Are There Dangers of Enamel Cookware?

The cookware shop display of enamel cookware has you drooling with desire. There in the window are bright red Dutch ovens, cobalt blue stovetop grill pans, French lavender baking dishes and chartreuse green saucepans. Most collectors focus in on one color and work piece by piece to add to their collection, while others just drool, waiting for the day when they, too, can join the legions of cooks proudly displaying enamel cookware. The advantages of enamel cookware are numerous, and some disadvantages and dangers are also present. Know what you're getting into before committing to the hefty price of enamel cookware.

Enamel Cookware Defined

First came the cast-iron skillet, and it was the workhorse of kitchens throughout the centuries. Because iron leached into food and caused health concerns, the early 1800s found European scientists working to perfect a way to cover the iron by fusing enamel onto the iron base. Enamel chips, glass, color and extremely high heat -- more than 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit -- are the basic elements that go into the enamel fusion, and the result is a product that is safe from leaching and lasts a lifetime.

Enamel on Steel Dangers

Cookware that is enamel on steel uses a thin layer of enamel fused over a carbon steel base. It is suggested that you cook on medium heat as the cookware doesn't tolerate high heat well. It also doesn't transfer from the stovetop to the oven. The thin enamel chips easily and can rust. Soaking at length is not recommended as the long soak may affect an uncoated area, causing rust.

Enamel on Aluminum

While the aluminum leaching into food during the cooking process isn't sufficient enough to be considered a health hazard, it is intensified when acidic foods are cooked. A study by African researchers published in 2013 revealed that the longer an aluminum pot is used in cooking, the more aluminum gets into the body. A solution is enamel on aluminum, which gives the cookware a layer of protection. The enamel is not chip-resistant, however, and exposed aluminum can leach. The enamel coating is short-lived, and the cookware cannot be used at high temperatures.

Enamel on Cast Iron

The Cadillac of enamel cookware is an enamel coating fused onto a cast-iron base. While other enamel cookware is lighter and easier to maneuver, enamel cast iron has the heft of the iron, making it extremely heavy and difficult to move from one place to another, especially when filled with hot food. Dropping an enamel Dutch oven can ruin anyone's day.

Potholders are a necessity when cooking with enameled cast iron, as the handles aren't heat resistant and the top knob gets extremely hot.

Enamel cast iron is not nonstick, and it takes a long time to heat up. A good practice is to place the cookware on the stove, turn on the heat and, when you hover your hand over the pan and feel the heat, add the cooking oil.

Good-quality enamel cast iron is recommended as it is less prone to chipping, and the iron base less apt to leach. Enamel cast iron won't discolor, as it's been fired under extreme heat. Don't use repaired enamel because the material used in the repair may be toxic. Lesser expensive enamel cookware may also warp and become unsafe for food. The top-quality enamel cast iron is nontoxic.

In case a good-quality enamel cast-iron piece of cookware does chip, be aware that the iron base may leach into your food. Those with any iron-related physical concerns should be particularly cautious. Also beware of older cookware. Examine the pieces for evidence of chipping. A well-used piece of good-quality enamel cast-iron cookware, however, will last throughout your lifetime.