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 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. This page has a good summary of the issues.

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.