A Guide to Using Nonstick Pans

By Geoffrey R. Harris, MD

From controversy about Teflon to confusion about how to use nonstick surfaces, cooking without using too much oil can be perplexing. Read on to find out how to use and how to choose when it comes to nonstick.

Like many couples, when my wife and I got married, we received a set of nonstick cookware from our registry, but it is only now that we really understand how to use our Teflon-coated pots and pans appropriately. Using nonstick cookware is very different than using the cast iron skillets that we both grew up with. Neither of us had much experience with Teflon. In fact the first nonstick pan I owned was the one I received in college after opening up a checking account on campus. That pan, like so many other misused nonstick skillets, started peeling and flaking after about 3 months of frequent cooking on high heat using the metal spatula I had purchased at Goodwill.

At SuperFoods, we encourage cooking with only a small amount of oil, so learning to safely use nonstick pans is essential to living a SuperFoods HealthStyle. I use our nonstick pans to cook eggs and sauté spinach with only a very small amount of olive oil. For cooking chicken or other meat, I prefer to use a stainless steel skillet because I have found that nonstick skillets don’t brown food as well. Either way, I try to use as little oil as possible when cooking.

One of the first questions that I always get about nonstick pans is in relation to the Teflon controversy. Teflon and other nonstick surfaces are made from a fluoropolymer paint that is manufactured using PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid). PFOA is mostly removed during the production of the nonstick coating, but some studies have suggested that there may be trace amounts of PFOA in the final coating. There are currently no known human health effects caused by PFOA, but studies are ongoing. At high levels, PFOA is likely to be a carcinogen, but the science is lacking. Consumer Reports performed laboratory studies on nonstick pans and found that new and used pans heated to 400 degrees Fahrenheit released very little PFOA. Unfortunately, most of our exposure to PFOA comes from environmental contamination from the manufacturing, use, and disposal of electronic parts, oil-resistant coatings, and waterproof fabrics, not from the use of pots and pans. Arguably, this means that the production of Teflon causes some of the environmental exposure that ends up in our food supply and water, but at this time the FDA does not consider the use of nonstick cookware a significant PFOA exposure source.

The FDA and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission have both examined the scientific data regarding nonstick coatings and deemed the surfaces safe when used for conventional kitchen use. Teflon has been used for over 40 years, in more than 40 countries. There is only one report of reversible, flu-like symptoms in a human after a nonstick pan was severely overheated. There are also reports of domesticated birds dying after empty nonstick pans were left on the stove on high heat. Birds have a very sensitive respiratory system and probably shouldn’t be kept in the kitchen. When nonstick coatings are overheated, the surface will begin to degrade and release fumes. This occurs when temperatures exceed 600 degrees Fahrenheit which is well above the smoking point of oils, fats, and butter as well as well above the recommended maximum temperature for nonstick pans. Consequently, my strongest recommendation is not to leave any empty pan on high heat. While this seems intuitive, accidents do happen. I had a roommate in medical school who fell asleep while trying to make a late-night spaghetti dinner and severely damaged a Teflon pan after the water boiled off. The deteriorating Teflon and melting plastic handle set off our smoke alarm at 2:00 AM, but besides a ruined pot no harm was done.

I consider nonstick cookware safe when used appropriately. Here is a list of guidelines for using these pots and pans properly:

Read the use and care information that comes with your cookware. If you purchase a loose pan, check the brand’s website for this information.

Unless otherwise indicated, avoid using metal spatulas and utensils which may damage the coating when cooking with a nonstick pan. Use silicone or plastic utensils.

Clean the pans in the sink using mild detergent and a sponge or plastic scrubber. Do not use Brillo pads, steel wool, or metal scrubbers on nonstick surfaces. Generally, nonstick cookware should not be put in the dishwasher.

Don’t use nonstick pans if you don’t need to. Reserve your nonstick for eggs, vegetables, and other foods that stick easily to pans. You don’t need a nonstick pan to boil water for pasta. Use a stainless steel pot on high heat to boil water—you can add a little oil to the water to keep pasta from sticking to the bottom or sides, if you need to.

Don’t overheat your nonstick pans. I can’t stress this enough. When using a nonstick pan, cook on low or medium heat. Also, do not leave your pans unattended, especially when empty. Turn off the heat as soon as you are done cooking.

When the nonstick surface appears scratched or pitted, it is time to get a new pan. We have had to replace the skillet that we use regularly because it began to pit after a few years of consistent use. Remember, nothing lasts forever. Flaking occurs after the nonstick coating reaches a later stage of deterioration. While flakes of Teflon are inert and not poisonous, we shouldn’t be eating them. Get rid of pans when the surface starts to pit or peel.

If oils or fats are smoking, then the pan is too hot. Never preheat your pans on high heat. High heat is unnecessary for typical cooking. My wife and I have learned to cook at low temperatures and have been very successful at creating delicious, healthy meals. Many people think more heat is better or faster, but newer pans conduct heat well and are actually designed to cook evenly and efficiently at lower heat. Give low heat cooking a try.

If you are in the market for new pans, check out the January 2008 Consumer Reports review of cookware that is available online at www.consumerreports.org.

Finally, be sure to choose a roommate who doesn’t fall asleep while cooking. I don’t know about you, but I am not a fan of waking to the shrieking of a smoke alarm that has been set off by a burning nonstick pan.