We’ve looked at our cookware from the outside, talked about various metals your pots and pans could be made of, discussed heat transfer, defined cladding, etc. (click here!) The next thing you’re going to want to consider is what’s on the inside – you know, the part that actually comes in contact with your food.
You are enthralled by the idea of a non stick frying pan. Everyone you know seems to have one, and you’ve seen amazing testimonials on TV. You’ve watched that infomercial in horror as woman #1 breaks all of her fingernails and literally ruins her hands trying to scrub a ridiculously burned pan, and you recognize her as…YOU. Then you watched fried eggs slide ever so gracefully out of the advertised, non stick pans, and you said to yourself, yes! I want that!
Of course you do.
So you start shopping, because you want the best non stick pans you can find, and holy shamolies! There are dozens of options, complete with pro/con arguments, green alternatives, and dire warnings about toxic fumes that could harm your pets and kill your birds. You start to waver. Do you really need a non-stick frying pan?
In a word, yes. At least one. Here’s the inside story on what makes the best non stick pans work, what to look for and what to avoid.
Fact: There are only two kinds of coatings that are completely non stick
One is made of a substance that contains PTFE, and the other is ceramic. Brand names and nuanced formulations aside, these are the only types of coatings with “food release” attributes good enough to wear the slip ‘n slide, no kidding, badge of non-stick honor.
Option 1: Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE)
A word this long can only be some kind of unhealthy plastic, right? PTFE is in fact a polymer that was accidentally discovered by Roy Plunkett in 1938. It seems that Mr. Plunkett, a chemist working for DuPont at the time, was trying to develop an alternative refrigerant. He pressurized this gas called tetrafluoroethylene, and what came out was this super slippery substance that the company eventually named Teflon®. However, it wasn’t until the 60’s that someone thought, hey, I bet this stuff would be great in a frying pan.
Perhaps the conversation went something like this:
Cave Daddy, aka Mr. Plunkett: You should see how great this slippery Teflon stuff makes my fishing line glide!
Cave Mama, aka Mrs. Plunkett: Really? How about putting some in my frying pan so I don’t have to wear my fingers down to the nubs cleaning it every time I make bacon and eggs?
Cave Daddy: (Light bulb moment)
DuPont studied PTFE extensively, and found it to be non-corrosive and chemically stable. Furthermore, it is inert in the human body, and has an extremely high melting point (600F). What’s not to like?
Its evil twin, PFOA, that’s what.
PFOA stands for polytetrafluoroethylene, or C8, which was used as an emulsifier for processing the PTFE. Basically, it’s a really strong, acidic solvent that supposedly burns off by the time the coating is done; but that isn’t the big problem. PFOA is a toxic, cancer-causing substance the persists in the environment. It doesn’t break down. Consequently, responsible coating manufacturers have phased it out and don’t use it anymore.
Let me repeat that: Responsible coating manufacturers have stopped using PFOA in any of their products, and that includes Teflon. They will sing to the rafters that their products are PFOA-free right up front, too.
The Burning Question: Are non stick coatings made with PTFE safe now?
In preparation to write about this topic, I researched dozens of articles, blogs, FDA reports, scientific research papers, user comments, and manufacturer’s websites.
My conclusion is a thumbs up – with a few caveats.
- Don’t turn the heat up to “high.” The point at which your PTFE coating might possibly give off noxious fumes is over 600 degrees, and, pinky swear, there’s just no need for that kind of heat in a non stick pan.
- Don’t try to sear steaks or chops in a non stick pan. Again, if super high heat is required, use your grill, your broiler, or a different pan – cast iron or carbon steel, for example.
- Don’t use metal utensils. Even if they tell you their new formula is scratch-proof. By the time I tossed my old Teflon pan it looked like it had been attacked by an angry cat.
- Don’t put it in the dishwasher. It’s a non stick pan, for heaven’s sake! You should be able to clean it out with a paper towel and a little dish soap!
- Don’t expect that awesome food-release quality to last forever. In fact, don’t expect even the best, most expensive ones to last longer than 5 or 6 years. You can still safely use the pan (unless it’s scratched through to the metal), but you’ll have to start adding some type of oil or fat to keep your food from sticking.
- Don’t try to re-coat your pan. You know who you are. You hate to pitch anything you might be able to rescue for some minor coin. However, as one expert says (and I’m paraphrasing here): Applying PTFE coatings involves mechanical polishing of the surface, etching, primers, high-temperature fusion, etc. It’s an industrial process, not something you spray paint onto a beat-up, old pan. Got it? Good! Get a new one.
The Brand Names
Teflon might be the most well-known brand of non stick coating, but it is by no means the only brand that uses PFTE to give you a slippery cooking surface. Other brands include Eterna, Excalibur, Eclipse, Quantanium, Silverstone, Woll Tiatianum, Woll Diamond, and Xylan.
Remember, these are just the coatings! Different cookware brands will use them on their own products. For example, you’ll find Teflon® on the inside of T-Fal® cookware, but Rachel Ray uses the Eclipse® brand of coating on their non stick pans.
How can you tell if a coating contains PFTE?
If they claim to be non-stick and they aren’t ceramic, they almost certainly do.
Option 2: Non-Stick Ceramic Coating
Since the big reveal that PFOA is a seriously harmful chemical that was being used to make non-stick coatings like Teflon, companies have been scrambling to come up with a non-toxic alternative that would still get the job done. Enter ceramics.
Ceramic coatings have become the safe, non-stick option for health-conscious and environmentally concerned cooks alike. They contain no PFOA, no PTFE, and are less likely to scratch, stain, or corrode. They can withstand higher temperatures without breaking down, and are slippery enough to make an egg slide with equal grace.
Not your daughter’s clay pots
Literally, ceramics refers to pottery, which makes me think of the little painted pots my daughter used to bring home from her class at our local arts center. Obviously, those fragile little bits of childhood aren’t quite the same as the coatings used in cookware, but the material, the process and the properties are quite similar.
The word “ceramic” comes from an old Sanskrit work meaning “burn.” You might be surprised to know that things like bricks, glass, and even dental implants fall under this category. In the case of coatings for cookware, the processing has come a long way. While the base material is still silicon (that’s sand or clay to you and me), you can find ceramic coatings nowadays reinforced with titanium or even diamonds!
Most ceramic coatings are applied using a sol-gel process, which involves turning liquid clay and water into a gel, then spreading it evenly in the pan. It is then dried and heat-treated to create a super hard, non-porous surface. Some manufacturers prefer to call these coatings “ceramic-like” because their characteristic properties aren’t exactly the same, and often they will use two or more applications to get the effect they want.
Safer than Teflon?
Most would say yes, but there is one thing you might want to watch out for. Dyes and glazes containing cadmium and lead have been known to make people sick. It’s doubtful these things would be on the inside of the pan, but it could be just as dangerous if high cooking temperatures caused toxic gasses to be released from that lovely exterior finish. Be wary of off-brands from South America and Indonesia.
Safer yes, more durable, no. By many accounts your ceramic pan will start to lose its “food release” qualities much more quickly than pans lined with PTFE-based coatings – some in as little as 6 months to a year. And although they are more scratch resistant, they can chip over time. Be especially careful not to force a drastic temperature change, like plunging a hot pan into cold water, which will cause the lining to crack.
Since the technology is relatively new, there are not as many brands of ceramic or ceramic coatings you can look for. The more popular ones include Thermalon, Duraceram, Greblon, EcoLon, and Silverstone, but because their popularity is growing, I’m sure there are others I’ve missed here. Again, remember that these brand names are just for the coatings that you can find on different brands of cookware. For example, GreenPanTM uses a ThermalonTM ceramic non stick coating.
Wait. What about enamel?
Enamel is in the same structural category as ceramic or glass. It all breaks down to sand and/or clay. The process is different – enamel starts out as a powder that is melted onto the metallic surface of your pan – but you still end up with a cooking surface that’s easy to clean and free from PTFE polymers.
Porcelain enamel is even stronger, but it isn’t any more stick-resistant than regular enamel or ceramic. You’ll see this frequently paired with cast iron in brands like Lodge and LeCreuset. It’s beautiful and functional, but be warned: it’s heavy!
The verdict: It’s up to you!
If you’re looking for non stick pans that will retain their dream-come-true food-release properties, and you promise not to turn the heat up too high, then coatings that contain PTFE are for you. If you’re concerned about plastic polymers releasing toxic fumes that could kill your birds, and you don’t care that your pan might not stay dazzlingly non stick for more than a couple of years, choose ceramic.
In either case, once you get your new pan home, do the fried egg test like you saw on the commercial. Keep a tissue handy to dab away your tears of joy and relief, then go ahead and get your nails done. You’re gonna love it!