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.

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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.

BAKEWARE BOOM. Sales for bakeware have been remarkably strong. According to CMA, sales went up 14 percent in 2013, and as of press time, sales had risen another 13 percent in 2014.

Consequently, you probably will notice higher prices on bakeware when you shop. Citing CMA data, Rushing says surveys of supermarkets and mass merchants where bakeware is sold show that prices are on the rise. However, he adds that you’ll get a better piece of bakeware. Rushing says a higher price typically means that more metal is included in the product.

The experts with whom we spoke tell us that 0.4-mm-gauge steel, which typically is the thinnest that you can find on the market, represent a “low gauge” option. “Midgauge” typically represents a steel gauge of 0.5 mm or 0.6 mm, and 0.8-mm-gauge, or “high gauge,” steel typically is used in professional-quality bakeware. Bakeware that’s higher in gauge is sturdier and less likely to warp after repeated use, experts say. You can find 0.5-mm-gauge 9-inch round cake pans for as little as $3.99. Models that have 0.8-mm-gauge steel cost $9 more.

Kris Malkoski, who is the North America president of World Kitchen, which owns four bakeware brands, says that 10 years ago, World Kitchen’s best-selling cookie sheets used 0.4-mm-gauge steel. Now, she says, the company’s best-selling cookie sheets use 0.5-mm-gauge steel. Although she didn’t provide specific numbers, Malkoski says the thicker cookie sheet today costs the same as what the thinner model did 10 years ago.

Sarah Phillips, who is a cookbook author and the CEO of craftybaking.com, which provides information about bakeware and recipes, agrees that the quality of bakeware has improved. She says the development is good news for consumers, because they shouldn’t have to replace cookie sheets or cake pans as often as they used to because of warping.

COOKING UP. Traditional cookware is meant to be used to prepare multiple recipes, but manufacturers are putting more emphasis on specialty cookware that can handle, say, one or two specific recipes.

Based on CMA’s market data, Rushing says the primary reason that consumers buy cookware is because their current set is worn out, but the next reason is to prepare a specific recipe that requires cookware that the consumer doesn’t own.

Wolfe tells us that “specific recipes” are leading to more widespread availability of more-specialized, or ethnic, cookware pieces. The pieces aren’t new or groundbreaking necessarily—indeed, items such as caldero pots, which are used for Latin rice and stew dishes, and woks, which are used for Asian stir-fry recipes, have been available for years.

However, we’re seeing a more concentrated move of these cookware pieces into mainstream retail stores. Target in October 2014 launched the GlobalKitchen line by Imusa, which is a Colombian cookware company, on its website. Victoria Rodriguez, who is a spokesperson for Imusa, tells us that the line will arrive in Target’s brick-and-mortar stores in March 2015. GlobalKitchen products are divided into four ethnic product categories—Asian, Caribbean, Mediterranean and Mexican—with pieces that include paella pans, bean pots and tostoneras.

Outside of the Imusa line, we found everything from large tamale steamers for $60 to a pan that’s used for making Japanese omelets for $130.

Fred Cecala of Columbian Home Products, which makes and imports specialty cookware, agrees that more mainstream interest exists in ethnic cookware pieces than ever before. He says Columbia Home Products made its products available to specialty stores for years, but now other retailers are interested. “When it starts to hit the warehouse clubs or Wal-Mart and Target, you know you’re now very much in the mainstream consumer market,” he says.

Cecala says he expects the interest in specialty pieces to continue, thanks to both shifting demographics and a larger focus on ethnic foods in grocery stores. “You can go to any supermarket right now and walk down an international aisle,” he says.

It’s too soon to forecast the arrival of specialty pieces into mainstream cookware sets, experts say. Even with traditional pots and pans, cookware manufacturers don’t appear to be giving up on tinkering with the basics.

Laura Everage has covered the kitchenware industry for 20 years. Her work also has appeared in consumer and trade magazines, as well as on her own website, Family Eats.

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