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Recipe for Success: Best Buys in Cookware, Bakeware & Flatware

Manufacturers are bringing thicker metals and more variety to their cookware and bakeware. In some cases, this improvement comes at a higher price. Meanwhile, the nagging problems of nonstick coatings and their alternatives remain.

Le Creuset of America

Shopping for new cookware and bakeware typically is a telltale sign that your old set has worn out after years of cooking up meals and desserts for your family and friends. In 2015, manufacturers are doing more to draw your attention to new sets and pieces. Ethnic cookware is becoming more widely available than ever before, and bakeware can better withstand warping issues than could previous models.

The good news for consumers is that you can find higher quality bakeware and more-specialized cookware at all prices. However, confusion that’s nagged the nonstick-cookware market for years remains, and although manufacturers introduced alternative nonstick coatings to the market, experts tell us that they remain dubious about the performance of such alternatives. They also tell us that the concerns that surround the most prominent nonstick coating—polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE)—are, for the most part, unfounded.

NONSTICK EVOLVES. In terms of advancing nonstick cookware, Hugh Rushing, who is the executive vice president of Cookware Manufacturers Association (CMA), says manufacturers continue to develop coatings that last longer and are more scratch- and heat-resistant than ever before. Nonstick cookware amounts to 70 percent of cookware sales, and 85 percent of that market has PTFE as the nonstick coating, Rushing says.

Although confusion has existed in the marketplace for years about the presence of perfluorooctonoic acid (PFOA) that’s in PTFE cookware, consumers needn’t worry about the issue. Robert Wolke, who is a professor emeritus of chemistry at University of Pittsburgh and the author of “What Einstein Told His Cook,” tells Consumers Digest that, although PFOA was used in the manufacturing of PTFE, the PFOA never made it into cookware.

He says the confusion started 10 years ago when Environmental Protection Agency took action against DuPont for letting PFOA escape into the atmosphere while the company made PTFE. He says DuPont long since stopped using PFOA in its manufacturing of PTFE (as have other companies), but that hasn’t stopped consumers from believing that the chemical, which EPA categorizes as a “likely human carcinogen,” remains in cookware. Wolke says manufacturers, to some degree, perpetuated this myth by advertising both PTFE and other nonstick alternatives, such as ceramic cookware, with labels that read “Contains no PFOA.” “That’s a red herring,” he says. Nonstick cookware never contained PFOA.

Still, even if PFOA isn’t in the final product, studies have found that PTFE coatings begin to degrade and release trace amounts of chemical particulates at 500 degrees Fahrenheit. Wolke says no particular dish requires a temperature of over 500 degrees F on your cooktop or range, but that doesn’t mean that an empty frying pan or pot can’t get that hot.

If you put an empty pan on a burner and walk away to, say, answer a phone call, temperatures inside the pan can go well above 500 degrees F, Wolke says. He didn’t specify how long it can take to reach or surpass that temperature, however, because it depends on the composition of the pan as well as the strength of the burner. If you want to avoid the problem, he says, the answer is simple: “Don’t walk away and leave your pans on the burner.”

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Unsurprisingly, more alternative nonstick coatings exist than ever before. Rushing says the majority of the non-PTFE nonstick marketplace consists of ceramic coatings. Five experts with whom we spoke tell us that more manufacturers produce cookware that uses a ceramic nonstick coating, but nobody could provide numbers. We found at least nine ceramic cookware sets in our research, which range from $90 to $815.

However, Rushing notes that “the growth rate of ceramic-coated cookware has slowed dramatically in the past few years,” so it seems unlikely that manufacturers will expand their lines further. He says the reason for the slowing growth is because the ceramic coating can’t stand the test of time—the coating can begin to wear out within 1 year of purchase. After the coating wears out, food sticks to the pans, and the pans become more difficult to clean.

Anna Wolfe, who is the editor in chief of industry magazine The Gourmet Retailer, tells us that the nonstick ceramic coating on the cookware that she tested wore off quickly and made her want to avoid the segment altogether. “They work great maybe the first time, maybe the second time,” she says. “Then you’re like, ‘Holy cow, this is not nonstick.’”

Rushing points out that this negative response to ceramic nonstick coatings prompted CMA to forecast a decline in sales of ceramic nonstick cookware sets in 2015.