By Heather Nicholds
Healthy cookware is a really important part of healthy cooking. If your pots and pans are leeching harmful molecules into your food, it can interfere with your otherwise healthy lifestyle.
It can be tricky to know which kinds are safe to use, but this guide will give you the best options. Although it's usually the cheapest materials that are harmful, there are plenty of budget options for safe and healthy cookware.
A lot of pots and pans are made from aluminum, which is a cheap material to use in manufacturing. Unfortunately, when aluminum is heated, it can leach into whatever food is in contact with it. Aluminum toxicity can happen at very low doses and can cause various health issues, particularly with memory and has been studied for potential links to Alzheimer's.
Avoid aluminum when shopping for healthy cookware, although when it is used as the heat core within a stainless steel coating it's fine.
Most pans made in the last few decades have non-stick coatings - some teflon, some other variations. They're starting to link these coatings with various forms of cancer, especially when the coating gets scratched. Some newer pans have a ceramic non-stick coating which seems to be fine health-wise, but the following healthy cookware recommendations don't even need additional non-stick coatings.
I love my glass pots. I got them from my mom, who had to replace them when she got a glass stovetop. They are thick glass, so they take some time to bring things to a boil, but once they do they don't need as high a stove setting as other pots. They give a really even heat to whatever you're cooking.
I particularly like them for making grains, because of the even heating but also because you can see through the outside so you know when the grains have absorbed all the water without disturbing them.
There are only 2 downsides to glass pots. They can break (especially when you ship them across the country when you move ;)), and the lids don't seal tightly.
Well, the other downside is that they're not being manufactured anymore so I've only ever seen them for sale on eBay. The brand I have was originally by Corningware and called VisionWare. Mine is in a slightly less than attractive pink but I forgive them because they are just such fantastic pots.
Stainless steel is stable at heat, not leeching harmful compounds into your foods, and is a very easy type of healthy cookware to find. If you get pots and pans with a thick base, they give you more even heating than a thin bottom style. The lids on stainless steel pots are usually a tight seal, which is great for grains or dishes where you don't want to water to evaporate.
The 2 minor downsides of stainless steel are that the sides of the pots can be a bit thin, so some heat loss happens, and they can be tough to keep clean.
A great way to minimize cleaning time for stainless steel is to use some liquid at the end of sauteeing, while the pot or pan is still at medium-high heat, to deglaze. You can do this as part of the dish, and scrape up the bits of food stuck to the pan, or after serving the food out of the pan.
You do need to scrape a little bit with a spatula (bamboo or wood are great materials for healthy cookware), but it will be much easier and less harmful to the pan than scrubbing after the fact. Steel wool should never be used on stainless steel since it can cause some metal to leech into foods the next time.
Cast iron is the tried and true pan, having been used for centuries as safe and healthy cookware. If you're looking to buy a pan, consider cast iron. It is amazing at holding heat and cooking things slowly since it's thick, and will last you for the rest of your life if you take care of it properly.
It builds up a natural non-stick coating that isn't harmful, and while it can also leach small bits of iron when hot and in contact with foods, iron toxicity only happens at very high doses and isn't too serious. For people with an iron deficiency, this would actually be helpful.
Cast iron is conveniently a very healthy cookware cheap option because it's easy to produce. One thing cast iron should not be used for is to boil or cook with water, since too much iron will leach out of the pan and interfere with the absorption of the nutrients in the food. Pots made of cast iron are not a wise choice - stick with just pans for this material.
This large cast iron pan is deep, making it easy to cook a lot of vegetables, and it has a lid. The lid can also be used as a shallow pan for pancakes or other small meals, which makes this set a great value.
Cast iron comes either pre-seasoned, or not. If it doesn't come seasoned, then you have to season it yourself before using it for cooking. The seasoning is the natural non-stick surface that builds up. Without it, your food will stick like mad and the pan will rust, defeating the purpose of your healthy cookware.
You also have to keep this seasoning maintained, or you'll run into the same sticking and rust issues over time. Don't worry, it's super easy to do!
After cooking, DO NOT use a scouring pad or steel wool or anything on your cast iron. Just use a soft cloth or sponge, and minimal scraping. Some people don't even scrub their pans, but if you like to start fresh with no left-over flavors just give it a light scrub.
Once the pan is clean, dry it right away and put it on the stove on minimum heat for 2 minutes or so. This will evaporate any water left from washing.
When it cools a little, put a tiny amount of oil on the pan, a quarter teaspoon should do it, and rub it over the full surface with your hand. The bit of heat makes it absorb into the iron.
The oil makes great moisturizer after doing dishes, so don't be scared of it. An oil sprayer (not aerosol, please...) works wonderfully for this job.
Cast iron is perfect for slow-cooking, but if you want to stir-fry or do a fast cook you need something a bit thinner than cast iron. Carbon steel as another great option for healthy cookware. It works on the same seasoning system as cast iron, so it builds up a natural non-stick coating.
You need to follow the same system of cleaning, drying, heating and oiling. Carbon steel is also not a good choice for pots, so stick with it just for pans.
Bamboo is a perfect choice for healthy cookware, and is used for steamers and utensils. The material will not leech metals or a metallic taste into the foods, and is a more renewable resource than metals.
A bamboo steamer is very affordable and will get you making healthy steamed vegetables more often for you and your family. Pair them with a delicious dipping sauce, and you have a quick, healthy and satisfying meal.
If you prefer a steamer to fit in with your existing pot set, go for stainless steel. This steamer will fit above any size pot, and comes with a glass lid which is handy to see how things are doing without releasing the steam. Some healthy cookware sets will include a steamer.
Many people jump into getting the biggest set of healthy cookware out there, and it certainly is a good value per item. Before you buy a full set, just think about how many pots and pans you actually need. They take up a lot of space in the cupboard, and if you don't use them they aren't a good deal.
In one meal, you can often get by with just two pots and one pan. If you already have a stainless steel pot or pan, consider adding single pieces rather than getting a whole new set.
A large pot (4 quarts or so) is perfect for making soups, tomato sauce and beans, and a medium sized one (2 quarts) is just right for making grains and pasta. A small pot (1 quart) might be used occasionally for small sauces, and an enormous one is great to make a big batch of soup, but those two may not be necessary for you on a regular basis.
A large pan (3-4 quarts) with is great for making a full meal in one dish, and a lid is crucial for the times when you want to lightly steam vegetables with minimal water evaporation.
You might also want to consider the cast iron and carbon steel options for pans, though not for pots, instead of stainless steel since they are easier to keep clean and give excellent cooking performance at a lower price than the stainless steel version.
Lids are essential to hold heat for boiling and to hold moisture for cooking grains. Lids normally come with the appropriate pot, and many pans will also come with their own lids.
You can also get a one-size-fits-all lid. This type of lid is great if your healthy cookware doesn't come with lids.