Greener Every Week – Clean up your cookware

Switch to chemical-free pots and pans

“Greener Every Week” is my ongoing series in which I do one (cheap, easy) thing every week to make my home or lifestyle more healthy & eco-friendly.

You’ve probably heard that non-stick cookware is questionable both for your health and the environment – some of the chemicals involved in creating non-stick coating are known carcinogens, the off-gassing when they heat up can be toxic, and the process of making them is chemical-laden and not very eco-friendly. I don’t know that they are necessarily that bad for your health, but with all the other things I do to keep my home and body clean and eco friendly it seems like it’s better not to gamble with a controversial substance, don’t you think?

The good news is there are plenty of alternatives to traditional non-stick cookware. If you really want your pans to have a non-stick coating you can at least switch to one of the new “green” options, like the Cuisinart GreenGourmet Eco-Friendly Cookware or the Ozeri Frying Pans for an effortless improvement.

But it’s really easy to switch away from non-stick altogether. I thought I’d have trouble with things sticking and being a pain when I changed but it’s really not bad at all – just grease your pans a bit with some oil (I always did that even with nonstick so it wasn’t much of a change!) or don’t even grease them at all – I was surprised how many things don’t stick as much as I thought they would, especially if you keep an eye on them and stir them once in a while. It it also a lot easier to get nice browned bits for soups and sautes if you don’t have a non-stick coating, and you can stick them right in the oven, which is handy for certain dishes.

So what are your options? My research led me to the conclusion that one of the best things you can go with is Cast Iron – it’s eco friendly, it will last forever, it develops it’s own natural non-stick coating over time, and it’s cheap! The only downsides are the weight (cast iron is pretty darn heavy so it’s not a great option for those with limited strength) and the maintenance. It’s really not that hard to maintain, you just scrub it right after you use it and wipe it with a bit of oil, but you can’t put it in the dishwasher so in my world that’s a minus.

Your other good option is Stainless Steel– it’s not quite as time-tested as cast iron but I haven’t heard of too much research indicating any particular health risks, and it’s got a lot less chemicals than standard non-stick stuff. It’s also wonderful to cook with, heats great, and can be popped in the dishwasher (yay!). The only downside is that it can be a bit pricier, so you’ll want to shop around for a good deal.

Since I couldn’t quite decide between all the different options, I went with a mix and match approach that is working wonderfully for me. I currently have a 10″ and 12″ cast iron skillet (I use the 12″ mainly to make pizza!) that I use occasionally – the Lodge Logic stuff is awesome and inexpensive, and it even comes pre-seasoned with vegetable oil to make it a little less intimidating.

For my everyday pots and pans I picked up two Cuisinart 2-Quart Saucepans, a 10-inch skillet and a 12-inch skillet. These are perfect for sauteing, boiling water, reheating leftovers – all the normal kitchen stuff. I love these pans – they heat evenly, are nice and sturdy, and clean up great. Did I mention you can put them in the dishwasher? Love that!

For bigger soups and making broth, I added a Cast-Iron 6-Quart Dutch Oven – I love this thing! It’s cast iron on the inside with a porcelain enamel around it to make it easier to work with and clean. It looks a lot like the Le Creuset ones but it’s less than a quarter of the price.

If you don’t want to go to the trouble of piecing together a custom collection you can also just buy a whole set – it’s a bit cheaper and more customized to mix and match so you only get the pieces you need, but if you’re just starting to cook and don’t know exactly what you want the sets are a good investment. Not the cheapest thing in the world but let’s not forget that you’re supposed to replace non-stick cookware a lot more often because the teflon coating starts to break down making them less effective and getting who knows what in your food.

So that’s my solution for pots and pans – what do you guys do? I probably won’t have to buy new ones for a long time since stainless steel and cast iron both last forever, but do you guys have any that you’re loving? Or any other eco-friendly cookware solutions? Next I have to go through and replace my non-stick cookie sheets and baking pans – any suggestions on those?

Note:  Nobody has paid me in any way to endorse these products, I just genuinely like them and want to share my enthusiasm with you.  If you click the link and buy them from Amazon I’ll make like 37 cents through their affiliate program, so that would be sweet, but that’s the only compensation happening around here.

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8 Comments

  • Thanks for this great post Jessica! I really appreciate the good information and will be researching all of your suggestions.

  • I have picked up cast iron and stainless steel pots and pans at thrift stores and garage sales. I also ask for them as gifts (and have received them). I struggle with the cast iron though. I have trouble cleaning them and keeping them from rusting and they seem to give my food a strange metaly taste. I have researched how to care for them but still seem to fall short in that area. Any suggestions? As for the stainless, everything seems to stick even when I grease them. I am wondering if I am cooking w/ too high of a temp.

    • I think the secret to cast iron is adjusting how “clean” you want them to be. The whole idea with cast iron is that they will accumulate a bit of a layer of oil over time from all the food that gets cooked on them – that’s what makes them nonstick. It sounds a lot nicer to call it “seasoning” than to call it “a layer of grease,” but that’s what it is. So when the pan is still hot (but cool enough to handle easily) just scrub it with a stiff bristle brush or sponge and no soap. Soap will just strip away your seasoning and make your pans rust. Once you’ve scrubbed off all the food you can spray it with a bit of oil and wipe it down with a rag or paper towel. It might feel a little bit greasy or sticky before it dries, I think that’s what makes people scrub them too hard or use soap, but that’s actually a good thing. The pans are really plenty clean, and they get so hot when you preheat them that they clean themselves that way too.

      Not being able to see your pans I can’t tell you if that’s what you’re doing, of course, but that was what I did to get mine to stop rusting on me.

      For the stainless steel, there’s a good chance you are cooking at too high a temp – I used to do that all the time! Once I forced myself to start cooking most things at medium heat or lower (and get in the habit of stirring them fairly often) I found that things stick less.

      Hope that helps! Let me know if you try either suggestion and if it works for you!

  • great post, jessica!

    what about cooking utensils? with non-stick pans, you can’t use metal ones. sadly, our utensils are plastic, with the exception of a few bamboo ones, which I tend to use more than the plastic ones.

  • Do NOT cook acidic foods in uncoated cast-iron! Also, try not to let your food sit in cast-iron for too long. Both of these things will leech the iron into your food! This happens naturally, and a little bit is okay (even healthy if you don’t get much iron in your diet) but acidic foods can pull too much iron out and that’s toxic.

    Use cast iron for breads, sauteeing, eggs, etc. and then promptly remove the food from the pan to eat and store leftovers.

  • I’ve had trouble finding a cast iron pan that either is NOT pre-seasoned, or would be pre-seasoned with an oil that does NOT include soy (most vegetable oils include soy). Does anyone have any suggestions as to where I might find something like this?

  • Forgive me if someone already said this–didn’t read all comments, but we use Pampered Chef stoneware in place of our non-stick baking sheets. Once the stuff is seasoned, it’s beautiful! Good luck.