Archive for July 19, 2011

Non-stick baking options

I am pretty sure that everyone reading this will be aware that the one thing that Teflon cannot stop sticking is tales of toxicity. Teflon, and other generic non-stick coatings made from polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) have a tendency, at high heat, to break apart and emit a toxic – and probably carcinogenic – gas that can kill birds and causes a delightful condition called `polymer-fume fever‘ in humans.

Great to know this, but what to do about it? Abandon all non-stick pans and dedicate ourselves to scrubbing? Or seek non-toxic, non-stick alternatives?

For me, it is a combination of the two. Fortunately I can scrub my stainless pans to death with the Lagostina abrasive stainless cleaner that I wrote about before. I have also been experimenting with – and will later write about – different ceramic frying pan coatings.

When it comes to baking, I use silicon sheets under my cookies. The best-known brand is Silipat. Another, possibly slightly cheaper, brand is Exopat. The sheets are around $20 each which is not cheap but they really do last (several thousand uses according to the manufacturer). They also do double duty as they are great for rolling out pastry etc; they grip your worktop not your food.

I used to use non-stick sheets from Lakeland in the UK, until I saw that these were PTFE coated too. (While baking sheets are unlikely to be heated high enough to generate toxic fumes, the whole idea of PTFE puts me off, especially since Dupont – Teflon’s maker – paid out on a class-action lawsuit for elevated birth defects surrounding a PTFE manufacturing plant). So look closely at the label when you buy.

For loaves I use silicon or stoneware but, as I hate greasing pans, I am still on the look out for an easy option.

For larger baking pans (think brownies), my new favourite is a line of non-stick glass bakeware sold under the President’s Choice label at Loblaws stores in Canada.

The pans are coated with silicone nano-particles

nami close

(are these nano-partcles we can love? I hope so), that go under the brand name Nami. A company named Green Apple used to sell similar pans in the US, although it looks as though they may have gone out of business. In Germany, Wesco sells a nice range of ceramic pans (including ramekins) with Nami-coating.

The President’s Choice Nami bakeware looks like normal pyrex (and is made of borosilicate glass, just like glass drinking straws), but with a lightly frosted surface. And it really works. No greasing required so no baked-on oil or food to scrub off.

The downsides are price

nami pan

(pans range from $11.99 to $19.99), available shapes (bring on that loaf tin) and the fact that sharp utensils can cause scratches (though the label says this will not damage the Nami’s non-stick properties). Plus the carbon footprint of this range is likley to be high, since pans are heavy and made in China (much glass cookware is still US-made).

Oh, and the big catch: handwashing is recommend. So you take your pick: handwashing or greasing. I have to say that I prefer the former, though I may be alone in this (I have also risked the delicate cycle on my washing-up machine and seen no damage yet).

Which laundry detergent works best?

I have a secret love of all things laundry (which may be why this post is a little long).

As a teenager coming

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back from boarding school I would spend days washing, line-drying and ironing my clothes. And even now, I suspect that the only reason people choose to vacation with me is because they know I will do the laundry.

Having kids introduced me to the real challenges of cleaning clothes and the power of seemingly innocuous fruits (such as watermelon and banana) to mess things up for good. There is no joy in laundry when clothes come out of the washer still stained and grungy.

So, I have spent the last 12 years of my life dedicated to the hunt for the perfect eco-detergent. Sadly, I have not yet alighted upon the holy grail, but I can say that some products are a lot better than others.

I can also say that the typical north American top-loading machine does a terrible job of getting clothes clean (at least that is my experience, using eco-detergents). Front-loaders use far less water (about 40% less, saving around 15 gallons per wash cycle), far less energy (partly because much of the energy is used to heat all that excess water) and wring more water out of clothes (which makes for more effective line drying/less time in the dryer). They also agitate more, so wash better.

You do, though, have to be careful of over-sudsing in front-loading machines: over time this can mess up the internal electronics of an expensive washing machine as I discovered recently after too many soap experiments.

So what about that soap? I tested 5 eco-detergents on a cocktail of stains, including tomato sauce, red wine, sesame oil, marker pen, ground-in dirt, watermelon juice and banana. I washed items the way I normally do: warm (40C) and short (38 mins) as opposed to my machine’s full cycle which is over an hour and a half.

The laundry detergent I have been using for a while (Ecos) – largely because it is cheap, available at Costco and has quite a nice smell – did the worst job, hands down.

The other detergents I tried were Sunlight Green Clean (which, it turns out, is not very green at all and though it does a reasonable job is a terrible over-sudser), Bio-vert, Method and Seventh Generation. All are recommended for HE (high-efficiency = front loading) machines, with Bio-vert being the only company to make a separate detergent for such machines (so make sure you get the right one for your machine). I should say that I did not, at this time, try Natureclean detergent, though this is an Ontario product. I have used the powder in the past and not had much success (with this or any other of their products).

Which detergent will I choose from henceforth? For me, the answer is Bio-vert as it gets things pretty clean

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(nothing really handled the banana and watermelon, but I did not soak or pre-treat), is produced reasonably close-by (Quebec) and the price is right (23c per wash).

Bio-vert generally makes good products. I always use their dishsoap and their dishwasher tabs are also effective. And I like that this is a small company (30 employees) with a strong commitment to eco-oriented product and packaging development (though there is room for improvement with the laundry soap bottles as they are only 25% post consumer recycled content).

Method is also a fascinating company in that it embraces cradle to cradle design principles and its products are really different. Packaging is generally exciting: 50% recycled and pump action for the laundry detergent (which comes in 4 enticing fragrances as well as perfume-free). You use very little (a few pumps or about 12ml as opposed to the 40-50mls recommended for Bio-vert and Seventh Generation).

If you live near Indiana, where the laundry soap is made, that would have a significant impact upon the carbon-intensity of your wash. But I live around 900km from Indiana as the crow flies (as opposed to about 150km from Laval where Biovert is made), so the calculation is less clear. In Ottawa the only real source for Method products is Shoppers Drug Mart. Shoppers has good and frequent sales, but the base price is high at nearly 40c per wash.

If you have difficulty lifting heavy items (or are headed to the laundromat), and don’t wash enough for the price differential to matter, this could be the product for you. Oh, and Method did an adequate job on stains, though overall slightly worse than Biovert and Seventh Generation (and hopeless on watermelon). I found the pump to be a better idea in principle than in practice: though it is non-messy, you always have the tricky issue of tilting and incomplete pumps.

Seventh Generation generally makes great products and has super environmental credentials.

seventh canada

Their laundry liquid is no exception. Of all the soaps, it washed the best in my test and did a particularly good job on the red wine (less good on bananas). For me the downsides are price (at 35c per wash it is nearly 50% more expensive than Bio-vert) and the fact that it comes from further afield. Although the company manufactures powders at its plant in Toronto, all laundry liquids are all imported from the US. Oddly enough, the laundry powder that is made (along with dishwasher powder) in Toronto is available only in the US.

The upside of Seventh Generation (apart from the quality of the wash) lies in their commitment to move to 90% post-consumer recycled bottles for laundry products in the very near future and the fact that the products are more widely available near me (at Loblaws, Metro, etc.). Like Method they claim their laundry detergent is about about 95% natural.

So there you have it. I had become a little lazy on detergents (no hope of finding the holy grail with that attitude). Now I have put several to the test and was, frankly, disappointed that one did not blow me away. So I will continue testing as new products are developed and keep you posted. Do you have any suggestions for me?

Sipping soda through a straw

So, I have already let you in on my secret for unbreakable glasses and my friend Amélie has provided you with a green option for endless soda, but something is still missing….Yes, the straw!

Kids especially enjoy straws.

glass in cup

But adults like them too and they have a particular advantage for long, summer drinks: it is hard to inadvertently suck up a wasp if you are using a straw. This may seem a little far-fetched, but wasps are, of course, attracted to sugary drinks and it does not take much to gulp down a flailing wasp (especially if you are drinking from an opaque can). This issue is of particular relevance to me as my daughter has a severe wasp allergy (after having been stung in the mouth: the closer to your head the sting, the worse the reaction).

Anyway, back to straws. We all love them, and they can be had very cheaply at any plastic emporium. Since, however, we suck and chew on them, it would be nice to think that they don’t contain anything nasty (I am not sure my local dollar store can guarantee this…). Beyond that, though, single-use plastic really bugs me for its contribution to landfill and carbon/pollution. The solution? Glass straws.

Now I know that sounds a bit alarming since straws don’t usually get treated with much respect, but the glass ones I have are (nearly) unbreakable. They are hand blown from borosilicate glass which is very resistant to breaking (the type of glass used for laboratory equipment and kitchen measuring jugs, etc.). The ones I have are made in upstate New York (not so far from me) and sold through this website, for approximately $5 each.

(A note on the website: it is not the slickest looking site, but customer care is good. All payments are through PayPal and, a bit disconcertingly, you receive only a Paypal receipt after the transaction, not a receipt from the site itself. But it all works.)

The site offers a range of straw options (bent, straight, coloured, wide, narrow). I tried a sample pack and I found the standard width, straight, 8″ or 10″ straws to be the best bet. The `thick’ feel of the straw in your mouth does take some getting used to (which is why I don’t like the wider straws or the ones with coloured bubbles on the end so much), but the novelty of drinking from a glass straw and knowing that you can throw it (not too vigorously) in the dishwasher after easily makes up for that. It is also nice to think of each straw being handblown in an artists’ studio. The optional coloured dots on the straws reinforce this feeling.

One note on cleaning. I would recommend purchasing the cleaning brush that fits through the straw (another $5), as smoothies and thicker drinks do tend to deposit bits that the dishwasher cannot reach.

straw and brush

Finally…do they break? Yes, one of mine did break very early on (not quite sure how as my youngest was in charge). But they come with a lifetime guarantee. If you email a picture of the broken straw and send another $3 through your PayPal account, you will get a replacement in the mail, no questions asked.

(N.B. I was sent a sample pack of straws to try for this review, but only after having previously purchased a set of straws.)

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