• Posted by Califia Suntree on July 13th, 2011, 11:38 AM

    Q: I want to be able to sauté and make omelettes without a ton of oil or fat, and without food welding to the pan. Are nonstick pans really that bad? What are my options here?

    It’s pretty much undisputed that those black, shiny nonstick pans really “work”–you can fry an egg without any grease at all, and food glides off of them with unnerving ease. But being able to “fry” without oil is inherently creepy, and defies the essential science of cooking (frying = high heat + grease). That alone seems reason enough to avoid polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE, or “Teflon” when it’s made by DuPont). PTFE is essentially a super-duper high-powered lubricant, used on on things like gears and guns. Among many other chemical compounds, nonstick coatings also contain perfluorochemicals (PFCs), which is also used on pizza boxes and all manner of food packaging. (Because PFCs basically mimic fatty acids and lipds, the EPA reports that PFCs can effect cholesterol and triglyceride levels. So not only are those potato chips giving you high cholesterol, the bag might be, too!)

    Both PTFE and PFCs were introduced in the convenience-obsessed 1950s, and the FDA (and, of course, DuPont) maintain that nonstick coatings are safe. But even DuPont inadvertently admits their toxicity, by “encouraging” consumers to keep their pet birds out of the kitchen. While the reason isn’t given, it’s because Teflon gas will kill your bird. But go ahead and eat those little flakes that come off in your food, says DuPont, they will just “pass through the body without being absorbed.” What with the dead pet birds and all, I’ll take a pass on Teflon eggs.

    Not to belabor the issue, but nonstick pans (even the super expensive ones) also get scratched within a year or two, and stop being nonstick. Plus, they can’t be used at high heat. Fortunately, we managed to cook eggs and other foods for centuries before Teflon, and we can certainly manage now. Granted, you have to succumb to the rules of nature and sauté or fry in a bit of grease, but isn’t it worth it to keep Tweety alive and have a pan that will last for decades?

    There are actually quite a few terrific alternatives to nonstick cookware. My choice is enameled cast iron–in particular Descoware, which was Julia Child’s preferred brand. Le Creuset bought out the company’s patents in the late 1970s, and eventually discontinued the “Glissemaille” enamel coating that gives Descoware its stick-resistant (and nonreactive) quality. You can still find Descoware (and enamel-lined Le Creuset) on eBay and at flea markets. It can be on the pricey side, but you know you have Julia Child’s endorsement, and the pans (treated nicely) will last for generations.

    If you want to buy new, Le Creuset does make skillets with a coated cast iron interior; I was told by various salespeople that the coating is either glass or ceramic or enamel, but that it’s stick-resistant and nonreactive. However, the noticeably rough texture (and dark color) makes me skeptical on both fronts. You can follow the lead of professional chefs and go with simple, uncoated steel pans, such as those made by De Buyer or Paderno. (All-Clad is also popular, but if you overheat the pan or scrub it too vigorously, your food will stick like cement.) Of course, for almost everything you cook–except eggs and anything with acidic ingredients, like wine, tomatoes or lemon juice–that ancient, trusty, tar-black cast iron skillet is going to give you terrific results every time.


  1. July 19th, 2011 at 5:49 am

    Because there’s so much misinformation out there about the Teflon® brand, I’m not surprised that you are concerned. I’m a representative of DuPont though, and hope you’ll let me share some information with you and your readers, so that everyone can make truly informed decisions.

    Because birds have extremely sensitive respiratory systems, bird owners must take precautions to protect them. Cooking fumes, smoke and odors that have little or no effect on people can seriously sicken and even kill birds, often quite quickly. Cooking fumes from any type of unattended or overheated cookware, not just non-stick, can damage a bird’s lungs with alarming speed. This is why bird owners should take steps to protect their pets, such as keeping their birds out of the kitchen, never leaving cookware unattended, never allowing pots and pans to overheat, and making sure that their kitchen is properly ventilated at all times.

    In terms of Polymer Fume Fever… Over the past 40 years, there have been only a few reported accounts of polymer fume fever as a result of severely overheating non-stick cookware. It should be noted that butter, fats, and cooking oils will begin to smoke at approximately 400°F (204°C), producing fumes that can irritate eyes, nose, and throat and possibly cause respiratory distress. DuPont non-stick coatings will not begin to deteriorate in appearance or performance until the temperature of the cookware reaches about 500°F

    Regulatory agencies, consumer groups and health associations all have taken a close look at the Teflon® brand. This article highlights what they found — the bottom line is that you can use Teflon® non-stick without worry.


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