds, perhaps even lower. Furthermore, a simple Electric Stove-top Burner Element can reach 1600F, while the food in the pot is still coming to the boil. The Surface of the pot which is in contact with the food is considerably hotter than the food. The Outside of the pot, however, Particularly the bottom, is being exposed to phenomenally hot temperatures, way beyond the safe rating. Whatever that bottom material is, and the surrounding material on the sides, will be deadly and hazardous fumes, capable of easily killing some small animals nearby, such as birds.
Also, with Safety, we need to be careful not to give American & European companies a Pass and think of everything from Asia and Latin America as bad. This is simply not true. Many American & European companies use Products & Processes & Materials from China and other parts of Asia. Some have the Cast Iron made in China and then Coat it in Enamel in Belgium, for example. And “Asia” throws Pristine Japanese and Korean Technology and Expertise, which far exceeds most of the rest of the world’s, in with some of China’s worst exporters and manufacturers. Japanese and Korean Cookware is some of the world’s finest. Korea invented Thermolon, used in GreenPans, which everyone is raging about and claiming is the healthiest pan available. Likewise, what may come from Mexico isn’t the same as what is coming from Brazil or the La Chamba region of Columbia.
And just a quick note on China. China makes everything under the sun. They make most things to the specifications of the foreign buyers, according to how much they’re willing to pay. Cost is the highest priority for most International Companies, and so Quality suffers, not as a result of being made in China, but as a result of these companies’ requests to keep costs as low as possible. China makes every level of product, to exacting specifications. Most International Companies and Buyers choose to turn a blind eye to quality to increase their own profit margins, which is why they are in China in the first place. The blame lies squarely on the sellers and international buyers, and not with “China” as a whole. China has a great many very affluent people, most of the world’s wealthy, in fact, who buy the very best items, also made in China, and sold to those markets. No International Company is willing to go to China to buy the best products available, and have a profit margin so low that they may as well have bought it in America from American Manufacturers. Let’s not attack China, but the people selling you the cheapest things made in China. China’s manufacturers are also producing the same products for the world’s poorest countries, who don’t even have the basic infrastructure in place to manufacture any of their own products. They are made as cheaply as possible, because they cost an entire month’s salary for people in those places. A lot of times American buyers are eagerly buying the quality of goods made for those poorest countries and selling them to Americans, at enormous mark-ups with Enormous Profit Margins, just to get rich. China is more than capable of making whatever you’re willing to pay for. Americans need to stop blaming China for poor quality goods. You’re buying them because they are cheap, and you are buying the same ones sold to the poorest countries in Africa, because you want it on the cheap. That’s on you.
Many American Companies and brands do demand a higher quality, safer product, and they can easily get it. So for big brand names that have their products made in China, whose brands are known for their quality and their name is very important to them, such as Martha Stewart, Chrissy Teigan, etc, they’re not buying OEM products from scrubby Alibaba trade agents looking to get rich. They’re going directly to the manufacturers and paying quite a large sum of money to have them manufactured for them specifically, according to their specifications, which don’t fall into nearly the same realm as what you yourself are buying from China online from Chinese Trade Agents with Logo and a Trade Company Name selling whatever they can get their hands on to sell which is the cheapest, or whatever your neighbor did to get his hands on that new Audi.
The Worst of the Worst:
So, obviously the worst of the worst pans are going to be those with Non-stick material or other synthetic materials or coatings on the Bottoms and Outsides of the pans.
For this reason, my “Worst of the Worst” has to go to HexClad. I’m sorry to say that, really, as these pans were truly a joy to use. I bought a complete set along with a Wok because I was told specifically by the Salesperson at a Costco Exhibition Booth that they were made of Stainless Steel over Carbon Steel, and that a Laser had been used to etch away the top coating of Stainless Steel to make a “non-stick” texture over the surface of the Carbon Steel, and that it also had a Fully Encapsulated Aluminum Base for heat distribution. Those were the only 3 materials used, I asked him several times just to be sure. It sounded like a dream come true, some modern marvel of technology that would forever change the cooking game. I bought them up and used them for about a Month. They were the best pans I ever used, had they actually been Carbon Steel. I didn’t look too closely at them, I thought the dark color of the Carbon Steel Layer was a from Black Steel, or the result of having been blasted with a Laser or something. As I was preparing to write a blog about how great these magical pans were, I checked their website and discovered, to my great dismay, that there is no Carbon Steel in them at all, and that the dark part beneath the Stainless Etching was something they simply called “Non-Stick”. I sent the company some strongly worded correspondence then immediately returned the set to Costco for a full refund. I had been putting a Non-Stick Surface directly on a High-heat Burner and cooking like I was using Carbon Steel, possibly the worst thing I could have done. Just a very terrible design, making it far worse than any non-stick pan on the market, and the only one I know of where the non-stick surface sits on the burner, smh.
Other pans that qualify for the Worst of the Worst would be any pan that has a similar coating on the outside, which is not simply a metal or ceramic, or which is too flimsy and thin to protect the inside surface from the heat on the outside surface, e.g. a pan with an Aluminum Core and a non-stick interior and a Metal Exterior would be much better than a pan without a heat distributing core; and a thicker pan would be much better than a thinner pan for keeping the non-stick temp to a minimum..
Also, with any non-stick pan, your cooking has to be done on relatively low to medium heat, which is OK for some basic home cooking, but just doesn’t cut it where browning is important, or more precise varied heat control and timing are needed throughout more advanced cooking processes. Even the ones claiming to be “oven safe up to 450F” are not actually “safe” by any meaningful definition of the word. One thing I discovered whilst doing my research for the ideal pans, was the complete and utter lack of transparency from these companies with all these different amazing surfaces. They are very quick to call it “safe” and “PFOA-Free”, but are completely opaque and silent about what their materials actually contain, and how they are made. It’s a complete black box.
In fact, without doing a considerable amount of digging, you are left with almost no knowledge about what you’re buying, and how it will affect the health of everyone you cook for. On the surface, at first google, it seems all the pans are safe and the world is your oyster. On closer inspection, it is really a horrific game they are playing at, which is leading people down a road with decades upon decades of health problems as they skirt around the truth, hide up facts, and use whatever harmful substances are possible for them to use until an entire society eventually reaches a breaking point and cracks down on the next set of chemicals they’re getting away with using.
Even the best and safest non-stick pans, such as “GreenPan” are only listed as Safe from PFOA & PTFE, Lead and Cadmium. I’ve read the testing reports for the Original coating and it doesn’t even mention PFOA or PFTE, it’s only mentioned in the Diamond Thermolon coating only available on the Levels, Reserve, & Venice Pro lines. they also state that no matter how high the pans get accidentally heated, no toxic fumes will be released. Their claim is that the Thermolon is safe because it’s made from Silica (sand). It’s definitely not the Silica Glaze on Clay Ceramics. Obviously there’s a highly complex chemical process involved. And the certification of “Safe” only comes from testing from a very specific set of chemicals, metals, and gases. They don’t use a sensor that reads what’s actually in the pan, or what gases are actually coming off of it. Instead, they have to test for each specific chemical and metal and the fume they normally do testing for. So, obviously, if you use a different chemical process with different fumes and chemicals than existing pans on the market, you’re going to get a clean passing score from the testing agency and start calling yourself 100% healthy and non-toxic, which simply isn’t the case, nor has it been proven so.
If you’re hellbent on having a non-stick chemical coating, perhaps Greenpan is your best bet, but only either the Level, Reserve or Venice Pro lines, and that’s because the testing we did see listed a lot of different metals and testing for other things than the original coating. Thermolon was invented in Korea, and there are now an array of different pans coming from Korea with all of the same health claims as GreenPan, namely PFOE, PTFE, Lead and Cadmium Free. We can imagine they’re just OEM Thermolon, or some local competitor with the same or similar technology, which may just be exploiting weaknesses in existing testing standards.
So, for our purposes here, we’re going to be classifying all of the Non-stick pans, regardless of whether they’re from big names or made in the best European Laboratories, as the worst pans you could buy for yourself and your family, and hopefully offer you some very appealing alternatives which have similar benefits.
Health is Life, and there is no Cooking without Life and Health. Your food can either kill or heal you, and no amount of healthy cooking can overcome the massive damage these chemicals do to our bodies. Accordingly, the remainder of this blog will focus only on the Healthy Pots and Pans available made without questionable chemicals, and I encourage you to focus your own cooking there as well.
The Best of the Best:
Let me just preface by saying that nothing is the best for all types of cooking. somethings sticking is a problem, and for somethings liquid is a problem. I’ll get to the proper selection of pans in the last section. For now, just know that the Properly planned Kitchen will have a bit of everything. For this reason, I strongly advise against buying a “Set” of cookware, but rather, only the pans you truly need for each style of cooking.
100% Whole Rock:
I have to give the top award to the Rock. My favorite being the Stone Tablet, or “Dolpan” (돌판). The experience of cooking with Stone Tablets is, truly, Biblical. You might start thinking of yourself as the Moses of the Kitchen, parting pots of water, just don’t be tempted to throw them at your naughty kids. It’s made out of the same Material as the Dolsot (돌솥) and a lot of Cookware around the world. It’s a type of Soapstone (no, not the kind used in welding), the Korean type being called Agalmatolite, which is believed by many around the world to possess the ability to Heal many Afflictions, and is used in Crystal healing and Spiritual Gemology by practitioners of the Holistic Arts. Granite is another common material. Sometimes Asian Soapstone is mistakenly referred to as Granite.
There is something very raw and powerful, that speaks to our most Ancient of Human emotions and Primal instincts, when cooking and eating in an actual Rock. It’s phenomenal. It’s the earliest form of a Culinary Dish for Humans, just one step up from Hot-Stone Cooking which used naturally formed flat or indented rocks heated at the side of Humankind’s earliest fires.
These are 3 varieties, one without handles, one a bit thicker with handles, and one slightly deeper with handles. Here they’re shown in serving trays.
I used my first one for many years, whilst in Asia, until it eventually cracked from my own carelessness. It became quite well-seasoned. This can saute quite nicely, and to this day I have never found a dish I enjoy cooking with more, or which made my food taste so completely perfect. It’s the missing ingredient in whatever you’re cooking now. It imparts a deeply stirring flavor. Rocks have been used for flavor forever, and their popularity is coming back as people realize there are healing properties in being reconnected to the earth. Whiskey Chilling Stones of Soapstone or Granite are a prime example, to both cool your drink and impart a very desirable flavor, greatly enhancing the experience, elevating it to an almost spiritual plane, as only natural stone can do. So it is with your food.
Cooking on stone has to be done a bit like a Cast-Iron Dish, you don’t bang it around or move it around while it’s heated, and are mindful of temperature changes and moisture. You flip things in it with a Metal Spatula or Wooded/Bamboo Chopsticks. It heats up nicely, with a bit more preheating than enameled cast-iron. It absorbs oil but not smells, and can be used to Barbecue, Grill, Pan-Fry, or anything else you can imagine using such a flat dish for. And the Pot version of the Dolpan, the Dolsot, can be used for deep-pot cooking. It comes in a variety of volumes and depths:
The Primary advantage to this over Cast-Iron or Enameled Cast-Iron, is that it has the searing power of Cast Iron, but can be used to braise and stew things, and no amount of liquid cooking for any amount of time can harm it. You can go straight from Browning to Braising to Browning again, then straight to soups.
And the best news, they don’t have any of the problems discussed above, and they’re much cheaper than nearly every other quality option available.
Not to be confused with Stoneware, which is made from clay, but can also be called Dolsot, nor even the terrible fake Stone-Enamel Surfaces which mimic granite but contain chemicals, these Korean Dolwares are made from a complete whole Stone or Rock, which has been carved like any stone carving, into a suitable shape for cooking food.
Stone Cooking is certainly not unique to Korean cooking and is found in cooking around the world, from Brazil and South America, to all over Europe, and back to Japan. Together with Korean Dolwares, any Cookware that is made from Whole Stone wins First Place. Soapstone and related variants are the primary stones used. For the Oven, Whole-Stone Pizza Stones take home the first prize for cooking Breads, Pizzas, Cookies, Flatbreads, or anything which can be baked on a flat surface. These stones are quite similar in material to the stone used in Korea, perhaps a bit less porous or a bit finer-grained, but just as smooth and just as safe.
This Brazilian Soapstone Flattop in a Copper Pan looks really amazing:
Or something like this Soapstone Pizza Stone:
Other Stones that are often found for cooking are Lava Stones, such as Italian Lava Stones from Volcanic Mt. Etna in Sicily.
Anything made from a stone that can stand up to high temperatures is good, such as traditional Hearth Stones.
Other Best of Bests:
Rather than looking for Pots and Pans that say what they DON’T have or what they’re NOT made of, look at pots and pans that say what they DO have, and what they ARE made of.
The best things are listed with things such as “100% Natural Clay”, or they are Pure and Simply one thing, such as 100% Carbon Steel, or all Cast Iron, or all Ceramic, etc.
One great thing to look at is if it passes California Prop 65, certifying it Free from over 800 Chemicals that are known to cause Cancer, including everything used in the construction of cookware.
If you find something on Amazon, and can’t find a Website for it, nor any verifiable information, it’s a good idea to avoid the cookware, as many can have dangerous chemicals & metals. Item descriptions can help you figure out if it’s safe for you.
Unglazed Clay Ceramics:
The Next safest thing are things made from Natural Clays such as Clay Brick Stone, Firebricks, Clay Brick Sheets, Unglazed Cooking Ceramic, Fired Clay Ovens, Tandoor Ovens, and other Unglazed Earthenware made with High-quality, safe Clays, such as Kaolin & Ball Clay. The most important aspect of Clay is that it’s Lead-free. Pure Primary Clay contains various trace minerals, including Iron, which are considered the ideal amounts and source.
Many Oven Stones have natural Cordierite mixed in with the clay to strengthen them and help prevent cracking. In the oven, this material is far preferable to any Non-stick Baking Sheet, Aluminum Baking Sheet, or even Stainless Steel Baking Sheets. It makes great pastries, breads, flat-breads, pizzas, calzones, quesadillas, biscuits, rolls, etc.
Pots containing liquids and so on are usually also cooked in a oven, starting at room temperature and slowly increasing to a fairly low and slow cooking temperature. All Pure unglazed Earthenware Claywares need to be heated slowly, and cooked at lower temperatures, in the Oven or Stove top. Vessels for holding liquid need to be cooked with several times per day for the first few days to get them fully seasoned, or just let water simmer for 30 minutes a few times per day. These are great for roasting and baking and steam-cooking a lot of things such as grains, stews, curries, vegetables, Finishing dishes with combinations of foods partially cooked, dry roasting, Compotes & Casseroles, etc.
Here are some Clickable Examples that take you to the various places you can find them:
Some Earthenwares are made using the Tera-sigillata method of Burnishing the interior, as a “glazeless glazing”, which uses a very ancient and refined process utilizing a very fine slurry of clay particles to brush the interior into a fine shiny surface, similar to a glaze. Here are some truly exquisite Black Clay Chamba ones:
That round flat one above can go right on the burner for making Tortillas, Quesadillas, Roasting Corn or Peppers, etc. And here are some great ones from MEC with Tera-sigillata polishing applied on the inside:
Clear-Glazed Clay Ceramics:
These are Earthenware and Clay Vessels that have been glazed on the inside, or both in and out, though the lids may remain unglazed to help release steam. The safest Glazes are made of primarily Silica and Potash, relying on the Alumin present in the Primary Clay. This means they are completely uncolored. Glazes should be very shiny, rather than Matte, and any sort of coloring adds a corresponding chemical or mineral or metal in higher amounts which will leach into your food. Earthenware also undergoes Low-Fire Glazing, as high temperatures aren’t needed to try and fuse different materials together unnaturally. These look like the normal clay, only shiny. For example, these internally-glazed Römertopf with unglazed lids are still handmade in Germany:
and these interior-glazed Donabe are a smiliar traditional Japanese soup dish from Ancient times, with only bits of Decorative glaze on the outside:
These are great for anything unglazed Claywares are, except they prevent sticking and deal better with liquids than unglazed do. They work better on the Stove-top than unglazed, as the moisture isn’t permeating through the porous bottom.
See-through Crystalline Glass Vitro-Ceramic is an excellent choice for the Mindful Chef. These were big back in the 80’s but were taken over by the Non-stick craze and never really recovered. A lot of these didn’t make it out of the 80s due to accidental breakage, or simply because everyone thought they were old hat, replaced forever by non-stick, sort of like everyone threw away their LPs when CD’s came out, wishing now they never had.
Pyrex Corning Visions makes some of the great original Glassware, and Luminarc Vitro is a great set, made in France. If you can take care of any of the previous items listed, you will be fine with Glassware, which is probably more durable than most of those.
People look at this and think “that isn’t professional”. Neither is Clay Ceramic or Stone, but it produces far superior results. Professional just means it can be banged around, thrown around, and used for High-volume cooking by clumsy, preoccupied people.
Glass-Ceramic can be used for anything you cook that doesn’t require a slippery surface. You can Add oil and brown things just fine, and you can then add in a cup of liquid and braise it for the duration. Great for pies, soups, stews, boiling, steaming, sauces, braising, slow cooking, cooking grains compotes, casseroles, Baked Pasta etc. You probably aren’t going to flip an egg in it or flip a delicate food item that’s been browning on one side without issue. You can use these up to medium high, but don’t turn them to high.
Corningware makes the Classic French White Glass-Ceramic, which is completely Opaque. The original White Ceramic was manufactured with Arsenic in the Oven process, which modern advances in firing technology have let them eliminate. This type of Ceramic is used widely in kitchens, particularly for Ramekins, Appetizers, etc. Wild Colors are to be avoided as much as possible for health reasons, so these are almost found as White, with sometimes some color around the outside.
These are used just like Vitro-Ceramic, but are even more forgiving. These are great for anything you’d use the Vitro-Ceramic for. These are usually for ovens and broilers, but can also be used on stove tops, but no more than a Medium Heat. Glass stove-tops are best, as discoloration and cracking may occur if used on cast iron tops or standard elements.
Porcelain Ceramics are heated at extremely high temperatures, and are therefore safe from any fumes overheating in a kitchen, though they have been known to melt to surfaces if heated on stoves on too high for too long. Never dry-heat these or leave them unattended or allow them to cook down to dry. Be sure to only purchase from well-established brands.
Stainless steel is a popular pan, but like every material, not the best thing for ALL things. It really shines as a Sauce Pot and Stock Pot, making non-reactive soups and for boiling pasta, cooking grains, etc. Stainless Steel should Be Cladded, or put together with another material that conducts and disperse heat evenly. All-Clad is one of the best type of Stainless Steel Pan manufacturers, the best is 5-ply. If it’s All-Clad it’s safe American Steel. Other big brands also make good Steel, but it should be at least 3-ply, preferably 5-ply, with a fully encapsulated Aluminum or Copper Core, not just an aluminum plate stuck on the base like the lower end pans have. Kitchara, Demeyere & Viking each have quality 5-ply Stainless Steel Cookware. There are very low-quality 5-clad made in China or something which are not good. You can get an entire set of these from Costco with the Kirkland brand name for the price of a single All-Clad Pan, which Costco also sells on their website. Buying the one All-Clad pan you want to use the most is much better than buying the entire knock-off set which is made of much poorer quality, thinner, and less safe materials, and warps easily.
However, in order for Steel to be Stainless, it needs a minimum of 11% Chromium, and often have Molybdenum added to make it perform better. They can also contain a number of other metals, such as Nickel, Iron, or Titanium, etc which can leach into the foods. A number of people have been moving away from Stainless Steel Water Bottles for this reason, however, the Stainless Steel in water bottles is surely a far lower quality than that in high-end pans. Leaching is also primarily affected by Acidity, and also by high Alkalinity.
Cheaper Stainless can chip, exposing your food to the Aluminum core. and a lot of pans leave the Aluminum or Copper on the outside of the pan, unencapsulated, either for appearance or to save money.
Most Professional Kitchens use Aluminum pots and pans very lightly clad with Stainless Steel inside only, with aluminum outside, making it extremely common for chipping and contact with Aluminum to occur. So here is where you want to avoid the Professional thing, and go for Artisan and Craft.
The External area of the Pot may be Aluminum, Anodized Aluminum, or it could be Enamel, or Copper or something else entirely, but the internal Stainless Steel is what is contacting your food, and these all fall into the category of Stainless Steel Cookware.
You don’t cook with the Copper in Copper pots, except for some very specific and specialized uses. Copper is a conductor that simply spreads the heat to the entire surface of the copper and transfers that heat to the cooking surface it is Clad with on the inside. The alarming trend of “copper non-stick substance” on the interior of the pan claiming to be Copper is just another gimmick, trying to appeal to the people who have heard of the value Copper pots.
If you see a Copper pot that is copper on the inside, it’s likely a gimmick. If it really does have actual 100% Copper Metal on the inside, it’s just used for certain candy-making or something equally as specialized, and wouldn’t be used for just cooking a meal. Real Copper Pots & Pans for cooking only have Copper on the outside, or it could even be an unseen layer between two layers of Stainless Steel, and just look like Stainless Steel.
Copper, Cast Iron, and Aluminum are highly reactive with Acidic foods such as tomato, and for that reason, any chipping in the stainless steel can completely ruin the dish, and leach toxic amounts of Copper, Iron, or Aluminum into your body. For this reason, the quality and thickness of the Stainless Steel inside the pan is paramount. Again, this is just Stainless Steel Cooking, affecting only heat transfer and dissipation, but isn’t going to affect the core mechanics of cooking with Stainless Steel. Copper isn’t usually 5-ply or even 3-ply, but just Stainless Steel layer Clad to a Copper one, making it thinner and much more temperature sensitive, and much easier to burn or scorch than 5-ply Aluminum Core Stainless Steel. There are some Copper Pans with Aluminum Cores and Stainless Steel Linings that are made quite thick, those are much easier to use.
Stainless Steel isn’t non-stick, but knowing how to use it properly can help you achieve success in most situations. Bring it up to Medium temperature gradually, then add a bit of oil spread it thin and let the oil reach temperature for a bit. Increase heat and wait for the pan to become hot for a bit, until the small bit of oil reaches a high temperature, then place the full amount of cooking oil in the pan you will use and spread it around, and wait for that to come up to temperature. It sometimes can help for you to throw in some aromatics first, such as a crushed clove of garlic or sliced ginger, or some onion slices or carrot or celery or whatever you want, toss that around a bit then remove from pan. Reduce heat to cooking temperature, wait a bit for the pan and oil to cool slightly, then place your primary item in the pan by swiping it through the oil first. Release it from the pan by de-glazing, if necessary, otherwise, just use a metal spatula or metal tongs to release it, turning down the heat slightly, or removing from heat temporarily, if needed.
Otherwise, Stainless Steel is ideal for sauces, soups, stocks, braising, stewing, steaming, boiling, simmering, items with pan gravy and pan sauces de-glazed with a bit of water, stock, wine or spirit, etc. They don’t do great with Tomato Products, and if you are stirring them with Stainless Steel utensils, the metal tends to react with the metal in the pot and make the sauce taste metallic. Stainless Steel can also leach Chromium and Nickel and other metals into your food if used with Acidic foods, so Tomato Sauces are best left to other methods of cooking.
Formed, rather than Cast, Carbon Steel is made from only Iron and Carbon yet can have the same Leaching problem as Stainless Steel, Copper and Cast Iron when used with Acidic foods such as Tomato-based products, wines, etc, or highly Alkaline foods.
Unlike Stainless Steel, Carbon Steel does very poorly with liquids, which can remove the seasoning and cause rust to enter the food. It is entirely possible for the pan to rust while you are cooking, if the coating has been removed with water or other liquid.
These pans are best treated as you would Cast Iron, by avoiding Liquids and Acidic foods, and taking great care to keep them properly seasoned. These require much more frequent seasoning than Cast-iron, and care should be taken to avoid soap when cleaning. They can build up a very good non-stick surface, thought not as thick of a patina as Cast Iron. You clean them using a bamboo wok cleaning brush, and wipe them out the with a paper towel, only simmering a bit of water when needed to clean more, but are always cleaned & seasoned immediately.
The benefit to Carbon Steel is that it is much lighter than Cast Iron, and both heats and cools much quicker. It’s also easier to season. It is perhaps the the closest thing you can get to the experience you have with a non-stick pan, in the way you use and handle it.
That said, it is best left to Sauteing, pan-frying, etc, and is not the ideal pan to de-glaze into a sauce in, although a Heavily seasoned pan can help make this possible on occasion.
Higher Quality Carbon Steel is more forgiving, such as Blue Carbons Steel, or Black Carbon Steel, and their finishes are more resistant to rust and hold up better to liquids.
It can be very bad for your health to consume rust, so making these pans healthy instead of harmful is entirely up to you. To Season them, turn on the fan, add oil, spread it around and cook it until it blackens, then wipe it out and repeat until the entire pan is black and wiping comes out clean. After each use sprinkle some Oil and Kosher salt and wipe it out. Almost all Carbon Steel needs to have the wax burned off before initial use, or some have lighter preparations that just require a quick wash out with soap and water and a good first seasoning. However, burning off the Wax, and subsequently seasoning the entire pan including he sides takes some effort, and should be done outside in a well-ventilate area, especially for larger items like woks. Some good Carbon Steel Brands are Made-in, De Buyer, BK Cookware, Matfer Bougeat, Mauviel, Vollrath, Lodge, and a special mention for the Handmade Artisan BluSkillet.
These pans are the original Non-Stick pans, with care and attention, they can become very rewarding to both maintain and use, and should last you as long as Cast Iron.
There is, however, a new non-stick product worth mentioning. It’s a high-quality Carbon Steel Pan, that undergoes a patented process called Feretic Nitro-Carburization, which takes several hours at 1,000°F. The Process Diffuses the existing Nitrogen and Carbon Atoms between the Iron Atoms, and creates a new surface on the pan consisting only of Iron, Oxygen, Carbon, and Nitrogen, which becomes 9 times harder than Steel with millions of Micro Cavities giving it a very Non-stick surface, which still needs to be seasoned like regular Carbon Steel. As far I as I can tell, this seems like a completely natural Product and Process, just a re-formation and atomic-alteration of the existing Carbon Steel, which changes the entire exposed surface of the pan to a new material, leaving the normal Carbon Steel beneath. But I may be missing some information on a key step or something that wasn’t mentioned. I’m unsure. They are from a company called ICON:
Cast-Iron is another traditional material in use for a very long time. It can have the same problem as other metals where leaching occurs when exposed to Acidic and highly Alkaline foods. It also is not ideal for cooking with liquid, as the liquid can strip the entire Patina off down to the Iron. It is, however, ideal for cooking a lot of foods that don’t need to stew or be made with pan sauces. It’s ideal for Pancakes, Griddle Fritters, Flatbreads, Searing, Sauteeing, Blackening, Grilling, Griddling, Browning, etc. It’s not a Sauce Pot and shouldn’t be treated like one. Not ideal for a great many things, including Deglazing.
You can read more about Cast-Iron care and maintenance on a Cast-Iron post, here
If it’s made with an initial Flax Oil Seasoning, the Cast Iron starts off with a beautiful Bronze Color, but will soon turn to black like all Cast Iron. Some of the Best Brands are Stargazer, Marquette, Finex, Nest, Smithey, Le Creuset, Butter Pat, Ferleon, Milo, SolidTeknics, Snow Peak, Borough Furnace, Wagner, and of course Lodge. AUS-ION is kind of a hybrid between Cast-Iron and most Carbon Steel, so it could be in either category, really. Here are some clickable examples:
The Cast-Iron Patina is very long lasting, and very easy to maintain, and caring for it is a very rewarding labour of love.
I think most people may not know this, but a lot of the Cast-Iron which appears Enameled only on the outside, is actually also Enameled in Matte Black on the inside, encapsulating the entire Cast-Iron completely in Enamel, though it appears to be a Cast Iron cooking Surface.
Porcelain Enamel is Ceramic Frit, a glass derivative, bonded molecularly to the Cast-Iron through very high temperatures. Blue and Green Frit are the most Ancient and Natural, dating to 3,000 BC in Egypt.
The Black Enamel-Lined Cast Iron seems to be more unhealthy than the White enamel interior. It’s a softer enamel and it’s textured and meant to replicate Cast Iron. Matte Enamel is well-known to be far less healthy than Shiny Enamel. With the texture and softness, it’s likely that the Black Interior Enamel is problematic itself, as well as likely leaching from the underlying Cast Iron.
The Black enamel interior is just a terrible surface to cook on. It’s not as durable as Cast-Iron at all, seems much thirstier, requiring even more oil to achieve the same results, and is just really pointless. The White Interior Enamel, which is very hard, smooth and shiny, is a great surface, and likely not problematic unless damaged somehow.
Funky Colors require Chemical and Mineral Reactions that will inevitably be leaching into the food it comes in contact with. This isn’t a big problem if the color is only on the outside. Any Dangerous chemicals leaching into the Porcelain itself likely come from the Internal Cast-Iron it is built around. Many very big, well-known companies source their original Cast-Iron pans from China, or have them Cast there and then shipped elsewhere to undergo Porcelain Enameling. For this reason, even the most well-known companies advise you stop using your Porcelain Enameled Cast Iron if it has been chipped or cracked on any surface which comes in contact with food. This included the interior of the lid where condensation may drip from the chipped area.
Cracking and Chipping can occur from using metal utensils, banging the lid, dropping it, hitting it against a cast-iron Burner, from adding cold liquid to a hot vessel during cooking, trying to wash it in cold water while it’s still very hot, or other carelessness.
As with Any Porcelain, the quality of the materials will determine the safety of the food coming in contact with it. Price doesn’t equate to safety. It may be better to go with smaller artisan brands or brands you know use their own Cast-Iron they make in-house, etc. If the Enamel Interior is not cracked, however, there should not be any leaching from the internal Cast-Iron. Unfortunately, many cracks, fractures, and chips may not be easily visible, and go completely unnoticed.
If the Porcelain Enamel is healthy and kept in good condition, having a Cast-Iron sourced from China shouldn’t be an issue. This opens the door for many lower-priced Enameled Cast-Iron wares to be just as safe as the most expensive ones, provided they are from reputable manufacturers who have tested the Porcelain Enamel as Lead-free and Cadmium-Free. Again, select White Enamel interiors, as the Black Enamel is not as safe or effective as either Cast-Iron or the hard white glossy Enamel. The Black Lining cannot be heated nearly like Cast-iron, and is far less non-stick than Cast-Iron with a quality Patina. Some pans, such as CrockPot Enameled Cast-Iron actually have Teflon inside, so be careful.
The Enamel on the outside serves to help eliminate hot spots vs cast-Iron, protecting the food inside a bit more, allowing it to stand up to sustained browning for longer durations without going too far, and it keeps handles considerably cooler.
Enameled Cast-Iron is not for Searing, Grilling, Griddling, and heavy Sauteing like regular Cast-Iron, and these require rough treatment of the Porcelain Enamel and higher heats. Though the pot or pan may weigh a ton, you need to treat it like you would any Porcelain Ceramic cookware. These pots are ideal for light sauteing, light browning, light pan-frying, Soups, Sauces, Stews, Braising, Stewing, Grain Dishes, Finishing in Ovens, and are the ideal surface for Tomato products and other Acidic or Highly Alkaline foods. You shouldn’t use too high of heat with them nor expose them to quick temperature changes, like all ceramic. Here are some that I think look interesting, which are regulated by the FDA, and don’t use the textured soft matte black coating, and are lined with white Ceramic Porcelain:
There are recently a lot of products claiming to be Ceramic-Coated, which are not glazed-on Stoneware, but use some chemical process to create a spray on Ceramic hybrid material that they claim is safe, but is simply passing the existing tests of the few things they test for currently, but which have not been proven safe, and whose processes and materials are unknown to us. These include “GreenLife” and other such products.
Stoneware is another term whose well has been poisoned by myriad products using chemical processes for creating stone-like wares.
For this section, I am only referring to actual Stoneware, made from Clay, which has a Ceramic Glaze applied, and fused at very high heat.
These are exceptional cookwares. They’re similar to the Ceramic Porcelain-Enameled Cast-Iron, in that their safety depends on the underlying material quality and safety, as well as the quality, safety, and integrity of the Ceramic surface overlay itself. Those in turn depend on the manufacturer. Korea and Japan are well known for their exceptional Ceramic Stonewares, as is Brazil, Columbia, France and other places in Europe, and all have very long traditions dating back to before modern times.
Any Cracks and Chips found in the Glazing should be sent in for repair or replacement, and shouldn’t be used, unless you can verify the safety and origin of the internal Stoneware as well. A lot of what you likely already eat our of is Ceramic Stoneware, as it’s a major portion of our Tableware & Servingware. If you are worried about Enamel-Coated Cast-Iron Chipping or safety, these are much safer.
These are perfect dishes for soups, stews, curries, sauces, braising, stewing, slow cooking, cooking grains, congees, medicinal soups and tinctures and medicinal blends, and a variety of healthy cooking methods. These are better suited to long and slow cooking methods than really any other type of cookware listed. The Original CrockPot made famous for its delectable results was this exact type of Vessel, and it’s been the secret for some of the world’s greatest chef’s for thousands of Years. They’re non-reactive to Tomatoes and make a great Sauce Pot. Use Low and even heat, and savor the process, without rushing to get it done, for a superior finished product. They stand up to some initial browning in fats, but are not ideal for dry cooking methods, and a liquid or sauce or gravy etc should be added and allowed time to develop into a robust and flavorful dish.
A lot of these types of vessels are traditional, and even have a traditional non-glazed origin. They’re a staple in the best dishes in Asia, dishes which sit all day, or sometimes many days and cook the best dishes, the most important medicines, and the most sensitive and refined of foods.
These are even more widely used than the regular White Ceramic, for things such as Gratins, French Soups, etc, and do much better in ovens and stove tops over direct heat.
These aren’t generally just white, though many are. The Ceramic Glazes completely cover the surface, with the exception of sometimes the bottom which has direct contact with the heat source. They are breakable if handled carelessly, or banged around, or subjected to rapid temperature changes, etc, so show them some love.
I attribute the Cost increase to the rise in popularity of a return to natural healthier cookware, and a lack of a number of producers who used to make these a staple for the American home. Places like Korea, Japan, and France, these have remained a constant, irreplaceable staple with deep cultural significance. Here are some clickable images for some Good Brands & Vessels, make sure they say lead-free, or contact the manufacturer if in doubt. Pots form Japan and Korea should be generally safe, as they have some of the longest life spans on Earth and are very concerned with healthy cooking:
We need to find the ideal dish for each of our cooking methods, and main dishes, essentially.
Our Main Cooking Methods are:
- Braising & Stewing
- Simmering, Boiling, Blanching, & Poaching
- Steaming, Pan-Steaming, & Pressure-Steam Cooking
- Baking & Roasting
- Broiling & Pan-Broiling
- Deep-fat Frying & Pressure Frying
Just as an FYI, if we were to eliminate all of the unhealthy cooking methods, we’d only be left with the moist heat cooking methods.
Examples of some Combinations of Cooking Methods which different pans can’t stand up to:
- Browning or Searing before Braising or Stewing
- Sauteing & Griddling before Steaming, Simmering, or Pan-Steaming
- Simmering or Pan-steaming before Sauteing or Griddling
- Pan-Searing, then Simmering or Poaching, then Sauteing or Griddling
- Saute, then Pan-Steam, then Saute again
Various Dish Requirements:
- Cooking with Tomatoes, Alcohols, & Vinegars for prolonged times
- Cooking with thin liquids for prolonged times
- Browning well
- Handling High Heat
- No Sticking of certain foods
- Durability & Long-Lasting
Therefore, the best approach to buying the right cookware for your kitchen needs is to avoid buying pans by the set, and select the perfect pan for each type of cooking. Price is certainly not a very good indicator of the best pan for your needs. Maybe you can afford a $2000 set of pans, or maybe you can afford a $100 set. In either case, don’t buy the set.
Prioritize the one pan that will have the most uses for you, and follow that with the pan that will fulfill the next most important need, and so on.
Allow me to be your Personal Shopper for a moment.
Your First Pan:
Large Enameled Cast-Iron Braiser / Casserole Vessel
Short and wide, these are probably the most useful all-around vessel. These are Shallow enough to be used for Sauteing, Shaped well enough to be used for Stir-Frying, Deep enough to be used for Pan-Frying & Braising, Large enough to be used for Stews, Chowders, Chilis, Curries, & Soups, and can be used on the Stove-Top, Oven, or Broiler. You can make Breakfast Scrambles, You could cook a pancake in the bottom, you can make a Pilaf, Paella, or Biryani, Make a Congee or Porridge, Cook Pasta, Simmer a Tomato Sauce, Brown off some food items, make Fried Rice or Fried Noodles, Make a Casserole, make a Shepard’s Pie in the bottom 1/3, Broil some items, Make a big tray of Nachos, etc. It can handle Browning, Simmering & back to Browning, such as for Gyoza. It deglazes well and won’t strip or leach anything away that would end up in your food. It’s great for most all Dry and Moist Cooking methods, you name it, really.
While it can do everything you need it to do, and do it well, it’s not really specialized for most things, and there are better pans for each individual task.
Your Next Pans:
From here, you will want to build your set around the First dish, by getting dishes better tailored to specific tasks. Select them in order according to your own most needed vessels, but eventually you’ll want to get them all. Instead of spending a bunch of money and getting everything you need in a lower quality version, take you time and get each piece as you can, spending more on each item, when you can. No hurry, the process could take years. Here are my selections for types of pans, pictured with just some clickable examples I found:
6-8 qt. 3-5-Ply Stainless Steel Clad Stock Pot
This is for your Noodles. Get a Minimum of 3-ply, even if you just think you’ll only be using it for Boiling Pasta. You will never regret getting 5-ply and I strongly recommend it. It’s going to make this a great pot for Chowder, Bisque, Stews, and cooking for larger gatherings. 5-ply is definitely Heirloom.
A large 13-15″ Flat 100% Cast-Iron Skillet
These are ideal for Griddling, Breakfast Items, Breakfast Cakes, Skillet Meals, Broiling, Searing, Browning, Pan-Grilling, Roasting, and most any Dry-Heat Cooking Method. These give a nice even browning to everything you put in them. Choose wisely, as these are Heirloom. They are not ideal for Liquids.
3-6 qt. Ceramic Stoneware Soup Pot
This is for your Clear Broth Soups, Congees, Porridges, etc. Select either the Glazed or Unglazed type, or the more refined and polished Tera-sigillata-style Unglazed pots like the Chamba pot above. These are also definitely Heirloom, so teach your family how to show them the love and care they deserve. Glass is also another great option for your soup pot.
Carbon Steel Flat-Bottom Stir-Fry Pan/Wok
Blue Carbon Steel or Black Carbon Steel are the Best types of Carbon Steel. These are great for Fried Rice, Fried Noodles, Stir-Fries, Deep Frying, and most short-term dry Heat Cooking. If you are looking for the healthiest type of stir-fry, stick with the Enameled Cast-Iron Braiser above. These ones are used at higher heat, to impart a high-temp Teppanyaki flavor and distinct browning to your noodles and other items. The interior of the woks should stay quite black after seasoning, and if they aren’t, they need to be seasoned again.
2-4 qt., either Ceramic, Glass, Enameled Cast-Iron, or 5-Ply Stainless Steel. You don’t need different sizes of these, you definitely don’t need the really tiny one that comes in most sets. Just choose the size that works for your family. They work just as well with a small amount as they do with a large amount. These are ideal for sides, Roux sauces, Classic Sauces, gravies, poaching, rices & grains, veggies, quick Porridges & Oatmeals, etc. Be careful of Copper Clad Stainless Steel that consists of only 2 layers. If the layers are not very thick, it can be a bit difficult to use and avoid scorching, and requires constant close attention and a Gas Stove to control temperatures very instantly. Again, 5-ply are Heirloom.
9-12″, either Enameled Cast-Iron, 5-ply Stainless Steel, or a thick Copper with a thick Aluminum Core and thick Stainless interior. Use these pans for a nice even browning, and if you plan on putting any sort of liquid in the pan at all. If not, you can use Carbon Steel Saute Pans for a much better Char, and for a Teppanyaki type grill surface. They can handle some deglazing but it can cause leaching if it penetrates the patina:
These are for roasting the various items you need for Dinners, Weekly Meal Preps, etc. I recommend rectangular ones, to optimize Oven Space, and square ones if they can fit 2 deep in your oven. You should get enough to completely fill your oven as full as possible, eventually. Ceramic is best for heat retention and distribution, Glass is great for roasting too. Just be sure to let them cool before washing or soaking. Oiling the surface before baking will make for an easy clean up. Most commercial Roasting pans are Aluminum, which isn’t safe. Stainless Steel ones aren’t 5-ply or even 3-ply, and tend to burn easily and remain too hot for a long time outside of the oven. There are Cast-Iron Roasting Pans, which save space from putting a Cast-Iron skillet with a long handle in the oven.
Use these for Sauteeing, Pan-frying, Braising, etc, just as you would a Griddle, Saute Pan, or Braising pan, Sauce Pot, Sizzling Platter, etc, and you can use them in place of any of the pans listed above. You can use a stone Pestle to Grind up Spices or Herbs right in the pot, like you would in any stone Mortar, before adding oils and liquids and starting to cook. These are definitely a Primary pan, just listed in Specialty as they’re rather hard to find. Your best bet is in Korean Markets, or go to Korea. Hopefully this post can help generate demand and make them easier to find.
These are for special Curries, Soups, Udons, Stews, etc. You can place one on each burner and make 4 simultaneous personal pots of glory.
These are a very healthy way to keep your food and flavorings undisturbed. Just put your dish and the seasonings or sauce in a shallow ceramic dish and set that in the steamer. Get bamboo steamers wet first. Some Ceramic Pots are made to hold Bamboo steamers, making it convenient. You can also find a pot with the same diameter as your steamers, or get a pot that is larger and cut your own wooden cover that is larger than the pot, and cut a hole in the center of the wood that’s just as big as the inside ring of the bamboo steamers.
Pie & Tart Dishes
Ceramic are the best for even, dissipated heat. Glass are great too. Avoid Aluminum or Steel.
I recommend Ceramic Stoneware Baking Sheets. Commercial ones are all Aluminum, which isn’t healthy, even with parchment paper on it.
I recommend an Actual Stone, like the stone from Sicily’s Mt. Edna, made in Italy, available for a steal on Amazon. Or a Soapstone Pizza Stone. Or just a regular unglazed Ceramic Brickstone Pizza Stone. Larger Square or Rectangular ones are best, where you use a Peel to remove them. It’s hard to find large rectangular Soapstone, though. There are also Glazed Ceramic Brickstones:
These create a mini Oven within an oven, and give a nice even heat to the bread items within, even if your oven doesn’t.
After that, you can just add to your collection by getting larger and smaller of the same items above, or add whatever you need for your usage. Just remember to go for Craft, Artisan Quality, and Heirloom Vessels. Just enjoy the process and don’t rush it, it may never be complete. Get the pieces you really want, not just the ones you can afford today.
Advancing Our Cooking Skills
Time to address the elephant in the room. How do we make that perfect meal, from browning to using liquids, without leaching metals or ruining patinas?
The perfect pot is perhaps your own technique. You can start something on a good browning surface and Brown it very nicely, even til nearly fully cooked. You can then transfer it to a Dish that is not as Non-stick, but which can handle Liquids.
For example, Start your item on cast-iron until it’s well-browned. Remove the item from the Cast-Iron and set it in a preheated Ceramic dish, or Enameled Cast-Iron, or Clay Pot, or Glass etc. Add in your liquids and flavorings, or have them already simmering. Continue cooking, thickening, and finishing as you normally would. In this way, you can keep the heat down on the pans that you shouldn’t heat very high, and avoid sticking on surfaces that are prone to sticking without the presence of liquid.
This is how you can have a deeply caramelized dish that cooks in an Earthenware vessel, etc.