The healthiest cookware, glass and iron26-Jan-2020
The majority of cookware you find in kitchens today is not healthy. Till the first half of the 20th century, cooking was mostly done with iron pans, terracotta pots and generally with materials used for hundreds or even thousands of years. Then with the advent of the chemical industry, convenience and 'the market' took over, outright ignoring or socializing all externalities. Except that consumers were not making informed decisions anymore, hence sabotaging the very definition of free market. But that's a topic for another post.
As an example, aluminum pans are cheap to make, light to handle, easy to maintain, dishwasher safe and they don't brake when dropped. They can be made non-stick with chemical coatings like the infamous PTFE (Teflon), resulting in an even unhealthier product. Not only can these coatings degrade with high heat, with even tiny scratches and just general use they can basically contaminate your food. This issue includes stainless steel cookware as, even though safer than aluminum and non-stick pans, it can still release heavy metals like nickel when cooking acidic foods like tomatoes.
This post is a short summary of the outcomes of my research on the healthiest, safest cookware available.
- safest materials are glass, glass-ceramic, terracotta, iron
- some brands manufacture cookware with 'safe' materials but still use some coatings or paint. Avoid those
I now use only iron pans and glass-ceramic pans and pots. The two types complement each other. Iron pans for eggs, meat, food that needs a natural non-stick coating and high-temperature recipes with no water. Glass-ceramic for everything else (pasta, sauces, soups, simmering or slow-cooking recipes, etc). Both can be used with pretty much any cooking surface (except induction for glass-ceramic) as well as in the oven.
- safe & healthy
- beautiful, can be transparent
- great for simmering or slow-cooking recipes
- can't get scratched
- easy to clean & dishwasher safe
- goes in the freezer, fridge, oven
- some food can stick (use iron pans instead)
- can brake if dropped badly (it probably doesn't but I wouldn't try it myself)
- doesn't work with induction stovetops
The story of this product line is fascinating. It was invented, and still manufactured by, the french division of Corning. The same company making the gorilla glass for the iPhone and these days many other smartphones. It's a company constantly innovating around glass, releasing disrupting products over several decades in many industries from cookware to displays, space and fiber optics.
This particular glass-ceramic cookware is called VIsions, manufactured in France since the late 70s. It's transparent and resists to crazy temperatures of up to 850 °C (1,560 °F). I have the skillet and the sauce pan.
Another french glass-ceramic line is Pyroflam, made by Pyrex. It's the less expensive all-white cousin of Visions. I have the 3 liters and 1 liter casseroles.
The only cookware metal that's good for the body is iron. From a biological standpoint, iron is an essential mineral, and its main purpose is to carry oxygen in the hemoglobin of red blood cells throughout the body so cells can produce energy. Iron also helps remove carbon dioxide. When levels of iron are low, fatigue, weakness, and difficulty maintaining body temperature often result. If you care about cooking the healthiest food you possibly can, then you need to be prepared for some extra work with the iron skillet. It takes quite some maintenance, especially when brand new, but it's worth it. In addition, you can cook the best meat and omelettes thanks to its heat properties.
- safe & healthy, not an issue if scratched
- great for high-temperature recipes and eggs or meat
- naturally develops non-stick coating when seasoned
- can be used with any stovetop and in the oven
- can't go in the dishwasher
- needs more maintenanance
- larger pans can be heavy to handle
Of all the iron skillets I recommend the french maker De Buyer, they've been manufacturing iron skillets since 1830. 99% of the skillet is pure iron, sometimes also called carbon steel. Carbon steel cookware contains about 99% iron and 1% carbon. Cast iron cookware contains about 97-98% iron and 2-3% carbon. Both of these types of cookware contain the same elements. Nothing else is added. For De Buyer, we are talking about carbon steel.
I have the 28cm Mineral B skillet with removable handle (great if you have a smaller oven) and the 30cm Carbonne plus skillet. The Mineral B has a beeswax coating to facilitate initial seasoning (you'll wash the beeswax coating off before using it) and is a bit thicker, heavier and more expensive. The Carbonne plus has a fixed handle so only smaller versions will fit in a oven. For the 30cm pan you'll need a regular sized oven.
The oven can be important if you want to follow the best initial seasoning process. The seasoning process is about applying a thourough, thin layer of oil to the skillet and let the heat bond the oil with the iron in order to form a natural protective and non-stick coating, thanks to the Maillard reaction. When brand new the pan looks almost like stainless steel (even though it's pure iron). After seasoning it the coating will turn the skillet into light brown and then darker and darker until it eventually gets black.
Some people get scared as you can't leave the pan wet. It's indeed true that when you wash it, you have to dry it as soon as you can. Once it's seasoned, the coating will protect the pan from rusting. Even if you maintain it poorly and it rusts, it's easy to remove the rust with steel wool, wash it and reseason it again.
If you don't have an oven or the pan doesn't fit in yours, you can still season the skillet with your stovetop following a similar process. I'll descrive below the gold standard, more complicated process of oven seasoning an iron pan.
Seasoning the iron pan
- When brand new, wash your pan with hot water and a soft sponge, rinse and dry it with a paper towel and on a stovetop for 5 minutes
- Preheat your oven to 100 degrees Celcius (around 200 Fahrenheit)
- Put the pan in for 10 minutes, then remove it and increase the oven temperature to 150C (around 300F)
- Add 1 teaspoon of olive oil or grapeseed oil, rub it all around the pan with a clean paper towel
- Wipe up excess oil with a clean paper towel. Pan should look almost dry, with a thin layer of oil
- put the pan in the oven upside down, on the middle rack
- after 10 minutes quickly take the pan and wipe away the oil again
- increase the oven temperature to 200C (400F) and leave the pan inside for an hour
- turn off the oven but leave the pan inside for another hour
The pan is now ready to cook. You can either repeat the process above one more time or start cooking. For the best possible seasoning, it is recommended that for the first week or two you only cook fat meat. After that the pan will develop a stronger natural non-stick coating and even eggs will not stick. The coating will get better the more you cook with it and, after a while, maintenance will get easier. After you cook, you can clean the pan with a paper towel or quickly rinse it under hot water. Then quickly dry it and apply a thin layer of oil all around with a paper towel. To purify or deep clean the pan after a long period, you can heat kosher salt on the pan for a few minutes. While all this sounds time consuming, if you follow the recommendations above for initial seasoning, subsequent use will be straightforward.