Teflon, ceramic, anodized aluminum…if you are on the hunt for new nonstick cookware, you may be overwhelmed by the options. With nearly a dozen different varieties of pots and pans to choose from, it's hard to decipher which ones are meant to be used for what type of cooking, and which are the safest. I spoke to Lisa McManus, the Executive Tasting and Testing Editor at America's Test Kitchen, who helped break down the ins and outs of nonstick pans.
Why Use Nonstick Pans?
First things first, let's evaluate why to use nonstick pans in the first place. In addition to the convenience of them, McManus explains they are particularly good for cooking items that are likely to fall apart.
"We like to use nonstick cookware for baking, and nonstick skillets for delicate foods like eggs and fish, where you really want easy food release from the pan without sticking and potentially ripping and breaking up the food," she explained.
But you can cook nearly anything in a nonstick pan, and picking a high-quality pan might mean you don't need many others.
What Makes a Pan Nonstick?
The core of your nonstick pan may be made of several materials such as aluminum, stainless steel, or ceramic, but what makes it nonstick is an added coating.
"The nonstick part of a pan is actually just a coating applied to its surface, which is why nonstick cookware is less durable than traditional cookware; that coating can scratch or wear off. Manufacturers apply it like spray paint, layering on anywhere from one to five coats," McManus explained.
That's also why nonstick pans wear out over time, as the coating deteriorates. More on that later.
What Types of Nonstick Coatings Are There, and Which Are the Safest?
PTFE or Teflon coating
Historically, the majority of nonstick cookware has been coated in polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), also known as Teflon, a coating made by Dupont. While these pans are quite effective in being nonstick, they do come with safety concerns.
"PTFE-based coating will release harmful fumes if it's heated above 500 degrees, which is surprisingly easy to do, especially if you heat the pan empty, or cook just a small amount of food at a time. We always preheat nonstick pans with oil in them, rather than empty, because oil will begin to smoke well below 500 degrees," McManus. If overheated, individuals can experience the "Teflon flu" or poisoning, experiencing symptoms such as "fever, shivering, sore throat, and weakness," according to a 2012 research study.
Of note, Dupont settled a class-action lawsuit in 2017 for $671 million after thousands of lawsuits were brought against them for personal injury from the leakage of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a chemical used to make Teflon, from its plant in West Virginia. PFOA, which was used in manufacturing Teflon until 2015, has been "linked to a number of health conditions, including thyroid disorders, chronic kidney disease, liver disease, and testicular cancer. It has also been linked to infertility and low birth weight," according to Healthline, which cites several research studies (here's a recent one linking celiac disease with chemicals in Teflon, among other substances).
Ceramic nonstick coating is on the rise with direct to consumer brands like Our Place which makes the Always pan, a pan designed to replace most of your cookware due to its versatility and design, touting the safety and ease of use of the coating.
Ceramic coating is considered safer than PTFE coating because it does not contain toxic chemicals such as PFOA, or release fumes when heated to higher temperatures. However, McManus points out that in her experience, ceramic cookware is less durable than its PTFE counterpart.
"Ceramic coatings are much more brittle and in general, we've found them in testing to be far less durable than those made of traditional PTFE-based nonstick," she shared.
Direct to consumer brand Caraway sells a ceramic-coated four-piece cookware set, stemming from the founder Jordan Nathan's own experience with Teflon poisoning after testing out a variety of cookware at a previous job. Caraway cookware is also oven safe.
Aluminum pans are also on the rise, though anodized aluminum "is not technically a nonstick coating," explained McManus. Rather, "it's a process that creates a harder and darker surface of aluminum oxide than is usually present on an aluminum pan. That makes the surface of the pan a little tougher, and nonreactive (uncoated aluminum can react with acidic foods and give a metallic taste) and it looks nice, but it's not nonstick, and it won't become more so through seasoning and use like cast iron or carbon steel pans can."
While there are health concerns of cooking with aluminum, anodized aluminum is generally considered to be safe as it is sealed and doesn't interact with acid the way typical aluminum does. Of note, McManus prefers stainless steel over anodized aluminum because "anodized aluminum coatings will wear off over time and with use, whereas a stainless steel clad pan is pretty much indestructible," she explained.
What Should I Know About Cooking in My Nonstick Pans, and How to Care for Them?
To safely and effectively use your nonstick pans, avoid overheating them, as McManus previously explained. You also want to favor butter or oil over a nonstick cooking spray, as the latter "can create invisible buildup on the pan's surface and form a barrier between your food and the nonstick surface when it's heated directly," she shared.
Of high importance is to ensure your pan has something in it as it's heating such as oil or food, as heating an empty pan can lead to overheating and, in the case of Teflon, emitting toxic fumes.
In general, nonstick pans are not considered to be the most durable options when it comes to pans. While a cast iron pan may last a lifetime, nonstick pans may lose their effectiveness after a year or two. "Nonstick doesn't last forever, no matter how careful you are," shares McManus. "It wears off and gradually becomes less and less slick. Every time you use it, the slickness wears away a bit. If you burn food on it, that damages it; if you drag a spatula across it or use metal utensils in it, that can scratch and damages the nonstick."
Related Reading: 8 Cardinal Cookware Sins You Don't Realize You're Committing
Depending on the brand and coating, you may be able to get a longer lifespan of a nonstick pan. Our Place shares that with gentle and proper usage, their Always pan's nonstick coating should last about five years—just avoid using any metal utensil on the surface to avoid scratching.
Proper usage will extend the non-stick coating of any nonstick pan, and McManus offered some best practices. McManus explains, "Don't thermally shock it, meaning don't send it from very hot to cold—like running a hot pan under a cold tap; that encourages any pan to warp. Don't put it in the dishwasher; the harsh soap can wear off nonstick and other objects joggling against the pan surface during the wash cycle also can damage the coating." It's suggested to avoid abrasive scrubbers while cleaning as well.
McManus also offered that you may be able to maintain the nonstick coating by using oil, similar to a cast iron pan. She explains, "heat it gently with a teaspoon or so of oil in it, then take it off the heat and wipe the oil all over the nonstick interior of the pan, then wipe most of the oil out and let it cool down. We've found that this gives the nonstick a bit of a boost, albeit temporary."
Caraway provides a breakdown of how to care for their ceramic coated pans before, during, and after cooking including tips like using low and medium temperatures while cooking since ceramic coating retains heat so efficiently.
As for me, I am sticking to ceramic-coated pans in my kitchen. And let's be honest, I more than infrequently overheat my pans while anxiously awaiting for them to heat up. While Teflon might be the most durable, I'm personally not willing to risk my health for it.
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