Every home cook needs a great set of cookware for preparing all those delicious creations. But even more importantly, the DIY chef needs to consider safety, durability, cost, and functionality when choosing which cookware to stock the kitchen with.
It took us years and many trials with different pots, pans, and bakeware to figure out what we liked best. For this reason, we’ve decided to share what we’ve found during our search for great cookware. While I can’t tell you which type will be absolutely perfect for you, I’ll touch on the pros and cons of all the safest cookware on the market.
(For information on the types of cookware we don’t personally use or recommend due to health risks, read this article.)
We love our sturdy second hand cast iron cookware (and use it daily!), but it’s not for everyone.
Pros: We love the way cast iron leaves some foods nice and crispy, or with a caramelized finish. It offers superior heat distribution and retention when cooking. This material can easily and safely go from stovetop directly into the oven. A nicely seasoned cast iron pan will last forever and food won’t stick to it. Cast iron pans don’t need to be washed, only gently scraped, rinsed, or wiped clean after each use. We have purchased all of our cast iron cookware second hand at great prices. If you can find older brands, like Griswold, you’ll get all the benefits of cast iron without all the weight. Cooking on cast iron can even add extra iron to your diet, which is helpful for people deficient in this mineral. We recommend finding used cast iron or obtaining a family heirloom piece – these will most likely already be well seasoned and ready to use!
Check out this article for more of our thoughts and tips on using cast iron in your kitchen.
Cons: Many people don’t need extra iron that cast iron cookware will leave in your food. This includes men, people with a condition called hemochromatosis, and women who are not menstruating and losing blood every month. Our bodies don’t eliminate iron naturally (unless donating blood or menstruating regularly), and it can accumulate to toxic levels in some people. However, the iron in this material leaches more into acidic foods and is also dependent on how well seasoned a pan is. Well seasoned pans have a thin coating that makes them less reactive with foods.
In addition to the iron issue, if cast iron is not seasoned properly it can make foods stick, resulting in more difficult cleanup. It can also be very heavy to work with and will rust if left wet for a period of time.
Enamel Coated Cast Iron
Pros: Enameled cast iron doesn’t add iron to foods like non-enameled cast iron pans. (This is only a benefit if you belong to one of the groups of people who doesn’t need extra iron.) These pieces are great for using on the stovetop or the oven. They offer better heat distribution and retention than other types of cookware and don’t react with acidic foods like uncoated cast iron. If properly cared for, enamel coated pieces can last for generations. They don’t need to be seasoned like plain cast iron pans and food won’t stick if the interior has a nicely polished finish.
Cons: These are also heavy since they’re made with cast iron. The finicky enamel finish can be hard to care for. Metal utensils will scratch it, and it will discolor and lose its luster if exposed to extreme temperature changes. (Like boiling something and then immediately running cool water over the pan.)
Some enamel coated pans are made with cheap enamel that wears out and stains easily, and can also crack or chip off and end up in food. If enamel chips the pan is unsafe. For this reason we recommend spending the extra money on a piece from a reputable company like our favorite here or this other well known brand, and researching to make sure yours has a warranty before purchasing. That’s the other con – a good quality enamel coated cast iron piece may come with some sticker shock.
Pros: Stainless steel is inert and will not react with food or alter the flavors of your dishes. They’re very durable and any type of cooking utensil can be used on stainless surfaces without worrying about scratching or ruining a finish. They’re lighter than cast iron pieces and easier to stack and store since there’s no risk of scratching/chipping surfaces. Stainless can be heated to high temperatures, placed in an oven, scrubbed/scraped hard to clean, and the inside surface doesn’t contain harmful carcinogens. They can also be washed with soap or run through the dishwasher.
Cons: They’re not completely non-stick, and need a little fat or liquid added when cooking to prevent food from sticking. Cooking results are highly dependent on the thickness of the metal. A thicker or bonded stainless steel pan will cost you more up front, but is more durable and will last longer. (We have a few pieces from this line that we love.)
Pros: When you cook/bake in glass, it will never absorb odors or flavors from whatever is being cooked in it. You can also be sure glass won’t react with foods you are cooking. Always be sure you’re using tempered glass, which is strengthened glass made for cooking/baking. After cooled, food can be stored in the refrigerator in your glass cookware, leaving less cleanup.
Cons: Glass can be a tad heavy, and can break if dropped. Food can stick to glass if it’s not greased well, and thermal shock is always a possibility – it can break if exposed to temperature extremes too quickly. There is a risk of shattering if liquid is added to hot glass cookware or it’s set on a cold surface (like granite).
Beware: Some foreign manufacturers may use lead in the production of their cheap glass cookware. Generally, glass cookware made in the U.S. and Europe are lead free, but do your homework!
Pros: High-quality stoneware is completely non-toxic, safe, and can last forever if cared for. It heats very evenly and becomes nicely seasoned after several uses, creating a non-stick finish. (For the first 5-10 uses you need to grease stoneware well with a fat, but never again after that.) Like cast iron, stoneware doesn’t need to be washed with soap, but can be scraped, wiped, or rinsed well with water to clean. Although, I’ve washed mine with soap several times and it has not eliminated the non-stick seasoning. A good quality stoneware piece doesn’t absorb odors from things like fish. You can get my favorite brand here for a reasonable price.
Cons: Stoneware pieces are a little heavy and can break or crack if not cared for. It can also be one of the pricier types of bakeware. Your stoneware pieces might look a little ugly when seasoned – they will turn a dark brown, sometimes splotchy. (This is actually a positive aspect though, as this indicates your pan is well-seasoned!) Again, some low-quality stoneware pieces can contain lead (mostly from China), so be sure you purchase from a reputable company. Stoneware made in the USA and Canada is lead-free.
Pros: High-quality 100% ceramic cookware is non-reactive and non-toxic. Ceramics wear well over time, offer consistent heat, and can be put in a dishwasher. Surfaces don’t corrode, and don’t require special seasoning like cast iron or stoneware. Any utensil can be used on ceramic cookware, and they can be used to store food in the refrigerator or even the freezer! This is a great brand of ceramic cookware that many health experts rave about.
Cons: Ceramic cookware will be a more expensive than most types of cookware. One thing you have to be cautious about when purchasing is that some low-quality ceramic glazes can contain lead that will leach into food when the cookware is worn or scratched. You’ll find this with many foreign-made pieces, which aren’t required to adhere to safety standards in manufacturing. Most ceramic cookware made in the U.S. should be safe, but do your research and only purchase pieces that are 100% ceramic or have a lead-free glaze.
If you’re wondering which cookware is considered unsafe (or controversial enough to avoid), read more here. One of the most important things to keep in mind when choosing cookware is to buy quality pieces from reputable companies that can answer your questions or provide a warranty if replacements are needed. Purchasing foreign-made cookware is often a dangerous practice because many types from other countries have been found to contain high levels of dangerous things like lead.
As the consumer, always do your own research and consider more than just looks when choosing cookware.
image credit to Steve Snodgrass