Knowing what type of cookware set to purchase can be very confusing. There are so many brands that claim to be the best - the safest, most durable, best heat retention, guaranteed not to stick - the list goes on. We are all familiar with traditional metal pans - aluminum, stainless steel, cast iron, etc. However one type of cookware is relatively new to the home kitchen: ceramic coated cookware. Following the Teflon debacle and ensuing class action lawsuit, cookware manufacturers sought safer materials to offer similar non-stick properties. Enter ceramic coatings. Today, there are still a lot of questions about the dangers and durability of ceramic coated cookware. We spoke with materials experts with decades of experience in ceramics and here is what we discovered.
What is ceramic coated cookware?
Cookware coatings have been used for decades. Fluoropolymer coatings such as PTFE (short for Polytetrafluoroethylene) have been commercially in use since the 1940s to create non-stick cookware. PTFE has a high melting point and is resistant to water and foods containing water. Unfortunately, some of the chemicals used to create fluoropolymer coatings are known to be toxic. When the chemical PFOA (Perfluorooctanoic acid) used to create Teflon came under scrutiny in the 90s, cookware manufacturers stopped using it to produce non-stick pans. That’s around the time that ceramic coated cookware took off. However, the PFOA controversy raised bigger questions in the minds of health conscious consumers, like are cookware coatings really safe?
How ceramic coated cookware is made
A ceramic coated pan is essentially any metal pan that has a thin ceramic layer on top. The metal core or “substrate” of the pan varies. Some companies use anodized aluminum, an inexpensive metal and good conductor of heat; other brands use cast iron or stainless steel. Whatever the case, all ceramic coated cookware use some type of metal as a base.
Most ceramic coatings are actually “Sol-gel” coatings consisting of silica (sand) and other inorganic chemicals. This is the preferred method of applying ceramic coatings to cookware to make them less- or non-stick. Sol-gel is typically sprayed onto the metal substrate and then fired at a very high temperature. Depending on the manufacturer, this curing process can range between 400 and 800 degrees fahrenheit. While Sol-gel coatings are technically harder and able to withstand higher temperatures than PTFE coatings, most companies advise their customers not to heat ceramic coated pans above 500 degrees, otherwise the ceramic coating could decompose. When this happens, the ceramic pan can lose its nonstick properties and the surface will become coarse or gritty. These pans are not usually recommended to use in the dishwasher or under the broiler.
Are ceramic coatings nonstick?
Ceramic is not naturally nonstick. This is why most companies use Sol-gel technology to create a ceramic nonstick coating. But the idea of ceramic nonstick cookware is kind of a misnomer. First, as we learned above, the slick surface on ceramic coated pans usually degrades over time; and this process can be accelerated if the pans are exposed to high heat on a regular basis. Some experts have suggested that ceramic coatings have about one sixth of the lifespan as their PTFE counterparts. The question you should really be asking is, for how long are ceramic coatings nonstick? A well maintained ceramic coated pan is expected to hold up for 1-2 years - that is not very long, especially considering the high price of some of these pans.
Is ceramic nonstick cookware safer than other nonstick cookware?
Because of all the controversy and speculation surrounding fluoropolymers and PTFE coatings, it is no surprise that there’s an abundance of scientific research on these chemicals. Unfortunately there is not a lot of historical research on Sol-gel and its effects on human health. That is not to say that one is safer than the other. However, purchasing your cookware from a reputable company can help limit your risk of direct food contamination. As the old saying goes, it’s better to be safe than sorry.
How to use and care for your ceramic pots and pans
Proper pan heating and cooling
The best thing you can do to take care of your ceramic cookware is to heat it up slowly and avoid high heat altogether. Using low to medium heat settings will prolong the life of your pan. Exposing your cookware to extreme temperatures over and over again will degrade the coating and lead to excessive sticking. If the coating decomposes, the surface of your cookware can appear rough or grainy. So use caution when cooking with ceramic pots and pans at high temperatures and remember, slow and low is the best way to go!
Please, whatever you do, don’t put a hot frying pan in water. It does not matter if the water is hot - the pan is hotter. Exposing your cookware to quick temperature changes is not a good idea. Rather than running water over a hot pan, just set it aside and let it cool down to room temperature before washing.
Avoid scratching the surface with harsh utensils
To avoid scratching ceramic coated pans, use wood, nylon or silicone utensils. Unfortunately ceramic coatings are subject to scratching by metal utensils. Using a softer utensil set will help prevent scratching. If you do end up scratching the surface of your cookware, there is an increased risk that unwanted toxins from the metal beneath the ceramic coating can leach into your food. So take caution when using metal on ceramic coated surfaces.
How to wash ceramic cookware
While some companies claim that their products are dishwasher safe, it is generally recommended to hand wash ceramic coated cookware. Also, always allow the pan to cool before cleaning. As we learned above, ceramic surfaces do not respond well to extreme changes in temperature, and that applies to cleaning as well. Use a mild soap with warm water and a soft sponge to clean the cooking surface. Stay away from abrasive cleaners like steel wool or rough nylon pads - these can ruin the finish of your pans and destroy the non-stick surface.
Stack and store with care
Always store your cookware using a soft cookware protector. It’s a small investment to insure your purchase of an expensive cookware set. Especially if you stack your pans, using cookware protectors will prevent chips, cracks and scratches.
Pros and cons of coated cookware
Non stick ceramic coating
As we discussed, when properly used and maintained, ceramic coatings can be a good alternative to traditional nonstick pans. They do require a little more love and patience, but that’s what good, healthy home cooking is all about. Take care of your cookware, and it will take care of you.
Easy to clean
Ceramic cookware is relatively easy to clean. Unlike stainless steel and cast iron pans, the ceramic coated surface cleans up well with a soft sponge and warm water. Try using a delicate cleanser like Branch Basics, and you can always use baking soda to clean up those hard to remove bits of food that get stuck to the pan.
While we’re inclined to say that ceramic coated cookware is safe, the verdict is still out on the long term use of Sol-gel. Also, ceramic surfaces with deep scratches can leach toxins from the base metal beneath the ceramic coating. Overall ceramic coated pans are relatively safe - but there are definitely safer options - and when it comes to family, why compromise?
On its own, ceramic is an excellent conductor of heat. However, because ceramic coated pans often rely on inexpensive metal substrates the heat distribution and retention is less than optimal. Metal heats up fast and transfers heat well, but it does not retain heat like ceramic does. It is also a common complaint that ceramic coated pans do not heat evenly.
When we think of a durable pan, we think of cast iron. It’s nearly impossible to destroy and it can last a lifetime. Coated cookware is not nearly as durable. For one, the coatings can chip, scratch and even detach from the base of the pan - rare indeed, but certainly possible. And then there is the issue of the coating degrading over time. All coatings degrade, period. You can find cast iron frying pans from the early 1900s - this is not possible with coated pans. Ceramic coated pans last only a few months to up to a few years, while newer nonstick pans can last 8-10 years if well maintained.
Xtrema 100% ceramic cookware is different
The materials experts who created Xtrema set out to build a cookware line that contained no metals whatsoever. While ceramics have been used in cooking for thousands of years, Xtrema found a way to innovate this time tested cooking material so that it’s safer, more durable, and completely versatile for modern cooking. There are many things that distinguish our cookware from the abundance of ceramic coated options out there - here are just a few.
Pure ceramic means no metal core
When we say that our cookware is 100% ceramic, we mean it. There is no ambiguity: Xtrema is constructed with all natural, all ceramic materials. Rather than using a metal substrate like ceramic coated cookware, our products have a solid ceramic core. By using all natural organic materials, Xtrema is inherently safer and healthier than other synthetic cookware brands. Year in and year out, Gold Standard product testing proves that Xtrema does not leach toxic materials - no lead, no cadmium, no glues, no polymers, no dies, no nanoparticles. This is why our labs are continuously FDA certified and our products are always California Prop 65 compliant.
The other major benefit of using 100% pure ceramic is that the food tastes the way that it should. Cooking with ceramic is as authentic as cooking gets. When heated properly, ceramic cookware reflects heat back into the pan - and it retains heat really well, better than any cookware that contains metal and loses heat rapidly. Xtrema cookware is completely inert so there are no chemical reactions with the food, even when cooking with acidic ingredients. What you put in is what you get out, no alterations to the flavor whatsoever.
Glazed, not coated
The second most important distinction between Xtrema and ceramic coated cookware is the proprietary glazing we use. We apply a food-grade ceramic glaze rather than a Sol-gel coating to seal and protect Xtrema’s ceramic inner core. The ceramic glazed cookware is kiln fired at 2,500 degrees - considerably hotter than 400-800 degrees, the temperature range used to cure ceramic coated cookware. Why is this significant? Because the heat at which a pan is cured will dictate the heat that the pan can withstand. Most ceramic coated pans use aluminum to distribute heat. The melting point of aluminum is roughly 1220 degrees. So a standard ceramic coated pan would completely melt if exposed to the curing process that we use for Xtrema cookware.
Also worth noting is that the cooking surface on Xtrema cookware will not degrade when exposed to high heat. We cure it at 2,500 degrees, so it can withstand much higher temperatures than ceramic coated products. While most non stick brands recommend not to heat their pans above 500 degrees - either because of toxic fumes or the risk of destroying the pans - Xtrema has no such limitations because we don’t use toxic chemicals or Sol-gel coatings. In all fairness, there are plenty of good reasons not to cook food above 500 degrees. But the point is, if your cookware releases toxic fumes or degrades at 500+ degrees, then you should really reconsider your choice of cookware.
Scratch and stain resistant
One of the best features of Xtrema is that the cooking surface is scratch resistant. We generally don’t recommend the use of metal utensils, but if you do it won’t be the mistake that causes you to throw away your pan because of a deep scratch. Xtrema is also stain resistant. Use whatever foods you want in Xtrema cookware and it will never stain. While these may seem like minor benefits, it really speaks to the quality of our cookware. And when you make that investment in the best cookware set, you want it to last.