(Modern) Primal Cookware

I’m quite the fan of this subject: cookware. For me it’s a good example as to why terms such as primal or paleo represent lifestyles and are not simply diets to many people. Coincidentally, the term diet turns me off in general, and is one of the few faults which I can find with The Warrior Diet. But anyways.. back to cookware.

Primalizing your life is more than switching from cake to bacon, juice to fresh fruit or popcorn to almonds, etc. I stand far more often than ever before, sitting only at the office or occasionally at the dinner table. I take the stairs at work. I find objects outside which I can climb or hang from. I toss heavy objects for fun. I plan more frequent hiking trips, and I ride my bike to work (weather permitting). But for years since leaving my home for college, I’ve used used cheap non-stick coated cookware from Wal-Mart, Target or wherever. Well, that stops now.  

While I may not be rolling in the dough (not that I ever would when bacon’s always a better option for rolling in), my girlfriend and I decided that it was time to invest in a set which we would never have to replace, and which wouldn’t potentially add toxins to our food, killing us slowly for the sake of saving what are really pennies per day less. That said, here’s a short list of the options to consider:

Non-Stick (Teflon)
Yes, incredibly convenient for novice cooks who are looking for quick meals and quicker clean-up, but they’re really not worth it in the long-run for anyone who cares to put a little more effort into life. Maybe a bit harsh, but this is not a simple hobby (well, it can be); this is nutrition needed to extend/improve your life, or cut it short for those who cut corners. There’s a lot more time in life than many believe, and if your dance card’s really that full, there are many things before your health which you should consider dropping. Whether the original Teflon brand or any other non-stick coating, your still cooking on a toxic carcinogen, Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA), which could possibly lead to tumors, nerve damage, hormonal shifts, reproductive issues, and many more. And even if the amount of chemical residue left on your food in and of itself isn’t enough to cause these issues, there’s more than enough when combined with all the other toxins in our environment, not all of which are easy to avoid.

Apparently, per industry reports, these chemicals only transfer to food when cookware at temperatures of 500 degrees or higher (easy to achieve when stir-frying meat and veggies with oils) or when the non-stick coating starts to flakes, which in my experience occurs within 1-2 years of use. So, basically, Non-Stick should really be reserved for quick meals, cooked on medium heat, and only when the coating is perfectly intact. Too risky for me!

Stainless Steel
A very common cookware material in the US. stainless steel is moderately priced and very durable. However, it’s strength is also it’s weakness; it’s a poor heat conductor without an inner core of copper or aluminum, which helps to evenly distribute heat to your food (essential for even browning and braising). So for those who cook for themselves quite often, it’s more than worth it to invest in cookware with these additional layers (like All-Clad’s Stainless Collection). Warning to the unaware, the additional layers to make stainless cookware quite hefty, but among the paleo/primal community, there’s nothing wrong with adding more heavy lifting to your daily routine! And compared to cheaper Aluminum or more expensive Copper cookware, it’s far less reactive with your food with regards to meatllic-leeching, which affects the food flavor and those with sensitivity to metals (nickel, in stainless steel’s case). While for short periods of cooking, stainless holds up weel, it’s recommended to avoid metal cookware in general when cooking acidic foods for longer periods of time (>4hrs). So for stews, chili’s, etc, stick with ceramic pots.

Aluminum
Cheapest of most cookware, and for good reason. While it’s a great heat conductor and doesn’t contain the carcinogens from Teflon/Non-Stick pans, leeching metals into your food is still a major concern (more so than with stainless), especially with acidic foods like lemon/lime, tomatoes sauce, etc. Recently, options such as anodized aluminum (oxidized layer which is more durable than non-stick) has become quite popular. Though stronger than Teflon, it will still wear down eventually, exposing your food and health to all the same risks aluminum brings to the table (usually neurological disorders, though this is contested … by those who sell aluminum cookware).

Copper
Because of its superior heat conductivity and admiration amongst old-school chefs, it’s hard for me to simply leave a comment like, “see aluminum… then add 100’s of dollars!” Haha.. it’s partially true, but at least with copper, you often have the option of buy copper pots and pans with a stainless steel cooking surface. If that the case and you have the money to spend (damn, you balla!), well, I say go for it because they look amazing in any kitchen!

Cast-Iron
The original non-stick cookware.. in fact, likely the first (metallic) cookware, cast-iron is my personal favorite. It’s the only piece of cookware in your home which can be personalized to your cooking style. There are so many benefits to cooking with cast-iron that they’re worth bulleting:

+ Very inexpensive
+ Major source of iron in the US until the 1960’s
+ Naturally non-stick
+ Displays your passion for cooking
+ Gets better with age
+ Can be reclaimed and reseasoned
+ Could outlast your great-great grandchildren!

I love cast-iron pots and pans! Yes, initially they can be unwieldy, heavy and hard to clean, they’re worth the additional TLC. Whether unseasoned, reclaimed or “preseasoned” when you first get them, cast-iron presents a necessary project for a lazy Saturday. I won’t go into all the detail as to how season your cast-iron (easy to find anywhere – just be sure to replace the suggested CONola oil or vegetable shortening with genuine lard), but I’ll say that it’s essentially cleaning the first (and only) time with soapy, hot water, then drying thoroughly and baking in the oven for a few hours coated in animal fat to form a non-stick layer to a surface, which is otherwise very porous. But don’t let anyone fool you into thinking that you’re all set after that first seasoning. Cast-iron will take months.. years to become the all-star of your kitchen. So, if you have the patience to continually cook with and care for the cast-iron, one day it will be able to replace almost any piece in your kitchen. 

Phew… so, after much debate and research (well, not so much debate), we naturally settled on the healthiest, most practical and cost-efficient combo: a 9-pc All-Clad Stainless Set as well as 3 pieces of cast-iron (2 round skillets and a reclaimed skillet, which my vecino mexicano must have discarded a month ago). The All-Clad set was fairly expensive upfront, but we know that it’ll pay off after a few years and far beyond (lifetime warranty, Made in the US), plus I got a huge discount through the company I work for (online retailer). I truly love the set, but in adapting to new cookware, I have noticed, that I can’t just throw food in willy-nilly like I could with the non-stick (hey, no one said they weren’t convenient). I need to get the pan fairly hot and thoroughly coated with fat first, then the food won’t stick. Also, to keep the steel gleaming, I apply the occasional baking soda, and scrub the cooking surface to remove food/water stains (haha.. curious I know, since it’s stainless steel, but that really just means it won’t rust).

The cast-iron skillets are brand new (less than a week), so non-stick won’t happen right away, but I feel confident in getting them there soon. The reclaimed HECHO EN MEXICO griddle, was found in my basement near the washers/dryers, and was already WELL seasoned, meaning that I couldn’t find one nook or cranny along its sleek, black surface. The years of grease have cooked themselves into their own layer of permanent non-stick..itude. All I did was wash and scrub with hot, soapy water, dry, then add some of my own lard, then bake and cool… done. It was an instant superstar on a camping trip I brought it on soon after. Bacon and eggs for ALL!

Note: nothing’s perfect and cast-iron’s no exception. Great in the oven for casseroles or braised meat it may be, but on the stove top, you need to let it heat for a while before adding food because, unlike aluminum or copper, it doesn’t heat nearly as evenly. The outside of the pan will take longer to get hot enough for non-stick cooking.

For those like myself who appreciate the wisdom of our ancestors, trust in simple cookware like steel and cast-iron, and say no to drugs (and chemical coatings)!

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About Primal Pig

“Let food be your medicine, and medicine be your food.” -Hippocrates I'm 28 years old, living in Boston. I studied international business and culinary arts. I try to incorporate my experience abroad, nutritional research and ancient culinary traditions in my life. I'm not trying to change the world, but I'm taking charge of how I make my way through. Interested in paleo / primal living, or just tired of convention wisdom? Go ahead and question away.. many people don't have enough questions! Too many "whatever you say" answers, accepting "experts" regurgitated "knowledge". If you're curious about other nutritional / lifestyle options, let me know. If I don't know exactly what you need, I can at least point you in the right direction.
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