Cookware and Cancer
December 1, 2007 5:21 AM   Subscribe

Non-Stick pans and Cancer. I'm afraid to use my flaking teflon pans because of the cancer risk that I have heard rumor of. What is the safest, healthiest cookware to buy?

Of course the less food sticks the the surface the better, but is there anything that is non-stick that doesn't cause cancer in the realm of cookware? My mother swears that the aforementioned cookware that she bought us for a gift could not possibly cause cancer. After all, the QVC guy said the cookware would never flake.
We went into a home store to look at alternative and it seems we will have to pay a fortune for some other kind of surface. Is there any way around this for quality cookware that is safe? I will pay what I have to, but of course would like to avoid paying for expensive cookware if cheap cookware is as good. All options needed here. Help! We want to eat eggs again.
posted by boots77 to Health & Fitness (50 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
One suggestion is cast iron... it isn't cheap, but it will last for generations. And, if seasoned correctly and maintained well, can be very non-stick.....

My experience is that you get what you pay for with cookware......
posted by HuronBob at 5:31 AM on December 1, 2007 [1 favorite]

The so called cancer risk is from the vapors released when it is overheated. The ragged aspect just affects its ability to let food slide off easily.
posted by caddis at 5:35 AM on December 1, 2007

I absolutely love cooking with cast iron. If you keep a cast iron skillet seasoned, eggs won't stick at all. (And the amount of work it takes to keep cast iron seasoned is pretty minimal — I actually find it sort of a nice ritual now and then.)

Mark Bittmann agrees.
posted by adiabat at 5:35 AM on December 1, 2007

First, always get rid off flaking non-stick cookware.

Second, you can get relatively inexpensive good quality, teflon products at a restaurant supply store. Your profile did not state where you are at but you can look up where restaurant supply stores are to be had that are open to the public. The pans are quite good and the price can't be beat in comparison to All-Clad. Now, if you are thinking T-Fal level of price for non-stick you are in for a slight shock. I used T-Fal for a year and did not go through the hardcore levels I put through other pans. My conclusion of the year of non-stick was pay the extra for restaurant level pans.

Third, cookware preference is really in the hands of the cook. For those following macrobiotics it is stainless steel. Unfortunately, really good stainless steel cookware is expensive. You can go anodized aluminum such as, Calphalon but that is not cheap either unless you get a real good sale OR go for their home line that can be found in stores like Target which, I am not sure is in your area.

My life is cuisine and err..*cough* technology. It is well worth the little extra not to have cheap cookware. Just remember that Anodized aluminum and teflon surfaces do not like dishwasher machines. I speak of this as one who arrived back to whitish Calphalon pans.
posted by jadepearl at 5:41 AM on December 1, 2007

Cast iron.
posted by R. Mutt at 5:42 AM on December 1, 2007

(Also, the previous answer that cast iron isn't cheap is not at all true, in my opinion. I think it definitely runs a little more expensive than the very cheapest of Teflon, but it's tons cheaper than All-Clad and the like, and probably even cheaper than a lot of upscale Teflon sets. It does indeed last forever.)
posted by adiabat at 5:43 AM on December 1, 2007

I wondered the same thing for awhile and dug pretty deep into the subject over the summer. Creditable folks began to look through it and found that the pans' emission of PFOA was negligible at best. As you read the articles on this topic be sure to take a look at the date. Things after about June of 2007 seem to sing a different tune. Here is an article from Consumer Reports June 2007.

"We found very little PFOA in the tested air samples. The highest level was about 100 times lower than levels that animal studies suggest are of concern for ongoing exposure to PFOA. With the aged pans, emissions were barely measurable.

CR’s take. Experts we consulted from government, industry, and environmental groups agree that the amounts of PFOA emitted by nonstick cookware probably don’t contribute much to your total PFOA exposure (the manufacture, use, and disposal of an array of products, including waterproof fabrics and electronic parts, can release PFOA into the environment). And research by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration suggests it’s very unlikely that significant amounts of PFOA migrate from pans into food. Still, it’s sensible to take a few precautions with nonstick cookware. Use ventilation when cooking, don’t put empty pans over very high heat, and toss pans that have started to flake. Flaking can cause uneven heating that might accelerate emissions."

posted by bkeene12 at 5:49 AM on December 1, 2007 [4 favorites]

One suggestion is cast iron... it isn't cheap

It's only expensive if you are buying the fancy stuff -- you can buy basic Lodge frying pans from about $15-$20 MSRP. Walmart's website lists skillet prices from under $9, for example. And since the stuff never wears out, $15 for a 12" skillet that will last you for the rest of your life doesn't seem like a bad deal to me, and certainly cheaper than a new non-stick pan every couple of years.

I guess it is possible that the expensive stuff would work better; I don't know because I am still using the cheap cast iron I bought more than a decade ago, and it gets better every year. You can buy it at any big box retailer, plus of course local cooking stores, as well as stores that sell camping supplies -- probably the pre-seasoned stuff is better if you don't want to bother with seasoning the pan. I've bought both regular and pre-seasoned, and after a while you can't tell the difference.
posted by Forktine at 5:53 AM on December 1, 2007 [1 favorite]

Cast Iron. I have all of my Dad's original cast iron frying pans - in various sizes from 16" down to a pan barely big enough to make a grilled cheese sandwich. Dad bought these pans right after WWII, when he returned home from Europe and restarted his life. He was a chef's assistant in Chicago before the war, and a Mess Sargeant during the war. My pans are older than I am by a few years, at least. (I was born in 1950.)

They are wonderfully seasoned, both with years of reliable service, and love.
posted by Corky at 6:25 AM on December 1, 2007 [1 favorite]

PFOAs are a significant concern, there are creditable studies linking non-stick cookware to low birth weights among other things. Fluoro compounds in general are turning out to be greater endocrine disruptors than previously thought. The argument used to be that they couldn't react with anything so what harm could they do? It turns out that they can mimic hormones.

To address boots77 question, the best surfaces for food contact are metal and glass. There are some metals you don't want to use for cooking obviously, but if you stick to any of the ones sold for food use, steels, cast iron, aluminum, even tin, you'll be safe. Copper is fine for molds and bowls, but you don't want to cook hot or acid foods in it.

Avoid most plastics for food use where possible, and never cook in plastic (heat in the microwave in a plastic container).
posted by bonehead at 6:36 AM on December 1, 2007

Ms. Bluefrog and I have turned to cast iron (Lodge products) a few years back (after reading this NYTimes article), and we haven't looked back since. We have a large 18" skillet and a sauteuse (with lid) that we use almost everyday day. It does require a bit of attention (we scrub them using hot water only, no soap; dry them up right away on the stove and rub in a bit of oil to preserve the seasoning), but they actually get better with time. We even found, in a yard sale, a very old small skillet whose surface is as smooth as a mirror. Nothing can stick to it.
posted by bluefrog at 7:07 AM on December 1, 2007

Nthing cast iron. It really is the best out there. One warning, however: if you have a flat cooktop, and not a conventional stove with burners, check your manual because many flat cooktops will be damaged if you use cast iron.
posted by fvox13 at 7:18 AM on December 1, 2007

Personally, I don't like cast iron because it's too heavy. I have plain Farberware 18/10 stainless steel, and while it's not "non-stick" per se, it is easy to clean, distributes heat very evenly, not too heavy, and still looks great 5 years after I bought it.
posted by acridrabbit at 7:25 AM on December 1, 2007

Cast iron. Cast iron. Cast iron. (For everything but eggs. I take pretty scrupulous care of my skillet, and it still doesn't compare to a good non-stick pan for whipping up an omelette.)
posted by LairBob at 7:25 AM on December 1, 2007

Can't say enough about cast iron. I have a 10" skillet I found in a thrift shop for $1.50 in college 15 years ago and it is my favorite pan in the whole wide world. It is the only pan I use for eggs of any kind, browning meats, frying potatoes, caramelizing onions, etc. Nonstick and aluminum pans, I find, result in blander food with not nearly the flavor, texture, and color appeal. I have a fancy pants posh expensive set of Calphalon but I hardly use them in favor of my cheapo cast iron. No other kind of pan gives the results of good browning, aroma, color, and savory crisped outer texture to the food. Of course a bit of oil must be used: butter, olive, baconfat, etc. I only wipe it out with a paper towel after it cools post-cooking and it keeps its seasoning perfectly. I don't even have to re-season it, ever. At the most, if it gets really grungy I run it under hot water and scrub with a non-soaped brush then wipe dry right away. I wish I had a bigger one, and one of those flat griddle things that would straddle 2 burners (hm, I think I know what to ask for xmas now). Oh, and the best soup/ pasta/ stockpot in the world is the 8-quart one in this stainless steel set by Kitchenaid. We found it sold by itself at Kohl's a few years ago. Wonderful heavy bottom, doesn't burn a thing, cleans beautifully. I cook a *lot* and could get by with just these 2 pans on the stovetop. (Okay, well, maybe my world would be more perfect with one more cast iron skillet...)
posted by cuddles.mcsnuggy at 7:52 AM on December 1, 2007

Cast iron leeches iron into your food, and too much iron (especially in men) is a contributing factor to many diseases. Stainless steel seems safest, but does not have the nice non stick factor.

At any rate, it seems not worth it to worry about the type of pan when you imply you will use it to fry eggs. Frying causes the cholesterol in the eggs to oxidize, which is a major contributing factor to heart disease.
posted by davar at 9:15 AM on December 1, 2007 [1 favorite]

Thanks, davar, for ruining breakfast.
posted by notyou at 9:25 AM on December 1, 2007 [1 favorite]

I can't no-one's mentioned cast iron yet.

Seriously though, cast iron is awesome and, if treated right, fairly non-stick.
posted by lekvar at 9:26 AM on December 1, 2007

Cast iron leeches iron into your food

Perfect for vegetarians! Buy a cast iron fry pan. Seriously.
posted by goo at 9:39 AM on December 1, 2007

Well seasoned cast iron cookware is amazingly nonstick. If you do use teflon cookware, never let it sit on the heat with nothing in it, as that will cause toxic fumes to rise from it. Preheating nonstick is bad bad bad.
posted by HotPatatta at 10:01 AM on December 1, 2007

how about on open pit and bamboo skewers?
posted by priested at 10:24 AM on December 1, 2007

Given the tremendous cast iron love here, can I just note that while cast iron has many advantages, it is a total pain in the butt no matter what anyone says. I use it with some frequency particularly to sear/"grill" meats in the home, but it is quite heavy and requires far more care in the way of seasoning and cleaning if done appropriately. Perhaps I overdo it, but my cleaning regimen boarders on ritual with rinsing, reheating to dry, oilings, more reheating and the like. I would never ever want to use cast iron in day-to-day cooking and I couldn't imagine the weight of cast iron pots and such.

If you're afraid of any non-stick surfaces then you may as well be afraid of all non-stick surfaces. Honestly, while the jury is somewhat out on the subject from a health standpoint, if you really want to be cautious then virtually all non-stick surfaces have some cause for concern. Consequently, if you agree that cast iron is prohibitively heavy, my preference would be high quality 18/10 steel. It isn't non-stick per se but good steel cookware can tolerate exuberant scouring/cleaning and has a lifespan comparable to if not better than well-kept cast iron. A couple of pieces of either All Clad stainless steel, LTD, or MC2 series are what I'd consider. Or if you want to get fancy and dig into your wallet deeper, go with the Copper Core series.
posted by drpynchon at 10:24 AM on December 1, 2007

Like everyone else, I love my cast iron (basic Lodge pans, cast in the same US factory that's been cranking them out for ages) The newer, fancier, enameled ones from Lodge are made in China, and don't have quite the heft (and heat holding ability) of the old ones.

My day-to-day go-to pans are Circulons that I've had for years. They're non-stick, so you don't want to heat them up too high... but they haven't flaked a bit and are a pleasure to work with.

However -- the least reactive, most inert cookware that I own is a pot that I use primarily for cooking rice dishes (and citrus-based sauces). It's a Corning Visions pan, made of Pyrex. It is not non-stick, but it is so very smooth, that it's pretty close -- and it's extremely easy to clean, even when you burn stuff. Cooking with it is a little different than with metal cookware (it has heat inertia, so in a way it's like cooking on an electric cooktop), but it's not difficult to get used to.

If I were primarily concerned with the potential health effects of my cookware, I'd certainly own more Visions stuff. Unfortunately, Corning stopped making them in 2001, and it's rare to find them new these days (though Amazon and others still have a few in the warehouse). But -- unless you drop one onto your granite countertop, these things are hard to damage, and can be thoroughly sanitized, so the used/secondary market isn't as unthinkable as it might be for something like T-Fal.
posted by toxic at 10:43 AM on December 1, 2007

Cast Iron's great to cook in, but not for eggs. Amazon sells the Calphalon cheap, too, so get one of those.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 10:54 AM on December 1, 2007

I quit using my Teflon-coated pans when I found out that the toxic PFOA isn't created when the pan is heated. It's already there, trapped in the Teflon - it's just the softening of the Teflon polymer with heat that allows it to be released.

The standard of evidence isn't very strong that using Teflon pans is actually toxic, but I decided that the dubious benefit of non-stick cookware (which can't tolerate metal utensils or the dishwasher) doesn't outweigh even a nebulous potential risk of getting cancer from it.
posted by ikkyu2 at 11:04 AM on December 1, 2007

Perhaps I overdo it, but my cleaning regimen boarders on ritual with rinsing, reheating to dry, oilings, more reheating and the like. I would never ever want to use cast iron in day-to-day cooking and I couldn't imagine the weight of cast iron pots and such.

If I had to do that every time, I wouldn't use the cast iron either. I don't do almost any of that -- I just use hot water and a brush or sponge to get the old food out, and then either dry the pan on the stove or just invert it on a dishtowel if it is warm already. I very occasionally re-oil the pan when it is looking dry and less shiny. So more work than putting a pan in the dishwasher, but not by much.
posted by Forktine at 11:24 AM on December 1, 2007

Second hand smoke will give you cancer, solar radiation will give you cancer, preservatives will give you cancer, fried foods will give you cancer, heck, life itself will give you cancer. The cancer causing agents in teflon are a byproduct of manufacture and are not present in the final product, and toxic chemicals are only released at extremely high temperatures. So, unless you like to leave your pans on a full burner for hours at a time, you should be okay!

Don't sweat the small stuff, buy a decent (by which I mean the most expensive you can possibly afford) non stick pan that doesn't flake, treat it with care, and it provide you with years of safe fried egg goodness. Some of the really good pans won't even flake if you use metal tools on them.

Teflon health risks,

At any rate, remember that you can better reduce your overall cancer risk by what you cook in your pan, rather than what pan you cook in.
posted by tomble at 12:45 PM on December 1, 2007 [2 favorites]

Ceramic cookware like Le Creuset will not react with anything.
posted by oneirodynia at 12:52 PM on December 1, 2007

Of course, all their fry/grill pans are either stainless or cast iron, so if that's what you're looking for, then they are not ceramic inside.
posted by oneirodynia at 12:55 PM on December 1, 2007

If your non-stick is flaking, it's either poor quality or just plain old. Either way, it should have been thrown out some time ago.

For eggs, I would actually stick (sigh) with non-stick. The Cook's Illustrated / America's Test Kitchen folks do excellent reviews, so I would check there. They generally recommend both an absolute best and a best value. What you saw in the home store (depending on where you went) might have been both not as good and more expensive than a Cook's best value :).

For skillets in general, I also like both cast iron and stainless steel. I use the cast iron primarily for things that need a good sear (pretty much any red meat). Cast iron could probably handle pretty much everything, but stainless is nice for things that have a delicate flavor (fish) or for acidic sauces, or just for convenience versus cast iron.

For cast iron I would go with Lodge Logic pre-seasoned. For stainless, I got All-Clad, but I'm sure you could do fine for a lot less money :). And as for the price of cast iron, a good thing to remember is that cast iron is by far the cheapest. A 12-inch Lodge Logic skillet on Amazon is $16. If the cast iron you're looking at seems expensive, it's foofy cast iron. If the non-stick or stainless that you're looking at is cheaper than cast iron, it's CRAP.
posted by madmethods at 1:11 PM on December 1, 2007

Perhaps I overdo it, but my cleaning regimen boarders on ritual with rinsing, reheating to dry, oilings, more reheating and the like.

No offense, but that's like saying "I don't recommend driving cars, because every time I get in the car, I make a habit of banging my head against the doorframe three times." No one would want to drive if you had to do that, but you don't have to do that.
posted by LairBob at 1:26 PM on December 1, 2007

I got skeeved out by all the dead canary teflon stories and figured, hey, why risk it? So now I'm all cast iron. I figure that exposure to unnatural chemicals is probably best avoided whenever you can. Unnatural chemicals undergoing changes due to heating IN MY FOOD sounds like an unnecessary risk even if it's low. We only know as much as the last scientific study, and iron has a much longer history than teflon (plus it's already in us naturally).

I also heard something about aluminum being bad, but I think I also heard that discredited.

As for stainless steel, my buddy who went to culinary school said stainless steel does not distribute heat very evenly. Copper does a much better job but is very expensive. So what you'll sometimes see is stainless steel pots with copper bottoms. Or they'll talk about the bottom of the pan having a layer of copper inside (but who knows unless you saw it open?)

I don't like the weight of cast iron, but it's not like they travel much farther than from oven to range or range to sink. There is lots of info online about seasoning. And if you screw up, you can always strip them down and start over.

Re iron leeching - I have read that leeching is pretty minimal (e.g. <>
I personally have not noticed differences in the taste of the food from nonstick to cast iron, so I imagine they must be subtle if present at all.

I always cook my eggs in my cast iron and they do fine. I also like feeling like I'm Granny on the Beverly Hillbillies.

My three nested skillets cost me like $10 on sale at Sears. I suppose my grandkids will be cooking with lasers or nukes or something, but if not they can use these. I have read that Chinese stuff of unverifiable composition can result in uneven heating areas but mine seem to do fine.
posted by Askr at 1:35 PM on December 1, 2007

Hard anodized aluminum cookware is pretty easy to care for, but it isn't something you put in the dishwasher. Usually, a quick swish in sudsy water with a non-scratch scubber is all that is needed, but if you fry or braise, and don't deglaze effectively, you can easily remove any resultant residue with a bit of Barkeeper's Friend, or Dormond Cleanser, and a few seconds of scrubbing. The surface should be a velvety dark gray in color when it is clean, and Barkeeper's Friend will return a hard anodized cookware surface to this state safely and easily.

Anodized aluminum is a lifetime surface, that will stand up nicely to metal utensils, and the cookware is extremely heat conductive, so that the kinds of burning and scorching you sometimes get in stainless steel at high temperature is never an issue (although if you turn the heat way up, you'll scorch food in any cookware, eventually). Because aluminum is so conductive, and light (low mass), it has low thermal mass, and so is immediately responsive to changes in burner settings, which makes it ideal for reductions and sauces. The better sets go easily from stove top to oven, for maximum flexibility. One individual piece I recommend highly is the Calphalon 12" Everyday Pan, which is perhaps the most useful kitchen implement I've ever owned. In fact, I have 3 of them!

And here's an 8 piece glass lidded WearEver set for just $89.99, with free shipping.
posted by paulsc at 1:38 PM on December 1, 2007

That was supposed to say "...leeching is pretty minimal (e.g. less than the 10-15 mg we require) and that there are better ways to get dietary iron if you're looking for it. Acidic things like tomatoes, especially when cooked for a long time, can increase the leeching."
posted by Askr at 1:39 PM on December 1, 2007

Does anyone know if the "surface" on hard anodized aluminum is some kind of chemical coating, or is it just the result in the surface level of metal from anodizing? My thought has been the latter but the labels always use vague terms.
posted by Askr at 1:44 PM on December 1, 2007

The problem I have with anodized aluminum cookware is specifically eggs. Don't know why, but they seem to stick like crazy, really cemented to the surface and difficult to clean. And no, I didn't crack an egg into a dry pan -- that was with a decent amount of butter.
posted by madmethods at 2:02 PM on December 1, 2007

Get one new Teflon pan for eggs. Definitely look into cast iron for other cooking. Here is a long thread about "seasoning" cast-iron cookware to get that wonderful non-stick surface.

You can sometimes get old, well-seasoned, well-made cast-iron pans at antique stores or estate sales. Many people think that the older cast-iron pans are even better than the ones made today.
posted by Ostara at 2:21 PM on December 1, 2007

"Does anyone know if the "surface" on hard anodized aluminum is some kind of chemical coating, or is it just the result in the surface level of metal from anodizing?..."

Calphalon, IMHO, has really screwed the pooch, marketing wise, with their attempts to market various versions of non-stick cookware, including Calphalon One, and their "Kitchen Essentials" line as "hard anodized" exteriors, whilst the Kitchen Essentials stuff actually has a conventional Teflon II interior coating, and the expensive flagship Calphalon One has its "infused" synthetic cooking surface. Understandable, perhaps, as many new cooks, or people buying cookware for newly weds, eschew anything that doesn't have "non-stick" in its labeling, as being somehow inferior. But it makes choosing real, hard anodized cookware much harder, and Calphalon has now stopped making Commercial Hard Anodized cookware entirely. Sigh. More's the pity, as CHA was never "broken" to people who used it, but Calaphon must make, I guess, what the market wants.

Genuine hard anodized cookware has only an anodized aluminum surface, which is effectively an aluminum oxide coating about .020 of an inch thick, over the aluminum alloy base material. Aluminum oxide is very hard, and is the principal component of industrial grinding wheels. It protects the underlying comparatively soft aluminum alloy from the cooking process, imparts the resistance to acids and salts that good cookware needs, and has the interesting property of trying to "heal" itself, over time, from minor nicks due to percussive impacts. These last two properties are what give hard anodized cookware its "lifetime" reputation with metal implements, and various cooking chemistry and methods. It's such an effective anti-wear coating, that the insides of modern BMW aluminum block automobile and motorcycle engines have a variant type of anodized coating, called Nikasil, cylinder walls.

Look for genuine Commercial Hard Anodized, if you want a "lifetime" metallic oxide cooking surface in lightweight, easy care, fast heating aluminum cookware.

"... Don't know why, but they seem to stick like crazy, really cemented to the surface and difficult to clean. ..."

I make omelets 2 or 3 days a week in Calphalon Commercial Hard Anodized, and I never have 'em stick. Never.

99% of sticking issues with hard anodized cookware are simply due to the pan not being really clean. Clean your omelet pan with Barkeeper's Friend, or the Dormond Cleanser. You need to be sure you're right down to the anodized surface, and that any old protein/fat is long gone. The surface should be a uniform, velvety dark grey color when it is clean. You can generally feel any old grease or protein deposits easily, as increased drag, with a wet finger. When dry, you shouldn't see any discoloration, or patterns, just the uniform, semi-gloss to flat dark gray anodized surface. It will feel uniformly slick to a wet finger, when truly clean.

The next issue is to be sure you are bringing your pan to cooking temperature, before introducing your cooking fat. Putting salted butter or lard into a cold anodized pan, and then bringing it up to temperature is inviting sticking, because clean anodized cookware is easily "wet" by even unpolarized oils, much less organic admixtures of fats and water, like butter or lard. Just get the pan to cooking temperature, drop in a 1/2 pat of butter, and see it immediately bubble/brown at the edges. That is cooking temperature, ready for eggs. If you want 'em sunny side up, or over easy, you'll need more fat than that, but melt your fat completely, to the point of browning, before introducing your eggs. For omelets, a 1/2 a pat is plenty for the standard 8" omelet pan.

Remember that hot hard anodized cookware will transfer a lot of heat, fast, to your eggs. A standard two egg omelet will be ready to flip in less than 60 seconds, at sea level, and will fluff/finish in another 45 seconds on the flipped side. Thus, if you are adding fillings in the pan, before folding an omelet as you plate, your fillings should be prepared beforehand, ready to add. I, for example, frequently pre-brown a little butter, and saute some sweet onions, celery and mushrooms in a separate skillet, to have ready when starting omelets. After flipping the omelet, I quickly add a couple of thin slices of cream cheese, scoop on a couple tablespoons of my onion mixture, and fold the omelet as I plate it, all within the 45 seconds it takes the omelet to fluff/finish the second side. The latent heat of the sauteed onion mixture is what melts the cream cheese, more than the heat from the omelet. The idea is to put the eggs on the plate, still cooking internally from pan temperature, thereby getting a delicately browned, crisp visible exterior, and a soft tender egg interior, with plenty of steam at the first breaking with the fork.

But you can keep making omelets in hot pan, by adding fat judiciously, nearly indefinitely. I've made 12 omelets in series, for large family breakfasts, with nary a hint of sticking.
posted by paulsc at 3:10 PM on December 1, 2007 [6 favorites]

iron has a much longer history than teflon (plus it's already in us naturally).
That's the natural fallacy. Plenty of natural things with a long history are worse for you than newfangled artificial things.

I used to worry about those things. Shopping was awful, because I could not find a pan that was good enough and within my budget and that worried me. Not even stainless steel was good enough, because it had to be the right kind of stainless steel (because of nickel content - nickel is a carcinogen). I am now convinced that all that worrying about things was more detrimental for my health than whatever pan I use.
posted by davar at 3:58 PM on December 1, 2007

I got rid of my non-stick pans because if you accidentally leave it on too hot and burn off the coating, the vapors will cause pet birds to die a very painful, slow, seizure-filled death. Mrs. tacodog has seen many birds die this way at the clinic she works in and, since we too have pet birds, out the non-stick pans went.

We use stainless steel right now but I plan to replace them with cast iron... whenever.
posted by Tacodog at 4:02 PM on December 1, 2007

Also, as Paracelsus said in the sixteenth century: All things are poison and nothing is without poison, only the dose permits something not to be poisonous. And of course that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger.
posted by davar at 4:06 PM on December 1, 2007 [1 favorite]

One thing that is hard to get across to people new to hard anodized cookware, is that it is fast. Fast, like a Ferrari is fast, even if you drive the Ferrari within the legal speed limit. The exterior hard anodized coating is very efficient in picking up heat from the burner, or electric eyelet. The aluminum alloy body of the cookware transmits heat more efficiently than any other material except pure copper. The curved shape of most anodized cookware designs is an effective concentrator of heat absorbed from a somewhat more diffuse, larger radius exterior. And the interior surface of clean hard anodized cookware is a good black body radiator, with very high surface energy.

Like a Ferrari in unskilled hands, it's easy to "get behind" hard anodized cookware, as aircraft pilots would say. Significant changes in cooking processes happen quickly in hard anodized cookware. To cook at the full potential the cookware offers, your ingredients must be ready, you must be observant, and in control of your technique. You can instantly change the cooking process by removing heat, adding colder or warmer ingredients, or simply sending the still cooking ingredients for a little trip in the air, by flipping or shaking them. For the organized cook, these properties give a fine degree of control, available with few other cooking surface technologies. But if your idea of a good pot or pan is one you can forget for hours at a time, with no negative consequences, hard anodized cookware may not be your best choice.

Cast iron, because of its greater mass, has a much higher specific heat. If you are used to cooking in hard anodized aluminum cookware, cooking in cast iron feels like cooking in a pressurized space suit - everything slows down, and food surface textures and consistencies get funky, waiting on the iron to heat and cool. Which is not to say that cast iron doesn't have a place in my kitchen.

Cast iron is the ne plus ultra in fat frying. My recipe for Southern fried chicken calls for my big ol' cast iron skillet, and a ton of lard, before it even talks about killin' a chicken. And cast iron is what you want if you're going to be rendering. Nothing renders bacon to "a crisp," or hogs to pork rinds, like cast iron. These again, being cooking tasks to which cast iron's high specific heat is well suited, considering the need to drive off large quantities of water vapor, from fat emulsions, without burning or massively degrading the fat/protein products left behind. And for baking cornbread, nothing beats cast iron, again because of the excellent match of cast iron's physical properties to the process requirements.

But if I've got to make a flavorful, yet delicate reduction, give me hard anodized cookware, with its speed, every time. If you want something memorably braised, hand me down a hard anodized Everyday Pan. If you want an omelet, no question, I'll need my hard anodized pan...
posted by paulsc at 4:17 PM on December 1, 2007

paulsc: "Calphalon, IMHO, has really screwed the pooch..."

OMG, I knew I liked paulsc for a reason. I cannot Word! his above post and follow-up enough, but want to add an especially emphatic Hell Yeah! to the first point.

I was lucky enough to get a ridiculous deal on a complete set of Magnalite Professional Hard-Anodized cookware over a decade ago, without even appreciating how great the stuff would turn out to be. At first glance, I got a Calphalon knockoff line for pennies on the dollar because it wasn't being made any more. As I would later find out, this was the line CIA used to make their students buy. Talk about good fortune... Anyway, if it's good enough for the CIA it's certainly more than fine for OG's humble galley.

So, my pots and pans don't have non-stick coating -- but seriously, that's a HUGE plus. As long as you keep things clean, never any sticking problems. You can use metal utensils as long as you don't go nuts. And everything paulsc says about the conductivity of HAA is totally true, as is the almost-creepy self-healing quality. This is cookware to sell a kidney for.

One major thing -- never, never NEVER put it in the dishwasher. According to the manual, dishwashers and anodized cookware really hate each other -- but again, it's so non-stick it's ridiculously, amazingly simple to keep clean, so there was never any reason to tempt fate (and no way am I going to risk these guys anyway.)

I can not for the life of me figure out why it's almost impossible to find non-non-stick HAA in home stores. To me, there is no substitute, and adding Teflon/whatever is completely superfluous. I guess it's a marketing thing or something.

If you can get your hands on a similar product, go for it and don't look back. I seriously would rather have somebody steal my car than my pots and pans. I swear, my last girlfriend stuck around months longer than she should have because she couldn't give up the omelets. Really.
posted by Opposite George at 5:46 PM on December 1, 2007

Cast iron all the way, works great on eggs for me, works great on tofu (stainless steel sucks for that unless you use half a cup of oil). The caring routine takes me about no time at all.
posted by salvia at 6:06 PM on December 1, 2007

No offense, but that's like saying "I don't recommend driving cars, because every time I get in the car, I make a habit of banging my head against the doorframe three times." No one would want to drive if you had to do that, but you don't have to do that.

None taken, but if you do a search on the net you'll find that most of the recommendations by people who sound like they know what they're talking about when it comes to taking care of cast iron (and I am by no means one of them) seem to be on the more involved side. It's still a pain if you ask me, even with a modest but adequate approach to seasoning and cleaning.
posted by drpynchon at 8:08 PM on December 1, 2007

"if you do a search on the net you'll find that most of the recommendations by people who sound like they know what they're talking about..."

OK, but I think you're still self-selecting an overly complicated approach. There are a _ton_ of people--on this thread and any cast-iron thread you can find--who rave about how little you really need to do.

Basically, it comes down to who you're willing to believe. If you decide that people who say cast iron is a breeze aren't credible, and that people "on the more involved side" are the ones who "know what they're talking about", then yes, cast iron comes across as a pain to maintain.

In the end, though, it's not about anyone convincing anyone else through comments in an online discussion. (Especially someone I've respected in other threads, drp.) I would really just recommend that if you've been spending a lot of elbow grease on your cast-iron, just try scaling that effort back and deciding for yourself. If it starts to have problems, then go back to the high-maintenance approach, but there's a good chance you'll start saving yourself a ton of grief down the line, and find a new favorite cooking tool.
posted by LairBob at 8:36 PM on December 1, 2007

It's worth noting that in the above-linked NYTimes article, Mark Bittman comes out on the side of minimalism in cast iron upkeep:

In extreme cases, you may have to reseason the pan; more likely, you'll just have to treat it to a light coating of oil and a few minutes of warming.

In any case, this isn't a bad routine. Every so often I wash my cast-iron skillet and put it over low heat. When the water begins to evaporate I wipe it dry and spread a little oil over its surface with a paper towel. I leave the skillet over the heat a few more minutes and wipe it out again.

Yes, this is maintenance, and most cookware is maintenance-free. But it seems a small price to pay for inexpensive, high-performing, safe, nonstick pans. When it comes to cookware, new is not necessarily better.

posted by Forktine at 9:01 PM on December 1, 2007

Again Bob, your point is well taken but I lean towards over care and I'll tell you why. I use my cast iron mainly for searing meats and from a health standpoint one of the concerns is that this leaves a lot of charred byproducts on the grill that are heavy in polycyclic and heterocyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. From the standpoint of health and safety, I personally feel inclined to clean these off well, but the cast iron I have doesn't tolerate scouring well. I find that in this regard it's a rock and a hard place because it means potentially having to remove the seasoning from the surface altogether just to clean off these cooking byproducts. There's no hard science on the safety of cast iron care, but there's a ton of data on PAH/HCA that leave me concerned enough to be more cautious.
posted by drpynchon at 12:25 PM on December 2, 2007

I drop into all these cookware threads to pimp nickel-plated cast iron - it's brilliant. All the heat-distribution and retention of cast iron, easy clean-up in the sink or the dishwasher.
posted by nicwolff at 8:44 PM on December 2, 2007

I love my hard anodized calphalon omelet pan. It is non-stick without the nasty teflon coating. Cleans up with a scotchbrite pad, soap and water beautifully.
posted by ijoyner at 7:29 AM on December 4, 2007

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