Being into the whole real food thing is tough. You gotta dissect labels for toxic ingredients, trudge off to an actual farm to get food, spend hours slaving away in the kitchen every week, and you don’t have the luxury of picking up an easy frozen meal at a normal grocery store and firing it up in the microwave when you don’t feel like cooking.
Oh but it doesn’t end there. You also have to worry about whether or not the pots and pans that you cook all that healthy food in are killing you. That nonstick skillet you whipped up many a Hamburger Helper with in years past must not be touched. Your trusty old aluminum baking sheets aren’t so trustworthy anymore.
So, then you have to shell out all kinds of cash for more expensive, non-lethal cookware. And don’t even think about donating that Teflon trash to Goodwill. (The gift of cancer isn’t exactly altruistic.)
What’s wrong with nonstick? Or aluminum? Or other normal, not-expensive cookware?
Weell… that’s kind of a long story. But, I kind of get the feeling that most of the health-conscious people who read this blog are already fairly aware of these things. And if you’re not, you are free to Google your way into a nervous breakdown over discovering all the many fatal diseases you’re surely developing as a result of the cookware you’ve been using for the last decade or two. It’s like WebMD out there, you guys. One wrong click and you may as well start planning your own funeral.
Nutshell version? The nonstick coating used in cheap cookware off-gases carcinogenic fumes that build up in your bloodstream and over 90% of people tested have been shown to have significant levels of these toxic chemicals in their blood. And in their baby fetus’ blood. It’s not good. Oh, and aluminum is a toxic heavy metal that causes alzheimer’s, cancer, and other terrible things.
I mean, you’re probably not actually dying as we speak from all that slippery teflon that probably saved you many hours scrubbing off bits of burnt cheese from your pans, but… it is probably best that you start looking around for some alternatives, if that’s what you’re using.
Of course, those alternatives can be pretty spendy. So, here’s my suggestions for picking out what you really need, piece-by-piece, so you can save a little bit of cash, and your sanity, in the process.
Types of Healthy Cookware
First, I want to briefly explain what the basic materials that make for safe cookware are. Your best bets are:
- Stainless steel. Quality matters. Because stainless steel is an alloy of not just carbon steel, but other metals including chromium and nickel, you want the highest-quality stainless steel, which contains less of the cheap heavy metals as filler. Nickel is of primary concern, because it is toxic and can leach from the steel into your food. High-quality stainless steel will have low levels of nickel, and will be constructed in a formulation which makes it resistant to corrosion and leaching or reactivity. To be on the safe side, avoid very long-term cooking and storage of acidic foods in stainless steel, as acids are what can react with the metal causing it to leach.
- Cast iron. This stuff has been used for centuries. When well-seasoned, cast iron cookware has a coating of polymerized fat which not only turns it into a nice non-stick surface, but acts as a barrier between the iron and your food. More on this in a bit when we get to choosing cast iron cookware.
- Enamel coated cast iron or steel. Naturally non-stick and non-porous. Again, quality matters. High-quality enamel coating is non-reactive and safe for all types of cooking. Lesser-quality enamel may contain lead, or may chip, allowing unsafe material underneath the coating to leach into food.
Now, let’s pick out some pots and pans! Here’s what you need.
A Couple Saucepans or Pots
You gotta have at least a basic saucepan and/or pot. Stainless steel is an old standby outside of the realm of non-stick, and I agree that it’s a good choice. All Clad is generally considered to be the cream of the crop when it comes to stainless steel, and for good reason. They’ve earned their solid reputation over the years with high-quality products that stand the test of time, and are well-constructed with heat-conducting aluminum sandwiched between layers of quality magnetic steel.
Here’s All Clad’s 3 quart saucepan with lid. I think 3-quart is a good size that can be used for a variety of different jobs. I like that it’s more squatty rather than deep. If I had to pick just one basic pot, this would be it.
Cuisinart’s “MultiClad Pro” line is a cheaper alternative to All Clad. Clearly, they’re trying to compete with All Clad directly, with both the name as well as the 3-ply construction. I’ve heard that it’s comparable, and passes the magnet test. This is their 2-quart saucepan, but they have it in several sizes.
If you think you’d have use for a small-ish stock pot/saucepot (we’ll get to the more necessary big stock pots in a bit), this 6-quart Cuisinart would be my vote. All Clad also makes a 6-quart pot, but for the price, I’d skip it and use an enamel dutch oven instead. However, for things like browning a roast before throwing it in the oven, or boiling a decent-sized pot of spaghetti or something, this is a good piece to have.
At least one non-reactive pot and/or saucepan
This is really not entirely necessary, since quality stainless steel is only reactive with very acidic things cooked at high temperatures, and I would only even worry about that if it were cooked for a long time, like hours. Especially if you plan on getting an enamel-coated dutch oven, you can definitely live with just one or two stainless pots/pans. But, the non-reactive pans do come in handy for certain things, and for my ideal list of essential cookware, this makes the list.
For me, I just need a little baby pot for cooking up smaller things, or heating up leftovers. And this adorable 1 1/4 quart Le Creuset saucepan definitely fits the bill. If I’m actually going to be cooking a batch of tomato sauce or chili or something else really acidic, I’m probably going to make a big batch of it, and for that I’d use an enamel-coated dutch oven or stock pot.
Enamel Dutch Oven
The name “Dutch Oven” is a little misleading (at least, it was to me), since they aren’t only for baking purposes or other oven-only kitchen endeavors. A dutch oven can most certainly be used entirely on the stovetop. So, if you were to cook something that would be too acidic for a stainless stock pot or saucepan, you can use one of these. The cream of the crop version of enamel dutch ovens is Le Creuset. French-made of the highest quality materials, Le Creuset products are made to last for generations. And their bright, delicious colors are beyond swoon-worthy. Oh, and they of course refer to their dutch ovens as “French ovens”—haha!
Ooh, la la. This 5 1/2 quart round Le Cresuet French oven is a classic beauty, and an heirloom piece that’s sure to be appreciated for a long, long time in your kitchen. Perfect for soups, stews, roasts, casseroles and almost anything else you can think of—the cast iron retains heat more efficiently than just about any other cookware material. And the enamel coating keeps it non-reactive and non-stick. Comes in all sorts of lovely colors, and other sizes are available, too.
A more budget-friendly version is this nice little 6-quart dutch oven from Lodge. Also constructed of cast iron with a porcelain enamel coating, it’s a solid choice. These do come in several different color options too, like this “Island Spice Red,” but, I don’t think they quite compare to the gorgeousness that is Le Creuset. Still, this is a great choice if the LC is out of budget.
A Nice, Big Stock Pot
Because every kitchen needs a big ol’ stock pot. For cooking big ol’ batches of good, home-cooked food.
All Clad is a great bet for this item, too. This 12-quart “multi-cooker” is a stock pot and steamer in one. The basket would sure come in handy for things like draining pasta, too. I think it’s a pretty good deal for what you’re getting, considering All Clad’s pricing.
This 20-quart stainless steel pot is a not-so-little gem I found while searching for All Clad stock pots on Amazon. My understanding is that this no-name brand, “New Professional” is geared toward literal professionals—as in, to be used in a real, commercial restaurant kitchen. Their high-quality stainless steel commercial-grade pots have been certified by the National Sanitation Foundation, and New Professional had this to say about the independent testing company: “Many professional restaurants adhere to using NSF listed cookware in their commercial kitchens. The NSF logo can be found on millions of consumer, commercial, and industrial products today. Products evaluated and certified by NSF International include bottled water, food equipment, home water treatment products, home appliances, plumbing and faucets, and even pool and spa components. No other independent testing programs require companies to comply with the strict standards imposed by NSF and its product certification programs.” Sounds pretty legit, to me. New Professional offers stock pots in sizes from 8-quart all the way up to a massive 40-quart.
Stainless steel is a great choice for most types of cooking, but if you’re going to be cooking a giant batch of something with a tomato base, like chili or tomato sauce, simmered on the stove for hours on end? I’d probably suggest going with an enamel-coated stock pot if it’s a big enough batch to not fit in a dutch oven. This 8-quart enamel-on-steel Le Creuset stock pot comes in those all those pretty colors, and is what I would choose.
What about making actual stock (bone broth)?
I actually do not use my stock pot for making stock or bone broth. Like, ever. I used to use a crock pot, which was an easy way to leave broth simmering for 24+ hours and not having to worry about the house burning down, but recently I have discovered the most amazing alternative and I probably will never use a crockpot to make stock again. Behold:
The pressure cooker. I recently got a stainless steel pressure cooker (mine was the 8-quart size which is not currently available on Amazon), and the very first thing I did with it was make bone broth. A heaping pile of bones, some veggie scraps, a glug of vinegar and a gallon of water went into that thing, I heated it up for a few minutes to bring it to pressure, and then cooked on low for just a half-hour, and BAM! Amazing, flavorful broth that GELLED perfectly without even using particularly gelatin-rich things! I usually have to add at least a few chicken feet to even HOPE for a solidly-gelled broth from the crock pot. This will be my only method for stock/broth making from now on. I’m totally hooked.
Skillets of All Sizes
Now this is where you can really save some money! For most of my skillet usage, a small cast iron pan fits the bill.
Lodge cast iron skillets come in sizes all the way from a wittew baby 3.5″ one (that I own and am obsessed with) to this big, honking 17-inch beast. The size from my collection that gets used the most, however, is this 8-incher. It is perfect for omelettes and frying up all sorts of things for just Mr. B and I.
What about iron leaching?
There are some concerns out there about cast iron leaching actual iron into your food. Some say that this is a good thing—since many people are anemic, or iron-deficient. But there’s also the argument that you could be ingesting too much iron, since excess levels of iron in the blood can be problematic.
I don’t think this is an issue we really need to worry much about, but there are a few things you’ll want to keep in mind when using cast iron, because it is possible for cast iron to leach iron into your food.
You can reduce this significantly by simply keeping your cast iron well-seasoned. The seasoning is basically a layer of crystalized (polymerized is the technical term) fat, which sits on top of the actual iron itself (and in between it and your food). Also, it’s best to avoid cooking things which are very wet—like sauces—in cast iron, as well as things which are highly acidic—like tomatoes. This not only draws iron out of the pan and into your food, but can break down your seasoning. And you really don’t want that to happen.
Cast iron pans are best for things that you’d use a spatula for—not a spoon. It’s for this reason that I don’t have a bare (as opposed to enamel-coated) cast iron dutch oven, or other pot that you’d cook soupy things in. I only have cast iron skillets, and I use them mostly for short-term cooking of not-very-wet things, like sauteing veggies, or making omelettes, or even fun things like baking cornbread, since cast iron skillets can go in an oven, too.
If it’s saucy, wet, or acidic, use a different piece of cookware. Enamel-coated cast iron pans are ideal.
A Good Enamel Skillet
Enamel-coated cast iron skillets have all the benefits of cast iron, without the possibility of the metal reacting to foods and leaching. And, they are low-maintenance, as they’re naturally non-stick without any seasoning to maintain.
Le Creuset is the winner again here, but since they are kinda spendy, choose wisely. I went with this 10 1/4 inch size, but if you think you could really use a bigger one, get that. I mean, it would be ideal to have both, but if you think you’d need a bigger one at times, get that first. The next size up is 11 3/4 inch, and it’s about $35 more than the smaller one.
A Big Frypan
A frypan isn’t absolutely essential. A larger skillet can pull double-duty and function as a fry pan. But, getting in there and flipping things with a spatula is more difficult when the sides aren’t angled like they are in a frying pan. I think you’ll find that you get a lot of use out of a nice, big frypan.
I’d go with All Clad on this one, personally. This 12-inch pan with sloped sides is a great choice. That higher-end Cuisinart line offers another option that’s more affordable, but they don’t make one with the sides angled enough for my liking.
Oh, and an honorable mention as far as frypans and skillets go, hard anodized aluminum is an option I’d consider. Anodized is different from regular aluminum because the electro-chemical anodizing process binds the aluminum so it can’t be leached into your food. BUT, I would be careful to not use any metal utensils in a hard anodized aluminum pan, because many are only anodized on the surface, and the oxide coating can possibly scratch and lead to aluminum leaching. Some cheaper brands of anodized aluminum cookware are STILL coated in PFOA/Teflon-type toxic nonstick material. So, I would make sure to only get very high quality anodized cookware which does not have chemical nonstick coating for this reason. This nice Le Creuset anodized aluminum frypan is one I would trust, and it comes at a price more affordable than their enamel-coated cast iron, but the 12 inch pan isn’t any cheaper than the All Clad. This nice and deep stir-fry pan looks like a good piece to have though, too. Cuisinart also has a line of anodized aluminum with ceramic coating that I think seems relatively trustworthy, and is very affordable.
If You Really Want a Whole Matching Set…
Want all your pots and pans to match? I mean, you could pay crazy amounts of money for a big fat All-Clad set, or a Le Creuset set. And if you have crazy amounts of money and those things are within your budget? Get them. They’re worth it.
For the rest of us, picking and choosing a well-thought out set of individual pieces over time is more realistic. However, if you do want a matchy-matchy set, and you want it all at once, and you need to not spend lots of money on it, I have a suggestion.
Again, I think that Cuisinart MultiClad Pro line looks like it’s pretty competitive with All Clad. Here is their 12-piece set that covers almost everything I think you’d need, aside from an enamel-coated dutch oven, and a larger stock pot if you’d need it. Also, their 7-piece set is a good deal for someone who only needs a few basic pieces.
What about Bakeware?
Can’t forget about this! Good bakeware is essential for a cookie, brownie, bread and pie lover like me.
In general, what you want to avoid with your bakeware is anything with a non-stick coating, which is super common for baking dishes, cookie sheets, muffin tins, and all that. Regular aluminum that isn’t coated with nonstick chemicals isn’t ideal, but, you don’t necessarily have to toss your aluminum just yet. The nonstick stuff off-gases dangerous chemicals into the air when it’s heated, but aluminum does not. The only real danger with aluminum bakeware is that it can leach the toxic heavy metal into your food—but you’re only at risk for that when it’s touching the aluminum. So, for cookie sheets and muffin tins at least, an easy fix is to use parchment paper or silicone baking mats, and paper or silicone muffin tin liners.
I love glass pieces and enamel-coated stoneware for baking, with some stainless steel items thrown in there too.
Rectangular Cake/Baking Pans
For casseroles and such, and of course actual cake.
Le Creuset enamel-coated stoneware is the bomb. They offer baking dishes in all shapes and sizes, each one seemingly more lovely than the last, including this beautiful little set of two rectangular casserole dishes that comes in several pretty colors. I’m a fan.
Pyrex glass dishes are always a good choice, too. Plus, they offer sets like this one (which is a really good deal) that come with super-handy lids. They also have wonderful storage container sets that I love.
Stainless steel is your best bet here. I use this cookie sheet most often. But again, don’t sweat it if you’re using aluminum, as long as it’s not nonstick—just make sure to use either non-bleached parchment paper, or one of these fun things:
For a much better nonstick surface than a nasty coating of Teflon, try these awesome French-made Silpat baking sheets.
Bread Pans & Muffin Tins
I love using my glass Pyrex loaf pan, because it makes it easier to check the done-ness of the bread/meatloaf/whatever since you can actually see how the sides are cooking, not just the top. It comes with a lid for storage, and the handles on the sides are handy, as well.
For a muffin tin, really any aluminum one (that’s NOT non-stick) will do. I’ve yet to find a stainless steel one that looks like it’s good enough quality to justify the price difference. Just make sure you use unbleached paper cupcake liners, or reusable silicone ones, so the aluminum won’t touch your food.
Most round cake pans are made with aluminum, which you should avoid if possible. This is one made from stainless steel.
Springform pans are also usually made with aluminum. This is a silicone springform with a glass base.
A stainless steel roasting pan—as opposed to aluminum or nonstick—is a great piece to have in your kitchen. I love this Cuisinart one.
There you have it! My ultimate guide to cookware, that only took me like 800 hours to compile. Hope it’s helpful. Any questions or suggestions of things I might add? Feel free to leave a comment below.
[disclosure: cmp.ly/4; cmp.ly/5]