When considering the varied world of cookware, ceramic can be seen as both the oldest and one of the newest additions to the landscape. Human beings have been cooking in mud and clay pots since the very roots of civilization. But what is the most important criteria to use when selecting ceramic cookware for your kitchen? We created a simple guide to help you decide the best options for your household.
What is Ceramic Cookware and Why Should I Cook with It?
The ability to form storage vessels and use those vessels to cook food, in order to extend food supplies and create communal food sources, is considered one of the key technologies which led to the agricultural revolution in river valleys across the globe.
Originally, clay and mud pots were only leather-cured in the sun, or baked in fires, leading to hard yet fragile vessels which only stood up to one or two uses, and were not intended to be kept long-term. Although short term, this basic cookware style was still used by the Aboriginal population of Australia as recently as the 1950’s.
Modern Ceramic Cooking Options
Eventually, other materials came into fashion for manufacturing cookware. Copper, bronze, and cast iron all became popular for their superior heat transfer and durability. However, ceramic cookware stuck around for cooking applications requiring more time to heat. Once it’s reached temperature, ceramic cookware can hold the heat for quite a while. Ceramic can also be sculpted to take a huge range of forms, allowing for specialized cooking vessels such as the tagine from Morocco, used to cook a meaty stew, or the tandoor that made tandoori chicken famous.
More recently, technology has advanced to the point where ceramic can be applied in a thin coating to other materials. Enamel cookware has been around for some time, where a glassy coating is layered over the metal underneath. Now, ceramic instead of glass can be applied in the same way. The point of this process is to create an easier-to-clean, non-stick surface that can stand up to a lot of abuse and still look good. Many high-end cast-iron manufacturers offer heirloom-quality ceramic cookware that can be passed on from generation to generation and still perform as well as the day it was purchased.
So what sets ceramic cookware apart?
When it comes to choosing ceramic over other options on the market, there are two factors to look at; how well it cooks and how easy it is to maintain. On both fronts, ceramic cookware pulls away from other materials such as aluminum, stainless steel, or cast iron.
Because ceramic cookware is a hybrid material, with ceramic being coated over a type of metal underneath, it can combine the incredible heat retention of cast iron, or the precise temperature control of copper, with the durability and non-stick properties of ceramic. Additionally, ceramic is non-reactive and, with proper use, will never degrade. After all, some of the best remains of civilizations past are always the pottery they made and used.
The nonstick lowdown
In terms of its nonstick properties, ceramic cookware bypasses many of the health concerns that Teflon-type nonstick pots and pans may present. Teflon is a very lightweight, efficient nonstick surface that can be manufactured fairly cheaply, making it a very popular choice for many consumers. Ceramic nonstick coatings, on the other hand, are much denser and thicker, and therefore often much heavier than other nonstick options, and often much more expensive.
However, Teflon is known to break down at higher temperatures, temperatures technically attainable during normal course of cooking in the home. When it does, it can flake and be carried on the food, and it may even give off fumes which are damaging to the brain and lungs.
Ceramic cookware is completely inert, and will not break down even at very high temperatures. It will not chip or break off during normal cooking, and its nonstick capabilities won’t deteriorate over time. All of these qualities make for a piece of cookware that is as durable and beautiful as it is easy to use, and it’s not uncommon for ceramic cookware to become heirlooms passed down through families.
What About Heat Conductivity?
Additionally, ceramic does more than just grant nonstick properties to cookware. Ceramic, as previously stated, is an extremely efficient conductor of thermal energy, When combined with a core of stainless steel or cast iron, it results in cookware which comes to temperature quickly and evenly, and can maintain a consistent temperature much more easily. Ceramic holds heat and releases it slowly and evenly, which can help compensate for any fluctuations in the output of the heating element.
Finally, ceramic cookware is just plain pretty. Ceramic coatings can be applied in a variety of colors, from muted to bright, and the range of options means that anybody can find a set of pans to match their kitchen color scheme. Ceramic also maintains its esthetic appeal for a long time, even more so than stainless steel, which can gather scratches and dings over time.
If you care for your cookware properly, it can look as good twenty years after you buy it as it did out of the box.
Special Considerations with Ceramic Cookware
Before making a decision about whether ceramic cookware will work for you, there are some special considerations to keep in mind when it comes to using ceramic safely and efficiently.
The Lead Skeleton in the Closet
Before the mid-20th century, ceramic, both for decoration and for cooking, was often produced using a type of glaze which contained lead. Lead in glazes leads to a particularly smooth and shiny surface, which can help with keeping food from sticking to cookware, but obviously, lead in something you are cooking your food with is a serious health concern.
In the US, all ceramic sold for cooking must be lead-free, but in other countries the standards may not be as rigorous. In 2010, Gerald O’Malley, who was at the time the director of clinical research at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital’s ER department in Philadelphia, discovered that some ceramic cookware imported from Mexico being sold near his home contained lead in the glaze.
While the idea of lead in the cookware you are using can be scary, it is almost certainly not something you will have to worry about with ceramic-coated cookware, as long as you stick to well-known, commercial brands. As for entirely ceramic cookware, a good rule of thumb is to remember that while the ceramic dish you discover at Goodwill, or tucked away in your grandmother’s attic, may be appealing to look at, the best bet is to simply display any ceramic cookware that you can’t confirm the provenance of to avoid the specter of lead in the food you’re eating.
Ceramic Cookware Purchasing Criteria
When it comes to comparing ceramic cookware brands, there are a number of considerations. Firstly, although the majority of ceramic coatings are created essentially equal, there can be huge differences when it comes to what lies beneath.
Ceramic can be coated over a variety of metals, from aluminum to cast iron, and which metal makes a huge difference in the price point. Stainless steel is a fantastic choice for someone just looking to upgrade or try it out and typically represents a lower price point. Cast iron stands at the head of the pack for cost, where a single ceramic cast iron dutch oven might set you back over $300.
What you’re looking for in ceramic cookware is a piece which is made from one solid piece of metal. Avoid cookware with the handles attached after the fact, as this can give water an entry point to the metal beneath the ceramic coating and degrade the cookware from the inside out. You’ll also want to look out for something with a silicone or metal handle to maximize the cookware’s stovetop-to-oven properties.
Caring for your Ceramic Cookware
So you’ve made the plunge and put some cash down for a beautiful, durable set of ceramic coated cookware. I’m sure you’re having a ton of fun creating fantastic meals with your new kitchen toys, but you always want to make sure you’re taking good care of your tools, right? Ceramic cookware, like other types of cookware, requires some special considerations to ensure a long, delicious partnership.
What Does a spoon have to do with my Cookware?
The first and most important factor for keeping your cookware looking good and performing well is what kind of utensils you are using with your ceramic coated pots and pans. Like PTFE non-stick coatings, metal is ceramic’s worst enemy.
Metal implements can leave streaks on the ceramic that are hard to remove at best, and at worst they can scratch or dent the surface, causing its performance and appearance to take a permanent hit. For the longest lifespan of your ceramic cookware, ensure that you only use silicone, wood, or plastic implements in your cookware.
Running hot and cold
When it comes to cooking with ceramic, temperature can be a tricky subject. Ceramic cookware is just as fine in the freezer as in the oven, but there are a few considerations for ensuring your cookware stays in tip top condition.
First, ceramic holds and disperses heat efficiently and evenly, so very high heat is not really necessary to cook foods properly. In fact, too high heat for too long (like sitting on a gas burner on high for hours) can cause the bond between ceramic and metal to weaken, which increases the chance of cracking or chipping.
Sudden changes in temperature are not a great idea either. Ceramic cookware is just fine to put in the freezer, but ensure that you leave any cookware out to come up to room temperature before putting it on the burner or in the oven.
Just the same, never ever cool your ceramic cookware down by running cold water over it. Ceramic and the metal underneath cool at different speeds, so introducing sudden extreme temperature changes can, again, lead to the coating cracking or chipping as the metal contracts more than the coating.
Why I Use Ceramic Cookware
Ceramic cookware can be a very attractive, easy to use, and yet durable and quality addition to your cookware collection. Ceramic pots and pans offer huge versatility in cooking technique, without giving up anything in terms of ease of use (and cleaning!). Ceramic cookware also has the benefit of lasting you for many, many years, as long as you care for it by avoiding metal implements and extreme temperature fluctuations. Pick up a set today and get ready for gourmet cooking in no time!