The Edible Kitchen

One step in developing a healthy diet and lifestyle includes reviewing your kitchen tools, and asking yourself the important question: Would I eat this?

Of course, we don’t sit down to chew on pots and pans (though the sight of certain Le Creuset pots, or copper-bottomed pans, can make my wife and I drool), but there’s a very close connection between the health of your food and what you use to prepare it. Having cookware you like can influence how much you cook for yourself. It can also influence how your food tastes, and what kind of meals you choose to make. It can change how you enjoy your food overall. For most of college I carried around a large Chinese bowl that I could use to eat an entire meal (soup, rice and beans with broccoli, chicken, etc). I would think to myself that if this bowl ever broke I would be devastated. But why am I asking this silly question about eating your cookware? Well, that’s just what we do, in small amounts, anyway. If your food has ever tasted plastic-y following, say, microwaving it in a Tupperware container, you know what I mean. I find that one of the best ways to inspire people to eat better is to create an inspiring environment for making food, and that starts with a few simple tools that are sturdy and safe to cook with.

All cooking tools used to be made with naturally occurring materials, starting with clay, a substance that has been known to have healing properties when applied orally or on the skin. Being fireproof, earthenware could be used to boil water and cook food, though it is capable of cracking and doesn’t heat very evenly. Metal cookware, developed later, doesn’t have these flaws, though only metals that can be heated to normal cooking temperatures without undergoing a chemical reaction are suitable. Copper is unanimously the best cooking metal, due to its high conductivity, though it is usually layered with stainless steel to prevent reactions. These pots are very expensive. Cookware that is 100% stainless, while it does not react chemically, does not conduct heat quite as well. A better conductor that is less expensive than copper is Cast iron. Cast iron does not heat very quickly, but the heat spreads evenly and does not diffuse rapidly. With seasoning, it also gradually forms a nonstick coating. For this reason stainless is best for jobs like boiling water for pasta, while cast iron is better for sautéing or for bean soups such as chili.

The beautiful thing about stainless and cast iron (and copper too, if I could afford it) are that they will last forever, and become more valuable and effective with use. Ultimately your goal is a seamless blend of cookware and food. Sautéing with a cast iron pan will undoubtedly result in little flecks of iron – an essential mineral – in your food. The act of seasoning suggests that you could even list the cast iron pan with the ingredients in a recipe.

There are some other cooking tools out there which I wouldn’t recommend. Some cookware is made from aluminum, a metal which has undergone some notoriety because scientists have noticed a correlation between Alzheimer’s disease and significant aluminum levels in the brain. This is not proof that aluminum is responsible, but it’s worth mentioning that, unlike some metals, such as zinc, magnesium, iron, etc., aluminum is completely unnecessary for function of the human body. Nevertheless it’s found in everything, from pans to baking powder to deodorant to antacids to even water supplies. Since we know stainless steel and cast iron are harmless, I’d advise sticking with them.

Teflon, patented and manufactured by the company DuPont, has a couple of strikes against it. The Teflon-making process creates a significant amount of environmental waste, including a carcinogen byproduct known as perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA. PFOA has been found in the drinking water of communities near DuPont’s Teflon manufacturing plants. For this reason alone I would suggest staying away from Teflon. I think that while we’re making choices towards improving our health, we should also be considering how those choices affect the health of others. However, there are two additional concerns related to cooking with Teflon. One is that pieces of Teflon can flake off the pan and end up in your food. The manufacturer claims that these particles will pass through your body unimpeded and not cause any health problems, but it’s not clear to me that ingesting pieces of a synthetic plastic will not impede your body’s function.

Teflon is also capable of releasing harmful toxins when heated. Since most cooking pans are meant to encounter heat at some point in fulfilling their function, this can represent a problem. There is some debate about at what temperature Teflon releases toxic fumes; the manufacturer claims that Teflon is stable up to 600 fahrenheit. However, the fumes from Teflon pans have been known to kill caged birds at temperatures of 350-400 fahrenheit, normal cooking temperatures. This is sort of a case of “canaries in the mineshaft”; while Teflon won’t kill us like it will kill a small bird, it will release fumes that can cause flu symptoms, headaches, and contribute to the number of toxins in our system. Compare this to heating cast iron or steel. What happens? They get hot, that’s it.

The “advantage” of Teflon is that it is non-stick. However, a cast iron pan closely approximates the non-stick qualities of Teflon without any of the chemicals or toxins. Directions for taking care of your cast-iron pan are in the recipe section. Some people like Teflon because it enables them to cook with less, or without, oil. But considering that oil and fat are now being found out to be much healthier for us than has been thought in the past, it seems worth sacrificing the fat-free diet so that you can go on the toxin-free one. Teflon is also not that cost-effective as the Teflon degrades and the pans will have to be replaced over time, creating more waste. If you’re going to eat and breathe your pans, choose cast iron and stainless. Wouldn’t it be nice at the age of 70 or 80, to still have the pan you made all your delicious meals in? Like you, it will only have gotten better with age.

Cooking with Stainless Steel:

Food can easily stick to stainless steel frying pans. To reduce food sticking in stove-top skillets, wait to add food until the cooking oil’s surface has a wave of movement to it but is not smoldering. Add food carefully to maintain an oil layer beneath it, and do not attempt to move food until it loosens (as it cooks) and can be easily flipped or moved. Also, use a metal spatula.

Cooking with Cast Iron:

A cast iron skillet should be seasoned both to prevent rust and to provide a non-stick coating. Seasoning consists in applying a layer of oil, such as sesame oil, coconut oil, olive oil, or organic animal fat (not fish oil) to the surface of the pan with a paper towel (not too much – just the lightest layer, or it will get sticky and gross). When washing the skillet, do not use soap or use it very lightly. Use instead just a scrubber or brush with hot water, quickly dry the pan (with a towel or on the stove), and reapply the layer of oil. It can take a few seasonings for the non-stick capabilities to take effect.