There’s conflicting information out there on the Internet. Here’s what you need to know, and how to tell fact from fiction.
Aluminum pans and pots are among the most used cooking vessels in the American kitchen. And for good reason: as a metal, aluminum is lightweight, inexpensive, and excels at transferring heat from your stove’s burner to the food that’s sizzling in your frying pan.
However, untreated aluminum reacts readily with acidic foods, especially recipes that call for the addition of tomatoes (fresh or canned), lemon juice, vinegar, and wine. If you prepare such foods in untreated aluminum cookware, the cooking surface will pit and the food will come out tasting metallic.
Expectedly, many owners of this type of cookware start to wonder: Can I fry foods in my aluminum pans and pots?
Matters are complicated further by the fact that much of the information on the Internet is conflicting, and has often been written by authors who don’t know the subject of cookery well.
So, let us get straight to what you came here to find out. Is it safe to fry foods in aluminum cookware?
Don’t worry about frying foods in aluminum pans and pots. All aluminum cookware intended for the stove is hard-anodized, coated (with ceramic or non-stick), or clad (with stainless steel). A protective layer keeps it from reacting with acids and leaching into your food.
Simply put, leaching is a concern only if you’re simmering highly acidic foods in an untreated aluminum cooking vessel for prolonged periods of time; not when frying them in cooking oil in a treated pan or pot.
This applies to all methods of frying, from pan-frying in 1-2 tablespoons of oil to shallow-frying with the food semi-submerged and deep-frying with the food completely submerged.
Hard-Anodized vs. Coated Aluminum
If you find the difference between hard anodizing, coating and cladding confusing, you’re not the only one: many home cooks are intimidated by these technical terms. And, for one reason or another, few TV chefs and cookbook authors bother to explain them.
Hard-anodized aluminum cookware has been treated to develop an inert, durable, corrosion-resistant surface. The metal is immersed in an acid bath and an electric current is passed through the liquid. This oxidizes the metal, which develops a thick finish with which you can prepare any food, even acidic.
Coated aluminum cookware has been sprayed with several layers of ceramic (sol-gel ceramic) or non-stick coating (polytetrafluoroethylene). The coating acts as a layer between the untreated metal and your food, preventing them from reacting with each other.
Clad cookware is made of interior sheets of aluminum and exterior sheets of stainless steel, pressed and bonded into shape. The result is a cooking vessel with a durable stainless steel exterior that can go in the dishwasher and a responsive aluminum interior that heats up quicker than steel.
In the case of hard anodization, the coating is a patina that’s formed by the metal when it’s oxidized using the special process described above. In contrast, ceramic and non-stick coatings are liquids sprayed and baked onto the metal.
Which Aluminum Pans and Pots Last the Longest?
Of these three types of cookware, clad makes and models last the longest because they have no coating; their cooking surface is made of a sheet of steel wrapped around an aluminum core. It’s also the only type that’s truly dishwasher safe.
For hard anodized cookware, the anodizing wears off in 3-5 years, whereas most non-stick pans and pots have a useful life of 1-2 years. When the coating wears off, it’s best that the pans and pots are replaced.
Ceramic pans and pots have a coating that lasts indefinitely, but their slickness wears off after about 50-60 uses. After that, you can keep on using them, but you will need to fry with a dollop or two of cooking oil to keep your food from sticking.
In other words, if you want cooking vessels build to last a lifetime, opt for clad stainless steel with an aluminum core (here’s our favorite).
What About Aluminum Baking Sheets?
When an aluminum cookware is “untreated,” its cooking surface comprises bare, reactive aluminum.
Whereas almost all aluminum stoveware—pans, saucepans, pots, roasters—is treated, aluminum bakeware—cookie sheets, baking sheets, roasting pans, and disposable foil pans—usually isn’t.
Aluminum cookie sheets, baking sheets, and roasting pans are generally safe to use, but will react to acidic foods and liquids, leaching dietary aluminum into your food and imparting it with a strong metallic aftertaste as a result.
You can bake red meat, venison, poultry, seafood, and non-acidic vegetables or fruits directly on aluminum trays. For baking acidic foods, you can line the trays with parchment paper (although this will hardly protect the metal from reacting with their drippings).
Is Aluminum Toxic?
Despite lore to the contrary, the general consensus in the scientific community is that aluminum exposure through food won’t cause neural issues or cancer, Vincent Gabrielle reports for USA Today.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), exposure to aluminum is usually not harmful, and studies done to date have failed to find to conclude whether aluminum does or does not cause Alzheimer’s disease.
The centers emphasize that aluminum is toxic in high levels. For example, for workers who breathe large amounts of aluminum dusts or fumes, who’ve been reported to have lung problems and decrease performance of some functions of the nervous system.
Winchester Hospital explains that aluminum toxicity “occurs when a person ingests or breathes high levels of aluminum into the body.” Common causes of concern, it says in the article on the hospital’s website, are breathing aluminum dust or fumes, or living near an aluminum mine or hazardous waste site.