Griddle riddle: who's the best one of them all?

The choice between two "griddles", old-fashioned cast iron versus the lightweight, non-stick coated type, symbolizes the everyday personal decisions that affect national energy consumption. Residential energy comsumption rivals that from transportation, and the kitchen is greenhouse gas central. Your cooking methods are likely learned in part from relatives, who learned them from their relatives, all of whom learned to cook when energy was cheap and climate change unheard of. Which, then, is the most resource efficient?The griddle choice moves us to the linked questions of stovetop cooking with gas or electric heat, iron or aluminum, and so on.

Four questions for 'everypan'.

Q: - What's the single most important reason we don't want food to stick?
A: — Because washing a pan with stuck food is difficult. The time we save cooking "fast" is wasted 5 times over washing off the burned food afterward.

Q: - What gets wasted when we clean up a food-stuck pan?
A: - Extra wash water and the energy needed to heat it.

Q: - So...there's an environmental reason to prefer non-stick?
A: - Yes, it helps you conserve energy, and water.

Q: - Are non-stick pans always better than cast iron?
A: - No. That depends on your stove and how you cook.

Like those I visit, I've got a cupboard heap of "non-stick" pans I gave up on, as each got progressively "stickier". This happens from using metal utensils, or from stacking pans in the dishwasher or cupboard, and frying meat bones, for example: all things that "void the warranty" and make the product pretty much dysfunctional over the course of a year. Warranty or no, the loss of functon gradually relegates it to cupboard fill or trash. And if its aluminum, will it get recycled? Probably not.

This gets at the idea of design life matching. What is the point of buying massive colorful, elegantly designed non-stick cookware when two of the functions (appearance and weight) last many times longer than the "non-stick" one does? Demanding others use wooden utensils won't help: only a few good scratches do the job and recoating is infeasible.

Maybe it's better to buy a cheap, aluminum non-stick griddle and replace it periodically? Definitely works on a low output electric range, with precise heat controls. Not so for high capacity restaurant type stoves that put out far more gas-fired heat per unit of time. The original design idea behind high output ranges, a feature common in today's McKitchen, was to cook large orders fast, time being money in that setting. Its also great for stir-frying water-containing food: lots of veggies for example. But, a low setting on a high output burner will still overwhelm a thin frying pan or griddle. You've need a massive griddle base to disperse the heat evenly.

Non-stick coating toxicity concerns: Recent news reports have focused on potential hazards of bio-accumulative substances used in the manufacture of all non-stick coatings. These low level manufacaturing additives are driven off when the powder coat of "non-stick" polymer is baked to the metal pan surface. The exposure control issue, then, resides in the factory, not your kitchen.

There is the separate possibility of releasing hazardous vapors by severely overheating the surface of a dry (containing no water, wet food or evaporating grease) non-stick pan. To denature the non-stick polymer, you have to get the pan surface to several hundred degrees. That kind of excessive heat comes from accidental inattention or bad judgment. Energy is wasting when you pre-heat a pan to high temperature. Overheating any pan adds athe additional risk of food fire; toxic grease smoke; burns; melting the pan handle; pan warping and cracking; and so on. Stay in the room, and slow down! And, no blackened Cajun recipes on non-stick.

On to the traditional cast iron griddle. It can last for generations. You can recoat it (see below) Plus, it's a single material, so design life matching is not an issue. And generally speaking, cast iron is inexpensive.

There are drawbacks to cast iron. To get a non-stick property, you'll have to season it several times per year, requiring consumption of energy and some finesse. Try to save energy by doing it when the oven is still hot from cooking something else.

After several years of use, especially if you "blacken" foods, sticky deposits can build up on the cast iron. Try oven cleaner first. If that does not take it down to bare steel, try a bit of coarse steel wool (#00 grade) from a hardware store (look for it in the paint section). If steel wool does not remove the carbon deposits, you can convert the carbon to carbon dioxide by high, even heat. Be careful. Heating up a cast iron pan too fast, or unevenly, will crack and ruin it. Same for cooling too fast or unevenly. The following methods have worked for me, although no promises.

Put the cast iron pan on the oven rack, upside down, while using an oven's self clean feature. Alternatively, use a charcoal grill. Put a single layer of charcoal briquettes in the bottom of the pan and light them. Once they are glowing, cover the grill and don't open it until the charcoal is burned away and all heat dissipated. With either method, let it cool to the touch before moving. Dry-clean it with steel wool to remove ash; and keep dry until its seasoned again.

Spray on "remover" is occassionally sold for de-carbonizing pan surfaces. The labels I've seen indicated the presence of flourinated or chlorinated compounds that do their job by rapidly chilling the metal as they evaporate. Because the rapidly chilled iron thermally contracts faster than carbon does, the carbon is delaminated. Fine, but the lets think about ozone depletion and global warming potential of those substances versus the carbon dioxide associated with the heat-treatment methods discussed above. The atmospheric half-life of C02 is far shorter.

There is no environmentally best pan or stove, but by thinking through your methods, you can certainly become a more resource-wise cook.

by: John Laumer

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