What pan should I use?

A colleague asked me yesterday if I knew the best type of pan to use to minimise ingestion of toxins – she’d just found out that stainless steel pans have nickel content and that there have been health scares associated with nickel.

Quite how problematic the amounts of nickel ingested actually are is open to debate – a plausible study (since disappeared) on nickelinstitute.org found that even in the worst case scenario of boiling acidic liquids for long periods (making chutney, since you ask), the amount of nickel leached was often below detectable levels and never anywhere near levels that would give concern.

But just because The Man says we shouldn’t be concerned doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be concerned and I didn’t really know the answer to my colleague’s question, so I thought I’d have a quick look at the options and issues.

The first thing to note is that cooking over a flame pretty much requires the use of metal in order to withstand the direct heat. There’s likely to be some release of metal into food, especially when the pan is brand new or getting older and scratched. Higher temperatures and higher acidity will exacerbate that process. So you want to make sure your exposure is to less harmful metals, hence the move away from aluminium pans.

You can coat the metal internally in another substance, but in the case of non-stick coatings the substance can in health terms be worse than the metal – out of the frying pan and into the … ummm, you know what I mean. This page has a useful summary of the different materials and their risks. Good quality enamel comes out well (good quality as you don’t want it to chip and hence expose the underlying metal) but pans that are enamelled internally are often small milk and sauce pans. However Le Creuset‘s cast iron range uses and enamelled interior so I guess there must be others as well.

Stanless steel is an alloy, and pans will almost exclusively use 18% chromium content stainless steel. Nickel is used to add even more rust protection and to make the steel harder and shinier. Typically 8% or 10% nickel is used and so you might see references to 18/8 or 18/10 stainless steel. Stainless steel without nickel content is hence 18/0. You can get 18/0 steel pans but they won’t be as shiny and might be subject to rust spotting so will need more looking after and might not last as long. But they’ll probably be quite cheap as 18/0 is considered lower grade.

Another alternative is carbon steel. Carbon steel, blue steel, and black steel are all names for steel which been alloyed only with cafrbon. Advantages are that it’s generally inert, suitable for very high temperatures and relatively inexpensive. Disadvantages are that it will be slow to heat up, have poor heat distribution and will rust if not seasoned and then looked after. It might sound like the disavantages far outweigh any other considerations, but for frying and crepe pans they don’t matter as much. DeBuyer are one of the popular brands for steel pans, and I do in fact have two of their frying pans currently unused at home. I’m just waiting for the courage (and potato peelings) to season and start using them.

Jeremy Leggett at Sunrise Celebration

Sunday at the Sunrise Celebration was dedicated to the Transition movement and there were talks around the issues of permaculture, peak oil and transition towns. Jeremy Leggett, the chairman of Solarcentury, gave a talk on peak oil (which we didn’t see) and then one on solar energy, which we did manage to catch.

There are some interesting things happening in the world of solar energy. It’s now expected that the cost of solar energy will match the cost of fossil fuel energy by 2013 and will then continue to fall. This is being driven by various factors, notably increased efficiency in the manufacture of the materials needed for panels and the panels themselves, and economies of scale as larger manufacturers come into the market. The efficiencies also mean that modern PV panels will pay back their energy (as opposed to financial) cost in less than two years.

At the same time, companies such as Shell and BP are pulling out of the renewables arena and in the UK, EDF and E.On are recommending a nuclear strategy to the government. Expect to see their PR departments aiming their guns at solar and other renewable technologies. There’s an illuminating Financial Times article by Jeremy on this.

The UK government is also planning to introduce a feed-in tariff scheme, whereby surplus renewable energy is sold back to the grid at a premium thereby encouraging uptake and helping to offset the initial cost. The exact details of the scheme will dictate its success and Jeremy has some strong ideas, as you’d expect from somebody in the industry that stands to benefit. But they do seem like sensible and sustainable ideas, and he came across as an approachable and committed man at the head of a company that’s trying to do the right thing.