This article is focused on helping you choose safe and suitable cookware for using on the stovetop. If you frequent the oil-free plant-based communities, there are often many suggestions on what to use. Many plant-based community members mention using ceramic cookware, but some of it is not safe - what type should you get? And what is the deal with modern non-stick cookware: should it be used? This article will help get you started on what cookware to use with your stove.
The common theme is it is best to invest in quality pieces, but you only need a couple and they will probably last forever if you care for them properly. Read on for the various types of cookware are available, and this will help you narrow down your research as you search for a couple pieces of cookware that will (probably) last a lifetime.
Using Stainless steel for oil-free recipes
Quality stainless steel is a safe alternative to many potentially unsafe cookware options (see below for more information on what to avoid). This is what we most often use, partially because we were handed down some very high quality stainless steel pots and pans.
Quality stainless steel cookware is not inexpensive cookware to purchase, but if you purchase a quality piece it will last a very long time (the pieces we received were all purchased in the 80s, and are still in perfect condition despite heavy use their entire lives).
Is it all created equal, though? There are inexpensive stainless steel pots and pans that may risk your health due to contaminants. This article outlines some of the tests you can do that might help you figure out if you have a good piece of cookware, or something that may contaminate your meals.
You do want to look for a 18/10 or 18/8 grade stainless steel, which indicates a higher quality product. Stainless steel is mixed with other types of metal to aid with conductivity and reactivity. You will want to also look for cookware that is in the "300" series, which is again higher quality. This is important to consider so you do not end up with a product containing contaminants that could leach into your food.
Stainless steel is not a non-stick surface, so you do need to use either water or broth to keep the food from sticking. However, after you cook the food for awhile, you can allow the liquid to evaporate and you can brown the contents if you wish. It is harder to clean, but there is also no coating that can be chipped or scraped (or carry additional contamination concerns).
This section is only concerning non-coated stainless steel. Note that there are many "non-stick" coated stainless steel pots and pans available. These non-stick products carry some of the same potential risks of any other non-stick pot or pan, but a high quality stainless steel with a safe coating that does not carry contamination risk could be a very good option if you research the product and manufacturer carefully. Keep reading for more information about materials to consider, and those to avoid.
Cook oil-free recipes with cast iron and enameled cast iron
Cast iron is a tried and true cookware option that will last a lifetime. Cast iron is offered bare, or with an enameled coating. Both of these are solid additions to your kitchen. In a nutshell, cooking with bare cast iron will add iron to your diet, and enameled cast iron will not add iron. Enameled cast iron doesn't need to be seasoned, and your food will not stick, as long as the surface is smooth.
Both of these options are very heavy! You will get a bit of a workout moving them around the kitchen, especially if you are working with a very large pot.
A cast iron cooking surface needs to be seasoned, which refers to a chemical reaction involving oil and the cooking surface at high heat. You season the surface before you cook with it. Seasoning creates a hard and protective coating that you then proceed to cook on (without further oil). The oil creates this surface by a reaction called polymerization, and this protects the metal and makes it non-stick. Don't scrub the cast iron though, or cook something acidic on it, or you will lose that protective coating.
We have well-seasoned and very old cast iron that we do not need to re-season (yet), which works well for cooking without adding oil. Does any of the polymerized former-oil transmit back into the food? I am not sure, as I have yet to come across reliable information. If any oil does come off that surface and is in a chemical format that affects my health, it's (personally) not enough to worry me too much because we rarely use our skillet and it's unlikely much (if any?) bonded, polymerized oil ends up back in the food provided how long it has been there through low-fat cooking.
But this is a note that you may want to do your personal research if you cook with the surface a lot, or a small amount of oil is a concern. Please share if you have found a reliable resource - so far I have found pages like this, but nothing that answers the question much less reliably sourced. It would be nice to know, and also understand a bit more about polymerized oil, because the best pressed and marinated tofu I ever made was baked on a cast iron skillet.
The alternative is to just go with an enameled cast-iron product instead (we use enameled cast iron much more often).
Enameled cast iron does not require seasoning, and is also non-stick. You may not get some of the browning properties of uncoated products, you wouldn't get any iron. Which might be your preference anyway. Enamel coating is known to be safe to cook on, it doesn't leech contaminants, it's heat resistant. These products also last an incredibly long time. They do however take longer to heat up to temperature, and you do need to make sure you care for them properly (utensils and so on).
A commonly known brand of quality enameled cast iron is Le Creuset. I have many pieces of hand me down cookware from the early 70s that is still in perfect condition (and other pieces I've purchased myself in recent years). These are hand-me-down style pieces.
Using ceramic for oil-free vegan cooking
Quality ceramic is an often recommended as an excellent surface for oil free cooking, Mary McDougall mentions ceramic pans in her presentations and resources about oil-free cooking, however there are many products that are not safe.
So what products are safe, and what ones are not? You really need to know a lot about your source and purchase pans made from a reputable manufacturer, and this could be quite hard to find or trust. A quality piece will certainly increase the price, but it also increases your chance of purchasing a safe product. Less reputable manufacturers use heavy metals like cadmium and lead during manufacturing, and while they can work, it can also lead to an unsafe product. There could be problems in particular if you scratch the coating, and access unsafe metals beneath the ceramic coating.
What to look for:
Purchase 100% ceramic cookware that does not contain any lead in the ceramic glaze. Mary McDougall mentions ScanPan as a preferred brand, but do your due diligence on the latest information regarding any brand, where they are manufactured, and what is used during manufacturing and in both coatings and the cookware base (the pan itself).
For whatever brand you land on, make sure you perform thorough research online and with the manufacturer to ensure that the product alleviates your own safety concerns.
Baking oil-free recipes in glass cookware - and MORE
We use glass for both storage and baking, or heating something up. It does not absorb any odors, is relatively easy to clean, does not have any potentially-toxic coatings so it doesn't leach into your stored food, inexpensive, and lasts a long time as long as you don't drop it (and often even if you do!).
There are more types of cookware than listed here. There is also stoneware, silicone, enamel on steel, and more. I'm also not covering some other considerations, such as what kind of insert your slow cooker might have. Have you learned about a reliable and safe cookware option? Let us know in the comments!
What sizes and types of cookware to buy?
You do not need to buy a full set of cookware to do oil-free cooking. You will only need to get a couple pans, and what you need is based not only on what you tend to cook but some of the other appliances you have.
For example, if you do a lot of cooking in a slow cooker / Crock Pot and an Instant Pot, then you probably don't need to get a particularly large pot. You might only need to get a smaller fry pan, and a smaller stock pot.
And you should also make sure you watch what some of the appliances are made of. For example, if you invest in a steamer, that digital pressure cooker, or a crock pot, make sure you check out what kind of coating the parts that touch your food are made out of. We often use a stainless steel inner pot in our Instant Pot, which is probably quite safe.
What cookware should you avoid?
There are several types of cookware that have problems with toxicity, and there is a wealth of information available on this topic.
In a nutshell: One of the things you probably want to avoid is teflon, or other products using a chemical in the PFC class of chemicals. Teflon has historically used a manmade chemical called PFOA (Perfluorooctanoic acid) during the manufacturing process, which is known to be a carcinogen and may lead to other developmental and health outcomes (such as "teflon flu" and dead birds). Since 2015, this chemical has been reduced during manufacturing, but has led to the rise in similar chemicals within the same class as PFOA that may be found in other non-stick products.
Some of the PFC classed chemicals are in newer products, and there has been less study of their possible affects on health. Until we know more, it may be wise to avoid these products as well. This means avoiding cookware or other products with "PTFE" or "fluoro" coatings. This also means avoiding certain kinds of outerwear, and food product packaging.
Problems were said to exist if you overheat these non-stick cookware products, as it releases harmful fumes; however, it was also discovered that harmful fumes were released well before overheating. And are even fatal to birds. Therefore, products using these non-stick coatings are probably best to avoid.
Aluminum cookware should also be avoided (and should also be avoided for storing, wrapping, or cooking food). Aluminum is known to accumulate in the body, and cause a number of problems. For example, more recently it has been linked to diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Therefore, you may want to avoid aluminum for cooking and storing food whenever possible. There are some similar concerns with copper cookware leaching potentially toxic contaminants that bioaccumulate, so you may want to research either kind of material if you have this in your cupboard and plan to use it.
Lastly, "Recycled" or green cookware is troublesome, as it may contain a variety of metals you don't know about (as they are sometimes all combined into one product). It may be best to avoid these products due to potential contaminants that leech into your food when heated up.
Do you have other types of cookware that you are avoiding? Let us know in the comments, and if you can, let us know why!
Baking stuff instead
If something is prone to sticking, and doesn't work well with water or broth in the bottom of a pan, we will often bake it instead often with a silicone based pan liner (or parchment if silicone is not suitable) in a glass pan.
Tips for finding a deal
If you know of a reputable brand, also watch for what might turn up in a thrift store. I found a reputable brand ceramic 12 inch fry pan in the thrift store, like-new condition, for under $10CDN. So keep an eagle eye out at your local used stores.
Also watch online marketplaces, such as Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, Kijiji, and so on. You can search from the comfort of home, and possibly find a good deal.
Getting rid of your old cookware
Are you upgrading your pans to something safer? Or have scratched up pans to get rid of? Call your local recycling depot to learn about your options. You may be able to bring your old cookware to the recycle depot, or they may have suggestions of a scrap metal yard that salvages the products you have that you could take your cookware to.