Q: There's been a lot of advertising for eco-friendly non-stick frying pans, but are they safe?
A: Oh, how my eggs suffered when I first gave up my disastrously chipped Teflon frying pan years ago.
I'd oil up my stainless steel and pray to the breakfast gods they'd go over easy. Maybe if I hadn't sucked so bad at maintaining the slippery "seasoning" on cast iron cookware, I could have lived on the sunny side of the brunch street.
As more and more of us swear off Teflon, trying to keep non-stick chemicals from sticking to our bloodstreams, there's a bit of desperation in the air among the newly greened. Can anything ever replace that satiny skating rink of a surface?
Well, step right up, because the next generation of non-stick is here.
You've seen ceramic bakeware, right? (In fact, you've probably baked lasagna in this stuff.) Well, corporate lab coats have figured out how to get ceramic coatings onto traditional stainless steel or aluminum pan bases, providing the world with a non-leaching, chemical-free surface slippery enough to please any Teflon fan, without the worry.
Besides being manufactured without the super-persistent chemical used to make Teflon and traditional PTFE (the chemical that turns up in everything from polar bears to bald eagles) finishes, these skillets are marketed as green because the coating is applied at a temperature half that of conventional non-sticks.
That means less energy and greenhouse gases go into making you the master chef you are.
True, traditional ceramics can be cut with lead, but don't worry, there's no neurotoxic lead in these pans. And I wouldn't worry about the aluminum bases either. (Aluminum is used as a base in many pans since it's such a good heat conductor.)
Unless your coating chips and exposes the aluminum beneath, you're in the clear. FYI, if you have a choice between an anodized aluminum or a regular aluminum base, note that anodized aluminum is itself said to be more non-stick and minimally leaching, but the anodizing process is pretty chemical- and energy- intensive (think acid baths and electric currents). Look around and you'll start to notice that everyone seems to be dishing out ceramic-coated pans these days. Cuisinart has a line called GreenGourmet (with a choice of anodized aluminum or stainless steel base; cuisineart.com).
Starfrit has a few 99 per cent recycled aluminum models coated with ceramic linings. (Eco Chef is available from Canadian Tire, and its more durable Alternatives cookware is at Wal-Mart; starfrit.com). These come with a three-year warranty, so if the coating gets scratched, revealing the non-anodized aluminum beneath, Starfrit will give you a new one.
The toughest chemical-free coating, in my experience to date, is BergHOFF's EarthChef series. In my completely unscientific crepe and egg tests, it's also the slipperiest and easiest to maintain.
You can even use metal utensils on it. Plus, there's a whole world of EarthChef griddles, woks, muffin trays and more with the same coating (though I've found the coating on the bakeware to be less sturdy). And for every 11-inch pan sold, the company sponsors a tree planting with Tree Canada (earthchef.ca).
My least favourite of the ceramic coatings is the first green pan on the market, called just that: GreenPan. It's got a silicone-based ceramic coating they call a nano-composite. Honestly, though, the whole realm of nano-tech is way too unregulated and controversial for me to want to cook on the stuff.
My shiny crystal ball forecasts a whole new wave of non-stick stainless steel pans in the new year. They're basically made with tiny little dents and ridges so food can "float" on the surface. But instructions for the one I previewed said to skip the soap (which seems weird to me, especially if you're cooking things like fish or dairy), and it has to be treated with oil every time.
After a month of use, I totally screwed things up and the non-stick was lost forever. At least with cast iron, you can re-season the thing.
Bottom line: none of these will be around in 30 years like a well-treated cast iron pan. Maybe my 2009 resolution should be to finally learn how to treat cast iron right.
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