Wednesday, December 22, 2010

To Stick or Not to Stick: Alternatives to Teflon

Yesterday my father sent me a link to a N.Y. Times article: How Not to Wreck a Nonstick Pan.  Excellent advice if you are using non-stick, but it touches on the dilemma of whether or not we should use non-stick cookware like Teflon.  The column by the same author, Teflon Is Great for Politicians, but Is It Safe for Regular People?  discusses the risks.

Non-stick coatings definitely release toxic chemicals when heated to high temperatures; that is undisputed.  These fumes are especially harmful to organisms with delicate respiratory systems, like birds.  Whether these pans leach harmful compounds into our foods during normal use is inconclusive.  In addition, if you really do use less oil with non-stick cookware, it is difficult to weigh the benefits of less fat against the possible effects of Teflon.

When used correctly, non-stick cookware is easy to cook with, easy to clean, and easy to find.  It is considered safe to about 350 degrees F.  That makes it a good choice if you fry a lot of eggs, but it's not a good option for searing meat or fish or doing hot Chinese-style stir-fries.  The alternatives will generally accept more abuse and will brown food much better, leading to more flavor, especially in meats and the resulting sauces.  And if someone tries to help out in your kitchen and scrambles an egg with a fork, or drops a knife in a  pan when it's in the sink, it starts peeling and becomes unsafe immediately.

Cast iron and enamel coated cast iron are good alternatives to non-stick.  Cast iron takes longer to heat and cool, making it difficult to compete with a cheap non-stick pan when you only have five minutes to fry an egg before work, but it adds iron to your food, heats evenly and can go in the oven.  Enamel coating may be easier to clean, but old fashion cast iron can last for generations.  You don't need to worry about any coating chipping or cracking, but you will need to "season" it about once a year and not use harsh detergents on in.  You can dry it over low heat on your stove and take other precautions to fend off rust.  If you or a relative messes up your cast iron ware, you can usually fix it by scrubbing off any rust with steel wool and re-seasoning it.  As you use it, it will become more non-stick, to the point where it will no longer need oil, if treated properly.  This link from the Splendid Table answers a question about purchase and care of a cast iron pan.  The episode of Good Eats, Going Dutch, shows how to season and care for cast iron.  Many of the cast iron pots and pans on the market say they are pre-seasoned.  I'm still shopping for one of my own; I like this 3-in-one set: Lodge LCC3 Logic Pre-Seasoned Combo Cooker, which is also the brand recommended by Lynne of The Splendid Table.

Hard Anodized Aluminum, like Calphalon Hard-Anodized Cookware is another good alternative to non-stick.  Just be careful you don't order a set with a non-stick surface (my mistake when I registered for our wedding).  It heats quickly, often holds up to metal utensils and scrubbing, and if cooked properly (see below), food shouldn't stick.

Good cooking advice from the article Nonstick Cookware Safety: Are There Alternatives to Teflon?:
Shirley Corriher, author of CookWise: The Secrets of Cooking Revealed (William Morrow Cookbooks, 1997) and a well-known food consultant, says the secret to nonstick cooking lies less in the pan than in the cook’s ability to wait.

Here’s her advice for frying anything — chicken breasts, salmon steaks and, yes, even eggs — in any type of pan:

  1. Heat the empty pan first to give the food a hot surface to cook on and not in.
  2. Pour in a tablespoon or two of canola oil, and tilt it around.
  3. Put in the food, which will sizzle like crazy and stick to the pan.
  4. Resist the urge to chisel the food loose for at least 90 seconds until it lightly browns — at   which point it will release all by itself.
  5. Repeat on the other side.
"The big secret is to leave it alone," Corriher says.

For bakeware, consider silicone bakeware, or use metal pans with parchment paper, which is coated with silicone.  Silicone is easy to store and clean.  I like the sets with covers to store food and wire "sleds" to keep your pan from flopping around as you pull it in and out of the oven, like the set pictured below.  You can also find it very inexpensively.  Silicone has been around for a long time, so I hope that means we won't be having any health scares related to its use.   I recently purchased two silicone loaf pans and a piece for 12 muffins.  I am very happy with them, except that it is hard to get the muffins or rolls out of the oven without spilling them because the pan is so floppy.
  Pyrex and CorningWare are also tried and true bakeware options.  I LOVE the Pyrex with covers.  It's great to take a dish from oven to the table and right back to the fridge with leftovers.  I got "Sculptured Pyrex" for my wedding and it looks great on the table.  You can find good sets at Wal-mart.  Just make sure it's really bakeware.  Pyrex now make storage containers that are only microwave safe.

I have four non-stick pieces that are old and peeling.  I need pieces that can survive some burning and abuse.  I am plaining to replace them with a Fagor Duo Combi 5-Piece Pressure Cooker Set, which can also be used as a regular saute pan and 8 quart pot, and a cast iron skillet if I can find one.  I am also looking into removing the non-stick coating from my Analon Advanced pot and pan.  Apparently, you can have it blasted off at a body shop, or you can remove it yourself by repeatedly soaking it in hot soapy water and scrubbing it with scouring powder and/or using a lye-based drain cleaner.  I also saw advice to burn it off, but that seems even more dangerous than lye, based on what we know about getting Teflon too hot.

What cookware do you love?  Do you have any tricks for keeping food from sticking?  How about advice for getting good deals on good cookware?

[JUMP TO UPDATE...what I bought, what I use, and recommendations]

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