Monday, 18 January 2010

Healthy cookware

by Francesca
all drawings by artist J. Anzalone

For years I've been striving to grow, buy and prepare the healthiest foods for my family, but it was only a few years ago that I stopped to consider the safety of the pots I was cooking it in. The fact is, even with the healthiest raw materials, your meals will only be as healthy as your cookware.

The main concern with cookware is that it not add toxins to your food. This can happened in three ways: by using chemically reactive materials with the wrong kind of food (like using aluminum pots for cooking with acidic foods), cooking with the wrong kind of cookware (such as non-stick skillets for high-heat cooking), or using damaged cookware (like a badly scoured stainless steel pan).

At first, when I set out to improve our own cookware, I was overwhelmed by the countless choices and the enormous range in prices. I also found it quite tricky to navigate through the maze of what materials are best for what kinds of food at what temperatures: even if you chose quality cookware and take proper care of it, there's an ideal pot for each specific use!

To simplify things, I tried to make sure my cookware met the following criteria: 1) inert or moderately-reactive, 2) good heat-conducting materials, and 3) locally made (which, as is it happens, in the case of terracotta and copper, is also the kind of cookware that was traditionally used in my part of the world).

artwork by J. Anzalone

TERRACOTTA - EARTHENWARE – Earthenware is an inert material with excellent thermal properties, perfect for lengthy cooking over low to medium heat and in the oven, as for soups, stews, and casseroles. Because of its porousness, it requires just a little care before each use to avoid cracking: run water over over the pot so it absorbs some moisture, and heat it slowly to avoid thermal shock. Once heated, terracotta retains heat for a long time.

(Note: to avoid high levels of lead and cadmium, ensure that your earthenware is from a reputable manufacturer, or have it tested.)

TINNED COPPER - Considered one of the best and safest choices, copper has wonderful conductivity and can be used for a wide range of tasks. A plain copper pot is perfect for making polenta, but for all other cooking, copper that's been thinly lined with tin is a better choice. A shallow, tinned copper pan is my pizza and focaccia pan of choice, for instance, because it produces a perfect crust. Wipe it clean after use – avoid washing or scouring, which will remove the tin coating.

(Incidentally, tinned copper cookware is very different from the stainless steel cookware thinly clad on the outside with copper, where the copper is basically only cosmetic, and has little effect on how the food actually cooks.)

CARBON STEEL – An excellent, inexpensive and under-appreciated choice for many different cooking methods. It heats up rapidly and can be used at high heats. It must be thoroughly dried and seasoned after each use to prevent rusting. It blackens over time, which probably explains why it's not so popular, though blackening also means that the pan has essentially become non-stick.

CAST IRON – I'm very partial to cast iron skillets, which can be used on a high flame burner for searing, frying, and making crepes, but also for baking. Cast iron has excellent heat retention and diffusion properties. Always thoroughly dry and season cast-iron cookware after use to prevent rusting.

(A word about ENAMEL cookware: this is cast iron cookware with a vitreous enamel glaze, often in beautiful colors. The glaze prevents rust, thus eliminating the need to season the pan, and allows for more thorough cleaning, but it can't withstand quite the same searing heat as uncoated cast iron. Too expensive and delicate for my use – the coating can chip)

STAINLESS STEEL – One of the most versatile cookware options, though it' s not recommended for cooking acidic foods for long cooking times. (Many sources also say you shouldn't use abrasive materials when cleaning stainless steel.)

TITANIUM NON-STICK COOKWARE – I still sort of like non-stick, I must confess, probably because I learned to cook at the time when Teflon and non-stick cookware seemed to be so much handier than traditional pans. There are significant health questions about Teflon (refer to sources below), so favor titanium, and in any case buy only high quality non-stick cookware. Make sure never to over heat it.

GLASS – An inert material, but heat reflective, so not very good for cooking. It can be good for some kinds of baking, though, and is excellent for storing food.

ALUMINUM – A cheap, light-weight material, with good thermal conductivity, but it's chemically reactive. Personally, I don't use it for much more than boiling water when I cook pasta. Favor cast aluminum.

artwork by J. Anzalone

There are a lot of cookware options to chose from, and more excellent on-line information is here and here.

However, if you're like me you'll find over the years that just a handful of invaluable pots distinguish themselves from all the rest.

What are your favorite pots and how do you use them?