Spatulas, oven mitts, ice cube trays, cupcake liners…silicone cookware is everywhere. These days, it’s often regarded among the environmentalist crowd as a go-to in the world of eco-friendly cookware. But is silicone really as environmentally friendly as we are led to believe?
And if so, how practical is it to use? For example, can silicone go in the oven? Should I worry about it leaching chemicals into my food? What are the benefits and downsides of silicone cookware? And if it’s not so sustainable, what are some better alternatives?
Running an eco-friendly kitchen can be a challenge at times, I know this better than anyone! From trying to save energy to choosing non-toxic ingredients, it can be tough to know where to start. But it doesn’t have to be this way… let's break down silicone cookware!
What is silicone cookware?
Silicone is a man-made, durable, synthetic rubber that gets a lot of love because it's a handy substitute for plastic cookware. To get a little more technical, silicone is a mix of bonded silicon (which comes from silica - a very common element found in nature), oxygen, hydrogen, and sometimes carbon. Silicone products can sometimes be confused with plastic since they can look pretty similar. However, the main ingredient in silicone cookware is silicon, and not carbon like in plastic cookware products.
Silicone polymers are extremely versatile and come in the form of liquids, rubber, foams, gels, or solids, making them a common material with lots of different applications. These days, you can find silicone in sportswear, engineering parts, and even menstrual cups!
Is silicone cookware safe?
The safety of silicone cookware really depends on the quality of the cookware you are using and how you are using it. In 1979, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) determined that silicone cookware was safe for cooking. Since then, there has been no conclusive research from the FDA or Health Canada to suggest otherwise as long as you are not subjecting it to temperatures higher than 428 degrees Fahrenheit.
With this being said, low-quality silicone cookware can still contain additives and binders. So when buying silicone cookware, you want to be looking for high-quality 100% pure food grade silicone.
There are two main ways to judge if your silicone cookware item is of good quality. The first is smell, high quality silicone shouldn’t have a strong odor. If your silicone item has a plastic smell right out of the package, chances are it's not good quality stuff. The second is touch, low quality silicone items tend to be rougher and will develop white streaks when bent and misshapen.
Can silicone leach?
When silicone is of high quality or “food grade”, it should not contain any ingredients that would leach into our food in the same way Teflon/PTFE and other materials might. What I am trying to say is to always buy high-quality silicone using the tricks I mentioned above and you are good to go!
Can silicone go in the oven?
Yes! Silicone cookware is oven safe up to 428 degrees Fahrenheit. Although the FDA and Health Canada have both advised refraining from using silicone for cooking past these temperatures… better to be safe than sorry!
What about silicone molds? Can they go in the oven?
Yup! As long as you are using the silicone cookware item — whether that be utensils, molds, pans, etc. — as recommended by the FDA/Health Canada and are following the manufacturer's instructions, it is safe to go in the oven.
What are the pros of using silicone?
1. Silicone is BPA-free
Good quality silicone doesn’t contain BPA (Bisphenol A) or other toxic chemicals like plastic cookware products do. This is huge since exposure to BPA can influence human cell repair, fetal growth, energy levels, reproduction, and more!
2. Silicone is flexible
Good quality silicone can be folded and bent without breaking or becoming damaged. This can be a super handy feature for storing items in reusable silicone bags or when baking fun shapes and designs.
3. Silicone is heat (and cold) resistant
Silicone can handle temperatures from as low as -60°F to 428°F. This means you can move a silicone-based item right from the oven or microwave right to the fridge or freezer without breakage!
4. Silicone can be used over and over again
Silicone is easy to clean, non-stick, and resistant to stains and microbiological growth. With this in mind, you really end up getting a good bang for your buck with silicone cookware. Some people even say silicone bakeware can last over a decade in your home if you take good care of it. We love a good reusable product!
5. Silicone is accessible
6. Silicone is gentle
Silicone spatulas get a lot of praise for this! Because silicone is a softer material, it won't scratch your pots and pans up like metal spatulas and utensils would.
7. Silicone is good for kids
Silicone cookware is light and won't smash into a million pieces (potentially hurting tiny hands or feet if it's dropped on the floor). Silicone also tends to cool down quickly after coming out of the oven, but still, be sure to still use hot pads for extra protection!
What are the cons of silicon?
1. Silicone can't (usually) be recycled
While some municipalities and companies (like Terracycle) offer silicone take-back programs, this isn’t always the case since it takes a special facility to recycle it properly. Always check with your municipal recycling facility before throwing silicone cookware into the blue bin!
2. Silicone is not biodegradable
An item is considered biodegradable if it can be broken down by organisms and reabsorbed into the environment (generally within about a year) without leaving harmful chemicals behind. With this in mind, silicone is not biodegradable.
Because the product is so durable, this synthetic polymer would take well over a year for it to completely break down. In fact, silicone would probably sit in a landfill for hundreds of years before it's gone. And if it's low quality, it would likely release harmful synthetic substances into the environment in the process.
3. Silicone cookware can be…sensitive
Silicone cookware can’t go in the dishwasher (hand wash only, sorry!). It also must be fully dried out before it is stored away otherwise it might discolor with time and become slightly tacky. And while silicone is praised because it won't scratch your pots and pans, silicone cookware itself can be easily scratched or cut with a sharp object. When this happens, it can be almost impossible to repair.
4. Silicone can be expensive
Because silicone cookware has so many bonuses compared to its plastic alternatives, it tends to be a more expensive product at the end of the day.
5. Silicone doesn't hold its shape well
While the flexibility of silicone can definitely be a bonus, it can also be its downfall. So when you remove your silicone cookware item from the oven, be careful because it can become a bit of a puddle.
What are some alternatives to silicone?
While silicone definitely has some benefits, I completely get it if you are still worried since it’s only been used in cookware for a few decades and there isn’t that much research out there about it yet. But lucky for us, there are alternatives that you can sub in for silicone.
- Secondhand silicone: Secondhand is always better than new!
- Ceramic: Ceramic can be an okay substitute if you can find some free from harmful metals like cadmium and lead. Many ceramic pans also can get scratched easily and just simply can’t deliver on the non-stick promise that silicone can.
- Cast iron: Eco-cast iron is a real thing! Try and look for 3rd party certifications like BSCI, SMETA, SEDEX, SA800, and ISO9001 when buying cast iron kitchenware so you know it's free from enamels and other heavy metals.
- Carbon steel: Stainless steel can leach nickel and chromium into your food, but carbon steel is just as durable but much safer!
A final word on silicone
So, can silicone go in the oven? Yes, but I would say the jury is still out on silicone cookware.
While silicone cookware isn't biodegradable, it’s technically more environmentally friendly than plastic since it’s sourced primarily from silicon, a natural ingredient. Silicone cookware is also heat resistant, easy to clean, flexible, and durable so it won't need to be replaced as often as plastic cookware. But if silicone isn’t your thing, don't worry! There are tons of other alternatives you can try to still have an eco-friendly or zero waste kitchen!
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