My sister and I cooked our family dinners from a young age. Probably too young. But there were five of us kids and both our parents worked, so we all had our chores. Thankfully, we never did burn down the house or end up in the emergency room!
I distinctly remember our pots and pans — exactly where they were in the cabinet and which ones I’d use for each dish. ( I use the term “dish” very lightly, by the way.)
I always used the same aluminum pot to boil water for the mashed potatoes that we’d eat nearly every night. No, we did not wash, peel, cut, boil, and mash real potatoes for a family of 7, are you crazy? That would’ve taken forever. We ate our ‘potatoes’ straight from the can, thank you. 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.
If the fake potatoes weren’t gross enough, I’d grab our copper saucepan to warm up the canned gravy to slather onto them. Then I’d grab another aluminum pot to cook the frozen creamed corn, whilst it was still in the bag. Just drop the plastic pouch into the boiling water and let it sit until the creamed corn transitions from a solid yellow block to piping hot mush.
As I sit in a cafe writing this, I can actually smell and taste the potatoes and corn from these days of yore. I used to loooove them. But now I’m trying to hide my semi-audible gags, 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.
Ceramic cookware would have been the far healthier choice, as we’ll learn in a moment. That said, good ceramic cookware is not cheap and I absolutely, positively, oh-so-definitely would have broken it.
You’ve probably heard the horror stories about the toxic chemicals that leach from non-stick Teflon pans, right? And you may already know not to cook with aluminum or copper, as these metals can 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.
Stainless steel is a blend of metals including iron, carbon, chromium, manganese, silicon, nickel, titanium, and/or molybdenum. The final alloy is known to be stable and safe… so long as it’s not damaged. But let’s face it… sh*t happens.
We start texting a friend or get caught up in a tv show and forget we have something on the stove. I can’t count how many times I’ve done this. I don’t just burn the food, I actually burn the pot to the point where it is smoking and is starting to melt. We also scratch the stainless steel with abrasive scrubs or metal utensils. While that may be less destructive, whether burned or scratched, we end up leaching metal into our food.
Cast iron can leach trace amounts of metal into your food even more readily than stainless steel. I’ve read a ton of wellness sites that say this is a good thing because our bodies tend to be deficient in iron. For a long time, I believed this to be true. But I once I started to dig in, I found out that our bodies cannot easily break down and assimilate iron when it comes from the ground. Our bodies can only assimilate dietary iron, meaning iron that comes from food.
If you do use cast iron, you can minimize its leaching of this non-usable form of iron into your food, by using bamboo, wood, or other non-metal utensils that can scratch it. Stay away from the harsh metal scrubbers as well. And don’t cook with acidic foods, such as lemon or tomato sauce, in cast iron as they can react with the metal.
While aluminum, copper, and cast iron cookware can leach tiny metal particles into your food, ceramic does not. Pure ceramic cookware is made entirely from clay and earth minerals. But that’s not the only reason ceramic is my cookware of choice these days.
Xtrema Ceramic Cookware
Ceramic also retains its heat really well. It 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 to medium, then turn it down to low, and your food will continue to cook at medium for roughly 7 minutes. That’s about 95% longer than aluminum retains its heat and 50% longer than cast iron.
Another cool benefit of ceramic is that it naturally emits far infrared energy, which warms foods evenly from the inside and outside at the same time. Microwaves also cook food from the inside, but not in a healthy way. Microwave energy absorbs water molecules and dehydrates your food as it cooks. By contrast, far infrared heat penetrates your food, allowing it to retain its natural moisture.
Because ceramic cookware efficiently and effectively captures 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 translates to healthier cooking.
Yet another benefit of ceramic cookware is that it 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.
Unlike cast iron, ceramic cookware does 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 change the taste of your dish.
Also, 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.
Is the ceramic clay contaminated with heavy metals?
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.
What about lead and cadmium based dyes?
Decades ago, manufacturers would add harmful metals such as lead and cadmium in the dying process, which essentially negated the kiln’s purification. However, these heavy metals have since been banned for this purpose in many countries around the world, including the US.
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.
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 safer 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 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.) That said, these certifications do not guarantee the workers are treated well or paid a fair living wage, so that is still a consideration.
By the way, while most of today’s 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”, do heed the warning.
Xtrema Ceramic Cookware
What about ceramic-coated cookware?
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 the 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 video that shows a 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 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.
Pure ceramic cookware is a healthy alternative to non-stick and metal cookware. It is not the least expensive cookware out there, but I find it’s worth the investment and I am now replacing my old cookware with ceramic one piece at a time.
In quick summary, 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 & microwave, and 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