Ask Amma

Cooking Vessels – Steel, Iron and More

In What on 26 August 2014 at 3:40 pm

My pots are starting to scratch and I am afraid to use steel utensils with them.  I have some plastic utensils but I am worried about using them on hot food.  What cooking vessels should I use?

Please, please do not use that scratched up pot.  And please banish the plastic from the kitchen.  At least the cooking part of the kitchen. Why not use a pot that doesn’t  scratch – such as one made of cast iron or stainless steel? I will let you do your own reading on the hazards of cooking with aluminium, or using plastic for stirring or storing hot foods.  I will just briefly comment below.

A steel spatula on non-stick cookware will eventually scratch the surface.

A steel spatula on non-stick cookware will eventually scratch the surface.

Why you should not cook in the following materials (and what you should use instead): Teflon:  Do I really have to tell you?

Plastic Utensils – When plastic comes in contact with hot food, there is a risk of some of that plastic reacting with the food, exposing those who eat the food to Bisphenol A (BPA) and other synthetic estrogens.  The probability of reaction is higher for food that is hot, spicy, acidic or oily.    To avoid this risk, don’t use plastic utensils while cooking, serving or storing hot food.

Aluminium:  Studies show that the amount of aluminium that we absorb from cooking vessels is not “very much.”  How much is not much?  Some of the articles try to put that in perspective by pointing out that we also absorb aluminium from other sources such as aspirin, antacid, processed foods, etc.  For those of us not eating any of the foregoing substances, this statement does not serve to make us feel any better about the “small” quantity of aluminium absorbed from aluminium cookware.  By the same token, we need not feel “that bad” about it either.   Of course the longer you cook in that aluminium, the more you will absorb, and if the food is acidic, it will absorb even more.  Since we don’t need any aluminium in our diet, there is really no point in cooking with aluminium.  We can do better than “not that bad.”

Anodized Aluminium:  Anodizing is supposed to seal in the aluminum and prevent it from reacting with the substances cooked in it.   If so, then no aluminium absorbed.  If the vessel gets scratched however, good bye to anodized and hello aluminium.  Again, you can take comfort in the reassurance that aluminium absorbed from cooking is (probably) “not that bad.”

Stainless Steel:   Stainless steel is more stable than other metals used for cookware and when properly maintained, i.e. not scratched, does not leach significantly, especially after the first few uses.  So when you get a brand new set of stainless steel cookware, you may want to wash it thoroughly in hot water before using.  Boil some water in it and throw that out too.  Generally steel vessels do not get easily scratched either.   So you can use smooth-edged steel utensils with steel vessels.  For a gentler touch, use wooden spoons and spatulas with all your vessels.   Wash with ordinary dishwashing sponges and avoid scrubbing with very abrasive wool.   If food sticks to the pot, soak it so that you can scrub it more easily and you will not scratch your vessels.  Stainless steel is relatively lightweight, easy to clean, hard to break, and nearly neutral as far as absorption in food is concerned.

Soup simmers in iron wok

Soup simmers in iron wok

Iron:  Instead of struggling to minimize the quantity of metal absorbed, why not cook with a material that is also a vital nutrient?   Food cooked in iron pots, pans, griddles and woks will tend to absorb iron every time you cook.  Of course the longer you cook in that iron, the more you will absorb, and if the food is acidic, it will absorb even more.  Next important question is – how much of this will our bodies actually absorb?  A rather small percentage – but every milligram counts.  Again, acidic food improves our own absorption of iron. Note:  Tomatoes and other acidic food cooked in iron will absorb some color and flavor as well.  To avoid prolonged exposure, remove food from the vessel when done.

PHOTO: Astute reader Dushyant Baba sizzles up a stir fry in his iron skillet.  His trusty iron griddle is seen on the side burner.

Materials I haven’t addressed include glass, clay, and stone, which are all good from the food safety standpoint, provided there is no lead glaze or lead crystal involved.  People report health and culinary benefits as well, but I will save discussion of these heavy weight cookwares for another day.

For further reference:

“Are any plastics safe?”  Democracy Now! March 4, 2014  based on “The Scary New Evidence on BPA-Free Plastics” in Mother Jones, April 2014.

Microwaving food in plastic: Dangerous or not? from the Harvard Family Health Guide.

M.V. Kröger-Ohlsen, T. Trúgvason, L.H. Skibsted andK.F. Michaelsen, “Release of Iron into Foods Cooked in an Iron Pot: Effect of pH, Salt, and Organic Acids” in Journal of Food Science, November 2002.

  1. Thanks for the article Aravinda. Much needed reminder. The section about using iron is particularly enlightening. Never saw it from that perspective. Thanks much again!


    • You’re welcome Karthik. It was Abhay Shukla who reminded me in 1999 of the importance of iron vessels as a source of iron when we visited villages in Badwani that were taking part in the CEHAT Arogya Sathi program. He along with Madhuri behn spoke about health and nutrition to the people there. One of the things he recommended to everyone was cooking in iron vessels. Fortunately these are not very expensive.


  2. what about Brass and copper vessels?


    • Hmm, will look into this. Copper is also an essential nutrient but I have read that there is a risk of getting too much of it if you cook in copper or brass vessels that aren’t lined with another metal, e.g. stainless steel. There is also a way to clean copper vessels to minimize the reactivity with the food. Shall write it up in part 2.


  3. Thanks for the great info, and the Mother Jones article reminds us that BPA-free is just another marketing term. We got a cast iron wok recently from San Francisco and love it, but I dare not use it for acidic stuff – i.e. tamarind (sambars), tomato (rasam) and lemon.


  4. Very informative.Thanks from the core of my heart for such a great article on cooking utensils.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I came across your blog when I was searching for millets in general and availability of millets in particular in the US.

    I have made a mental note to read the posts about “whole grains” before I leave for the US.

    Meanwhile, I was wondering what kind (material) of vessels do I buy? I am not a fan of plastic (with or w/o BPA) and the jury is out on the carcinogenic qualities of PTFE in non-stick ware. Stainless steel kadhai-s available for a song in India are too heavy to lug around when I will have to carry books and clothing etc. And even if I can carry them from here would they be apt for stoves there which may be induction and which require vessels with a flat base?

    Meanwhile I am planning to check out some ceramic kadhai-s which are available in Mumbai. What is your opinion on these?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Cooking in ceramic has a number of advantages – even cooking and, some say, subtler flavour. Of course ceramic pots are heavy and fragile so I don’t think you would want to carry them overseas. If space permits, you may want to carry stainless steel pots for boiling and steaming. I personally haven’t had good luck with my stainless kadhai – it does not cook evenly and things just burn. I use a stainless steel or cast iron skillet.

      Do you know where you are going to live and what kind of stove you will have? Many homes have gas stoves – just check.

      If you decide to carry over a ceramic kadhai be sure to wrap it well in several layers of clothing so that it survives the journey. But if you ask me, it would be better to buy these things locally, wherever you are going to live. You can often get good quality ones in second-hand stores or yard sales. I’d suggest you start with a few and build your collection gradually, but don’t skimp on quality.


  6. Very nice.. Informative.. Is glass not good?


    • Provided it does not contain lead (e.g. lead crystal) or lead paint / glaze, glass is good. Stay tuned for a follow-up article on stone, ceramic and glass cookware.

      Thanks for stopping by 🙂


  7. Hey, I just read the whole aritlce. Thanks for posting this type of qualilty post. I was just researching about a cookware ishue and find your blog. You made me your regular reader.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Can i prepare mawa in iron wok???
    will it affect the color of the mawa??


  9. Anodized aluminum means aluminum has changed its molecular being,,, scratching hard anodized does nothing. You are confused of the difference between HA and nonstick. Get your facts right


    • Hi Katie, it is indeed important to get the facts right. Hard Anodized cookware is marketed as non-stick, albeit by hardening the surface rather than using a nonstick coating. While it is scratch-resistant, especially if used with wooden utensils and washed with a sponge by hand, it can still get scratched.

      As I understand, there are different views as to whether there is any harm in ingesting trace amounts of aluminum through cooking. I am not aware of any firm evidence of harm; some may opt not to worry about aluminum cookware. We do not, however need any aluminum in our diet.

      According to this article by Dr. Andrew Weil, if your anodized aluminum cookware is scratched, “acidic liquids such as tomato sauce will react with the metal, which will get into food and then into your body.”


  10. I have just puchased a kadai wok looking pot to cook pakistan/Indain dishes. Its labeled as “special alloy iron”. Is it safe for my health for cooking??


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