Safe cookware is a big topic these days, as so many of us are trying to live a cleaner, healthier lifestyle. Safe, non-toxic cookware is imperative to health and well-being.
But what does "safe" actually mean?
We are frustrated at the misinformation out there about "safe" cookware. It's astonishing how many articles promote cookware that hasn't been proven safe, clean, OR non-toxic. For example, many sites say that nonstick cookware is safe, when it is, in fact, one of the worst polluters on the planet and still contains carcinogenic chemicals (yes, even wihout PFOA).
On the other hand, many sources exaggerate the safety concerns of cookware that is almost certainly safe to use, such as clad stainless steel and good quality enameled cast iron.
If you want to invest in safe, non-toxic cookware, we have the definitive guide. Not because we're smarter than everyone else, but because we've done the research required to understand all the issues involved (and in some cases, there are a lot). We are cookware experts, and we'll explain all the issues with cookware that makes it safe, unsafe, or something in-between.
Safe Cookware at a Glance
Here's a quick look at the safest cookware choices you can make. We give the type, an example, and a link to buy the cookware and list pros and cons.
We provide more detailed information and more examples (where possible) in the The Safest Cookware Choices section below.
Hestan Titanium NanoBond
-Most inert cooking surface of all cookware types
-Excellent heating properties
-Stronger than stainless steel
-Less sticky surface than stainless steel
-Good all-purpose cookware.
-Not as easy to wash as nonstick.
Clad Stainless Steel:
-Mostly inert cooking surface, esp. with use
-Good heating properties
-Good all-purpose cookware.
-Can be expensive
-Not as easy to wash as nonstick
-Nickel-free will corrode faster.
Copper lined w/Stainless or Tin: Mauviel
-Mostly inert cooking surface
-Excellent heating properties
-Good all-purpose cookware (if you can afford it).
-Needs polishing to stay shiny
-Not as easy to wash as nonstick.
Cast Iron: Lodge
-Inert cooking surface
-Holds heat very well
-Most brands are inexpensive
-Best for skillets.
-Slow and uneven to heat.
Carbon Steel: Vollrath
-Inert cooking surface
-Holds heat well
-Most brands are inexpensive
-Best for skillets.
-Heavy (lighter than cast iron)
-Slow and uneven to heat.
Enameled Cast Iron/Carbon Steel/Steel: Le Creuset
-Inert cooking surface
-Most brands very durable
-No seasoning required
-Best for Dutch ovens.
-Good quality brands expensive
100% Stoneware, Glass, and Porcelain: CorningWare
-Completely inert cooking surface
-Best for oven and microwave use
-Some brands safe for stovetop (but not ideal).
-Poor heating properties
-Only some brands made for stovetop use
Unsafe Cookware at a Glance
Here's a quick look at toxic or possibly unsafe cookware. We give more detail below about why these are not safe cookware choices.
Why People Buy It
PTFE Nonstick: T-fal
-Even "PFOA-free" contains carcinogens and toxins
-Can give off toxic fumes above 390F
-Industry is terrible polluter of planet
-Short life, ends up in landfills.
-Easy to wash.
Ceramic Nonstick: Caraway
-Titanium nanoparticles may be carcinogenic
-Short life, ends up in landfills.
-Avoiding PTFE cookware (think this is safer).
Bare Aluminum: Vollrath
-May be linked to Alzheimer's (but probably not)
-Soft and easily scratched
-Can add metallic taste to food.
Silicone Bakeware: Aschef
-Cheap brands may contain BPA or other toxins
-Very little research available on food-grade silicone.
-Easy to store.
Why Take Our Advice?
We are cookware experts. With backgrounds in science and engineering, we have a solid perspective on what makes a material actually safe or unsafe.
We have done hundreds of hours of cookware research. We are familiar with all the types of cookware that exist. We have a solid understanding of what makes cookware safe or unsafe (as well as durable, usable, and a good buy).
We are concerned about the safe cookware topic because we have seen a lot of misinformation and downright wrong information about safe and unsafe cookware. Many sites just give a list without any information about why the cookware is safe or unsafe--possibly because they don't know.
(If that sounds like a rant, we apologize. It's a topic that brings up big feelings for us.)
Finally, we only recommend products that we would use ourselves. We're not trying to sell you anything you don't want. Our only agenda is to help people make smart buying decisions based on their own wants and needs.
We will not only tell you what cookware is safe and unsafe, we'll tell you why so you can make an informed decision for yourself. We will also provide sources where we think they're helpful.
Every material can contain a certain amount of risk, so you have to understand the factors involved to make the right decision for you and your family.
What Makes Cookware Safe (and Non-Toxic)?
Before we get into recommendations, we want to talk about what makes cookware safe (or not so safe).
People--and cookware manufacturers--can define "toxic" many different ways. As these terms pertain to cookware, we define "toxic" as "any material that can contribute to health issues, even when used properly."
To elaborate on that definition, here's what we think are important issues to consider before you buy.
No Scary Chemicals
First and foremost, your cookware should contain no scary chemicals. This pertains mostly to nonstick cookware. In the case of PTFE (aka Teflon) cookware, the scary chemicals are many and have known dangers to living things and the environment. Makers of PTFE cookware have tried to clean up their image, but it is not possible (as far as we know) to make PTFE cookware without the use of toxic, carcinogenic, "forever" chemicals.
By the way, there are only two kinds of nonstick cookware: PTFE and ceramic. PTFE is a generic term for Teflon. Today there are hundreds of brands of PTFE on the market. We name some of the more popular ones below in our section below on nonstick cookware. Don't be fooled by terms like "granite," "stone," "titanium," and other labels meant to distract buyers from the fact that the cookware contains PTFE. There's no such thing as granite-based or titanium-based nonstick cookware. These are just additives to a PTFE or ceramic coating.
Ceramic nonstick cookware has a cleaner image, but it is not the same material as used in traditional ceramic cookware. Ceramic nonstick is a new substance, invented in 2007, and it contains at least one substance with unclear safety issues: titanium dioxide nanoparticles. There isn't a lot of research available, but what is shows links to serious illnesses, including pre-cancerous lesions in rats. These particles may be stable (thus safe) even at high cooking temperatures, but we just don't know for sure.
No Known Toxins that Can Leach Into Food
Toxins are also scary chemicals, but they are known quantities. For example, lead, cadmium and arsenic are all well established as toxic to humans. (Many nonstick chemicals are as well, but the jury is still out on some of them.)
While many types of cookware--most commonly enameled, glazed, and ceramic pieces--may have trace amounts of cadmium, lead, or arsenic, these are found almost exclusively on the exterior of the pans. Also, the firing process tends to render the toxins inert because firing makes the surfaces completely non-porous (meaning that they won't react with food).
Finally, if any of these toxins are present in enamels or glazes, they are in microscopic amounts, far too small to have an impact on your health.
If you are concerned about trace amounts of toxins in cookware, be sure to buy brands that meet the strict California Prop 65 standards. This will ensure you aren't exposed to unsafe levels of any toxins.
You may also want to avoid unknown brands or brands made in China, which are likelier to be unsafe (though not proven to be).
All of the brands we recommend are approved by California Prop 65 standards.
Stable and Non-Reactive Cooking Surface
The cooking surface is the most important part of cookware safety, since that is what your food is exposed to.
A safe cooking surface is one that is stable, non-porous, inert, and non-reactive. These are actually four ways of saying basically the same thing: a cooking surface that won't interact with your food.
Or, if the cooking surface does leach substances into food, it should be non-toxic substances, and it should be in amounts so small that they aren't considered unsafe to humans (children or adults).
In truth, it's hard to find a 100% non-reactive cooking surface. Many cooking surfaces have some substances that will leach chemicals into food in extremely tiny amounts. For example, clad stainless steel will leach very small amounts of nickel and chromium (the substances in steel that prevent it from rusting). But since both nickel and chromium are essential micronutrients that the human body needs, they aren't toxins. So unless you have a nickel allergy and are extremely sensitive to it, there's no reason to be concerned about these chemicals.
Similarly, cast iron and carbon steel may leach small amounts of iron (although well-seasoned cast iron and carbon steel leach extremely small amounts), but iron is also an essential mineral that we need to be healthy. So unless you have a rare condition--hemochromatosis--where your body can't metabolize iron very well, this is also of no concern.
What about a pan's exterior? It's much less of a concern, since your food won't come in contact with it. But some cookware has small amounts of lead, cadmium, and possibly other toxins in the exterior designs or dyes. As some bloggers have pointed out, you may want to be careful that you don't nest pans with designs (such as vintage CorningWare) or dyes (such as red, orange, and yellow Le Creuset). But as far as we know, the amounts of toxins are too small to be of concern, and they have also been neutralized by the firing process, so they won't leach from the cookware.
If you're concerned about it or want to err on the side of caution, we understand. You have to make your own decisions and buy cookware you feel safe using. But for the most part, if you buy reputable brands, you should be completely safe.
The Landfill Issue
Finally, think about what happens to your cookware when you have to discard it. How long will it last? Is it recyclable? Or will it end up in a landfill somewhere?
This mostly applies to nonstick cookware and cheap pans that won't last. If you buy cheap cookware, it will probably end up in a landfill. Even if cookware is recyclable, most curbside recycling programs aren't equipped to handle it, so people throw it away.
How is this a safety issue? Well, it's an environmental issue. Contributing to landfill waste is bad for the planet and bad for future generations.
For this reason alone, you should buy the best quality cookware you can afford. If it's good quality clad stainless, cast iron, or carbon steel, you'll be passing it down to your children, and it won't get tossed for many decades.
Our Ideal Safe Cookware Collection
People will have different ideas of their ideal cookware collection depending on the foods they like. So this won't not be the perfect list for everybody. Still, we thought we'd share the pieces we think make up a complete and safe collection of cookware that meets all of our needs.
Here are our essentials
- A small set of good quality clad stainless steel cookware that includes at least one large skillet (10" or 12"), a 3-quart sauce pan, and a 3-quart or 5-quart sauté pan for the most versatile daily use.
- A cast iron skillet at least 10" for high heat searing and deep frying. Carbon steel can also work, but it doesn't hold heat as well.
- A 5-7 quart enameled cast iron Dutch oven for soups, stews, and braises (nothing holds heat like cast iron, and the enamel is necessary to prevent rusting from large volumes of liquid).
- 2-3 stainless steel baking sheets in half- and quarter-sizes for myriad tasks (baking, roasting veggies, one-pan dinners, catching drips, and so much more).
- A stainless steel stock pot--inexpensive and even disc-clad is okay (but if one comes with a set, that's fine too).
- A roasting pan in stainless or ceramic that you can use for meats, lasagna, casseroles, and possibly even cakes.
You may also want:
- A smaller skillet for omelets and small tasks.
- A smaller sauce pan for small tasks.
- A carbon steel wok for stir frying
- A good quality clad stainless or copper sauciér if you're into delicate sauces
- A deep sauté pan or chef's pan if you routinely cook large amounts or entertain.
- Stainless or good quality ceramic bakeware (pie plates, bread pans, cake pans, brownie pans, muffin tins, etc.).
Depending on your cooking style, you can add or subtract from this list as you see fit. Not every cook needs the same pieces of cookware.
About sets: We like small sets because it's a great way to save money, as long as you're sure you'll use all the pieces in the set. You should buy the biggest set with pieces you know you'll use. Stainless steel is the best material for sets because it's the most versatile cookware.
The Safest Cookware Choices
Here are our choices for the safest cookware. Hestan NanoBond is the absolute safest cookware on the market and gets the top spot. The rest of our recommendations are not in order of safest to least safest; they are all equally safe--barring any allergies or sensitivities--and you should choose based on your own priorities.
1. Hestan NanoBond: The Safest Cooking Surface Known to Man
What Makes Hestan NanoBond Such a Safe Choice?
NanoBond is clad stainless steel with a twist. The stainless steel is coated with a proprietary physical vapor deposition (PVD), a process by which extremely thin layers of materials are applied to an object in a vacuum to strengthen it. PVD is usually seen on industrial and machining tools used in extreme environments. PVD treatment makes steel 400 times stronger.
In the case of NanoBond cookware, it adds some other interesting features as well, such as allowing the cookware to withstand temps up to 1050F. But probably the most appealing feature is that the molecular titanium creates an absolutely inert cooking surface. Titanium is not only strong, it is extremely stable and non-porous, which means it won't react with foods (even acidic ones). NanoBond also has no dyes or chemicals that could leach into your foods. And because it's very strong, it's going to last for a really long time.
This makes NanoBond the absolute safest choice for cookware.
If you've avoided stainless steel cookware because of a nickel allergy, you should consider NanoBond if it's in your budget (it's expensive). It will outlive nickel-free stainless steel by a long time.
NanoBond is also very well made, with excellent heating properties and several features that make it a pleasure to use.
Check out our full Hestan Cookware Review if you want to learn more.
NanoBond hasn't really caught in the marketplace yet, probably because of the cost. And if you don't have safety concerns about clad stainless steel cookware (which most people don't need to have), then you probably don't need NanoBond.
But if you're looking for the safest, most stable cookware on the market, Hestan NanoBond is an excellent investment.
What Is NanoBond Best For?
- NanoBond is a good choice for all of your general purpose cookware. You may also want a cast iron skillet for high-heat searing (it will hold heat better) and an enameled Dutch oven for braising. Otherwise, NanoBond is great all-purpose cookware.
- NanoBond is an excellent choice if you have a nickel allergy because it will outlive nickel-free stainless steel.
Hestan NanoBond Pros and Cons
- Safe, stable, non-porous cooking surface
- Excellent heating properties
- Extremely durable: won't scratch, tarnish, or stain
- Cleans up easier than clad stainless (but don't expect nonstick)
- Sealed rims and flush rivets (easier to wash and dishwasher safe)
- Induction compatible.
- Food sticks less than on stainless, but still sticks
- May require polishing with special Hestan cookware polish to return it to its like-new luster.
Buy Hestan NanoBond:
2. Clad Stainless Steel
See Heritage Steel on Amazon (316Ti--very stable)
See All-Clad D3 on Amazon (18/10 stainless, also very stable)
See Demeyere on Amazon (18/10 stainless with Silvinox® treatment)
See Tramontina Tri-Ply Clad on Amazon (18/10 stainless, affordable)
What Makes Clad Stainless Steel a Safe Choice?
Stainless steel is a stable, durable cooking surface.
Some people give stainless a bad rap because it can leach minute amounts of nickel and chromium, especially when new and when cooking acidic foods (like tomato sauce). However, both nickel and chromium are essential trace minerals that your body needs in small amounts. Both can be toxic in large amounts, but these amounts are much larger than that leached by any stainless steel cookware, even when new or when cooking acidic foods.
If you want to learn more, you can read this study of nickel and chromium leaching from tomato sauce cooked in stainless steel. (Or read a really good summary--much easier to understand--of the study at nontoxu.com.) The upshot is that while stainless steel does increase the amounts of nickel and chromium in acidic food (tomato sauce in this case), the amounts are not enough to be dangerous, though they may be large enough to aggravate the dermatitis caused by nickel and/or chromium allergies.
One site we found stated that stainless steel can leach lead as well, but they did not provide references for this, and there is no lead used in the making of stainless steel; it may possibly exist as a by-product in cheap stainless steel, but even then not in amounts that you need to worry about. (However, if you are concerned, this is a strong argument for buying high quality stainless steel cookware.)
Finally, if you are concerned about any nickel or chromium leaching, you can mitigate it by:
- Cooking a 50/50 solution of vinegar and water in your steel cookware for 2 hours, 5-6 times. The more stainless cookware is used, the smaller the amounts of nickel and chromium it leaches.
- Avoid cooking acidic foods for long periods (say, more than 2 hours).
Here's a quick summary of the brands we recommend:
Heritage Steel cookware is made from 316Ti, which is a more corrosion-resistant metal than 18/10 (which most other brands are made from). Contrary to popular belief, 316Ti leaches nickel and chromium at about the same rate as 304-grade stainless (i.e., 18/8 and 18/10), but it is more resistant to salt corrosion, so it may be more stable over time. Check out our Heritage Steel review if you want to read more.
Demeyere cookware is treated with a proprietary electrochemical coating called Silvinox that makes the stainless steel more stable, so it may also leach less nickel and chromium than other brands (we haven't seen any studies on this, but it seems reasonable). Check out our article All-Clad Vs. Demeyere if you want to read more about Demeyere cookware (it's the best performing stainless steel cookware on the market).
All-Clad is a high quality cookware brand that is durable and will last for decades. We think their D3 line is the best option both budget- and performance-wise, but Copper Core is also a great performer (though much more expensive). Check out our All-Clad Review if you want to learn more.
Tramontina Tri-Ply Clad is an All-Clad knockoff with very similar properties, a lifetime warranty, and made from 18/10 steel. It is an excellent choice if you want safe, stable cookware with good heating properties at a budget price. If you go with Tramontina, be sure you're buying the Tri-Ply Clad line. Tramontina makes several lines of stainless cookware and Tri-Ply Clad is the only one we recommend. See our Tramontina Tri-Ply Clad Review to learn more.
Overall, if don't want to choose between heating performance and safety, clad stainless cookware is the right choice for your all-purpose cookware. The only people who may want to avoid clad stainless cookware are those with nickel allergies, and even then, the amounts that leach are so small that they may not be a problem.
In addition to being a stable cooking surface, clad stainless steel is durable and long-lasting. Most of it comes with a lifetime warranty (we recommend you do not buy a brand that doesn't).
Heating properties vary with the quality of the cookware. All of the brands we recommend have good heating properties, with Demeyere being the best.
What Is Clad Stainless Steel Cookware Best For?
Clad stainless steel is excellent all-around cookware. If you're looking for a cookware set, clad stainless is the best choice for most cooks. All the pieces--skillets, sauce pans, stock pots, roasting pans--are great at what they do. It won't serve every need ideally--you may still want a cast iron skillet for high heat searing and an enameled cast iron Dutch oven for braising--but it really can do anything in a pinch.
Clad Stainless Steel Pros and Cons
- Stable, non-porous cooking surface (can leach very small amounts of nickel and chromium under certain conditions)
- Leaching diminishes with time and use--the more you use the cookware, the less it leaches
- Great heating properties if you buy a good quality brand
- Most brands are induction compatible
- Most brands come with a lifetime warranty (even many budget brands like Tramontina and Cuisinart).
- Small amounts of leached nickel and chromium are not dangerous, but may trigger allergies
- Sticky--need to use some fat for best results for dry cooking (e.g., frying, sautéing)
- Good quality brands are expensive.
buy heritage steel cookware:
buy All-Clad D3 cookware:
buy demeyere cookware:
buy tramontina tri-ply clad cookware:
3. Nickel-Free Clad Stainless Steel
See Chantal Induction 21 nickel-free cookware set on Amazon (lifetime warranty)
See Homichef nickel-free clad stainless steel on Amazon (6 year warranty)
What Makes Nickel-Free Clad Stainless Steel a Safe Choice?
If you or someone in your family has nickel allergy and is sensitive to the tiny amounts of nickel that leach from standard 18/10 or 316Ti clad stainless cookware, then you may want to try a nickel-free brand.
Our first choice for nickel allergy sufferers who want stainless cookware is Hestan NanoBond (reviewed above). However, it is expensive, so if it's beyond your budget, you can always go with nickel-free stainless steel.
There are two types of nickel-free stainless steel used in making cookware. The most common nickel-free stainless cookware is made from 400 grade stainless steel. Some grades of 400 stainless steel--such as 430--can be almost as durable and corrosion resistant as 300 grade stainless steel, but in general, 400 grade stainless is not as durable: note that the warranty on Homichef cookware is just 6 years (compare to the lifetime warranties found on most brands of 300 grade stainless cookware).
(In fact, poorer durability is the reason why most clad stainless cookware has magnetic stainless only on the exterior for induction compatibility, while the cooking surface has the more durable 300 grade stainless--either 304 or 316Ti.)
The other type of nickel-free stainless--and as far as we know, a type used only by Chantal, but don't quote us on that--is 21/0 stainless steel, which is nickel free, yet also very high in chromium (21%), plus small amounts of titanium and molybdenum, which provide excellent corrosion resistance and durability. You can read more about Induction 21 cookware in our Chantal Cookware Review.
Our recommendation for nickel-free stainless cookware is Chantal Induction 21. However, it isn't perfect. Induction 21 is disc-clad cookware, and the discs aren't all that thick, so its heating properties are just okay. If you need nickel-free cookware, Induction 21 is a better choice than Homichef or other 400 grade nickel-free stainless cookware. But if you can afford NanoBond, it is the superior choice over all nickel-free stainless brands we've found.
What Is Nickel-Free Stainless Steel Cookware Best For?
Nickel-free stainless steel cookware is best for people who are dealing with nickel allergies. If you need nickel-free cookware, want stainless, and can't afford Hestan NanoBond, then whole sets are a good choice for your all-purpose cookware.
Having said that, there are no really great choices for nickel-free stainless cookware. 400 grade brands like Homichef aren't very high quality (and it has just a 6 year warranty to prove it), and Chantal Induction 21 is high quality, but has disc cladding which doesn't provide great heating.
So unless you absolutely have to have nickel-free stainless cookware, there are better options.
And, as with other cookware, you may also want a cast iron skillet for high-heat searing and an enameled Dutch oven for braising.
Nickel-Free Clad Stainless Steel Pros and Cons
- Best choice for those with nickel allergies who want stainless cookware and can't afford NanoBond
- Some (Induction 21) is high quality and well made (though disc-clad, unfortunately)
- Will pretty much all be induction compatible.
- Not as corrosion resistant as 300 grades of stainless steel (and may have short warranty compared to 304 or 316 stainless cookware)
- Will still leach tiny amounts of chromium
- Even high quality Chantal Induction 21 is disc-clad, so won't have great heating properties
- Not a lot of set or open stock options for Chantal Induction 21 or Homichef.
buy chantal induction 21 nickel-free cookware:
buy homichef nickel-free cookware:
4. Copper Cookware (Lined with Stainless Steel or Tin)
See Mauviel M'Heritage Copper Cookware on Amazon (stainless lining)
See Brooklyn Copper Cookware website (tin lining)
What Makes Copper a Safe Choice?
NOTE: We are talking about real copper cookware here, not copper-colored nonstick cookware (like this cookware) that contains no actual copper. (For an analysis of copper-colored cookware, see the section below on ceramic nonstick cookware.) Real copper cookware is the most expensive cookware on the market because of copper's rarity and its amazing heating properties.
We've found a lot of misinformation about copper cookware, so we're glad for this opportunity to set the record straight.
It's true that copper is reactive and can leach into food, and that it is toxic for humans in high doses. However, humans do need some copper in their diets for several metabolic functions. This fact sheet about copper explains daily dosages and how the human body uses copper.
However, none of this is applicable to copper cookware, because all copper cookware is lined with stainless steel or tin. Therefore, if copper cookware is lined with stainless steel, then the rules for stainless steel (above) apply. If copper cookware is lined with tin, the cookware is safe because tin is a stable, non-reactive metal.
In either case, there is no chance of any copper getting into your food from your cookware.
Most new copper cookware is lined with stainless steel, while older and more traditional copper cookware is lined with tin. Both linings have their advantages, but because stainless steel is more durable, it's the lining we recommend.
There are some pieces of copper kitchenware that are intentionally unlined. These have special purposes and should be used only for those, such as making jam and whisking egg whites. Copper enhances some tasks, and in these cases the leaching copper is actually counted on.
But not for cooking.
The upshot is that if you're considering stainless-steel lined cookware, the rules for stainless steel apply, not copper. Same goes for tin-lined copper.
Copper cookware does not expose you to copper.
How to buy copper cookware: If you're interested in buying copper cookware, you should do your research first because it's a major investment, but here's a quick tip: Copper cookware is sold by the millimeter, with 2.5mm being considered the minimum amount for "real" copper performance (as a professional French chef would see it). You can find it in different thicknesses, some of which may work just fine for you. Just do your research so you know you'll be happy with your purchase.
What Is Copper Cookware Best For?
Copper is some of the highest-performing cookware you can buy, and it's expensive. If you want copper and can afford it, then it's good for most kitchen tasks, so sets are a good option. You may also want just one copper skillet or sauce pan for the amazing performance.
Copper's strongest trait is its incredibly fast response time: it does not hold onto heat but rather is very responsive to changes in temperature. This makes copper a bad choice for high heat searing (for which you might want a cast iron skillet). Other than that, copper is excellent cookware.
If you go with stainless steel-lined copper, it will last for many decades. If you go for the traditional tin lining, you will have to get the pans re-tinned occasionally (every few years, depending on use). This is a pain, and not cheap either, but tin has much better heating properties than steel, it is less sticky, and it's very stable, leaching no known substances into your food.
Our recommendation is for the stainless for its convenience. But tin does have its advantages.
Copper Cookware Pros and Cons
- Stainless steel or tin lining is completely safe and stable
- Unlined copper pans are made for specific purposes only and aren't meant for daily cooking
- Excellent heating properties
- Must be polished 2-3 times a year to maintain its shine (but works just as well with a patina)
- Tin-lined copper requires occasional re-tinning.
BUY MAUVIEL M'HERITAGE COPPER COOKWARE:
5. Seasoned Cast Iron and Carbon Steel
What Makes Cast Iron and Carbon Steel Safe Choices?
Cast iron and carbon steel--which we put together because they're very similar materials (carbon steel is closer in composition to cast iron than it is to stainless steel)--are both traditional cookware materials that have been used for hundreds of years. They are considered one of the safest and most stable cooking surfaces available.
In order to achieve this stability, both materials must be seasoned. Seasoning involves baking thin layers of oil onto the cooking surface at high heat, which changes the composition of the oil to a type of polymer that coats the cooking surface to inhibit rusting and create a slippery, almost-nonstick coating.
The polymer coating itself is very safe and stable, containing no known toxins or unsafe substances. However, the seasoning process releases free radicals and possibly other unsafe substances, so you should always season in a well-ventilated area to avoid breathing these.
There is no evidence that any free radicals or other toxic substances remain behind in the seasoning. It Once the oil is "baked" into the cooking surface, it becomes a non-reactive surface.
Some websites say that iron can leach from cast iron or carbon steel, but if your pan is properly seasoned, this is unlikely to happen. If it does, the amounts will be very, very small--so even if you're worried about getting too much iron, cooking in cast iron and carbon steel isn't likely to increase your iron intake appreciably. Since many sources disagree with this, here's a page at America's Test Kitchen that supports this statement.
Care of cast iron and carbon steel cookware involves avoiding a lot of soap (though a little is fine, if necessary), and drying the pans thoroughly after washing so they don't rust. Many people also coat the pans with a thin layer of cooking oil after drying, also to help inhibit rusting. You may have read complaints about cast iron or carbon steel requiring "special care," but in reality, they are quite easy to care for. Well-seasoned pans clean up easily, and drying and applying a light coat of oil is a simple process.
You also have to avoid scrubbing with abrasive sponges or pads or soaking in water, because these can destroy the seasoning. But the good news is that neither of these are usually needed because food easily rinses off a well-seasoned pan. If you do need to scrub, you can use a nylon scrubby pad, which won't be as abrasive to the seasoning.
Using fats and oils while cooking will enhance seasoning, but you may occasionally have to re-season cast iron or carbon steel. This is most likely to happen if you cook highly acidic foods (like tomato sauce), which eat away at the seasoning; if you use a seasoned pan for high-volumes of liquid, which may also eat away at the seasoning; or if your seasoning has for some reason gotten thick and gummy.
In short, seasoned cast iron and carbon steel are incredibly safe, the seasoning process is easy (though it may take some practice to get it right), and they make excellent skillets, especially for high-heat searing, as they are safe to use even at high temperatures.
How to buy cast iron and carbon steel: One good thing about both cast iron and carbon steel is that most brands are inexpensive, and expensive brands, though often smoother and prettier than cheaper brands, won't provide better heating properties. Cast iron is cast iron, no matter how much you pay, and carbon steel is pretty much carbon steel, although it can come in different thicknesses.
To learn more about how to buy cast iron and carbon steel cookware, check out these articles:
What Are Cast Iron and Carbon Steel Best For?
Seasoned cast iron and carbon steel are best for skillets, grills, and griddles. Both materials are excellent for use with high heat searing and safe to use over open flames such as on a grill.
A well-seasoned griddle is great for pancakes and eggs (and safer than nonstick--more on that below).
Many people use cast iron as their all-purpose skillet. We prefer clad stainless for its versatility and stability, with no seasoning required. But cast iron and carbon steel retain heat extremely well (better than almost every brand of clad stainless), so are excellent for high-heat searing, deep frying, and any other task where heat retention is important.
If you want cast iron or carbon steel for an all-purpose skillet, either will work. But you may have to season the pan more frequently if you use it as your main skillet.
You can also buy bare cast iron Dutch ovens. Many people like these for camping and even for some kitchen uses. We recommend enameled cast iron Dutch ovens for best results for braises, soups, stews, and other low-and-slow, high-liquid cooking. Remember, liquid can strip seasoning, so bare cast iron Dutch ovens aren't the best choice.
Cast Iron/Carbon Steel Pros and Cons
- Safe, stable cooking surface (when seasoned)
- Extremely durable; will last for a lifetime
- Most brands are inexpensive.
- Seasoning is easy, but can be a pain
- Seasoning should always be done in a well-ventilated area
- Must always be dried after washing or will rust.
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6. Enameled Cast Iron (and Enameled Steel)
See Le Creuset enameled cast iron Dutch oven on Amazon (expensive brand)
See Tramontina Dutch oven on Amazon (budget brand with good reviews)
See All-Clad Fusiontec (enameled steel cookware made in Germany)
What Makes Enameled Cast Iron or Steel a Safe Choice?
Enamel is powdered, melted glass that's applied to cast iron or carbon steel. Once hardened, it is extremely durable, non-porous, and un-reactive. This makes it a safe, non-toxic cooking surface. Enameled cookware comes in an array of bright, beautiful colors, and good quality brands will last for decades.
One possible issue with enamel is that some colors can naturally contain small amounts of cadmium or lead, or manufacturers may even add these toxic chemicals to obtain the colors they want. This is mostly true for reds, oranges, and yellows, so if you're concerned about it, avoid those colors.
However, note that the bright colors are only on the exterior of the cookware. The cooking surface will be either cream-colored or black, and should contain no toxic chemicals.
Some websites claim that they've tested Le Creuset and found cadmium, lead, and even aluminum. But we find this extremely un-credible. Le Creuset has set their standards for toxins to meet California Prop 65 requirements, which are 10 times lower than any other standard in the world. This means that even if toxins are present, they are in amounts deemed 10 times lower than what's considered the safe threshold.
And again: if toxins are present, they are present only on the exterior.
Finally, the firing/glazing process used to make the enamel adhere to the underlying metal results in a very stable, non-porous finish, so even if toxins are present, they're not reactive. That is, they won't leach into your food.
Enameled cookware is an excellent choice if your primary concern is safe, non-toxic cookware. And we stand by this statement regardless of what some other sites have to say.
Here are some articles that support our findings:
Enameled cast iron is the most popular type of enameled cookware, but enameled carbon steel and cast iron are becoming more popular. Fusiontec is All-Clad's newest line of enameled steel cookware (they call it stainless steel, but we think it's a high-iron content stainless, very close in composition to carbon steel).
If you want to read more, or get buying tips, check out these articles:
The Definitive All-Clad Review (for a discussion of Fusiontec)
Chantal Cookware: A Detailed Review (for a discussion of their enamel-on-carbon steel cookware)
What Is Enameled Cast Iron or Steel Best For?
Some people like enameled cast iron for complete cookware sets, but we think it's best for Dutch ovens. The cast iron retains heat well, while the enamel means a non-reactive cooking surface that doesn't require seasoning.
Enameled cookware can be heavy, even if it's carbon steel or steel and not cast iron. So Dutch ovens are where enameled cast iron really shines. You can use it for other tasks, but it's not nonstick (contrary to what some sources will tell you), and the enameled cooking surface isn't as good--believe it or not--for skillets as a well-seasoned cooking surface.
Enameled Cast Iron Pros and Cons
- Safe, inert, non-porous cooking surface (even if toxins are present, they are on the exterior and won't leach into food)
- Extremely durable
- Excellent heat retention
- Best for Dutch ovens (because, heavy).
- Good quality brands are expensive
- Contrary to popular belief, enamel is not nonstick (it is a different substance than ceramic nonstick cookware).
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7. 100% Glass, Ceramic, and Stoneware Cookware
See CorningWare Visions on Amazon (vintage/used items)
See Xtrema website (stovetop safe)
What Makes 100% Stoneware a Safe Choice?
100% stoneware is a big category, including glass and glass composites (like CorningWare), glazed earthenware, ceramics, and more. The main point here is that the cookware is 100% stoneware and not a coating on a metal.
IMPORTANT: We do not include any types of nonstick cookware in the stoneware category. "Granite" nonstick cookware is just a marketing term for PTFE nonstick, and ceramic nonstick is a different material than any type of traditional stoneware (which is semi-nonstick at best). We discuss this in more detail in the Nonstick Cookware section below,
100% stoneware is considered by most experts to be one of the safest cookware choices available. The glass, ceramics, and glazes are stable and non-porous, and good quality brands do not contain any toxins. (Cheaper brands may not, either, but it's harder to say for sure.)
Since most people who buy 100% stoneware are buying it specifically because it's safe, most reputable brands have been tested and adhere to California Prop 65, the most stringent standard for toxins in cookware, with a threshold 10 times lower than what's generally recognized as safe. Le Creuset stoneware, Emile Henry, Xtrema, and new CorningWare all meet California Prop 65 requirements.
This may not be true for all brands of 100% stoneware, much of which is bakeware. In particular, glazes may contain small amounts of lead or cadmium, especially in shades or red, orange and yellow.
Some vintage CorningWare tests positive for lead on the outside only, which you may or may not be concerned about (we don't think it's much to worry about, but if you do, don't buy vintage CorningWare--that which was made before 1999).
Here's the thing. Even if a glaze contains lead, cadmium, or other toxins, it tends to not leach into food because the firing process stabilizes the cooking surface, making it inert and quite stable. Glass, glazes, enamels, and ceramics tend to be some of the most non-porous, non-reactive materials in the world of cookware, which is why they are considered some of the safest types of pans you can buy.
Xtrema is considered by many cookware alarmists (for lack of a better term) to be the safest cookware brand on the market. If safety is your main concern, 100% stoneware, particularly Xtrema, is a good option (although there are some who found issues even with Xtrema--but you really have to question the testing methods here, since no one else we know of has found any issues with this cookware, and Xtrema is very open about their testing and results).
For more information about 100% stoneware, including more buying recommendations, see our article Stoneware Cookware: What You Need to Know Before You Buy.
What Is 100% Stoneware Best For?
100% stoneware has pretty terrible heating properties because these materials are insulators, not conductors, of heat. Thus they aren't great for stovetop use, even if certified for it. Most people who want stovetop stoneware want it because it's safe, not because it's a good performer. If you're in that category, be sure the 100% stoneware you buy is safe for the stovetop, because not all of it is.
Stoneware really shines as bakeware. Its insulating properties protect delicate batters and doughs, allowing them to heat gently and evenly.
And if you're concerned about possible toxins, be sure to buy a reputable brand (such as the ones we've given here).
100% Stoneware Pros and Cons
- Non-reactive, non-porous, stable cooking surface
- Excellent for bakeware.
- Some glazes may contain small amounts of toxins
- Heavy and brittle
- Slow, uneven heating
- High quality brands can be expensive.
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About Nonstick Cookware
Now that we've talked about the safest kinds of cookware, let's look at some not-so-safe kinds.
At the top of the list is nonstick cookware.
There are other types of cookware that aren't the smartest choice, but nonstick cookware gets its own section because it's in a class by itself.
Let's look at the two types separately--that is, PTFE/Teflon and ceramic nonstick, the only nonstick options--so you can sort out the particulars for each.
And for more information on nonstick cookware, check out these articles (it's a big topic):
Hands down, PTFE nonstick cookware is the most unsafe, most toxic cookware on the planet. PTFE is the generic name for the Teflon molecule. Today, there are hundreds of PTFE brands on the market, including Autograph, Eterna, Eclipse, QuanTanium, HALO, Xylan, Skandia, Dura-Slide, Granite Rock, Granitium, ILAG, Greblon, and many more.
Teflon by any other name is still PTFE.
PTFE is safe--inert and non-reactive--at low temperatures, and for this reason, many sources say it's safe to use for cooking (including early articles on this site). However, PTFE begins to break down around 390F and it gives off toxic fumes around 500F. It breaks down into un-stable PFAS chemicals, including the dreaded PFOA. If you don't think you will ever--ever--let your cookware get above about 375F, then PTFE is okay to use. But this is really hard to do.
Furthermore, heat damage to PTFE is cumulative, so even if you're very careful with your PTFE cookware, it will still wear out.
Many people think--thanks largely to the propaganda put out by the nonstick cookware industry--that now that PTFE cookware is PFOA-free, it's safe. This is not the case. As we said above, overheated PTFE can break down into PFOA and other toxic PFAS chemicals. Furthermore, the chemicals used in place of PFOA--called GenX, a different type of PFAS--is just as bad for human health and the environment as PFOA.
Speaking of the environment, PTFE cookware is one of the worst environmental hazards on the planet. The industry has almost no regulations in the US, so manufacturers have been dumping toxic chemicals--PFOA, PTFE, and now GenX--into the ground and water since the 1950s. Largely due to the nonstick cookware industry, nearly every water source on the planet is contaminated with PFOA, and is rapidly becoming contaminated with GenX. Depending on the source, at least 90% of Americans have PFOA--a "forever" carcinogen--in their bodies.
So even if you use your cookware safely, buying it contributes to an industry that is contaminating the planet.
(If you want to be sure your water is free of PFAS, you should be filtering it. You can read more in our article on the best reverse osmosis systems.)
Do we need to go on here? Okay...another issue with nonstick cookware is that it doesn't last very long and very few curbside recycling programs can recycle it, so most discarded PTFE cookware ends up in landfills. It is a huge issue for landfills.
And all of this is just for the USA. Most nonstick cookware is now made in China, where regulations are few to non-existent (we don't really know for sure). It's horrifying to think about how the PTFE cookware industry is polluting China and making Chinese factory workers ill.
If you want to read more, check out some of the articles we linked to above. You can also read about lawsuits against Chemours (aka Dupont) for the new GenX chemicals.
NOTE: We also believe that you should avoid nonstick bakeware, for all the same reasons.
Ceramic nonstick has a much cleaner reputation than PTFE cookware. It was invented in 2007--see, totally new and different from traditional stoneware--and is made from sand. The coating materials, including sand, is melted down into what's called a sol-gel and sprayed onto aluminum or clad stainless steel pans, then heated at high temps to bake on the coating.
Ceramic nonstick coatings are superior to PTFE in that they are much harder and can withstand very high heat--up to 700F, at least--without breaking down or emitting any dangerous fumes. However, high heat is bad for the nonstick properties, so just as with PTFE nonstick, it's best to use low-to-medium heat. (Don't sear your steaks in a ceramic nonstick pan.)
There are many brands of ceramic nonstick cookware, including Green Pan, Healthy Legend, and the super popular direct-to-consumer brands Always, Caraway, and Our Place.
At first glance, ceramic nonstick cookware sounds natural and safe. However, it has two potential safety issues.
One is that some manufacturing may involve the use of lead, cadmium, or arsenic. Reputable makers state that their cookware is free of all toxins, but it's possible that they are there in extremely small amounts (they may exist naturally in the sand used to make the coating). Unless the brand is open to outside testing, it's hard to say for sure. But even if these toxins are present, they are likely to be in very tiny amounts, and because of the firing process--like glazes--they're probably neutralized and won't leach into your food.
The second, and more serious, issue, is that of titanium dioxide nanoparticles. These nanoparticles are used in the sol-gel coating process of ceramic nonstick cookware (as well as in many other industries), so it's probable that all ceramic nonstick cookware contains these particles. (Not all makers are forthcoming with their cookware's composition, especially the D2C brands, but since there are just two types of nonstick cookware in the world, we're pretty certain that all ceramic nonstick pan coatings are very similar.)
Titanium dioxide nanoparticles have been linked to a number of illnesses and to cancerous lesions in humans, so they are a valid concern. This article discusses the problem in more detail. Unfortunately, there isn't a lot more research available. Some sources say ceramic nonstick is only unsafe at very high temperatures or if scratched, but it's really hard to know for sure--the PTFE industry told us for decades that their cookware was completely safe, so forgive us for being cynical.
Ceramic nonstick also has the landfill issue like PTFE: it doesn't last very long, and few curbside recycling programs are equipped to handle it, so most of it ends up in landfills. And since ceramic nonstick tends to have an even shorter life span than PTFE, this is a big problem (and just as true for high-end brands like Caraway and Always, too).
The upshot is that nonstick cookware--and bakeware--is probably not a safe purchase in any form.
Other Possibly Not-So-Safe Cookware
Here are some other types of cookware that you may have read are "safe" or "stable" that many sources get wrong.
Anodized aluminum is aluminum that's been treated to increase durability, resist scratching and nicks, and be more impermeable. You can tell aluminum is anodized by its almost black appearance.
A lot of people will tell you that anodized aluminum is safe because it isn't reactive with food the way untreated aluminum is, and it is not associated with Alzheimer's, either.
While these statements are true, they're irrelevant because the vast majority of "anodized aluminum" cookware is actually nonstick cookware (usually PTFE), with an anodized aluminum exterior.
In fact, we haven't been able to find any brands of cookware with an anodized aluminum cooking surface.
Here's a rule of thumb to always follow when buying cookware: the cooking surface determines what "type" of cookware it is. So if anodized aluminum cookware has a PTFE nonstick cooking surface, then it's not anodized aluminum cookware, it's PTFE cookware.
There could be cookware with an anodized aluminum cooking surface, and if so, it's probably pretty safe and non-reactive (not to mention durable). But if it has a nonstick cooking surface, then the rules for nonstick apply, not the rules for anodized aluminum.
It's kind of astonishing to us how many sources get this wrong.
Uncoated aluminum cookware is popular in the restaurant industry because it's cheap and it has good heating properties. It's not as popular with home cooks, although you can certainly find it on Amazon and at restaurant supply stores.
Oddly enough, the same home cooks that would never consider buying aluminum cookware think nothing about aluminum bakeware--baking sheets, cake pans, pie plates, muffin tins, and more. You'd think that aluminum bakeware would have the same issues as aluminum cookware, yet a lot of people don't make the association.
The scariest thing about aluminum cookware (and bakeware) is that aluminum intake has been associated with an increased risk of developing Alzheimer's disease. There are a ton of sources that will scare the hell out of you with their anti-aluminum stance. But the truth is, the relationship between aluminum and Alzheimer's is sketchy at best. Most scientific sources believe that it's been completely debunked--read more at the Alzheimer's Society website if you're interested.
We aren't going to take a strong position on the Alzheimer's connection either way, but we wouldn't blame anyone for erring on the side of caution (just remember to get rid of those aluminum baking sheets and muffin tins, too). But we don't like aluminum cookware for the simple reason that it can react with food, especially acidic foods like tomato sauce or vinegar-based sauces, and impart a metallic taste, which will ruin your dish.
It looks like clad stainless, but it's a very different surface.
Hybrid Nonstick/Stainless Steel Cookware (Hexclad)
Hybrid nonstick is PTFE cookware with a stainless steel lattice overlay. The lattice protects the PTFE from scratches, and it also adds a unique look that a lot of people really like.
Since this cookware contains PTFE, the rules for PTFE apply. Yes, it's protected from scratches, which is good, but the lattice can't protect the PTFE from heat, so just as with regular PTFE cookware, you can't use high heat, and the heat damage is cumulative, so the cookware (which is expensive) will wear out just like other PTFE cookware. Avoiding high heat will extend its life, but it won't be lifetime cookware like clad stainless or cast iron.
Just because the PTFE layer is below a layer of stainless doesn't mean it won't wear out--it will.
The lattice also means that the cookware is only partially nonstick (which is what Hexclad's website says). In our testing, we found that food (like eggs) stuck in all the nooks and crannies, making it hard to clean (even with butter or cooking oil).
For more details, see our Hexclad Cookware Review.
We have done very little research on bakeware of any kind, so we may not know what we're talking about. Many sources say silicone bakeware is very safe and non-reactive, but a few disagree. Leafscore.com puts it best: "There’s very little to suggest that silicone cookware is unsafe, but there’s also not much to confirm its safety either."
Just as with ceramic nonstick cookware--also a silicon-based product--we are not recommending it as safe until there is more research available.
Final Thoughts on Safe Cookware
There's a ton of information out there about what cookware is safe and what isn't, and the differences of opinion are staggering--and just as staggering is the amount of misinformation you'll find (e.g., PFOA-free Teflon is not safe).
Our recommendations are science-based and the result of dozens of hours of research. Our cookware expertise was also a huge help in separating the good info from the bad.
In the end, people have to decide for themselves what their level of comfort is when investing in safe cookware. We have tried to provide a thorough analysis to help you do that.
Please let us know if you have any thoughts or questions--we are always open to new information.
Thanks for reading!
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