The Benefits of Ceramic Cookware… And Why Even Cast Iron & Stainless Steel Can Be Dangerous

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My sister and I started cooking our family dinners from a young age. Probably too young, to be honest. But there were five of us kids and our parents worked long hours, so we all had our chores. Thankfully, we never did burn down the house or end up in the emergency room!

I remember always using the same aluminum pot to boil water for our mashed “potatoes” — which came straight from the can, by the way. A giant brown tin can with the word “Idaho” on the front, where the ‘potatoes’ had somehow been shaved into a million little flakes that looked like fish food. Just add hot water and stir. Eek, right?

If the fake potatoes weren’t gross enough, I’d grab our copper saucepan to warm up the canned gravy and another aluminum pot to cook the frozen creamed corn… whilst the corn was still in the bag. Just drop the plastic pouch into the boiling water and let it sit until the creamed part transitions from a solid yellow block to a piping hot mush.

As I sit in a cafe writing this, I can actually smell and taste the faux-tatoes and corn from these days of yore. I used to loooove them. But now I’m trying not to gag as I imagine it, so I don’t gross out the couple at the next table, as they eat their organic kale salads. And this gross-out isn’t just because of the food we actually thought was healthy growing up. It’s also because of the aluminum and copper we used to cook it.

My transition toward stainless steel… and then ceramic cookware

In my early adult years, I made the move to stainless steel because it’s relatively inexpensive, heats well, and (at the time) I wasn’t hearing bad things about it, as I had with aluminum and copper. And I was happy with my cookware for a long time… though I do tend to burn the pots every so often. I’d throw on some water for pasta and jump back on my laptop while I waited for it to boil. Then I’d get into whatever I was doing and an hour later, I’d follow the smell of smoke into the kitchen to find my now empty pot cooking itself on the stove. Whoops!

The scary looking residue always washed away, but it made me wonder whether the pot was still safe to use. I did my usual research to find out and I was a bit surprised by what I learned. Details to follow, but let’s just say… I’m all about ceramic cookware these days and I don’t think I’ll be going back to metal anytime soon.

This article covers:

Copper pots and pans

The issue with metal cookware

You’ve probably heard the horror stories about the toxic chemicals that leach from non-stick Teflon pans, right? While cooking with aluminum or copper may not be as harmful as Teflon, these metals are known to readily contaminate our food and, by extension, our bodies.

The thing is, stainless steel and cast iron are usually promoted as healthier alternatives. And compared to Teflon, copper, and aluminum, they certainly are. But you still have to be careful.

Also read: Your Guide to Healthy (And Not So Healthy) Cookware

Is stainless steel cookware safe?

Stainless steel is a blend of metals including iron, carbon, chromium, manganese, silicon, nickel, titanium, and/or molybdenum. The final alloy is generally thought to be stable and safe… so long as it’s not damaged. But let’s face it: sh*t happens.

For example:

  • Even light scratches can cause tiny metal particulates to leach into your food. Metal utensils and abrasive scrubs can cause these scratches relatively easily.
  • Burning a stainless steel pot (as I’ve done countless times) can cause the metal to pit and instigate the release of metal particulates into your food. It can also change the performance of your cookware.

So while stainless steel is considered perfectly safe under normal conditions, the metal can leach into your food once the coating is compromised. Most stainless steel pots and pans contain nickel, so those with a sensitivity to nickel need to be especially aware.

Long cooking times in stainless steel is also an issue

At least one study tested stainless steel under cooking times from 2 to 20 hours. The researchers found increased concentrations of nickel and chromium in the food, the longer it had been cooked.

And if you’re looking to replace your old cookware, you’ll be interested to know that the researchers found that newer pots leached significantly more than older pots. The contamination did decrease with each use and “stabilized after the sixth cooking cycle, though significant metal contributions to foods were still observed.

They go on to say that nickel and chromium “are considered a frequent cause of allergic contact dermatitis (ACD).” Even small doses (orally) can trigger a reaction or cause an eczema flare-up.

stainless steel cookware

Are cast iron skillets safe?

Cast iron can leach trace amounts of metal into your food even more readily than stainless steel. I’ve read countless wellness sites that say this is a good thing because our bodies tend to be deficient in iron. And for a long time, I believed this to be true.

But I once I started to dig in, I learned that our bodies cannot easily break down and assimilate iron when it is in its metallic state. Our bodies more readily assimilate dietary iron, meaning iron that comes from food. When we ingest the metallic form of iron, it can accumulate in our vital organs and lead to liver and heart disease, as well as other serious health issues down the road.

Season a Cast Iron Skillet

If you do use cast iron, be sure to minimize the leaching of iron particulates in your food:

  • Use bamboo, wood, or other non-metal utensils that won’t easily scratch it.
  • Stay away from harsh metal scrubbers. Use baking soda to remove stuck on foods instead.
  • Don’t cook acidic foods such as lemon or tomato sauce in cast iron, as they can react with the metal and accelerate the leaching of particulates.

Why ceramic cookware is a healthy choice

While metal cookware can leach into your food, ceramic does not. Pure ceramic cookware is made entirely from clay and earth minerals.

It is true that arsenic, lead, cadmium, and other heavy metals do naturally occur in our soil and can end up in the clay. However, a key aspect of manufacturing ceramic is to bake it at extremely high temperatures, which burns away these natural impurities. And it works. This is because the heavy metals have a lower melting temperature than ceramics.

For context, lead, cadmium, arsenic and most other heavy metals have a melting point below 1500℉. Meanwhile, ceramic cookware is kiln heated between 1800℉ and 2400℉. This extremely high heat is akin to flushing dirty water through an aggressive filter and watching it come out the other end, crystal clear and safe to drink. So even if the clay going into the kiln is contaminated, the ceramic that comes out has been purified.

Isn’t ceramic cookware contaminated with lead and cadmium?

Decades ago, ceramic manufacturers would add harmful metals, such as lead and cadmium to the dyeing process to create beautiful colors. In doing so, they would essentially re-contaminate what the kiln had just purified.

As awareness around the dangers of heavy metals in cookware grew, manufacturers began to find safe ways to color their pots, pans, and dishware. In addition, these heavy metals have been legally banned for this purpose in many countries around the world, including the US.

That said, most dinnerware and cookware brands manufacture their ceramics in China. This isn’t just because China is leading manufacturer of, well, just about everything. It’s also because China has been making ceramics for more than 10,000 years.

Ceramic Factory China

Transparency is key. Xtrema proudly shares photos from the Chinese factory that makes their ceramic cookware.

Is ceramic that comes from China safe?

Today, there are hundreds of ceramics factories in China that have been certified by the FDA to meet strict manufacturing standards. Many of those factories are also certified to meet California’s even stricter Prop 65 standards for lead and cadmium. Losing either certification is extremely bad for business and re-certification is not easy, so the factories have modernized their manufacturing methods and have found safe ways to add color and glaze to their ceramics without the use of heavy metals.

I normally try to avoid anything manufactured in China, because I question the chemicals they use, the pollution from the factories, and the treatment of their workers. After my research, however, I feel ok with buying ceramic that has been manufactured in China with regards to product safety and environmental safety, so long as the factory has been certified by the FDA and for Prop 65. (You can check the packaging or website to be sure.) These certifications, however, do not guarantee the workers are treated well or paid a fair living wage, so that is still a consideration.

Pottery that is not intended for use with food

While modern ceramic cookware is manufactured safely and cleanly, do be careful with antique, handmade, and decorative pottery (often terra cotta) that is not intended to touch our food, as these may still contain harmful contaminants. If you find pottery or other ceramics that say “not intended for use with food”, please heed the warning.

Pottery That Is Not Food Safe

Benefits of ceramic cookware

  1. Ceramic cookware takes a little longer to heat up than, say, aluminum. But once it does, it retains its heat for quite a while. In fact, you can warm your pan fully on medium and then turn the heat down to low, and your food will continue to cook at medium heat for roughly 7 minutes. That’s about 95% longer than aluminum retains its heat and 50% longer than cast iron.
  2. Ceramic is also extremely versatile. You can use it on the stove top, inside the oven (including the broiler), in the microwave, and even on the barbeque grill. It’s also safe for the freezer, as well as the dishwasher.
  3. Unlike cast iron, ceramic pots and pans do not react with your food. In other words, you can cook lemons, tomato sauce, and other acidic foods in ceramic without worrying that the cookware will contaminate your food or change the taste of your dish.
  4. Ceramic is scratch-proof, chip-resistant, and easy to clean. For stuck-on foods, you can just soak the pot in water for a few minutes and/or put a little baking soda or Bon Ami on your sponge. Everything should then wipe away pretty easily.
Xtrema Ceramic Cookware

Credit: Xtrema Cookware

Ceramic pots and pans emit far infrared energy

Another cool benefit is that ceramic naturally emits far infrared (FIR) energy, which warms foods evenly from the inside and outside at the same time. For comparison, microwaves also cook food from the inside… but not in a healthy way.

The difference is that microwave energy absorbs water molecules and dehydrates your food as it cooks. By contrast, infrared heat penetrates your food, allowing it to retain its natural moisture. This doesn’t just cook the food more evenly. It also helps to preserve the food’s flavors and nutrients, making for a healthier and tastier meal.

Because ceramic pots and pans efficiently and effectively capture heat energy, you can – and should – cook at lower temperatures. One big benefit of cooking at lower temps is that you don’t burn food as easily. Another is that you tend to not need as much oil or butter to grease the pan, which also translates to healthier cooking.

Is ceramic-coated cookware the same thing?

It’s worth noting that ceramic-coated cookware is not the same as pure ceramic cookware. Instead of using clay and earth minerals through and through, the ceramic coated cookware has a metal core. This can pose at least one problem.

While pure ceramic cookware does not scratch, the ceramic coating does. Newer methods of bonding the coating to the metal core have improved, yet I’ve found that a quick read of buyer reviews reveals that it’s only a matter of time and usage. Eventually, even stronger coatings can break down.

Caring for your ceramic cookware

As mentioned, it can take a little longer for ceramic cookware to heat up. It’s only a couple of extra minutes, but if we’re used to metal cookware, we might become impatient. Folks who are used to cooking on metal often make the mistake of turning up the flame to speed things up. While it’s not common, this can lead to “thermal cracking”. How is this possible?

Ceramic cookware is known to handle extremely high temperatures up to a few thousand degrees without cracking… so long as the entire pot is heated at the same time. For example, below is a quick (and mesmerizing) video that shows ceramic cookware company (Xtrema), heating one of their pans to some crazy high temperature and then immediately submerging it into an ice bath. The cookware never cracks, because the entire pan is heated and cooled all at once.

By contrast, if you place a hot ceramic pan on a cool countertop or sink, it can crack. Or if you run half of the pan under cool water immediately after taking it off the stove, it can crack. This is because only the part of the pan would have been exposed to a cooler temperature.

In short:

  • Don’t cook the ceramic suddenly on high heat
  • Don’t place a hot ceramic on a cool countertop or sink
  • Don’t place a hot ceramic under cool water right after taking it off the stove

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In summary

Pure ceramic cookware is a healthy alternative to non-stick and metal cookware. It is not the cheapest cookware out there, but I find it’s worth the investment and, personally, I am replacing my old cookware with ceramic, one piece at a time.

If you can’t make the move to ceramic just yet, do what you can in the meantime. Use wood, bamboo, or silicone utensils that won’t scratch your stainless steel or cast iron cookware. And for stainless steel, always set a timer to avoid overheating the metal… I learned that one the hard way, so you don’t have to.

As a quick reminder, ceramic cookware…

  • Is made from all-natural clay and earth minerals
  • Does not leach heavy metals, chemicals or other toxins
  • Is non-reactive, so it does not alter the taste of your food
  • Heats food more evenly and retains the food’s natural moisture
  • Can be used on the stove top, in the oven, broiler, and microwave, as well as on the barbeque grill
  • Is safe for the freezer
  • Is easy to clean by hand, but can also go in the dishwasher
  • Is scratch-proof and chip-resistant

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