Q: I need help in the kitchen. What cookware is safe to use these days? Any tips on greening my cooking would also be appreciated.
A: Some sort of instinctual pull must draw us close to our food source - hence the tendency for house parties to turn into kitchen parties (I've conducted my own scientific studies on this one) and for kitchens to trump comfy family rooms as centres of activity in many homes. That's why it's particularly upsetting that, in some instances, the very tools we use to feed ourselves and our loved ones turn out to be toxic.
Take cookware, for example. Ever burned the bottom of your non-stick pan? Who hasn't? You're not just offending your taste buds; overheated Teflon-coated pans actually release toxic fumes that can be fatal to birds. The jury is still out on its impact on humans, but the chemical is known to accumulate in the body and the environment, and is linked to cancer, liver damage and birth defects in animals. (FYI, Teflon can be found in pretty much everything labelled "non-stick," from colanders and whisks to pasta tongs and waffle irons).
If you're not up to the role of human guinea pig, you might want to switch to stainless steel cookware. It's a little stickier but much safer (sets start at $120 at Kitchen Stuff Plus on Yonge and others, the Cook's Place on Danforth, Toss & Serve on King West, Sears and the Bay). Cast iron skillets are another good option, although there's some concern in the industry that cheap imported skillets might contain scrap metal. The Cook's Place only sells cast iron cookware from the U.S. to avoid this problem (from $15, enamelled cast iron from $99).
Copper and aluminum are great heat conductors so they warm up quickly and save you energy, but because of health concerns, aluminum and copper pots should always be coated with stainless steel. Glass is a great renewable source and is valued by people with enviro sensitivities and natural medical practitioners because it's inert. But glass cookware is fairly hard to come by. Good old Martha Stewart makes glass bakeware (five-piece set, $39.97, at Sears). Sinex uses super- durable lab-quality glass (casserole dish, $35, at the Cook's Place).
Think your crappy baking skills are behind your lead-heavy muffins? Check your bakeware - your ceramic cake pans' (and dishes') glazes tend to contain lead. As does - surprise, surprise - lead crystal. Canadian regs limit lead content in glassware and glazes on ceramics used in preparing, serving or storing food. You might want to ditch dishes that are heavily scratched or chipped, and Health Canada says acidic foods like fruit juice, wine and pickles boost lead leaching. Older china and imported ceramics have been the source of lead poisoning, so beware. Fair-trade lead-free dishes are available at Ten Thousand Villages on Yonge and Danforth (not to mention funky fair trade placemats, tablecloths and chopsticks). CorningWare ceramic bakeware is also lead-free; Kitchen Stuff Plus says its own dinnerware (plates from $6) is free of the toxin, too.
If you're going to bake in ceramics or glass, know that you can actually turn your oven down 25°F. and still cook the food in the same amount of time. Other green cooking tips? Clean your metal burner pans so they reflect heat better. (Same goes for your refrigerator coils and cooling your food better, by the by.) Make sure to match pan size to the element you're cooking on; smaller is always better. This saying actually applies to much of your cooking. Think toaster oven over electric oven and manual chopper (starting at $15 at Kitchen Stuff Plus, Toss and Serve, the Cook's Place) over food processor. Human power obviously burns much cleaner than electricity, so consider a manual coffee grinder ($32 at the Cook's Place) or a hand beater ($24 at the Cook's Place) or just a plain old knife over fancy gadgets. The microwave might be the most energy-efficient appliance in your kitchen, but it also zaps all the nutrients from your broccoli. If you're dependent on your electromagnetic cooker, make sure the door's seal and hinges aren't damaged or dirty, and keep anyone with an older-generation pacemaker away from it. Rice cookers and slow cookers, or crock-pots, are also much more efficient at whipping up your dinner than stove-top methods. Just make sure you stick to Teflon-free models (slow cookers from $39.99 at the Bay, Sears, Kitchen Stuff Plus; Salton rice cooker with auto shut-off at the Cook's Place, $42). As for major appliances, gas ranges are more efficient than electric, but neither come with Energy Star ratings. If you're in the market for a new fridge, on the other hand, the Energy Star label is an easy indicator that what you're buying uses 40 per cent less energy than conventional models sold in 2001 (from $849 at Sears, the Bay and Leading Maytag on Kennedy). If you can't find Energy Star stuff, just compare the amount of kilowatt usage per year listed on most machines.
Time to toss your old stove? Many stores will take your old one back for free and sell it for scrap metal. Or call the city (416-338-2010) to arrange for pickup. It recycles the metal, too.
Got a question?
Send your green consumer queries to email@example.com