Before we had Teflon, aluminum, and plastics, our ancestors used pottery, tin cans, glass, wood, paper, iron and other metals. Now we are practically drowning in plastic packaging and contributing unwittingly to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Here are some tips on how to reduce your exposure to plastic, upgrade to high quality utensils and make being in the kitchen more enjoyable.
What’s Big, Red, and Cooks Everything?
One of the culinary secrets I learned in France was that they traditionally used high quality tools for cooking, such as cast iron pots. There are many reasons to invest in a beautiful Dutch oven, or faitout (literally, “does everything.”) You can cook everything in it, either in the oven or on the stove. Food stays warm in the pot long after you’ve turned off the heat. And a cast iron pot will last forever, or at least for several generations – it’s an heirloom, not a hand-me-down.
Panning for Iron
Plastics pose the threat of leaching into our food and bodies. It makes more sense to buy one high-quality pan that will last decades rather than make multiple purchases of cheap, Teflon-laced aluminum pans on sale at the home décor store.
A cast iron pot or pan or stainless steel pots with multiple layers that disperse heat equally and keep delicate foods like sauces or chocolate from burning do not pose the danger of flaking plastic into your omelet the way plastics do. (Some people use iron pans because of the iron enrichment they feel they are gaining from the iron pan as they cook.)
A very affordable line of iron pans is made by the American brand Lodge. The two most popular Dutch oven brands made in France are Staub and Le Creuset – these are pleasant to look at and to use in the kitchen and for serving at the dinner table. Be careful, as you may want to collect the rainbow of colors they offer, including mini single-serving sizes!
To reduce your family’s exposure to plastics, go through your utensils one by one and replace the plastic spatulas, ladles, and spoons with wooden or stainless steel ones. One exception in my kitchen are the silicone spatulas for scraping sauces and fats out of pots and bowls, though I use them only on cold or room temperature foods. Heating and freezing can cause chemicals to become active and leach.
The other exception is my plastic cutting board for raw meats. The better alternative would be to dedicate one wooden cutting board to raw meats. Other wooden cutting boards may be dedicated one each to garlic, onions, vegetables, cooked meats (a carving board with a rivet for the juices), bread, herbs. Again, little plastic pieces can be sliced out of plastic cutting boards and end up in your food.
Baking, Roasting, Processing, and Storing
I recommend baking fish on parchment paper (for easy cleanup) in oven-safe glass baking dishes. I cook roasts in terracotta pans, which are lovely for presenting a roast. Food processors and mini-choppers usually have plastic parts, so allow any heated food to cool before processing.
Storing food in glass containers, such as the American brand Pyrex, is an ideal replacement for plastic, because you can put hot food in the glass and refrigerate or freeze the food. Pyrex comes with air-tight plastic lids, but as long as these are not touching the food below you are greatly reducing your food’s exposure to plastic. Same with aluminum foil and plastic wrap. Use parchment paper instead of foil where possible. We banned our microwave long ago, but if you need to use one, microwave your food in glass, which is much safer than heating in plastic containers.
The Non-Stick Trap
Wait, but if I can’t use a non-stick pan or spatula, my eggs will stick to the pan! The non-stick and low-fat industries are in cahoots: If you aren’t using fat to cook your food because you are eating low-fat, then yes the food will stick – a perfect perpetuation of the downward cycle of eating low-fat and using plastic.
As always, my advice is to look into what I call the French Advantage (rather than the French Paradox) – eat richly, stay satisfied, and avoid plastics in your cooking by using enough butter in a sturdy iron or steel pan so that your eggs won’t stick.