What Does Non-Toxic Cookware Even Mean?

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a variety of cookware on a stovetop
Serious Eats / Grace Kelly

If you’ve been worried about PFAs, a.k.a. per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, you’re not alone. Known colloquially as “forever chemicals,” there’s evidence they can cause a myriad of health (and environmental) problems. But what does this have to do with cooking, you may ask? Well, it’s particularly pertinent to nonstick cookware. In the 1940s, nonstick pans entered the market with coatings produced to resist grease, oil, and water. The chemicals that made this possible fall under the umbrella of PFAS and a subset of PFAS are polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) and (perfluorooctanoic acid) PFOA, which are commonly referred to as Teflon. With new research linking these chemicals to lowering immunity in children, kidney disease, thyroid disease, and other health concerns, the use of PFOAs has been phased out of many production lines over the past decade (though this is still a work in progress). While many brands today claim their cookware is free of these chemicals, there are more coatings than just Teflon, so even if your sparkly new nonstick pan says that it’s PTFE- or PFOA-free, it may still contain another chemical from the PFAS family.

But many people also really love nonstick pans (we get it, they’re great for scrambled eggs!). What’s a cook to do then? The good news is, there are a myriad of alternatives to nonstick that are non-toxic—including ceramic pans—let’s dive in.

What Does Non-Toxic Cookware Mean?

An overhead view of many of the cast iron skillets in this test, before they were used to cook anything.
Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

Non-toxic cookware is any cookware made without the use of nonstick coatings, like PFAS. This means any cookware that is made of stainless steel, cast iron, or carbon steel—essentially any cookware that doesn’t have a coating—are the least toxic products available on the market. While there may be more of a learning curve when using these types of cookware, you’ll likely have less to worry about in the long run when it comes to health and environmental hazards.

Is Ceramic Cookware Non-Toxic?

Ceramic cookware is often offered as a non-toxic option for cooks who want a nonstick pot or pan. Instead of coating it with chemicals, ceramic pots and pans are coated with thin layers of silica, which is made from sand. This creates a smooth, impervious surface that is “nonstick.” While they’re generally free of PFOA or PTFE, they might falter when it comes to durability. In order to keep ceramic cookware in good condition, it’s important to cook at the suggested temperatures, avoid temperature shocks (like putting a scalding hot pan under cold water), and never use metal utensils on the surface. In our nonstick vs. ceramic skillets deep dive, we simply couldn’t land on one side or the other as being better; at the end of the day, ceramic cookware isn’t perfect, but it could ease concerns about off-gassing or chemical migration.

The Best Non-Toxic Cookware 

When you’re looking at non-toxic cookware without any coating, your best choices include stainless steel, (enameled) cast iron, or carbon steel. The good news is, these are all already pots and pans we’ve tested, recommend, and use on a daily basis.

If you’re looking for a great all-rounder of a skillet, the Made In 12-Inch Stainless Steel Skillet (or 10-inch if you’re cooking for a smaller household) came out on top in our testing. It had impeccably even heating and was comfortable to hold and maneuver. Stainless steel isn’t nonstick in the same way that a nonstick skillet is, so it can take some getting used to if you’re new to it. To prevent sticking, we recommend heating the skillet over high heat before adding oil, then adding your food once the oil is shimmering. 

Key Specs

  • ​​Price at time of publish: $99
  • Compatible with induction cooktops: Yes
  • Oven-safe temperature: Up to 800°F
  • Material: 18/10 stainless steel
  • Warranty: 1-year (Made In also offers a 45-day trial period)
  • Dishwasher-safe: Yes, but hand-washing is recommended
Made-In's stainless-steel skillet

A trusty 4-quart saucepan is a requirement for any home kitchen. Whether you’re making caramel or cooking rice, we recommend the Zwilling Spirit 3-Ply Stainless Steel 4-Quart Saucepan, which performed best in all of our tests. It conducted heat well and evenly without hotspots. Plus, the handle stayed cool even during the water boiling test. 

Key Specs

  • Price at time of publish: $100
  • Weight: 5.2 pounds
  • Induction compatible: Yes
  • Oven-safe temperature: 400°F
  • Also available in: 1, 2- and 3-quart sizes
A stainless steel saucepan on a marble countertop
Serious Eats / Irvin Lin

For large quantities of stock or soup, you’ll want something big enough to hold everything comfortably while cooking it beautifully. From our tests of 19 stock pots, the Cuisinart 12-Quart Stockpot came out on top. It heated and browned food evenly without burning. Plus, it sports comfortable, wide handles that make it easy to carry. While we think a 12-quart stockpot offers plenty of room already, if you’re looking for something bigger, the Tramontina 16-Quart Gourmet Stainless Steel Covered Stock Pot was as our favorite mega-sized pot.

Key Specs

  • Price at time of publish: $110
  • Weight: 9 pounds
  • Induction compatible: Yes
  • Oven-safe temperature: 550°F
  • Also available in: 8-quart
Cuisinart stockpot

Having a wide, flat cooking surface and vertical sides comes in handy when you’re shallow-frying meatballs or braising chicken thighs—instances where you don’t want the oil or liquids ending up on you instead of on your dinner. After testing nine saute pans, we found the Made In Stainless Clad 3.5-Qt. Saute Pan and All-Clad D3 Tri-Ply 3-Quart Stainless Steel Sauté Pan were the best performers of the bunch. Both had great heat responsiveness and comfortable handles, making for an overall high-quality cooking experience.

Key Specs

  • Price at time of publish: $149 (Made In); $180 (All-Clad)
  • Weight (with lid on): 4 pounds (Made In); 4.5 pounds (All-Clad)
  • Induction compatible: Yes (both)
  • Oven-safe temperature: 800°F (Made In); 600°F (All-Clad)
the Made In saute pan on a marble surface
The Made In sauté pan.Serious Eats / Jesse Raub

If you’re on the hunt for an entire set of stainless steel (which is, gasp, non-toxic!) cookware, our review of 18 stainless cookware sets identified the All-Clad D3 10-Piece Cookware Set as the top pick. Every piece in this set performed well and was easy to clean.

Key Specs

  • Price at time of publish: $600
  • Number of pieces: 10
  • What’s included: 8- and 10-inch fry pans, 2-quart saucepan with lid, 3-quart sauté pan with lid, 3-quart saucepan with lid, 8-quart stockpot with lid
  • Materials: Tri-ply stainless steel with aluminum core
  • Dishwasher-safe: Yes
  • Induction compatible: Yes
Tested 18 Cookware Sets
Serious Eats / Russell Kilgore

Don’t be intimidated by cast iron. This type of cookware lasts for generations and is actually pretty low-maintenance once you understand how it works. We tested 22 cast iron skillets and the Lodge Pre-Seasoned Cast Iron Skillet came out as the winner. This skillet has been a staple in the Serious Eats test kitchen for years—and for good reason. It’s durable, comfortable to handle, and affordable. Plus, cast iron becomes more naturally nonstick over time as it gets more use and becomes seasoned. 

Key Specs

  • Price at time of publish: $21
  • Weight: 5 pounds, 8.5 ounces
  • Cooking surface: 8.25 inches
  • Comes pre-seasoned: Yes
  • Induction compatible: Yes
a cast iron skillet on a marble surface
Serious Eats / Joy Kim

Enameled dutch ovens are another fantastic option for non-toxic cookware, especially when it comes to stews, braises, chilis, and ragùs. They are usually made with steel or cast iron and coated with enamel, which protects the cast iron from rusting and makes the cooking surface somewhat nonstick. In our test of 20 enameled Dutch ovens, the Le Creuset cast iron Dutch oven came out on top. There wasn’t an excessive amount of sticking when cooking with the Le Creuset model and the longevity is proven in our own use of Le Creuset products in the test kitchen and at home.

Key Specs

  • Price at time of publish: $420
  • Dimensions: 10.25 by 6.25 inches
  • Weight: 11.4 pounds
  • Capacity: 5.5 quarts
  • Cooking surface: 7.8 inches
  • Induction compatible: Yes
  • Warranty: Lifetime
  • Care instructions: Dishwasher-safe, though we recommend hand-washing
Closeup of grey Le Creuset Dutch oven
Serious Eats / Emily Dryden

While ceramic skillets are not *truly* nonstick (that is, they don’t contain chemicals), they get pretty darn close. This. pan from BulbHead fared well in our tests, easily releasing over-easy eggs and omelets. However, it did lose some of its slick nature after our durability tests (which were done by scratching the surface with steel wool and a metal spatula, to mimic cleaning and everyday use). But, overall, it’s a solid non-toxic choice at a good price.

Key Specs

  • Maximum oven temperature: 500℉
  • Induction compatible: No
  • Cooking surface diameter: 7 1/4 inches
  • Weight: 1 lb, 7 oz
  • Care instructions: Handwash-only
A ceramic nonstick skillet sitting on a white countertop
Serious Eats / Donna Currie

From fried eggs to steaks to cornbread, the enameled Staub 10-Inch Fry Pan outperformed all other enameled skillets during our tests. It reached the highest temperature the fastest and held a consistent temperature across the cooking surface. Plus, it’s rated for 900°F, making it safe to throw into your pizza oven if you need to. The enameled surface is also somewhat naturally nonstick. 

Key Specs

  • Price at time of publish: $195
  • Weight: 4 lbs, 15 oz
  • Diameter: 10 inches
  • Cooking surface diameter: 8.25 inches
  • Max Heat: 900°F
  • Care Instructions: Dishwasher-safe (though we’d recommend hand-washing to preserve its longevity).
staub skillet on marble countertop
Serious Eats / Taylor Murray

We consider a dependable carbon steel wok an essential piece of cookware. We tested 10 popular models and found that the Yosukata Carbon Steel Wok Pan gets the job done reliably and easily. During our tests, fried rice and vegetables slid smoothly across the surface without sticking.

Key Specs

  • Price at time of publish: $61
  • Weight: 3 lb, 8 oz
  • Lip-to-lip Diameter: 13.5 inches
  • Depth: 3.75 inches
  • Sizes: Also available in an 11.8-inch size
  • Note: The wok comes with a protective film of oil on the surface. Be sure to scrub this film off prior to seasoning or cooking.
Yosukata wok.
Serious Eats / Tim Chin

A cousin to cast iron, carbon steel cookware is a mixture of carbon and iron. Carbon steel pans are significantly thinner, lighter, and more responsive to temperature changes. After testing 13 carbon steel pans, we identified the Mauviel M’Steel as the best. Once it was thoroughly seasoned, this pan performed well in all our tests and offered a substantial amount of surface area for cooking large batches of food. It even made and released fantastic crepes, which are notoriously difficult (and sticky!). 

Key Specs

  • Price at time of publish: $70
  • Weight: 3 lbs, 3 ounces
  • Cooking surface diameter: 8 1/2 inches
  • Care: Hand wash-only
  • Induction compatible: Yes
lineup of carbon steel skillets on a white surface
Serious Eats / Taylor Murray

FAQs

What are the pros and cons of non-toxic cookware?

Non-toxic cookware doesn’t have chemicals that are found in traditional nonstick cookware, such as PFOA or PTFE, making them generally safer to use without fear of off-gassing and overall health or environmental impact. However, because non-toxic cookware—such as stainless steel, cast iron, or carbon steel—doesn’t have a nonstick coating, more care is necessary to keep them in good shape. For example, cast iron and carbon steel must go through a seasoning process before you’ll see nonstick properties with them. While some come pre-seasoned, it’s important to know how to best take care of them to keep the seasoning. See our pieces on how to season carbon steel and how to care for cast iron for more detailed guidance.

Is stainless steel cookware non-toxic? 

Yes, stainless cookware is non-toxic since it doesn’t have a coating. Therefore, you don’t have to worry about chemicals like PFOA or PTFE when cooking with it.

Is there anything I should avoid with cast iron and carbon steel cookware?

Yes, we recommend that you don’t cook acidic foods in cast iron and carbon steel for an extended amount of time (such as a low-and-slow simmered tomato sauce) since it could eat away at the seasoning.


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