In today's world of vast consumerism, it's no wonder that almost every product on the market, including cookware, is getting improved, reconstructed or remarketed. There are so many options out there — copper, stainless steel, cast iron, nonstick — and it's certainly not easy to decide which are the best choices for you and your cooking needs. Out of all of the options, nonstick cookware certainly has an appeal. It's extremely easy to clean and food doesn't stick to it. But is it worth it if it is hazardous to our health?
The short of it is that every nonstick pan is coated with chemicals. That coating eventually breaks down and can emit harmful toxins when it does so. It can break down when heated over high heat, scratched with cooking utensils, or simply over time. Different pans are coated with different chemicals, some indisputably more harmful than others. At the top of the avoid list are PFOA and PTFE, which the Environmental Protection Agency cite for having the potential to cause everything from flu-like symptoms to birth defects.
In response to the negative studies that have come out warning of the dangers of nonstick cookware, several companies have created new coatings, like silicone, that are marketed as "green." They certainly look like they are less harmful than other nonstick coatings but the jury is still out on whether they are safe to use over time. When it comes down to it, they still require a lot more resources and technology to produce. Since these pots and pans have been introduced to the marketplace fairly recently, we don't know what the long-term health or environmental implications may be. Why even take a chance and hold our breath waiting for the next study to come out when traditional options, like stainless steel and cast iron, work perfectly well?
With that said, I know a lot of people who love their nonstick pans. They have solved a lot of cooking woes: They are easy to clean, food doesn't stick to them as easily and you don't have to use as much fat or oil. They're all totally legitimate. But if you are interested in replacing your nonstick, here are (what I hope to be) practical solutions to those concerns:
Yes, nonstick pans are undeniably easier to clean. To clean stainless steel pans, you have to use a bit more elbow grease and sometimes a cleaning agent other than dish soap. For hard-to-remove food stains, I sprinkle baking soda on the spots and then scrub the baking soda over the surface with a damp sponge. For heat stains, I rub a small amount of white vinegar over the stain with a soft cloth or paper towel.
Most health experts agree that using a tablespoon or so of heart-healthy cooking oils like olive oil and canola oil here or there is good for you. Cooking food on a potentially toxic surface is not. I'll take the healthy fat and calories over the chemicals any day.
Many people use nonstick pans because food doesn't, well, stick to them as easily. So for delicate food like eggs and fish fillets that seem to immediately and irreversibly adhere themselves to stainless steel pans, I have a secret weapon. A big, time-tested, super affordable weapon: cast iron.
Cast iron is some of the most inexpensive cookware you can buy and has (almost literally) been used as a cooking element forever. When properly seasoned (cookware-speak for lightly oiled and baked) it is wonderfully nonstick. It's also heavy, durable and will last for generations.
When it comes to making our best efforts to be greener in the kitchen, it looks like how we cook our food may be just as important as what kind of food we are actually eating. Sauteing organic produce on a chemically manufactured cooktop just doesn't seem to jive, does it? I suggest going for the tried-and-true options like cast iron and stainless steel. It may be tough at first to wean ourselves off of those nonstick pans, but I'll venture to say that our health is worth it.
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