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Cooking without Teflon



Raise your hand if you own cookware with a Teflon nonstick coating.
You're not alone.  Nonstick cookware accounts for about 70 percent of all cookware sales.

But there are reasons to do without it.  Particularly if you are trying to not eat plastic.  Even the new-fangled "green" pans have their issues.  It took me many years, but I now no longer use any cookware or bakeware with nonstick coatings.  The final step in this long, long journey I took less than a year ago when I said goodbye to my 10” Teflon skillet and to my bread maker with its Teflon-lined baking pan.

Aluminum alloy baking sheet.

Bakeware

When I decided to stop using Teflon-coated bakeware, I found that it actually wasn’t at all difficult to do without.  All you have to do is grease your pans with oil or butter.  All of my bakeware is now tempered glass (Pyrex and Anchor), ceramic (Corningware, which is the same company as Pyrex), stainless steel, or anondized aluminum/ aluminum alloy.  Some folks avoid aluminum bakeware.  From what I’ve read, anodized aluminum is safe, and I’m not convinced that my aluminum alloy bakeware is dangerous enough that it needs to be immediately replaced.  When I do replace my aluminum bakeware, I will probably replace it with stainless steel.  

I bake bread, cakes and brownies in tempered glass that has been buttered and floured.  I love baking in glass because you can observe the browning of your food and stick the pan straight in the dishwasher after baking.  I also bake meat and casseroles in glass or ceramic pans.  The only downside to glass and ceramic is that I have to store it up high so that my kids don’t break it.  My sheet pans, pizza pans and muffin tins are steel or aluminum.  I sometimes grease them with canola oil or olive oil (using a Misto sprayer).  They clean up very easily and require no special care.  I often put my smaller stainless steel jelly roll pan through the dishwasher. 


Cookware

Replacing all of your Teflon cookware can be considerably more challenging and frustrating than getting rid of your nonstick bakeware, as there are certain foods that really do require a nonstick surface.  You can read the gory details of my search for a replacement for my 10” Teflon skillet in this post.  Now all of my cookware is made of stainless steel, seasoned cast iron, or enameled cast iron.  Below, I discuss the advantages and disadvantages of different types of Teflon-free cookware in terms of cost, usage, and care.


Stainless steel

Budget-friendly?  Yes. Stainless-steel is relatively inexpensive, unless you buy All-Clad.  Still, quality does make a difference, so I would check ratings and not just buy whatever is cheapest or on sale.  We own a set of Cuisinart Chef's Classic Stainless Steel Skillets and Pots, a relatively affordable brand which I bought based on Cook’s Illustrated’s recommendation. My 17-piece set cost less than $200. 

Uses: Good news!  You can use stainless steels pots and pans for all kinds of things you have been cooking in nonstick cookware.  Before I got rid of all my Teflon pots and pans, I started experimenting with using stainless steel for all kinds of recipes that called for a “non-stick pan.”  I find that stainless steel skillets and pots work great for browning ground meat, tomato-based sauces, sautéing or steaming vegetables, browning a quesadilla or frying a grilled cheese sandwich, braising meats, cooking grains like rice, couscous, or quinoa, or making brothy soups.  All with minimal sticking, as long as you use a little oil or butter.  Make sure you buy stainless steel skillets that can go right in the oven (no plastic handles), as I find this often comes in handy.  I also love our stainless steel pressure cooker for making beans from scratch (no more BPA from canned beans!).  I find coated pots completely unnecessary.  I use my stainless steel pots for all my pot needs with the exception of recipes (like some stews) that involve searing meat.  For these dishes I use an enameled cast iron dutch oven

However, three things that have never worked for me in stainless steel skillets or pots: eggs, tofu, and searing meat and fish.  I know they say if you preheat the pan well and get it hot enough your eggs will not stick.  Believe me.  I know how to preheat a pan. While I can pull off fried eggs with enough fat in the skillet, I have never been able to make scrambled eggs in a stainless steel pan without a big mess.  I also have had bad luck with frying tofu and searing meat (even with plenty of oil and high heat). You might have better luck than I have had with stainless steel if you invest in a nicer set, like All-Clad.  

Care and clean up: Stainless steel requires no special care.  I stack mine dirty in the sink with wild abandon.  It is also usually very easy to clean up with a little soapy hot water. Even if food gets majorly stuck to your stainless steel, I find it is not too bad to clean.  Of course, you can soak it.  I often put a little water (or vinegar, if I burnt food on very badly) in the pan while it is still hot.  For tough stains, Bon-Ami works really well.  A lot of stainless steel cookware is even dishwasher safe, although I personally choose not to clean mine this way.

Enameled cast iron on the left, pre-seasoned cast iron on the right.
I use both simultaneously to make large batches of pancakes.

Pre-seasoned Cast Iron

Budget-friendly? Yes! Yes! Yes!  Pre-seasoned cast iron is about the most budget-friendly cookware out there.  I have only ever used the Lodge Logic brand of pre-seasoned cast iron.  It is very inexpensive, made in the USA, and widely available.  You can buy a skillet or griddle for less than $20.  “Pre-seasoned” means the cast iron comes to you with a layer of “seasoning” already applied by the manufacturer.  Unseasoned iron is more of a grayish color and readily rusts.  According to Lodge Logic, this “pre-seasoning” (the bumpy black stuff all over the inside and outside of the pan) is made of vegetable oil.  As you cook with your cast iron pan, the fat you use will contribute to the seasoning as well.  The seasoning is what makes the pan non-stick.

Uses:  Seasoned cast iron is the original non-stick.  If you have a beautiful heavy cast iron pan passed down from your grandmother, with decades of use with oil, butter, lard and other fat creating a gorgeous mirror-surface seasoning, you may find that it works just as well as your favorite Teflon pan.  However, the bumpy “pre-seasoned” surface that comes on most cast iron pan these days I find is not as nonstick as Teflon.  I use my pre-seasoned cast iron for pancakes, quesadillas, toasting bread, and the like.  I do not use it for egg dishes, tofu, or searing meat or fish.  While you can often make these foods work in pre-seasoned cast iron, if it doesn’t work, you face a bit of a dilemma: how to get the food off without ruining your seasoning (see below).  In addition, when your food sticks to the pan, it also often means that the seasoning has stuck to your food (as in, black spots on your scrambled eggs where the seasoning has come off of the pan onto your food).  I have not found a consensus on whether or not it is OK to prepare acidic foods (like tomato sauce) in cast iron.  Some folks say this is a great idea as it pulls some iron from the pan into your food and makes for a great source of iron in your diet.  But if your seasoning is not really well-established, I would worry about acidic foods screwing up the seasoning.

Care and clean up:  Cast iron has a number of down sides in the care and clean up department.  In fact, I refer to cast iron as “high maintenance.”  First, you need to be sure you preheat the pan slowly.  Cast iron heats up much more slowly than stainless steel or other pans but then retains the heat much better and longer.  With a long preheat, my cast iron gets piping hot (as in, water drops sizzle and dance in the oil) on a 3 or 4 on my electric range (I boil water in my stainless steel pots at 7 or 8, just as a reference point).  For those accustomed to using Teflon, it can be tough to adjust to the patience cast iron requires.  Whenever I make something in cast iron, I turn on the pan to low with a little oil in it before I begin mixing the pancake batter or scrambled eggs, because preheating the pan generally takes longer than any other aspect of the food preparation.  Also, cast iron is very heavy, which makes both cooking with it and cleaning it more challenging than dealing with stainless steel.

Second, if cast iron is wet for any period of time it will rust.  You have to dry it immediately after cleaning it and keep it dry.  I would never leave it in the sink.  If you stack another slightly wet dish on top of it, it will probably rust and require re-seasoning.  For those of us who sometimes do not get to the dishes right away, this can be a real challenge.  We have gotten in the habit of just leaving the cast iron on the stovetop dirty until we clean it and never stacking any other dirty dishes on top of it.  You also need to put a towel or cork pad between your clean cast iron pan and anything you might store on top of it to avoid damaging the seasoning.

Third, clean up often poses a dilemma.  If food does not stick to the pan, clean up is a breeze.  I usually scrape off any food with a very thin silicone spatula or scrub with a nylon brush in combination with hot water to clean up my cast iron.  I almost never use soap as it tends to pull off the seasoning (unless you have a very well-established seasoning on your pan).  I also avoid using cast iron for foods with strong flavors (like fish), because that would be hard to remove without soap.  If food does stick to your cast iron, you are in a bit of a bind.  You can’t soak it in water except very briefly as this promotes rusting (I never soak).  Vigorous scrubbing and soapy water will tend to pull off your seasoning which means you will possibly have even more sticking the next time you use it.  You can re-season your cast iron pan if it rusts or the seasoning gets removed, but there is a dizzying array of contradictory instructions on the best way to do this (what temperature, how long, what oil) which I found very confusing, and almost all methods will require that you have your oven on for hours and hours while your whole house fills with the smell of burning oil.  I detailed my numerous gripes with pre-seasoned cast iron here.  Bottom line: avoid getting food stuck on your cast iron at all costs.

My enameled cast iron skillet (with naan).

Enameled Cast Iron

Budget-friendly?  Maybe.  It tends to cost more than stainless steel.  And like stainless steel, you can buy more or less expensive enameled cast iron.  Lodge Logic as well as other brands make relatively inexpensive enameled cast iron.  Again, I would check the ratings on this one, and go with a brand you trust, as you would like the enamel to be made of disclosed and non-toxic materials.  After a lot of frustration with pre-seasoned cast iron, I opted for top-of-the-line enameled cast iron: Le Creuset.  I purchased one Le Creuset enameled cast iron 11” skillet.  I use it almost every day.  I expect it to last forever (it comes with a lifetime guarantee). Although this one skillet cost over $100, my husband likes to point out that the three pre-seasoned cast iron skillets I bought (in a burst of enthusiasm) cost more than half my Le Creuset skillet.  And now, only my pre-seasoned griddle is used regularly (I gave one away and use the other only occasionally).  It doesn’t pay to buy inexpensive pans you aren’t going to use.

Uses: You can use your enameled cast iron for anything.  If a stainless steel skillet will get the job done, I use stainless steel.  Mostly just to keep my enameled cast iron available for other things.  For any dish that requires nonstick properties or great heat retention, I always use my enameled cast iron.  I use my Le Creuset skillet for scrambled eggs, fried eggs, pancakes, french toast, stir fry with fried tofu, fried rice with fried tofu, black bean burgers, hamburgers and turkey burgers, seared chicken and meat, delicate fish, and homemade naan.  I love love love it.  I also have a much less expensive Tramontina enameled cast iron dutch oven and it works really well for all kinds of soups and stews, as well as searing meat.

Care and clean up: Enameled cast iron is mildly high maintenance.  Because it is cast iron, it needs to be preheated slowly and never put over very high heat (I never go higher than 3 or 4 on my stove top).  Never heat the pan empty.  You also want to take care to not damage the enamel.  Put a towel or cork circle on top of the skillet before stacking anything else.  Don’t stack other dishes straight on top of it on the counter or in the sink.  We just always leave our Le Creuset skillet on the stove (not the sink) until we are ready to clean it.  On the other hand, enameled cast iron is very easy to clean up.  Easier than stainless steel, I would say.  You can soak it, no problem.  If any food sticks to the pan, I just put a little water in the skillet while it is still hot, and usually any food comes right off by the time I get around to cleaning it.  Personally, I mostly use a silicone scraper or nylon brush in combination with hot soapy water to remove any food as you do want to make sure you don’t damage the finish.  Cleaning my enameled cast iron pans always takes only a minute or two.  One other consideration: like pre-seasoned cast iron, enameled cast iron is heavy.  This is part of what makes it a great cookware, but it does make it a little more challenging to handle during cooking and cleaning.

My Recommendation

For bakeware, use glass, ceramic and stainless steel.  For cookware, use a well-rated but affordable set of stainless steel pots and pans for almost all of your cooking needs.  When you do need a truly nonstick surface (eggs, frying tofu, searing meat and fish), use pre-seasoned cast iron or enameled cast iron.  I recommend purchasing a single piece of pre-seasoned cast iron (a griddle or skillet) and seeing how it works for you.  Pre-seasoned cast iron is so cheap, but the downside is that it’s rather high maintenance.  If the pre-seasoned cast iron doesn't work out for all your needs, buy enameled cast iron.  I personally love my Le Creuset skillet, but there are other less expensive brands too. 

Additional Resources
Eat Less Plastic (Eco-novice)
Green Cookware List from GreenerPenny
EWG's Guide to PFCs by Environmental Working Group