Despite having researched cookware (ceramic and otherwise) for a fairly in-depth article I wrote about how to buy healthier pots and pans, I was left with questions I couldn’t easily answer online. I’m a big research nerd and if I can’t fully wrap my head around something that interests me, I’ll go nuts.
So I reached out to Xtrema founder, Rich Bergstrom, to help fill the knowledge gaps and I can say that he did not disappoint! What was supposed to be a one-hour interview, quickly slipped past two hours without either of us realizing how much time had passed. To say I enjoyed our chat would be an understatement.
Below is a tightened up version of our Q&A that hits the areas I think (hope) you’ll find most interesting. Also, check out my Brand Spotlight on Xtrema to learn more about their products and get a visual peek at their manufacturing process.
Let’s start with manufacturing.
SHERYL (Greenopedia): Your website says that Xtrema is handcrafted using a unique ceramic clay formula. Can you explain what you mean by ‘unique’ and also share a few details around why your manufacturing is, as you describe, ‘earth-friendly’?
RICH (Xtrema): Yes. Ceramics are made from a combination of clay and maybe 10 different minerals that are extracted from the earth. Everyone uses the same minerals, so that part’s no secret. (You can find out which they are with a Google search.) But each manufacturer has their own unique mix of those minerals. We’re always tweaking our formula to make the clay stronger and to heat it faster.
With regards to our manufacturing, it’s just a cleaner environment and safer for the workers. The melting of metals for stainless steel or cast iron cookware is a dirty, toxic process with smokestacks pumping pollutants into the environment. The fumes also pose serious risks for the workers. Our kiln firing is a clean process that does not involve smokestacks or toxic chemicals.
SHERYL: Your cookware is made from “100% inorganic ceramic minerals”. It’s been a while since I’ve taken a chemistry class. Can you remind me what is meant by inorganic ceramic minerals?
RICH: The term ‘organic’ is used differently than how we’re used to hearing it with regards to food. In the mineral and manufacturing business, inorganic means it cannot be absorbed by the body. I wish it was a different term because it can confuse people. With cookware, you want the minerals to be both inorganic and non-reactive, which ours are. Non-reactive means that its particles won’t leach into your food.
Aluminum, copper, and cast-iron are all reactive metals that can end up in your food. If you squeeze a lemon into one of these pans or cook with tomato sauce, the metal will react with the acid and contaminate whatever you’re cooking. No one wants the aluminum or copper in their food, yet they think cast iron particles are ok because our bodies tend to be iron deficient. But it’s not ok, because the iron in your cookware comes from the ground, not from plants.
When iron comes from plants, it is coming from an organic source, meaning your body can assimilate it. That’s good. But when iron comes from the ground, that is an inorganic source and your body cannot use it. Instead, your body can accumulate that form of iron and it becomes toxic. Your liver has to process it the same way as it would any other heavy metal and that is bad. Cast iron cookware is loved by the wellness community, but it is not a healthy option.
By the way, ceramic never rusts or deteriorates. Cast iron will rust and copper, stainless steel, and titanium alloys will tarnish.
Xtrema Ceramic Cookware
SHERYL: You say that “all ceramic glazes are made of various inorganic minerals and oxides. The oxides give the glaze its strength, color, and glossiness.” Most of your cookware is black and some are red. The color red used to be achieved using cadmium, but lead and cadmium are now banned substances in cookware. These days, I imagine you’d get the red from iron oxide or something similar. If we don’t want iron in our cookware, why is iron oxide (or other metal oxides) ok?
RICH: Great question. Iron is not the same as iron oxide. When iron is in its metallic state, it is reactive and can contaminate your food. When iron is oxidized, it becomes non-reactive and can no longer leach.
SHERYL: By law, you have to test for lead and cadmium in your cookware. For the sake of transparency, you actually post the test results on your website. As an example, this detailed report shows your results for lead as < 0.05 and cadmium as < 0.01. These are far below the limits set by both the FDA, as well as California’s extremely strict Prop 65 standards, which is great. Because these metals naturally exist in our soil, will all ceramic and earthenware contain at least some trace amounts?
RICH: All ceramics will contain at least some trace amounts initially, but these metals all have melting points lower than 2500°F degrees. We fire our clay at 2500°F degrees for 24 hours and not much can survive that. These impurities will melt off in the firing process. It’s like running your water through a strong filter to purify the water. For us, the end result is a clean mix of minerals.
SHERYL: I see that you manufacture your cookware in China. Is that also where you source your clay and minerals?
RICH: The only material that we source from China is the kaolin clay. Most of our minerals come from Australia.
We manufacture in China because they’ve been making ceramics for around ten thousand years. We looked around, but no one in the US was able to make the kind of cookware we wanted to make. In China, there is an abundance of skilled artisans with the ceramics experience we need. And the factories now have modernized equipment and production methods to meet the strict regulations required by the FDA and California’s Prop 65.
Our factory is certified to be both FDA and Prop 65 compliant, which is important. The laboratories use what’s called a 24-hour extract test to prove that our cookware does not extract lead or cadmium. This is the gold standard of testing for heavy metals in the cookware industry.
What’s it like to cook with Xtrema?
SHERYL: Beyond being a natural and healthier cooking material, ceramic is known for heating the pan evenly. I thought I read somewhere that it also generates far-infrared energy so that it cooks inside and outside at the same time. Is that true? How / why does ceramic have this property?
RICH: True FIR (far infrared) is produced by the sun. Let’s say you’re skiing in sunny Lake Tahoe. The weather is cold, yet you’re feeling warm. That’s because the FIR penetrates heat from 1/5 to 2” into your body, warming it from the inside. The minerals in ceramics, as well as in glass and metals, produce infrared energy. Ceramic does this to a higher degree. With most heat sources, you’re cooking from the outside in. You char the outside and cook the inside, which is not good for you. But if you’re cooking with ceramic (even if it’s a ceramic plate on a grill) you’re getting the benefit of FIR. This penetrating heat keeps the moisture in the food.
SHERYL: Interesting. Microwaves cook food from the inside out. Is it kind of the same?
RICH: No. First, with ceramic cookware, you’re cooking the inside and outside at the same time. It’s a consistent, even heat. Also, microwave energy absorbs the water molecules inside the food in order to produce the heat. This obviously dries out the food. The FIR heat penetrates the food and leaves the moisture intact.
SHERYL: Ceramic is also known to withstand extremely high and low temperatures without breaking or reacting to food. Your site says that “Xtrema cookware can withstand temperatures of over 2500°F with no toxic fumes, no melting, no damage, and no warping.“ But you also say to “cook low and slow to avoid thermal cracks“. This seems like a contradiction…
RICH: Not exactly. Aluminum cookware heats in seconds, which is a benefit of aluminum. Ceramic takes a little bit longer to heat up. But once it does, it retains heat about 95% longer than aluminum and 50% longer than cast iron. This consistent heat is important.
When you put a whole piece of our cookware at one time in a 2200-degree kiln and you turn it glowing red and then put it in cold water, it won’t crack. That’s because the whole product is being heated at the same time. Then, in the water, it’s being cooled all at the same time. In other words, the temperature is consistent across the entire pan.
The reason it can thermal crack on the stove is that the entire surface isn’t being heated at the same time. We often cook a large pan on a small burner (or vice versa). The heat needs time to fully distribute across the pot. You can also get a thermal crack if you put your fully heated pot in the sink and run cold water over half of it. Again, if you immerse it at once, you won’t get that thermal crack.
Also, remember that you can’t treat ceramic like cast iron. Besides thermal cracks (which are rare, but happen), ceramic will break if you drop it or bang it too hard against the countertop.
By the way, we have a great video on our website that shows an Xtrema pan heated in the kiln and then dropped into cold water. We even put an aluminum pan inside the Xtrema pan to show how the aluminum melts, while our ceramic isn’t damaged at all.
SHERYL: Speaking of your videos, I saw a couple of you cooking eggs and they came out perfectly. What’s your secret?
RICH: I cook with very little oil. In fact, sometimes I cook my eggs with just water, no oil at all. If you cook on ceramic with low to medium heat, you just don’t need that much fat to keep food from sticking. If you turn up the heat, you’ll need more fat. With the far infrared energy, the food just cooks more efficiently and keeps its natural moisture, so low heat is best. If you do turn up the heat and food sticks, just cool the pan and then soak it in water for a few minutes and it should come off easily. Or you can scrub it with baking soda, which won’t scratch the pan.
SHERYL: Right. I read that Xtrema’s coating is non-scratch. But you still recommend using softer cooking utensils, like nylon or bamboo. Does “non-scratch” have a limit to what it can take?
RICH: No, it’s not our cookware that will scratch. It’s the metal utensils! Ceramic is harder than metal. You can see this easily with the metal marks that have leached onto the pan (and then into your food). Just use some baking soda to scrub the metal off the pan and you’ll see the pan itself isn’t scratched.
SHERYL: That was incredibly informative. Rich, thank you so much for your time!
Folks, don’t forget to check out the Brand Spotlight on Xtrema to see how the magic happens!