Oh cookware… it is something most of us use daily but one of the toughest categories to determine safety. And the safest brands have their fair share of convenience problems. In this in-depth post, our team evaluated the top types and brands of cookware and ranked them based on safety and convenience.
The bad news… perfect options don’t exist (yet). The good news… there are a few good brands. This investigation has been a decade-long project and it involved testing many types of cookware that didn’t work (and a few that have) over the years.
Now, let’s get into the weeds!
What to Avoid When Evaluating Cookware
The main issues with traditional bakeware like non-stick and aluminum is that they can leach hormone-disrupting chemicals and heavy metals into food. The research is divided on the newer non-stick options and some of them fall into the “better than before and maybe safe but we don’t know yet” category. There are also recent concerns with lead and other heavy metals in ceramic.
Some of the new-old-fashioned options are a lot better, and are much more fun to cook with once you get the hang of them! That said, there are a few cookware options that I’d recommend always avoiding. These are the types you’ll never find in my kitchen:
Teflon, Non-Stick, PFOA, and PTFE
The original non-stick pans were coated with compounds like perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA or C8) or polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). PTFE was developed by DuPont in 1938 and is patented and trademarked by a name you’ll recognize: Teflon.
From a convenience standpoint, Teflon was a game changer. It made cooking and cleaning so much easier as it grew in popularity. When released, companies marketed this as a non-polar, very stable substance that didn’t react with other chemicals. It was considered completely safe.
Unfortunately, the dark side of these compounds started to emerge.
See the full details on all of the problems with these non-stick coatings in this post, but in short, birds started dying and people experienced “teflon flu,” a series of symptoms related to exposure to Teflon that had been heated to really high temperatures.
Verdict: Avoid any cookware containing Teflon, PFOA, PTFE, or traditional non-stick.
Our grandmothers often cooked with aluminum cookware. This type of cookware was popular for years as it was lightweight, easy to use, and relatively easy to clean. Aluminum exists naturally in the environment. Traces exist in paints, colorings, household items, light bulbs, glass, baking powder, and many other substances.
We all have some aluminum exposure daily. But recent research shows that aluminum is toxic at certain amounts. Scientists just can’t agree on what that amount is. (1) This post details more, but some studies suggest that aluminum exposure may be linked to cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and neurological problems.
Verdict: I avoid any cookware containing aluminum as there are much better options.
Controversial Cookware: More Research Needed
In response to the data about the dangers of the original non-stick surfaces, many new types of non-stick cookware have emerged. Many consumers also turned to more time-tested surfaces like enameled cast iron. Unfortunately, these two surfaces are still considered controversial until more research is published:
Ceramic Coated Non-Stick
Various types of ceramic coated cookware claims to be non-stick and safer than Teflon. Most use Thermalon, a sand derivative containing silicon dioxide instead of Teflon.
By all accounts, these new ceramic-based compounds do seem to be much safer than the original non-stick surfaces, but we don’t have the time of use or the testing available like we do with other types of cookware. Some companies, like GreenPan, disclose their third-party testing, which is somewhat reassuring. (2)
Some sources, however, claim that there is a potential concern with heavy metals and nanoparticles. (3) Titanium dioxide nanoparticles are of special concern because they are linked to pre-cancerous lesions in the colon in one report. (4) I was unable to find any studies showing if Thermalon definitively releases titanium dioxide nanoparticles so the verdict is still out. (5)
Types of Ceramic-Coated Non-Stick Cookware:
So many of you have asked about these specific brands:
Verdict: These are all likely much safer than traditional non-stick and get an A+ for convenience. I’m still cautious and awaiting further research but have ordered several brands and am sending them out for testing. If convenience is your main motivation, I’d consider these a much better choice over traditional non-stick cookware.
This is a broad category to squeeze into a single type of cookware since there are so many different options. These pans are typically cast iron with an enameled ceramic coating of some kind. It gets complicated because this coating can be made in a variety of ways so there is no clear safety data across the category.
Testing shows a wide range of compounds in different brands and some are safe while others aren’t. Recent controversy emerged about the potential of lead and cadmium leaching from even high-end brands like Le Creuset. However, the company published their safety data and testing and showed no trace of lead or cadmium. I own several blue Le Creuset pans made in France and when I tested them they showed no trace of lead or cadmium, which cheaper brands did test very high for lead.
For Le Creuset specifically, some reports indicate that the color of the pan makes a difference and that blue is one of the safer colors so this could be the reason (but I have not verified this yet).
Verdict: Likely still one of the safer options and arguably much safer that PFOA and PTFE. I’m keeping my vintage Le Creuset pans from France but this wouldn’t be my first choice to purchase if I was buying new pans today.
Ceramic Cookware and Bakeware
Some ceramic cookware may be safe and a good option. Unfortunately, there has also been recent concern about many of these pans testing high for lead and other heavy metals through XRF testing. I’ve personally used one type of ceramic surface cookware that claimed to be free of heavy metals and nano-particles. It’s called X-trema Cookware and I’ve had some of their cookware for years. Unfortunately, they lose some major points for convenience as they are entirely ceramic and can easily break. With recent concerns about lead, I’m also doing continued research on these and hesitant to recommend them until I do. If you’ve purchased these pans, I’d encourage you to do research on this as well and reach out to the manufacturer with any concerns.
The good news? These pans are the absolute easiest option to clean, as you can use steel wool or scrubbing pads without scraping the surface. They have a non-scratch cooking surface, heat evenly, and hold in flavors in foods and are technically dishwasher, oven, microwave and stove safe.
Like I said, the major downside is that they can break if you (or kids *ahem* drop them while being taken care of by extended family *ahem*). Also, learning to cook on full ceramic can be tricky, and the lead and heavy metal concerns are another major red flag.
Verdict: Currently, while I do more research on the lead and heavy metals issue, I consider these pans a controversial option. I am continually re-evaluating and testing any recommendations and in light of new information I’ve removed links to these pans for now. If you’ve purchased these pans in the past and have concerns now, I’d suggest reaching out to the company for new information, as I have, and will update this with new information as I get it. Also, these pans have passed the California Prop 65 testing, meaning that if metals are present, they should not leach into food, though I’m working to confirm this as well.
Safest Cookware Options
Now for the mostly good! There are some brands that have good options but unfortunately, I’ve yet to find a perfect option (though I’m working on research to develop one!) In general, if you aren’t using old-school non-stick or cooking at super high temperatures, you can probably feel ok about your cookware options. If you’re in the market for new cookware or want to upgrade what you currently use, consider the pros and cons of these options.
Here are my favorite bakeware/cookware options of the safe ones currently available:
Cast Iron Cookware
Funny though it sounds, I am glad I listened to my great-grandmother-in-law and my dad (who was a boy scout) when they told me to cook with cast iron. At first, I was worried because it sounded complicated to season and clean cast iron and without using abrasive soaps, etc. Now that I’m used to it, I love cast iron and the added benefit of the extra iron in our diets. I mainly use it for cooking meats and for pan frying in coconut oil or avocado oil (I have a large skillet that perpetually holds about an inch of coconut oil or tallow for frying… talk about good seasoning!).
As long as you don’t scrub it with soap and a brillo pad, a good cast iron skillet can be an excellent mostly non-stick surface to cook on for years to come, as it cooks evenly and with good flavor. The one downside is that it isn’t good to cook tomato products with as the acid interacts with the pH of the pan and creates an off-flavor. Cast iron is great because it can be used in the oven or on the stovetop (or on a campfire!) or all of the above.
My favorite cast iron piece is my large skillet (like this one), which is great for frying, cooking meats, and even oven-cooking. A smaller skillet is great for eggs and oven omelets and I love my dutch oven with skillet top as it does double duty and cooks a mean roast in the oven or cobbler on the campfire. A grill pan is also great for meats, especially in the winter when it’s too cold to grill… although perhaps with all the talk of cold therapy lately, I should just suck it up and grill in the cold. 🙂
Just make sure you season your cast iron well before using it, so that food won’t stick and it will cook better.
More for baking than cooking on the stove, stoneware is a great alternative to aluminum baking sheets or roasting pans. There are also muffin tins, bread (not grain!) pans, and many other stoneware pieces.
These can be tricky to clean but give amazing flavor to food and cook very evenly. You won’t want to use soap, as the stone absorbs the flavor, but a properly cared for stoneware piece can last a lifetime!
My favorites: The basic stoneware baking sheet (large) which I use to grill veggies, bake healthy cookies, and re-heat food.
Verdict: Considered non-toxic based on current data.
Glass and Corningware
Corningware especially has a lot of nostalgic value to me, since I remember seeing it in both my grandparent’s houses and using it in my parent’s home growing up. It’s not as versatile and is mainly used for baking, but it is inexpensive (comparatively) and is low on the leach-poisons-into-my-food scale.
My favorites: This set of Corningware which I’ve used (and broken) extensively and my beloved Pyrex Storage set which I use a lot since I avoid plastic and everything in my fridge is stored in this or mason jars.. so classy! 🙂 I also use my Pyrex Bowls with Lids and my Bake and Store Pyrex Set a lot! If you’re registering for your kitchen, I’d put a lot of Pyrex and Corningware on it! (and Corelle dishes… those things don’t break easily… my kids have tried!)
For stovetop cooking, glass cookware is available but carries the same risks of breaking as ceramic and is more expensive.
Verdict: Considered safe based on current data.
Stainless steel is also a good option, though there are some concerns with nickel and chromium leaching. This seems to increase with long cook times, cooking something acidic (like tomato products), or high-temperature cooking.
This isn’t my first choice for cookware but I do think it is a decent option and is widely available and relatively inexpensive. In stainless steel, look for the number 18 and see what comes after it. For instance, you might see 18/0, 18/8 or 18/10. The first number (18) represents chromium and the second represents nickel in stainless steel alloy. So the lower the second number, the better. Nickel-free cookware like this set are available now.
I do have a couple of stainless pieces in my kitchen. My most used stainless items are these large roasting sheets that we use daily for roasting meats, veggies and almost everything else… I also have these stainless steel bowls and I use them daily and love them.
What Is the Best Cookware?
The bottom line is that it absolutely depends! No options get perfect scores for safety, convenience, and functionality. If you’re like me and cook three times a day, you’ll probably need a combination.
What cookware do you use in your kitchen? Aluminum or Iron? What is your favorite? Weigh in below!
- Krewski, D., Yorkel, R. A., Nieboer, E., Borchelt, D., Cohen, J., Harry, J., .. Rondeau, V. “Human Health Risk Assessment for Aluminum, Aluminum Oxide, and Aluminum Hydroxide.” 2007. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health. Part B, Critical Reviews, 10 (Suppl 1), 1-269.