If I Could Relive My Life and Buy Pots and Pans for the First Time

Perhaps your concern over plastic pollution choking our oceans inspired you to reduce your waste. Or maybe pics of glass jars of food popping up all over Instagram piqued your curiosity. Or you simply may have wanted to eliminate your exposure to harmful chemicals.

These roads all lead to the same destination—a more natural lifestyle. And I use the word natural as in “existing in nature” and not as in “all-natural ingredients” plastered on a package of hotdogs

One question I hear regularly is “What kinds of pots and pans do you recommend?” The short answer is pretty much anything but Teflon. The long answer is, if you already have a kitchen filled with Teflon-coated pots and pans, it’s difficult to replace those overnight. But if you do want to replace them one piece at a time—or will soon buy pots and pans for the first time—I have some suggestions.

A crash course in P acronyms

You have no doubt heard of PFCs. According to the EPA website,

Scientists use ‘PFCs’ as an abbreviation for two distinct but related sets of chemicals […]

‘PFCs’ can be an abbreviation for either:

•   perfluorinated chemicals, or

•   a subset of perfluorinated chemicals called perfluorocarbons.”

I’ll discuss the former in this blog post.

Perfluorinated chemicals render carpets stain resistant, mattresses more waterproof and cookware non-stick. These compounds include the toxic chemicals perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), which is no longer produced in the US, and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), which will soon follow suit.¹ Unfortunately, these chemicals linger in the environment long after their manufacture ceases.²

Until 2015, the manufacture of non-stick Teflon—a brand name for polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE)—required PFOA in its production. What does Chemours Co, the Dupont spinoff that produces Teflon, now use instead? I had trouble figuring out that p-p-puzzle.

But why ditch Teflon?

1. Because the safety of PFOA, PFOS, PTFE and PFCs is confusing and who can keep all of these acronyms straight anyway?

When my daughter MK questioned the health concerns of PFCs in food packaging and non-stick coatings on her blog The Plastic-Free Chef in 2012, a representative from DuPont left a comment to clarify her supposed confusion…

Do you feel reassured?

To which MK responded…


To which I responded, “MK, you have arrived.”

When replacing chemicals with other chemicals, the replacements often may be no better than the originals—or even worse. Take the endocrine disruptor BPA (Bisphenol-A) for example, a chemical added to plastic to strengthen it. Many companies switched to BPS when studies linked BPA “to early puberty and a rise in breast and prostate cancers.” However, “UCLA-led research demonstrates some of the mechanisms that make BPS just as harmful as BPA. The study found that BPS speeds up embryonic development and disrupts the reproductive system in animals.”³

2. Because DuPont, a chemical company, created the stuff

According to Reuters, in 2017, DuPont and Chemours Co

agreed to pay $671 million in cash to settle thousands of lawsuits involving a leak of a toxic chemical used to make Teflon […] The companies settled about 3,550 personal injury claims arising from the leak of perfluorooctanoic acid, which is also known as PFOA or C-8, from its plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia. The leak allegedly contaminated local water supplies and has been linked to six diseases, including testicular and kidney cancers.”

3. Because Teflon kills birds

When heated, Teflon-coated cookware releases fumes that can kill birds in minutes. If you have pet birds, move them to another room when cooking with Teflon-coated cookware, using an element lined underneath with Teflon-coated drip pans or using a toaster oven with a non-stick interior.

4. Because Teflon-coated pans don’t last

If one person in your household so much as flips a pancake with a metal spatula in your non-stick pan, they may chip or scratch it. Damage the coating enough and you’ll no longer want to use it—it eventually not only loses its non-stick properties but also garnishes your food with little Teflon flakes. But don’t worry. Because PTFE is inert, it should pass right through you. Sounds appetizing.

Some pans will last you a lifetime and become heirlooms you pass down to your children. Teflon pans, not so much.

5. Because we need fat in our diets and fat tastes good

People cook with non-stick pans not only because they clean easily but also because they require little to no fat—that macronutrient demonized and banished from diets beginning in the late ‘70s, after which people grew unhealthier. According to Harvard Medical School, fat is

a major source of energy. It helps you absorb some vitamins and minerals. It’s needed to build cell membranes, the vital exterior of each cell, and the sheaths surrounding nerves. It is essential for blood clotting, muscle movement, and inflammation. For long-term health, some fats are better than others. Good fats include monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Bad ones include industrial-made trans fats. Saturated fats fall somewhere in the middle.”

My three favorite kinds of pots and pans

Whether you want to replace your Teflon pots and pans or buy your first pieces, you don’t need to rush out and buy an entire set of pots and pans. Picking and choosing a piece here and there, you’ll assemble a smaller set you’ll like and use and probably save money.

All Clad pots and pans

3. Stainless steel

I use my stainless steel saucepans to prepare pasta and rice, poach things, make soup, steam vegetables, pop popcorn (a food group for zero wasters) and more. I have All Clad pots and pans.

Disadvantages: All Clad pots and pans are expensive. My neighbor has similar Cuisinart stainless steel pots. They cost much less and have earned good reviews from America’s Test Kitchen.

To clean: For greasy or stuck on food, I sprinkle baking soda onto my pots and pans and scrub with a sponge. Baking soda works like magic on stainless steel.

Large and small Le Creuset Dutch ovens

2. Le Creuset enameled cast iron

I love, love, love my large, 6 3/4 quart Le Creuset Dutch oven. I use it to bake sourdough bread and to make soup, stew, chili, baked beans, refried beans, dal, sauces…all sorts of food. Dutch ovens can go from the stove top to the oven and retain their heat extremely well. After I make dinner, my pot keeps the food hot on the table while other dishes finish cooking or as everyone dilly dallies on their way to the table.

A neighbor also gave me two smaller Le Creuset pots and one pan. He disliked the heavy weight. I use the 2-quart one to make smaller amounts of food and to reheat food. Because these pots retain heat, this small also one doubles as a yogurt maker, keeping my milk warm as it cultures in a toasty spot in my kitchen. (Click here for the post on making yogurt.)

Disadvantages: If you want your dish to stop cooking immediately after you turn off the heat, enameled cast iron isn’t a good choice for that dish—it retains heat a little too well in this case. Another disadvantage is the price. My Le Creuset Dutch oven costs over $300 new. My daughter has a Cuisinart Dutch oven that cost a third of that. She likes it and uses it constantly. Enameled cast iron is also very heavy. When I describe the dishes I make in my large pot to my mother, she always says she would like one. But at 86 years old, she would not be able to lift it, empty or full.

To clean: With its near no-stick interior, enameled cast iron cleans up very easily. Usually a soapy sponge or brush will do the trick. For baked on food, let it soak overnight. Do not use steel wool to clean. Speaking of metal, don’t use metal utensils either. They will scratch the enamel.

Rusty and sad (left) and seasoned and happy (right)

1. Cast iron

Cast iron is practically indestructible. It can withstand the flames of a campfire. If you neglect it, you can pretty easily revive it. And it actually improves every time you use it.

Before you cook with cast iron for the first time, you have to season it. Simply clean it, coat it with oil inside and out, wipe the excess off and heat the pan in the oven at 450°F for 30 minutes. Repeat this a couple of times. This will form a hard layer on your pan. Each time you use the pan, cooking seasons it yet again. Use the pan enough and you’ll render the surface non-stick—without the nasty chemicals. And the pan will last forever. The large Dutch oven in the pic down below is about 100 years old.

I have a Lodge cast-iron skillet that I use every day. I own two All Clad stainless steel skillets and one Le Creuset skillet but I prefer my simple—and inexpensive—cast-iron skillet. A large one costs at most about $40. If your pan gets some rust on it, clean it with a potato and salt. (Read this post for more information on maintaining and reviving cast iron.)

I use my skillet to make pancakes, fried eggs, omelets, panfries and fried potato peels, grilled cheese sandwiches, cornbread, tamale pie, apple pie, fruit crumbles, frittata… It’s extremely versatile.

Disadvantages: Cast iron is heavy. Until you have added a good seasoning to it, you can’t cook acidic foods in cast iron, such as tomatoes and sauces.

To clean: Despite the rumors, cast iron is easy to clean. I wipe my skillet clean with a sponge or cloth after the pan has cooled down. I rarely use soap.

So if I had to relive my life and choose pots and pans for the first time, what would I get? I’d start with a large cast-iron skillet, a cast-iron Dutch oven (plain or enameled if you want to spring for it) and a stainless steel saucepan. I never would have bought all those Teflon-coated pans that I used to own long ago.

You can often find cast iron at thrift stores and yard sales. Many people freak out when they see a bit of rust on their cast iron and, not knowing how to clean it, ditch their pans. Grab those and ditch the Teflon.

  1. https://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/materials/perflourinated_chemicals_508.pdf
  2. https://www.treehugger.com/environmental-policy/what-you-need-know-about-pfoa-and-pfos-chemicals-behind-pruitts-recent-epa-scandal.html
  3. http://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/chemical-used-to-replace-bpa-in-plastic-accelerates-embryonic-development-disrupts-reproductive-system

30 Replies to “If I Could Relive My Life and Buy Pots and Pans for the First Time”

  1. This is so useful and timely – my one non stick pot, bought for making oatmeal in, is now dinged and I’m going to have to chuck it. Any tips for getting porridge out of a steel pot?

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Hi Katy, I find that if I soak grains like oats or rice for several hours before I make them in my stainless steel pots, they slip out of the pot more easily and don’t leave much of that sticky residue behind. I hope that helps. ~ Anne Marie

  2. Good information. Except the oversimplification regarding fats. We don’t need a lot of fat in our diet. Saturated fats should be avoided, and most vegetable oils are unhealthy when subjected to high heat. Palm oil is, of course, terrible for the planet. In other words, be judicious in your use of fats in cooking.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      That a whole other post! We never eat or buy palm oil. And it’s in so much processed food. Another good reason to cook your own dinner.

  3. At 64 I can not remember a time that I used anything but cast iron or stainless steel. Some of my cast iron is from the late 1800’s.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Hi Rich, I wish I could say the same—that those are all I have ever used and that they date from the 1800s!. I was seduced my the non-stick surfaces (and actually, those pots and pans were gifts) in the 90s. I love my stainless steel and cast iron. ~ Anne Marie

  4. I love love love this post! As always, it was beautifully written and I truly appreciate the references cited.

    In agreement with Katy, this is quite timely for me, as well 🙂 We are slowly replacing our college-given Teflon pans and fixing/replacing our stainless steel pots with plastic handles. I have no argument to keeping pots and pans with plastic handles, but am also seeking something that can withstand grilling and car camping; cast iron sounds like the way to go. Thank you for the recommendations!

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thank you Julie. Cast iron can handle grilling and car camping and clunking around in the trunk of your car en route to the camp site 😉 ~ Anne Marie

  5. Thank you for this post! We have been trying to decide on a replacement for our non-stick pan ever since it lost its handle in a rather unfortunate incident involving a very hot frittata. I noticed recently that you fried potatoes in a stainless steel pan and was wondering how you manage to prevent them from sticking to the pan entirely? I’m guessing the answer involves more fat than I would like to hear, but I’ll ask anyway 🙂

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Hi Maike, Well at least there is a non-Teflon lining in your frittata incident of a cloud. I usually use my cast iron skillet for fried potatoes and I would recommend that instead. If you don’t have cast iron, you’re right, you’ll need a lot of fat for your stainless steel skillet. It’s also messier. But baking soda will work wonders cleaning up the pan. If I had to choose between a cast iron skillet and stainless steel, I would go for the cast iron. Not that stainless steel is anything to pooh pooh. ~ Anne Marie

  6. Great post. I was scared of cast iron for far too long simply because of people talking about how difficult it was to maintain .So wrong! I love my cast iron pan and find it extremely easy to use a different clean once you just jump in and give it a try. I, too, use a stainless steel pot and will never go back to the yucky Teflon pots and pans we once owned. 🤦

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Hi Marie, I felt the same way! I thought maintaining cast iron involved some sort of mysterious ritual I would never master. It’s actually easier to clean than my other pots and pans. I basically don’t clean it, I just kind of wipe it out with a wet sponge and sometimes just a dry cloth. Love my stainless steel pots too. ~ Anne Marie

      1. We may not have seasoned our correctly because we do have to scrub burned-on crud off sometimes, but it’s easy with a chain mail scrubber. I don’t think we’ve ever used soap on ours. It’s definitely easier to clean than anything else!

  7. 3 of my favorite pots/pans which I own and use religiously. All Clad, Le Creuset, and cast iron. Great article!

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thank you. Happy cooking 🙂 ~ Anne Marie

  8. Excellent post. Have shared it on my Facebook Page.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thank you!

  9. I’m with you! Cast iron and stainless steel are the only to go! We have also found pans with a ceramic interior pretty good too. Although I have not (yet ) researched to learn how safe they really are. Have you ever tried them?

  10. I am from India and we were using iron and steel pots since generation till teflon became common. Now I have so many teflon vessel but I don’t know how to get rid of them. I don’t want to throw it away. Do you have any idea on repurposing it?

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Hi Ambily, I don’t have a great solution for that. We went through the same thing when I replaced my pots and pans and slowly purged the kitchen of plastic. I have read that you can get the coating sandblasted off (here’s a link on that https://home.howstuffworks.com/green-living/recycle-teflon-cookware.htm). Some recycling programs that accept scrap metal will accept non-stick pans but not all of them do. I would check with your local recycling department. ~ Anne Marie

  11. I ruined my cast iron the 2 times I attempted owning them, but I’ve had the same stainless steel for 8 years. I got them for $75 at a Black Friday sale at 4am with my Mom. I plan to keep them forever and highly recommend them!

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Wow! That’s a great deal! And they sound like good quality pans.

    2. I’m curious as to how you ruined your cast iron? I’ve been using it for years and still watch for old pieces in thrift stores. When I get one that has a lot of built-up crud on it, I bury it in the coals of a good campfire and let it stay overnight and in the morning clean it up and oil it and start making a good seasoning on it.

      1. The Zero-Waste Chef says:

        We rarely used our pans and left them in the oven, neglected. They were pretty easy to clean up though. Thanks for the tips.

  12. My favorite cast iron pieces are my skillet griddles.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      I’d love a cast iron griddle! 😍😍😍

  13. Great post! I have slowly accumulated a dutch oven and cast iron pan and use them for everything. I’m just waiting to find my cast iron waffle maker in a thrift store one day.
    The information regarding oils in this post is a little outdated, (you may want to check (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LbtwwZP4Yfs)

  14. My parents bought me a nice set of Cuisinart stainless steel pots and pans when I was in college 15 years, ago, and they’re still great. A couple have dents, but that just gives them character. 😉 I’ve picked up a large and a small cast iron skillet since, and use both regularly. I DO have large nonstick electric griddle and a large pot that I love. Particularly when making fudge in the pot. I’m a chemist and have done enough research to not be terribly concerned about poisoning myself or others. I never use any metal utensils and even my non-cook husband knows not to come anywhere near either of those with metal. There are plenty of other valid ways we are poisoning ourselves in modern society. I don’t think teflon (or for that matter BPAs) are near the top of that list. Sugar, for example, kills FAR more people than just about any other ingested chemical. Just more indirectly and over a longer period of time!

  15. Very interesting article, you gotta worry about the pan too

  16. I’d like to add carbon steel as a lightweight alternative to cast iron. 🙂 I replaced my dilapidated “non-stick” pan this year and while it’s been a learning curve to season the CS and learn about cooking temperatures and stuff (and I thought I knew how to cook before! XD), I’m glad I have it. From what I can tell it has all the advantages of CI but is much lighter. It’s also more thermally efficient than non-stick pans and I can use it on a low heat and gets hot. It doesn’t retain heat as long as CI, but that’s fine for me because I mostly use it for fry-ups.

    P.S. Your blog is my favourite. 😉

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