Every now and again, you might come across a particular term while you’re cooking or checking out new recipes: “non-reactive cookware”. If it’s the first time you’ve ever encountered that term, you might have stopped in your tracks and wondered what it means.
You might have also asked yourself, “If there’s such a thing as non-reactive cookware, does that mean that there is also reactive cookware?”
The simple answer: yes! There is a difference between reactive and non-reactive cookware, and if a particular recipe calls for using a certain type of cookware, you should definitely follow the directions or risk ruining your recipe altogether.
A particular cookware’s “reactivity” depends on the material used to create that cookware, and whether that material will ultimately affect the outcome of your recipe.
What is Reactive Cookware?
Reactive cookware is made from materials that can cause a chemical reaction in the food if used for a long period of time. Cookware made from copper, iron, non-stainless steel, and aluminum is considered reactive cookware.
What is Non-Reactive Cookware?
Non-reactive cookware is any cookware that you can use without worrying about chemical reactions affecting your food. The most common materials used for non-reactive cookware are glass, ceramic, stainless steel, enamel, and tin.
While non-reactive cookware is ideal for preparing and cooking any kind of food, it is critical that you use this kind of cookware when you are working with very alkaline or very acidic ingredients for long periods of time
What Happens if I use Reactive Cookware if the Recipe calls for Non-Reactive Cookware?
The main reason why particular recipes call for the use of non-reactive cookware is that using this type of cookware prevents the food from being discolored or getting a metallic taste during cooking. Acidic ingredients have the ability to “pull out” the metallic ions from the surface of the material, causing these ions to mix with the food.
Have you ever tried to cook a tomato sauce in an iron pan? Those recipes usually call for the ingredients to be simmered for a long time. If you’ve ever made this mistake, you might have noticed that the final sauce has that “tinny” taste afterward.
Another negative effect of using reactive cookware in place of non-reactive cookware is your food getting discolored. If you’ve tried cooking red fruits like strawberries or red vegetables like tomatoes in a copper pan, you might have noticed that the ingredients tend to take on a greenish-blue color over time. This is another indication that a chemical reaction is occurring
Is it Dangerous?
In general, these chemical reactions take some time to occur, so if you’re just prepping ingredients or making a quite sauté, it’s still safe. However, if you’re going to simmer, boil, or otherwise allow acidic ingredients to come into contact with reactive cookware for a long time, it can result in food poisoning. You should definitely use non-reactive cookware if the recipe calls for it.
Better safe than sorry, right?
Are There Exceptions to This Non-Reactive Cookware Rule?
Now that you know that copper is reactive cookware, you might be wondering why some recipes actually call for using copper bowls when whipping up egg whites. After all, egg whites are alkaline ingredients!
When you use a copper bowl for whipping egg whites, small particles of copper break off and mix into the protein of the egg whites. These particles actually function as “stabilizers” for the structure, making the egg whites stiffen up much faster.
Don’t worry though, the amount of copper particles that mix into your egg white mixture is still safe for consumption.
Look for Cookware “Compromises”
Now you might be wondering why cookware companies even bother with making reactive cookware at all. Well, the main reason is that reactive cookware, particularly aluminum, copper, and iron, are excellent in conducting and retaining heat. These qualities make reactive cookware perfect for searing, as well as for sautéing and frying food.
To solve the problem of reactive cookware particles leeching into food, cookware companies have created “compromise” cookware.
Compromise cookware is made with reactive materials with a thin coating of non-reactive materials. You will find compromise cookware such as tin-coated copper, enamel-coated iron, or anodized aluminum. The non-reactive material acts as a barrier between the acidic ingredients and the reactive cookware surface, so you can get that high, sustained heat during cooking without worrying about the “leeching” effect.
The problem with compromise cookware is that the non-reactive coating will wear off eventually, or it gets scratched off when you use metal spoons, spatulas, or other utensils on the surface. Once the barrier is removed, the protection is gone and you will need to replace the cookware.
What About Plastic?
In general, plastic is a non-reactive material in the sense that plastic particles will not leech into your food. However, you need to make sure that you are using food-grade plastic.
There is still a disclaimer when using plastic to store or contain food that are highly acidic, or contain a high amount of alcohol or fat. These types of food can actually leech into the plastic! Have you ever kept a tomato-based pasta sauce in a plastic container for a long time, and then noticed that the plastic is tinged orange or red after cleaning out the food?
This is why in the case of highly-acidic food items such as tomato sauce, it’s best to use stainless steel containers or bowls for storage.
What Kind of Cookware Should I Get?
If you love experimenting in the kitchen as much as we do, we recommend that you get a set of high-quality non-reactive cookware, as well as a set of high-quality reactive cookware. This allows you to properly follow different recipes safely AND produce delicious and safe dishes.
Do you have any questions about the cookware you have at home? We’d love to hear from you, so feel free to post your questions below!