When it comes to kitchenware, the pots and pans we use to cook our food may have a powerful health impact. And with the ongoing rumblings about possible carcinogens in non-stick pans, many of us are ransacking our cabinets wondering what's good and what's evil.
To find out exactly which pots and pans you should own -- and if there are any precautions you should take -- we called Sean F. O'Keefe, professor at Virginia Tech's Department of Food Science and Technology.
Nonstick pans (Calphalon, Circulon, etc.): Nonstick pans are made by adding a layer of a polymer called polytetrafluoroethylene (or PTFE) to the surface. PTFE provides an easily cleaned surface, but sacrifices browning and cooking performance. Another drawback: When overheated, PTFE-coated pans can result in production of volatile fluorine-containing compounds that are toxic. Heating at excessively high temps can even melt the PTFE layer. Before you freak out, consider this: Studies have not shown a concern to humans at the levels of toxins formed. But it still makes sense to avoid overheating nonstick pans. Never deep fry in a nonstick pan or heat the pan to high temperature without food in it.
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Cast iron: Many chefs claim cast iron pots are top notch. The cooking performance of cast iron is excellent, and it results in very good browning of foods -- and cast iron pots and pans last forever. Plus, iron from the pots and pans can actually seep into your food -- a good thing for those of us who need a boost of iron. The drawback: Iron can rust (some cast iron pans are coated with an enamel to prevent rusting), and cast iron must be seasoned with oil before use and from time to time.
Steel: Steel is cheap, easy to clean and the chromium oxide layer on the surface of steel pots and pans prevents rust and reduces interactions with food. The drawback: Steel is not a particularly good conductor of heat, so manufacturers have developed a second class of pans to combine the heat conduction of copper with the ease of cleaning of steel.
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Copper: Copper has excellent heat conduction -- no wonder savvy food manufacturers have combined it with steel. But it can be dissolved by acidic foods (think tomatoes, citrus and mom's spaghetti sauce), so copper pots are usually lined with nickel, tin or silver. Newer pots may be lined with stainless steel. The drawback: Most of the linings on copper pots are somewhat fragile -- and you definitely don't want to cook acidic foods in copper. Plus, pots lined with nickel raise issues for people who have nickel allergies.
Aluminum: Another inexpensive option, aluminum pots are lightweight and good heat conductors, but again, acidic foods may dissolve aluminum, leaching it into food. In fact, years ago, research actually linked excess aluminum to Alzheimer's disease, and some experts were concerned that using aluminum pots may have contributed to that. The good news: More recent research has largely refuted the Alzheimer's link.
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