Cast iron, properly cared for, will last for generations.
It's fall, when many of us crank up our stoves and ovens as the weather cools down. Just as there are decisions to be made about what to put in this casserole or that pie - is it local? is it organic? is it humane? did it really have free range - there are certain ethical concerns edging into what we're cooking with. Is it "green"? Is it "eco-friendly"? What the heck does that even mean, and do I even care?
You'll see it in cookware displays: labels claiming a green pedigree. That appeals both to consumers and to a food-world market that has seen green sensibilities translate into profits.
Much of the marketing of eco-friendly products is happening on the nonstick front, as a reaction to chemicals historically used in that potentially dangerous surface. Nonstick coatings do degrade, and they produce gases when heated to high temperatures.
"Eco-friendly" is a hot phrase in the market. But be judicious with what you're buying. Are you purchasing the label or the product?
There are plenty of green options, many of which have been on the market since back when Sunday chicken dinners were special because eating meat at all was a special occasion.
Many of those dinners may have been cooked in vessels meant to last, enamel-glazed cast iron or ceramic ware like Staub or Le Creuset or Emile Henry (available at most kitchen supply stores).
Or take my trusty cast iron skillet, purchased from a hardware store, which will have to be pried from my cold dead hands because it will last that long. Although traditional cast iron needs to be seasoned before using, that's not a difficult task. And the Lodge Logic brand even pre-seasons its pans now.
There's another "green" argument to be made for ceramic and cast iron. Once hot, these containers stay hot, which in theory saves energy during cooking or baking, and even keeps food warm for serving.
"You are not going to do yourself any harm if you ingest some iron," says Dean Schroeder, co-proprietor of Orange Tree Imports.
I'm admittedly kind of old school. When looking at ways to reduce, reuse and recycle, I appreciate the resilience of traditional cookware. Its long life is a form of environmentalism that I like: Buy it once and make it last.
Kitchen Gallery owners Tom Christiansen and Stephanie Kessenich scrutinize what is being used in the products they sell down to the glazes in the ceramic wares, but Kessenich says you won't find any "eco-friendly" stickers in the store. Instead, they stock "heritage" brands and pieces, much of which is stainless steel and copper for cookware; and clay, enamel glazed ceramic, or anodized aluminum for bake ware. Mauviel is a tantalizing, albeit expensive line of copper and stainless; Le Souk makes clay tagines and stew pots; and Fat Daddios specializes in anodized aluminum bakeware.
Christiansen and Kessenich emphasize products with extensive warranties, and they shy away from selling certain materials.
Silicone is one of them. Silicone, which has been used in the medical field (popularized by implants), became a hot item in kitchens in the last decade for items from cake pans to cookie sheets to spatulas. The Kitchen Gallery carries one 100% medical grade silicone product line.
But much of the silicone out there has fillers. Christiansen likes to show his clientele firsthand: Bend a filler-supplemented silicone spatula and watch the color change. That's not something he and Kessenich feel good about offering.
Christiansen and Kessenich steer clear of nonstick in other materials as well. One line they do carry is by Mauviel. It's more durable than most that Kessenich has found, but she still hasn't discovered a nonstick pan that is immune to degradation and chipping.
Some customers are determined to buy a nonstick pan but are still concerned about performance and health ramifications. Dean Schroeder at Orange Tree suggests a couple of ways to go.
Swiss Diamond markets a diamond crystal reinforced coating that Schroeder vouches for; it's harder to scratch, and it's PFOA-free. The Zwilling Spirit pan has a ceramic-based coating, which Schroeder suspects will break down faster than that on the Swiss Diamond - but it is marketed for its eco-friendliness. So is Ecolution's PFOA-free Hydrolon water-based coating. Schroeder suggests that some customers still may want to contact companies directly to make the most educated decisions.
He also brings people back to some of the classic ceramic pieces, which are well suited for roasting and baking. Some of the companies that make these have hopped on board, advertising longstanding intrinsic features that can be considered "green." Chantal makes an "eco-friendly glaze," and Emile Henry uses all-natural Burgundian clay.
For baking, Schroeder notes that silicone hasn't been selling well and attributes that in part to performance. It isn't nonstick, as it is marketed to be, he says. And despite the fun colors and flexibility, his customers don't seem to like baking with it. I concur.
Colleen Kavanaugh, owner of Kavanaugh Restaurant Supply, says that tri-ply materials - often aluminum sandwiched by stainless steel, or a harder, anodized aluminum from companies like Chicago Metallic - are some of the best sellers for the commercial market.
Plain, unlined aluminum is a hard retail sell these days (from questions about aluminum's ties to Alzheimer's), even though aluminum is prevalent in commercial kitchens for its affordability and relatively good heat conduction.
Kavanaugh says the commercial market is interested in going green, and customers are asking about it, but are only willing to commit up to a certain cost. Customers are most likely to invest in a select piece or two, such as energy-efficient equipment, or something like a Silpat, a reusable pan liner that also prevents sticking without lubrication. This is a good alternative to, say, disposable parchment on sheet trays.
Eco-friendly labeling may give you some signposts this season, but ultimately, you should reduce waste by buying pieces that will last. Keep short-lived cookware out of landfills.
PFOA, PTFE, Pfooey
Companies making nonstick coatings are moving away from those containing PFOA and PTFE. PFOA is used in the production of fluorinated polymers known by the brand name Teflon (PTFE). The EPA is pushing for the elimination of PFOA from manufacturing by 2015, for its known persistence and toxicity in the environment and in humans. It's been found in the blood of 95% of Americans - unsettling, given that it's been linked to cancer and birth defects in animals.
The debate about PTFE is more controversial, but there are reports of the chemical being detrimental to human health and the environment due to gases that are released during high temperatures. For PTFE, that's anything above 600 degrees Fahrenheit (most ranges get a lot hotter than that).
Trifluroacetic acid (TFA) is another byproduct produced during high heat degradation of Teflon. Nature cites TFA as being a known phototoxin (to plants), but the long-term effects on humans aren't really known. Teflon was invented in 1938 and put on the market starting in the 1940s, which is a blip in time for most environmental impact assessments.
DuPont, the company that manufactures Teflon, indicates that pans using the coating are safe for their intended use - but what's intended? Low to medium heat, and don't scratch the pans. However, the coatings will eventually scratch and chip. The FDA's position is that ingesting small bits of Teflon is not a health concern; DuPont says the coating is nontoxic and will pass without absorption. Still, there's enough unease among consumers that alternatives are constantly being developed and marketed.
Tips for the no-Teflon kitchen
- Cast iron, properly cared for, will last for generations. The seasoning only adds to food's flavor. Dry right after washing. Rub stubborn bits with kosher salt.
- Stainless steel is easy to clean if you deglaze after cooking. Add water to the pan and return it to the heat source. That will soften what's stuck. Buy good-quality pans, as thin stainless will burn.
- For baking, consider glass over nonstick.