Thrift store finds, family heirlooms, and yard sale bargains – fun, inexpensive, but potentially dangerous. How can you tell if your antique cookware is safe to use? Here’s what to look for and when and how to call in the experts.
A Leaf Score reader wrote in to ask about the safety of antique pots and pans. It got us thinking about one of the downsides of reusing older products: a lack of toxicity and safety checks and standards.
Here’s the question:
I found some colonial porcelain gingham pots and pans from Japan. It was a wedding gift 42 yrs ago. Is it high in lead? Any way to find out?Karen
The short answer is that, yes, these pots and pans are likely unsafe to use as anything but home décor. The practice of using lead in glazes began to phase out in the U.S. in the 1970s.
In other countries, including in Mexico, lead glazes remain common. In Japan, lead glazes continue to be used in some porcelain or stoneware, especially if it’s intended for export to America and elsewhere (because it’s cheap). As such, I’d be extra cautious if the pots are brightly colored, low fire, or have writing in English on them.
Is antique cookware safe?
Heirloom or antique cookware can be beautiful and functional, but some older cookware can be downright dangerous.
Whether Karen’s forty-year-old porcelain pots and pans are safe depends on both how they were made and how they have been treated and stored over the years.
- Lead and other heavy metals in the base materials, coatings, and accessories
- Rust, chips, cracks, and other damage
- Old-type finishes on aluminum and copper pots and pans
- Unsafe non-stick coatings
- Bacteria and mold
- Structural damage (loose rivets, handles, etc.)
- Contamination from storage near to hazardous chemicals.
While antique cookware may have been made with safe, non-toxic materials, it still might be unsafe for use due to accumulated dirt, rust, or other contaminants. For the most part, you’ll have to use your judgment to decide if a thorough cleaning will suffice to make it safe and functional.
In some cases, expensive antique cookware can undergo restoration with specialists to return it to daily use. Some antique store finds are best retired from active kitchen duties however, and are best used for decorative purposes only.
Let’s look at specific concerns for antique cookware made of different metals and materials.
Wooden utensils and cookware components
When I’m browsing the thrift store or yard sales for cookware, I typically avoid anything made with wood. This is because wooden utensils are likely to have been treated with hazardous chemicals and there’s little way to tell unless they’re in their original packaging.
I also avoid used wooden utensils because they can be a breeding ground for bacteria. Even if you can’t see cracks on the surface of a wooden spatula or spoon, that doesn’t mean bacteria haven’t taken up residence. You could run the utensils through the dishwasher but this can damage the wood and make it more likely to snap or splinter.
The same goes for pots and pans with wooden handles. While these might make for nice decoration, they’re not especially practical, especially long-term. Wood degrades, which can make handles come loose or split. This could increase the risk of accidents when using a hot or heavy pot or pan.
Avoid antique cookware with wooden parts, or use it just for display.
The safety of older copper cookware
Copper pots and pans make for beautiful and energy efficient cookware. The downside is that untreated copper cookware can react with acidic foods.
Older copper pans may also have a tin lining that has worn away. If this lining is scratched or worn, it’s best not to cook with the pan as it could allow heavy metals to leach into your food.
Avoid cooking with antique copper cookware with any scratches, significant tarnishing, or worn spots. Always test for leaching (see below) before use.
Concerns about antique cast Iron
Antique cast iron is one of my favorite thrift store finds. Vintage cast iron has a smoother surface than modern pieces and is also much more eco-friendly in that it already exists and has paid its dues in terms of embedded energy.
The downside of antique cast iron is that it often has rust spots and maybe even some cracks. Rust itself isn’t dangerous but if the cookware has been left in a damp place or otherwise poorly treated over the years, the damage may be too severe.
Extreme rust can be irreversible and make a pan too weak and unsafe to use. Check for thin spots, warping, cracks, and serious rust before taking any old cast iron cookware home..
In many cases, though, a quick scrub with lemon juice can remove rust from antique cast iron. Follow it up with a good clean with soap and then season the pan.
Most antique cast iron cookware is safe to use after a good scrub and seasoning.
Avoid antique cast iron cookware with any severe wear, warping, or cracks though.
Antique aluminum cookware safety
Aluminum cookware is lightweight, great at conducting heat, and easy to recycle. The downside is that it tends to warp and can leach aluminum into food, which isn’t safe for health.
Vintage aluminum pots and pans aren’t all that common, given that this metal is less durable than cast iron or even ceramic and porcelain. If you do come across antique aluminum pans though, be aware that they might not have the anodized finish of modern aluminum cookware.
Without this anodized finish, acidic foods can react with the aluminum, creating a metallic taste and discoloring food. With modern aluminum cookware, leach testing helps to ensure that the pots and pans are safe for use. In contrast, old aluminum cookware may be unsafe, especially if the finish has eroded.
Old aluminum cookware can leach metals into food, which causes discoloration, a metallic taste, and various health concerns.
Always test old aluminum cookware before use, at home or professionally (see below).
Are yard sale Teflon and non-stick pans safe?
Teflon hasn’t been around long enough to qualify as antique, but you may well come across old non-stick pans at a yard sale or thrift store.
Don’t use old non-stick pans, especially Teflon.
We’ve written a lot at Leaf Score about the general safety concerns over PFAS, GenX, and more modern non-stick coatings.
Beyond those concerns, though, even with arguably safer non-stick options it’s impossible to know if the pans have been heated beyond their recommended temperature range. Once a pan hits a certain temperature, any non-stick coating can start to break down. After that, every time you cook with the pan, it could leach toxic chemicals into your food and release toxic fumes into your home.
Lead and other heavy metals in old ceramic and porcelain cookware
Finally, to get to Karen’s specific question, she’s right to be concerned about lead and other heavy metals in old porcelain cookware.
Some antique cookware, especially ceramic, porcelain, and enamel pieces, might contain lead or other harmful metals in the glaze. Some may even have been made with clay contaminated with heavy metals and other impurities.
Over time, with wear and chipping, these harmful substances can leach into food.
For the most part, though, anything that is built to withstand high temperatures has already been high-fired. A Any properly formulated lead glaze on high-fire porcelain will have volatized and evaporated entirely or been sealed to make it food-safe.
The trouble is, without knowing exactly what’s in the glaze and how the porcelain cookware was manufactured, used, and stored, it’s impossible to tell if it will leach lead.
Even if a traditional ceramicist is using lead-free materials, their pottery may not be lead-free if they use an old kiln contaminated with lead, according to the FDA.
Before using any old ceramic or porcelain cookware, it’s crucial to test for lead and other contaminants.
Final thoughts on the safety of antique cookware
There’s a surprising amount to think about after an exciting yard sale cookware find. Once your excitement levels off to a simmer, though, do your research.
This might mean checking into a brand and its history, where possible. It may also mean doing some simple tests at home or sending the cookware for professional testing.
You can also check the FDA’s Red List of ceramics it has found to contain unsafe levels of lead.
In the meantime, avoid using the cookware as cookware until you’re certain of its safety, especially if you have children or vulnerable family members at home. Even if you’re relatively certain a pan is safe, avoid cooking acidic foods in any reactive cookware. This should help minimize the risk of leaching if the coating or finish has worn away.
In summary, while it’s safe to use some antique cookware pieces, it’s vital to inspect and assess each piece individually. Some safety concerns are obvious. Others might require advice from experts. For Karen, my advice is to send a sample of the glaze for testing. In the meantime, I’d recommend holding off on using that antique wedding gift.