What the heck is ceramic cookware?
A little about me: I cook a lot, mostly dinner at home for my family and friends but sometimes for massive parties of upwards of 200 people. I’ve been doing sous vide cooking since 2010. I run a food blog called Unselling Convenience (also @unsellingconvenience on Instagram if you’d rather follow along there), which is mostly an inspiration board and memory database of things I’ve enjoyed cooking and probably want to cook again. I believe that shortcuts are great, but not at the expense of quality. I administer the Everyday Sous Vide and Instant Pot Love groups on Facebook. I’ve been writing about food for a few decades and have started collecting the good stuff at https://counter.kitchen. If you buy something from one of the links, I probably get a small commission which won’t even come close to defraying the amount of money I’ve spent on these things over the years but which will make me happy anyway.
When I was growing up, there were really only two options for “nonstick” cookware — teflon (PTFE) and seasoned cast iron. With traditional metal cookware, the sayings go, you had to use a lot of oil or butter, foods may still stick, and cleanup involved a lot of scrubbing to clean up stains and burned on food. Of course it’s not quite that simple, but that’s the gist of the marketing allure of nonstick pans. Teflon, as you probably already know, has had a spotted history, whether or not it’s actually harmful to people is still up in the air (though some of the chemicals traditionally used in its manufacture are unarguably awful and some of those have been largely phased out), and the new hotness is ceramic cookware.
It’s only recently that I’ve realized that a “ceramic pan” is not a thing. Until I dug deeper into this, I thought all of the ceramic pans on the market were more or less the same thing, but they’re really not. Saying a pan is “ceramic” doesn’t actually tell you what it is or what its properties are, it’s more or less like saying it’s made of “metal”.
There is wide variation in the different materials and technologies used to make ceramic pans that have all been conflated together. As near as I can tell, there are actually at least four very different technologies in use here:
- Hard ceramic “nonstick”, e.g.: Cuisinart Ceramica, which is used in their Green Gourmet line and some Tramontina. These are very hard and durable, aren’t as nonstick as teflon, but last a really long time and are more or less safe to use with metal utensils (I have some that are more than a decade old). The only high heat warnings they come with are “you might burn your food”. These have been my preferred alternative to teflon for most things for decades. Notably, the Cuisinart Green Gourmet line has a lifetime warranty.
- The softer “sol-gel” ceramic nonstick, e.g.: Thermolon coatings used in GreenPan, and the Always Pan and Caraway use very similar coatings if they are not actually Thermolon. These are pretty much as nonstick as teflon, but are basically consumables, as some of the coating wears off every time it’s used. I’ve heard reports that the nonstick properties drop off substantially after 6–12 months of regular use. These are not safe (for the coating) to use with metal utensils or high heat. I can’t speak to the veracity of these reports, but there are definitely some critical reviews about what’s actually in these pans. The 1-year warranty that’s common for these pans certainly does not inspire confidence in their longevity.
- Hard ceramic “stick”, e.g.: the All-Clad Fusiontec. These are not intended to be nonstick at all, but they are reportedly ridiculously hard and durable. All-Clad has done a terrible job of marketing these, saying what they are, or justifying why anyone would want to buy them. They stick more than even plain stainless. In thinking about this, I’d guess Enameled Cast Iron would also fit into this same category — they are not non-stick but they have a coating meant to make cleanup and maintenance easier.
- Hybrid PTFE/Ceramic, e.g.: ScanPan Stratanium+. When I owned a ScanPan a few decades ago, it used to be a very different composition — it was pure teflon with an application on a pitted metal surface so the teflon settled into the depressions and was protected by the exposed metal but still provided some nonstick properties. Now it seems to be a teflon/titanium/ceramic hybrid. I haven’t used one of these, but this review seems to indicate that it’s more or less a more durable form of teflon.
So what’s the upshot here? It’s not entirely straightforward, so here’s my best shot:
I still do the vast majority of my cooking on metal pans, primarily a mix of stainless, carbon steel (seasoned), and wrought iron (seasoned). Everything else is a specialty pan for specific uses, typically for me that means somewhere between once a week and once a month. Some examples:
- I use some sort of nonstick pan for making scrambled eggs. Usually that’s been teflon, but more recently I’ve been using the Always Pan for this. I like it and it cooks really nicely for a lot of things that I’m now not really using it for because I don’t want to “waste” the nonstick surface. I like it, but I have to say I don’t know if I’ll replace it when it stops working well. I don’t know how long that will be using it fairly infrequently. Green Gourmet pans do an … ehhh.. okay job with scrambled eggs. Workable in a pinch but they are not my first choice.
- I use a Cuisinart Green Gourmet griddle for making pancakes. It does a stellar job without any oil or butter. This griddle is also great for all sorts of griddly things — cooking a lot of bacon, searing more than four pork chops at once, a bunch of hamburgers, etc… I bring it out every time I need more than one burner’s worth of space. For very high heat searing over two burners I use a grooved Baking Steel, but honestly not very often because it makes a lot of smoke.
- A use a large Cuisinart Green Gourmet saute pan for shallow frying fish and frying frozen dumplings, where I also need a lot of surface area. It does excellent browning but is also nonstick “enough”. This is also a great general purpose pan if you really don’t want to use stainless for some reason.
- I use a Cuisinart Green Gourmet saucepan for cooking sticky things (e.g.: fruit sauces and caramel) and scalding milk, because it’s relatively easy to clean.
- I usually use a tin-lined copper pan for fried eggs. I don’t know if I’d buy one new given how expensive they are, but I got one as a gift and I love it. My second choice if I didn’t have the copper pan would probably be a Solidteknics wrought iron pan.
In terms of exposure to unsafe materials, I think the risks are probably fairly small but maybe a little higher if you’re using these pans for everyday cooking. If you want to eliminate them as much as you can, you probably have no choice but to limit your cookware to traditional iron-derived metals. But I think that’s a bit drastic, and if you ever eat at a restaurant you’ve probably been exposed to worse.
For more discussion of all kinds of pans, see My Cooking Kit, Part 1 — Cookware & Bakeware.
Feedback is welcomed! Leave a comment here, or find me @firstname.lastname@example.org on mastodon or @unsellingconvenience on instagram.