The Ultimate Guide to Safe Cookware: How to Choose Wisely for Your Health

13 min read

Is your cookware safe? Or is it off-gassing toxic chemicals that get into your food and body? This article examines the options out there so that you can make the best purchases for your health, the environment, and your cooking needs.

Is your cookware making you sick? It’s not unusual to unwittingly trade safety for convenience and choose products that have a negative impact on your health. But you shouldn’t have to wonder if your sauté pan or stockpot is going to leach toxic chemicals into an otherwise healthy meal, or into the air you’re breathing.

These days, you can choose from an overwhelming number of cookware options: stainless steel, cast iron, ceramic, copper, aluminum, and clay, along with many surfaces marketed as nonstick. Some of these are safe and nontoxic, while others can be bad for the health of your family and pets — and even bad for the planet.

So how do you know what the safest cookware is and what types of cookware you should avoid?

How to Choose Cookware That’s Healthy and Safe

Young woman examining healthy cookware on a store shelf Zigic

In order to choose the best cookware for you, there are a few things to consider. Let’s look at each of these considerations in a bit more depth.

Cookware Materials

The materials that cookware is made from can impact not just its durability but also its safety and performance. Cookware may use various types of metal, as well as clay or glass. Different types of materials have their pros and cons, and it’s important to note these based on your cooking needs.

If cookware is labeled nonstick, there are also often chemicals added as a coating that provides a smooth surface that food can slide off of rather than attach to. However, chemicals used in this type of cookware often don’t just stay on the pots and pans. They can actually leach into the food you cook and get released into the air while cooking. What types of pots and pans leach the most chemicals? It depends on what the primary components of the cookware are, but many brands of nonstick cookware are among the worst offenders.

Pots and Pans’ Durability

How long does cookware last? While there’s no set amount of time across the board, the quality of materials matters when it comes to durability. The lifespan of cookware can often depend on the maintenance required to keep your cookware in tip-top shape, and how easily scratched or damaged the materials get. High-quality cast iron and stainless steel cookware can last generations when cared for properly, while most nonstick pots and pans wear out every few years.

But nobody likes having to throw a perfectly good pan away after just a year or two of use. We all want to make smart purchases that will last us for a long time. So consider the quality of cookware before purchasing. And you might want to look for pots and pans that come with a warranty or guarantee, which could be an indication that the cookware company cares about and ensures the quality of their product and its longevity.

Your Cooking Needs

Assessing cookware based on your cooking needs is crucial for both kitchen efficiency and meal quality. If you do more sautéing, you might benefit from skillets, which offer even heat distribution. Many home cooks prefer nonstick pans and skillets for easier maneuvering of ingredients and faster cleanup.

For those who favor boiling and steaming, look for durable pots with tight-fitting lids. Boiling and steaming require pots that efficiently contain heat and moisture, ensuring perfectly cooked food every time.

Bakers, on the other hand, will want to focus on oven-safe materials that can withstand high temperatures without cracking, warping, or emitting harmful substances.

For those who cook less frequently or have limited storage space, investing in a few versatile pieces of high-quality cookware can be more beneficial than owning a comprehensive set. Buying multipurpose pots and pans will minimize waste and save space in your kitchen.

Ultimately, aligning your cookware selection with your cooking habits and space considerations will lead to a more functional and enjoyable cooking experience.

Cookware Prices

Cookware tends to be one of those things in life where you get what you pay for. High-end cookware typically boasts superior materials and construction and is designed to last. While it may cost more upfront, investing in expensive cookware can be more cost-effective over time, as it reduces the need for frequent replacements.

But even if you can’t afford a top-notch brand, there are plenty of reasonably priced middle-of-the-road options that are good quality and still use safe materials.

Nontoxic cookware options are available across various price points. It’s worth spending time researching and comparing products to find cookware that offers the best combination of quality materials, durability, safety, and affordability that meets your cooking needs.

The Best and Worst Cookware Options

There are thousands of cookware options out there. Let’s look at the pros and cons of some of the most popular types of cookware, starting from least safe to most safe.

The Least Safe Cookware Types

Photo showing a black, aluminium non-stick frying pan, which is sitting on top of an integrated gas cooker hob, on a granite worktop / countertop.  The gas rings are switched off, after being cleaned.

Nonstick Teflon-Coated Cookware

Although nonstick cookware can save you the trouble of having to oil your pan to prevent food from sticking to it, nonstick doesn’t mean nontoxic. Many nonstick cookware options have PTFE coatings — synthetic polymers that also go by the name Teflon. When heated, PTFEs emit toxic fumes into the air, including perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), which is used in the synthesis of nonstick surfaces. Toxicity is such a problem that the manufacturer labels on nonstick pans often warn consumers not to use high heat with these products. However, tests funded by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) show that in just a few minutes on a typical stove, nonstick cookware could exceed temperatures at which the coating breaks apart and emits toxins.

Bird veterinarians have known for decades that many forms of nonstick cookware can produce fumes that are dangerous to pet birds. As early as 1986, a Chicago veterinarian called “Teflon toxicosis” a “leading cause of death among birds.” Hundreds of pet birds have been killed by the fumes from nonstick Teflon cookware.

Have you ever heard of the “canary in the coal mine?” Birds can be more sensitive to dangerous gasses than humans. But if something is lethal to birds, then it doesn’t take a coal miner to guess that it probably isn’t good for you, either.

Although the PFOA in Teflon has been replaced with another chemical called GenX (not to be confused with the generation born between 1965 and 1980), it may have similar toxicity, and could further impact your liver and kidneys.

Teflon cookware is not a nontoxic option. But if you must cook with nonstick pans, make sure to use low or medium heat and stir with a wooden spoon to minimize chemical exposure. And if the pan is looking worn or starting to degrade, it’s time to replace it before particles start breaking off and sneaking into your food.

Aluminum Cookware

While aluminum cookware can conduct heat well, it may present problems for your health, too. Studies show that metal can leach into food, especially when you’re cooking tomato products or other acidic foods. If too much aluminum enters your body, it can settle into your internal organs, including your brain, liver, heart, and bones, and eventually cause disease. Aluminum exposure has been studied for its potential link to Alzheimer’s disease for many years.

There’s also a form of cookware that uses hard anodized aluminum — a corrosion-resistant coating. This type of nonstick aluminum cookware is designed to be nonreactive to acidic foods and is much harder and more durable than regular aluminum. However, the anodized coating can still break down over time and is not as durable as some of the other types of metal cookware mentioned in this article. While anodized aluminum is a safer option, there are other nonaluminum pots and pans that are probably better choices.

Copper Cookware

Copper looks pretty and cooks food evenly, but also comes with a number of downsides. If copper cookware doesn’t have a stainless steel lining — or if it has a thin coating and the coating scratches off — the copper can leach into your food and enter your body. Copper coatings can also start wearing off after being scrubbed and cleaned.

Even though small amounts of copper are necessary for health, most people already get enough from food. Too much copper can be harmful to your health, contributing to neurodegenerative disease, coronary artery disease, and bone fractures.

Copper cookware also tends to cost a pretty penny and be high-maintenance. Copper is a soft metal, which allows it to conduct heat well, but it has to be polished to maintain its shiny appearance. Copper bottoms on stainless steel pans, however, give you the best of both worlds — providing you with a food-safe material, and the conductive benefits of copper.

Moderately Safe Cookware

herbs and spices around cast iron skillet on wooden background.  Cooking concept. Top view. copy space

Cast Iron Cookware

Cast iron cookware lasts a long time, and it spreads and maintains heat well, so food heats thoroughly and evenly. You can also cook in cast iron on the stovetop as well as in the oven. But cast iron cookware is heavy and fairly high-maintenance.

Cast iron pans require seasoning with a coating of oil to prevent rusting and sticking. As a result, they become more and more nonstick over time. The safest nonstick cookware is seasoned cast iron because it doesn’t use any chemicals, but it’s not necessarily safe for everyone (see below). It also has special cleaning instructions (cookware shouldn’t go in the dishwasher or be washed with detergent). And you should thoroughly dry your pan after each use.

Because some of the iron makes its way into your food, it’s important to be cautious about how much you use cast iron pans. Too much iron can be toxic (especially when it comes from meat) and can contribute to chronic disease.

But if you’re iron deficient, cast iron cookware can be a simple, though highly imprecise, way to add iron to your diet. (For more on the pros and cons of iron, how much you need, and how much is too much, click here.)

One of our recommended cast iron cookware brands is Lodge, which has been around for a long time and has an excellent reputation for quality. For a link to their most popular skillets, click here.

Glass Cookware

Glass is nonreactive, meaning it doesn’t release chemicals into food. It’s also usually inexpensive and is safe to place in both the microwave and dishwasher. You can use most glass cookware on electric stoves, but not gas ones.

On the cons side, you should never place hot glass cookware on a cold surface as it can crack or even shatter. Additionally, glass is heavier and more fragile than many other types of cookware, doesn’t work on induction stoves, and is not nonstick.

Some of our favorite glass cookware options include the Pyrex Baking Dishes and the Visions 5L Round Dutch Oven.

Carbon Steel Cookware

Carbon steel cookware has a very similar makeup to cast iron, but is lighter weight, making it easier to use and store. It’s an extremely versatile type of cookware, whether you use gas, induction, or range ovens. Carbon steel can also withstand very high temperatures (up to 600–1,200°F), both heating up and cooling down faster than cast iron.

However, carbon steel does require seasoning like cast iron, and it degrades in the presence of acidic foods like tomatoes. Carbon steel also develops a patina (a brownish film caused by oxidation) over time, which some people say makes food taste a little funny. Additionally, it can leach iron into food, which, like cast iron pans, may not be something you want.

Like cast iron, carbon steel cookware also cannot go in the dishwasher. And it cooks more unevenly than cast iron or stainless steel, making it less efficient.

However, some well-rated carbon steel cookware products include the Lodge 12-inch Pre-Seasoned Carbon Steel Skillet and the 14-inch Craft Wok Traditional Hand Hammered Carbon Steel Pow Wok.

Granite Cookware

From its name, you might assume that granite cookware uses granite rock materials. But the reality is that many of these types of pots get their name mostly from their looks, not their materials. Modern granite cookware has a speckled appearance, but may or may not have stone in its actual composition.

Granite cookware is a type of enamelware, which comes from fusing powdered glass with metal, clay, or stone. Graniteware has a smooth, nonstick surface either from the use of natural “stoneware” materials like ceramic or the addition of a nonstick coating.

Whether granite is safe and nontoxic depends on the materials used and its nonstick coating. There are granite pots and pans made with aluminum, cast iron, and carbon steel. And there are both PFOA and PTFE (Teflon) coatings on some types of granite cookware.

However, like other nonstick pots and pans, its coating can scratch off and leach aluminum or chemicals into food. It’s also not always dishwasher-safe, and whether it’s oven-safe or not depends, once again, on the materials used. Ceramic-coated graniteware might be safe in the oven, while those with Teflon coatings are not.

If you like the look of granite cookware, check out these safer options, which are also dishwasher safe: Sensarte’s Nonstick Frying Pan Skillet and WaxonWare’s 11-inch Nonstick Frying Pan.

Best and Healthiest Cookware Materials to Consider

Metal saucepan on cooktop in kitchen. Cooking utensils Chernetska

The great news for home chefs is that there are plenty of safe cookware options out there. Many cookware materials are not only healthier options but also provide some unique cooking advantages that will up your game in the kitchen while keeping your food free of toxins. Here are some of our favorite cooking pots and pans that are safe and nontoxic.

Why Stainless Steel Cookware Is Safe

Stainless steel is a healthy cookware choice that can last a long time. It’s a standard in many commercial kitchens due to its corrosion resistance and high durability. Materials used in stainless cookware include an alloy of iron and carbon along with nickel and chromium. However, stainless steel does not leach out minerals or interact with food in any way. And it’s easy to clean and even dishwasher safe.

Stainless steel works well in pressure cookers and big soup pots, for steaming vegetables, and for cooking legumes and grains. It’s also a decent choice for sautéing once the pan is nice and hot. However, pan-frying with stainless steel cookware may require a little water or vegetable broth (or oil, if that’s on your menu) to keep food from sticking. Learn more about how to sauté oil-free in nontoxic pans here.

High-quality stainless steel cookware can be pricey. But keep in mind that well-made stainless steel pots and pans can last for decades.

A few highly recommended stainless steel products include the Cuisinart 12-Piece Cookware Set, MultiClad Pro Triple Ply; the Tramontina 10-Piece Stainless Steel Cookware Set; and the Cooks Standard 12-inch Classic Stainless Steel Everyday Chef’s Stir Fry Pan.

Enamel-Coated Cast Iron: A Healthier Option For Cast Iron

Enameled cast iron has a porcelain coating — made from powdered glass — which makes it rustproof and easy to maintain. It also won’t leach chemicals or iron, is unaffected by acidic foods, is lighter than regular cast iron cookware, and works on all types of stovetops. Besides frying pans, enameled cast iron is typically used for Dutch ovens as well.

Another benefit over regular cast iron is that you can regularly clean it with soap, which would destroy the seasoning on a standard cast iron pan. Although enamel-coated cast iron isn’t fully nonstick, it’s relatively easy to clean. Unlike regular cast iron, you can throw this type of cookware in the dishwasher. And it’s also much lighter weight than regular cast iron — so you don’t have to feel like you’re “pumping iron” just to get it up on the stove.

If you like to color coordinate your kitchenware, enamel-coated cookware comes in a variety of colors besides black. One such pan made from enamel-coated cast iron, which my family uses almost every day, is this skillet by Le Creuset. For extra versatility, Le Creuset’s iconic Dutch oven is a great choice, ideal for everything from slow cooking and braising to roasting, baking, and frying.

Ceramic or Ceramic-Coated Cookware as a Healthier Option

Ceramic and ceramic-coated cookware are generally safe cooking options for a number of reasons. With 100% ceramic cookware, you don’t have to worry about nonstick coatings or the leaching of chemicals. You can bake with them and use them on the stove without concern. Ceramicware is safe on gas or electric stovetops, although it won’t work on induction stoves because it doesn’t contain metal. Other perks of fully ceramic cookware are scratch resistance and slow and even cooking.

If cookware is ceramic-coated, it may have a metal core, such as aluminum or copper. In that case, you can use it on an induction stove. However you cook with ceramic-coated pots and pans, you’ll want to ensure the coating doesn’t chip off and end up in your food, or that it doesn’t dislodge and leave your food in contact with the metal layer. Use wooden utensils to avoid scratching or chipping the coating.

Many manufacturers of ceramic cookware will also state whether their product is free of lead, cadmium, poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAs), and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). It’s easier to avoid these chemicals if you opt for 100% ceramic and avoid nonstick varieties of ceramic-coated cookware. You’ll also want to steer clear of vintage ceramicware or homemade ceramic pieces, which may contain heavy metals.

Xtrema’s 100% pure ceramic cookware is a safe and solid option designed to withstand extreme temperatures. It’s scratch-resistant, stainproof, and safe to use in the microwave, oven, BBQ, freezer, and dishwasher. Among their extensive lineup, the Versa Pan stands out for its multifunctionality. Find out more about Xtrema’s offerings and get a special 15% discount for Food Revolution Network readers here. (If you use coupon code FRN15, you’ll get the discount — and they’ll also make a contribution in support of FRN’s work. Thank you!)

Another ceramic nonstick option is GreenPan’s Valencia Pro Ceramic Nonstick 12″ Frypan. Made from anodized aluminum with a diamond-infused ceramic coating; this pan is a non-toxic and scratch-resistant choice for your kitchen. It also has a base specifically designed to work on induction stoves in addition to electric or gas. This pan is a favorite pick among FRN staff.

Biocompatible Titanium Cookware Safety Advantages

Titanium cookware is often used for camping and other outdoor cooking because it’s lightweight, durable, and doesn’t leach into your food. Titanium is also used to make sterile surgical instruments because it’s a “biocompatible” metal, meaning it won’t react adversely with the human body.

It’s also highly resistant to rust, scratching, and corrosion. Titanium is easy to clean with soap and water, but shouldn’t go in the dishwasher. One of the neat things about titanium is that with exposure to air and water, the metal reacts with the oxygen it’s exposed to, creating a natural titanium dioxide shield around itself that prevents further damage. Pretty cool!

One downside to titanium cookware is that it takes a while to warm up and doesn’t always conduct heat evenly. That’s because titanium isn’t as good of a heat conductor as metals like copper or aluminum. Additionally, some titanium cookware is compatible with induction stoves, while some might not be, so you may want to look for this clarification on the package or manufacturer’s website.

Some manufacturers recognize this and have made improvements, such as making pans that are titanium-coated over an aluminum core. Or, in some instances, cookware may combine ceramic with titanium to create a nonstick surface. However, titanium cookware is not naturally nonstick. And even coatings that are made with titanium may contain PTFEs (such as QuanTanium).

Titanium cookware can also be on the expensive side, especially if it’s 100% titanium. Ceramic-coated or aluminum-core titanium cookware are more affordable options for the average consumer, but avoid nonstick options to steer free of harmful chemicals.

One well-rated titanium brand is Snow Peak, which is made of pure titanium without a lining or nonstick coating.

Choosing the Healthiest Cookware for Your Needs

The best cookware choice for you comes down to your personal cooking needs, preferences, and priorities. If you’re steaming or boiling food, you don’t necessarily need your pot to be nonstick — in which case, stainless steel might be best. But for frying or sauté pans, nonstick, or something in the nonstick direction, can be valuable. However, if you use a little bit of water or broth (or oil if you include it in your diet), that can also prevent food from sticking.

If you’re realizing that you need to do some spring cleaning of your current cookware, don’t panic. Do some research and replace your pots and pans with the best, safest cookware when you can. Each step you take can lead you to a more nontoxic lifestyle and more sustainable kitchen.

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