Sustainable Cookware

Sometimes, older is better.

September/October 2016

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Sustainable Cookware

Photo: seoulfully

SAGE (Sound Advice for a Green Earth) is a project by advanced students in environmental sciences, engineering, business and journalism to answer sustainability questions. Submit questions.

Q: What is the most sustainable option for cookware, like pots and pans (cast iron, stainless steel, nonstick, etc.)?

Asked by Anna Hallingstad, Anacortes, Washington.

The Essential Answer

As a recent graduate, I’m confronting the daunting realities of adulthood, including finding a job, filing taxes and cooking for myself. Since I can only survive on cereal and mac ‘n’ cheese for so long, it’s time for me to invest in some sustainable cookware. But where to begin? It’s hard to think of a more daunting place than the aisles of my local cookware store, with its rows upon rows of aluminum, carbon steel, cast iron, copper, nonstick, and stainless steel pots and pans.

Let’s start with the most common options: nonstick, cast iron and stainless steel. I love the ease of nonstick cookware and that it enables cooking the perfect fried egg. But manufacturing the nonstick coating produces harmful byproducts, and overheating the pans can release toxic chemicals into your home. While accidental overheating releases only a minimal amount of toxins, scientists have not studied their long-term health effects. 

Toxicity concerns aside, the nonstick coating is easily scratched and typically lasts a mere three to five years. Nonstick’s short lifespan alone makes these pots and pans the opposite of sustainable, since your kitchen carbon footprint increases every time you replace your cookware. 

Cast iron, however, is a cooking classic that lives up to its name. Given the proper care, cast iron pans last for generations and develop a nearly nonstick coating through seasoning with heat and cooking oil.  However, pasta lovers will need more than cast iron in their kitchen. Cast iron reacts with acid—like simmering tomato sauce—and is prone to rusting, so it should not be used to boil water.

Consider diversifying your cookware portfolio with a few stainless steel pots. Stainless steel won’t rust and is tougher than enameled cast iron. And it’s worth the extra investment to buy stainless steel cookware with a copper core, since these pots and pans will heat more evenly and efficiently than stainless steel alone.

Before you head out to the store, remember that it’s greener to reuse old pots and pans than to buy a new set of cookware. And in the end, what you put in those pots and pans matters more than what type of cookware you use. Check out these SAGE answers to learn more about reducing your meat consumption, shopping organic, cutting your food miles, or growing your own food, and revel in your kitchen sustainability. Read on to the Nitty-Gritty answer below for more tips on choosing the most sustainable cookware. 

The Nitty Gritty

Choosing pots and pans can certainly feel overwhelming, but have no fear! You can frame your sustainable cookware search using four key characteristics: durability, flexibility, fuel efficiency and environmental impacts of the raw materials. Since we eliminated nonstick from the front-runners in the essential answer, let’s focus on aluminum, cast iron (both enameled and regular) and stainless steel.

Durability is key for cookware sustainability. The production of all pots and pans creates some negative environmental impact, from mining and refining raw materials to packaging and shipping your cookware. The best way to minimize such impacts is by investing in cookware that will last a lifetime. Lightweight aluminum cookware is the easiest to carry around the kitchen, but aluminum is not as durable as the other options. Cast iron is the durability champ, since it lasts for generations with the proper care and gets better with age and regular seasoning. Stainless steel is also highly durable, as it is resistant to rust, corrosion, scratching and denting. Enameled cast iron is sturdy and requires less care than regular cast iron, although it is prone to rusting if the enamel coating chips off.  Be aware that the glaze on antique or cheap imported enameled cookware can leach lead into food; however, U.S.-produced enameled pots are generally considered safe by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the FDA publishes alerts about imported enameled cookware that it deems unsafe.

While searching for cookware that could outlast the apocalypse, don’t overlook flexibility. Rather than purchasing that single-purpose crepe pan you’ve been longing for, invest in cooking multitaskers to minimize purchases and their kitchen carbon footprint. Cast iron and stainless steel can both be used in the oven, and cast iron even makes a great baking dish. If your cooking ambitions extend beyond the kitchen, opt for cast iron and explore the possibilities of your grill or campfire. However, as mentioned in the essential answer, cast iron has certain limitations when it comes to acidic cooking and boiling water.  Similarly, aluminum cookware may leach out aluminum when cooking acidic foods, so go for anodized aluminum for a nonreactive finish.

What about the fuel efficiency of your pots and pans? Fuel efficiency is an obvious criterion for car shopping—and no less relevant a consideration for cookware materials. Cast iron heats up slowly but stores a lot of heat once warm. This means that you can turn off the burner and let residual heat finish cooking your eggs or keep your food warm while everyone prepares themselves for seconds. Copper and aluminum are by far the most thermally conductive materials, meaning that the heat from your stove is transferred to your food with Prius-like efficiency. Stainless steel is the least conductive, making it a culinary Hummer. Fortunately, the cookware industry has taken note, and you can find stainless steel cookware with a copper or aluminum core.

As you would before you enter any committed relationship, take a moment to learn about the past of your prospective cookware. When it comes to the environmental impacts of mining and refining its raw materials, cast iron is the least damaging cookware material, followed by stainless steel and copper.  Aluminum has the most environmentally dubious past and is a worse conductor than copper, making copper-cored stainless steel a better option than aluminum-cored stainless steel.

With all that information, who’s on the winner’s podium? Cast iron gets the gold, but stainless steel (with a copper core) gets a respectable silver medal. Check out my cookware scorecard below for individual rankings in each category. Note that there is an additional cookware category: carbon steel. Carbon steel is similar to traditional cast iron, but tends to be more reactive and less nonstick than cast iron. Furthermore, carbon steel heats up slowly and doesn’t retain its heat, hence its poor fuel efficiency rating.  Carbon steel isn’t a bad choice, but it certainly does not make the top two.

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Sara Kolarik completed her Bachelor of Science degree in Earth Systems in 2016.

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