Debra Lynn Dadd

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Cookware & Bakeware

There are many types of cookware and bakeware on the market--some tried and true, others brand new. Here's a rundown of what's currently available in my order of preference, with with regard to their health and environmental pros and cons.

Clay

Clay cookers are made from the abundant clay of the earth, use little energy while cooking, and can be broken up and returned to the earth at the end of their useful life. Clay vessels have been used for cooking for millennia, and are still the most sustainable. You soak them in water before cooking, and the food gently steams as the hot moisture comes out of the clay.

You can buy machine-made clay cookers at most major department stores and cooking stores. Handmade clay bread pans and muffin pans are often sold at craft fairs, so look around. If the clay has a glaze, make sure to check to be sure the glaze doesn't contain lead, particularly if the item is imported.

I have a beautful clay cooker called a tangine. It is a round earthenware pot with a lid like a pointed hat. I can just imagine women fashioning tangines with their hands from local mud and baking it in the sun to harden before cooking a stew for their families.

Cooking in clay is literally "earthy" and primal. It's only appropriate for cooking slow and low, but the results are magnificent.

Soapstone

Soapstone cookware is heavy, thick, and somewhat expensive, but it is an excellent conductor of heat. I am amazed at how quickly it will boil water, even at medium low heat. Soapstone cookware is energy-saving and will last several lifetimes, so it can be handed down from generation to generation. My soapstone pot is my favorite all-purpose cooking vessel.

Soapstone is a quarried stone like granite and marble. Its primary components are magnesite, dolomite, chlorite, and talc. The talc gives it the smooth feeling of rubbing a piece of dry soap--thus the name "soapstone."

Because it can be easily cut to shape without special stone cutting tools, soapstone has been used for thousands of years throughout the world for tools, karafes, vases, goblets, sinks, and other useful household objects.

Soapstone has many desirable qualities for cookware. It:

  • is long lasting
  • has no odor nor taste
  • holds heat for long periods
  • is virtually non-stick
  • is beautiful enough to be used for serving
  • will keep food hot during serving
  • is completely non-porous, so it won't stain or hold food odors
  • is bacteria resistant.

Glass

The most popular glass cookware and bakeware is Pyrex (is there any other?), which has been in use for almost a century. Made by Corning Glass Works, the "low-expansion" glass was originally developed in response to a request from the railroads to produce lantern glass that would not break when the hot glass was struck by rain or snow. The super-tough "fire glass" was not only resistant to temperature fluctuations, but also chemical corrosion and breakage as well.

In 1913, the wife of one of Corning's scientists used a new casserole dish only twice before it fractured in the oven. Having heard about the glass her husband worked with, she asked him to bring home a fire-glass container she could use for baking. She baked a sponge cake and found the cooking time was shorter, the cake did not stick to the glass, the baking was unusually uniform, the flavor of the cake did not remain in the dish after washing, and she could watch the cake bake and know it was done by looking at the underside. These features have made Pyrex glass a favorite among home cooks.

According to their website, silica (a compound found in quartz and sand) is the main ingredient. "Eight ingredients are added and some broken glass" and all are cooked in a huge furnace at 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. So while it doesn't contain recycled glass bottles, broken glass within the factory is recycled back into the pot. Pyrex is durable (so it can be reused for years without breaking or chipping) and it saves energy (Pyrex glass absorbs, rather than reflecting oven heat waves, thereby reducing cooking time over earthenware, porcelain or enameled dishes).

Pyrex is completely inert and does not leach anything into the food being cooked, you can bake and serve in the same dish, and then put it in the refrigerator and freezer.

Pyrex is affordable, comes in many sizes and shapes, and is sold everywhere.

Corning also makes tempered-glass Visions pots (made from a proprietary blend of glass and ceramic). Corning Visions is sold on the internet and is available used on eBay and can often be found in thrift stores and flea markets.

Copper

Copper heats quickly and has very even heat distribution, so it is the choice of chefs everywhere. Copper will leach into food if you cook in it directly, so most copper pots are lined (sugar pots for candymaking are not).

Today, most copper pots are lined with stainless steel, a manmade concoction of various metals which do not occur together in nature, and leach into food and water once the surface is scratched (see Stainless Steel below). Traditionally, copper pots were lined with tin, which is a natural element of the earth and considered to be the most inert of metals. Copper itself is also a naturally-occuring metal. Tin-lined copper pots are still available today, such as those made by Ruffoni.

Silicone

Silicone is now being used to make a whole variety of useful non-stick cooking items. They are bright and colorful and easy to store. While there are no stovetop pots and pans, there are hundreds of useful kitchen items, including baking pans, baking sheets, spatulas, molds, ice cube trays in fun shapes (that also can double for baking little cakes), rolling pins, and more.

Silicone is a synthetic polymer made from silica and other ingredients. Silica is common sand, made up of silicon, the second most abundant element in the earth's crust (about 28%). Silicon is not found in its elemental form but occurs mainly as oxides and silicates, like sand.

Silicones are made chemically by creating a "backbone" of silicon and oxygen molecules, a combination that does not occur in nature. Then various other synthetic molecules are added branching off of the main silicon-oxygen line to create hundreds of different silicones that range from liquids to rubbery solids.

I tried to find some information on the health effects of silicone rubber, but it was not listed in any of the toxic chemical databases I use. I went to the Dow Corning website (who makes over 700 different silicone rubbers) and looked at a random sample of their MSDSs. The ones I read listed no hazardous materials or health effects, or needed first aid measures. All descriptions I read of silicone rubber describe it as chemically inert and stable, so it is unlikely to react with or leach into food, nor outgas vapors. MSDSs also note that silicone is not toxic to aquatic or soil organisms, it is not hazardous waste, and while it is not biodegradable, it can be recycled after a lifetime of use.

I personally use silicone spatulas and baking mats and have experienced no ill effects. Nothing sticks to them and they are very easy to clean. My silicone baking mats (which can be reused more than 2000 times) have already saved yards and yards of parchment paper!

Silicone has many desirable benefits:

  • inherently nonstick without an added finish
  • does not retain odors or flavors
  • stain resistant
  • dishwasher safe
  • can go from temperature extremes of -58 degrees F up to 428 degrees F, from freezer to oven [note home ovens can go up to 500 degrees F, so keep the 428 degree F limit in mind]
  • promotes even heat distribution
  • quick cooling
  • some items can be folded for easy storage

Cast iron

Cast iron has been the mainstay cookware for generations. It's durable, inexpensive, and simple in materials, has even heating and good heat retention. But there is some controversy over the safety of the iron that may be released into the food. Some say it's a nutrient, or at least that it's harmless, others say the form of iron that is released is toxic. Regardless, it has been used for decades with no proven side effects.

Stainless steel

Stainless steel is generally considered the best choice for cooking because it is sanitary, nonporous, and the metals are highly stable. Environmentally, however, the mining and manufacture of steel is a highly technological, energy-intensive and polluting process. Stainless steel also leaches nickel and chromium into food, which may be harmful to health.

If you choose stainless steel for it's advantages, then buy an energy-efficient brand to balance out some of the environmental disadvantages. This type of stainless steel cookware generally has double-walled sides and insulated lids allow you to slow-cook at lower temperatures and save a substantial amount of energy. In addition, because the pots retain heat, foods will continue to cook even after the pot is removed from the burner.

You can minimize the leaching of metals by only using wooden utensils in stainless steel pots and pans. Metal utensils scratch the surface and release more metals.

Aluminum

Aluminum salts from cookware can leach from the pot into the food being cooked, particularly if it is acidic, causing a number of unpleasant symptoms. The sale of aluminum-lined cookware is prohibited in Germany, France, Belgium, Great Britain, Switzerland, Hungary, and Brazil, but still permitted in America.

Most aluminum cookware manufactured today is anodized. When a cookware label says it is made from anodized aluminum, it means that the aluminum was dipped into a hot acid bath that seals the aluminum by changing it's molecular structure. Once anodized, the aluminum will not leach into food. If you are considering buying aluminum cookware, call the manufacturer and see if it has some recycled content.

If you buy used cookware at flea markets or thrift shops, however, check the label carefully and watch out for non-anodized aluminum. Non-anodized aluminum pots are usually heavy and look like they are pressed from a single piece of thick metal. The inside is the same color as the outside. Don't buy these.

There are some brands of cookware that use aluminum for the base of the pan because it distributes heat evenly and is relatively inexpensive, and then line the pan with stainless steel or some other finish. Cookware containing aluminum is safe to use only when the aluminum does not come in contact with the food, but those lined with stainless steel would have the same leaching problem as any stainless steel cookware.

Non-stick and porcelain enamel finishes

The problem with most non-stick finishes (such as Teflon) is that they are made from plastics that are simply a coating on an aluminum pan, so they chip and scratch easily and can contaminate your food. There is a new type, however, which locks the non-stick plastic finish into a crater-like material made from indestructable ceramic and titanium. Embedding the finish in the ceramic-titanium craters prevents it from being scraped off into the food, but fumes may still be released, especially as a result of long periods of excessive heat.

A recent investigation by the Environmental Working Group found that an independent science panel advised the EPA that Teflon is a "likely human carcinogen." The report says there is evidence that the manufacturer Dupont knew that Teflon was toxic, that it entered the bloodstream of people who used it, and that it is very persistent in the environment. Dupont is also undergoing a federal criminal investigation for allegedly suppressing studies regarding birth defects and other health hazards from Teflon.

Porcelain enamel finishes are completely inert and safe to use, but they also chip easily.

If you want a no-stick pan, get soapstone cookware, which is naturally non-stick, or get a cast iron pan and "season" it. Before using the pan, cover the bottom with cooking oil and place it on a warm burner for one hour. Wipe out the excess oil, leaving a thin film of oil on the pan.

When you are cooking in any kind of pan, if you heat up the pan first, then add your oil to the hot pan, and let the oil warm up before you put in the food, it won't stick.

For internet sources of cookware and bakeware, see Debra's List/Food and scroll down to Cookware.

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