As a cooking instructor, I get asked frequently about the safety of nonstick cookware. Users of nonstick pots and pans love them because nothing sticks to them and they are very easy to clean. If you do not consume oil in your diet, nonstick pans can be a dream, especially for dishes like pancakes, veggie burgers, and hash browns that usually require oil to prevent sticking during cooking.
Because of their very unique coating, food does not stick to nonstick pans. There are different coating formulas that will result in food not sticking, but the brand most well-known is Teflon, also known as polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), which has been in use since the 1940s. Nonstick coatings are sprayed on aluminum, stainless steel, and cast iron cookware, and are heated at very high temperatures to cure the final surface.
Home cooks are often concerned about nonstick cookware, wondering if chemicals used in manufacturing might be released into their food or emitted into the air, and ultimately end up in their body.
I have researched this topic (see references below) and what I have learned is that nonstick cookware is considered safe if it is used properly. Primarily, this means not overheating the pan. Overheating nonstick pans causes their coating to break down, which can result in the release of surface particles and/or toxic gases.
Generally, the maximum temperature you want to heat a nonstick pan is 500 degrees Fahrenheit. But beware, this can happen quickly: an empty pan can reach this temperature in two to five minutes. Beyond this temperature, the coating will begin to decompose. When temperatures reach 660 degrees and higher, strong fumes can be released that could make you feel a little sick; but odds are low that you could breathe in enough of them to make you really sick (although indoor pet birds have been known to be negatively affected). As for ingesting a small piece of the nonstick coating, experts at the EPA say that the particle would most likely pass through the body without making a person sick.
A specific concern is PFOAs (perfluorooctanoic acids), one of the chemicals used to make some nonstick pan coatings, including Teflon. The EPA has been working with stakeholders to completely phase out emissions and product content levels of PFOA and related chemicals by 2015.
Follow these 10 tips for safer nonstick use and to lengthen the life of your cookware:
1. Use pans on low or medium heat only (not high heat). Overheating can cause the coating to break down, which can result in the release of toxic particles and/or gases. (Keeping the heat down also extends the life of your pan.)
2. Cover a majority of the pan’s surface with whatever you’re cooking, as this will keep the pan’s temperature down.
3. Only preheat nonstick pans on medium or low. I like to put a tablespoon of water into my pan as it heats up, and when the water starts to sputter and cook off, I know the pan is ready for the food.
4. Don’t use nonstick pans over “power burners” (anything above 12,000 BTUs on a gas stove or 2,400 watts on an electric range).
5. Use high quality nonstick cookware. Cheap, lightweight nonstick pans heat up faster (not good), so invest in a good quality, heavier-bottomed pan. These cost more but will cook more evenly, last longer, and be safer.
6. If you tend toward cooking only on high heat or walking away from your stove, don’t use nonstick cookware; or use a good quality ceramic cookware made with nontoxic glaze.
7. Ventilate your kitchen, and use your exhaust fan to take up any fumes.
8. Don't put your nonstick pans in the dishwasher; they will last longer.
9. Avoid scratching or chipping your nonstick pans. Toward this, use wood or silicone utensils instead of metal, and don’t use steel wool to clean your pans. Also, don’t stack your nonstick pans (or if you do, put towels between them).
10. Replace moderately used nonstick cookware every three to five years. If your pan becomes damaged for any reason before this, don’t keep using it; replace it.
I have an 11-inch nonstick skillet that I use for pancakes, hash browns, and veggie burgers. I also use stainless steel pans and ceramic-coated pans, so I’m not using nonstick all of the time. I have used cheap and expensive brands of nonstick pans, and the difference is night and day. I like the Berndes and ScanPan brands of nonstick cookware, as well as Le Creuset, which makes enameled, cast iron cookware. I have used less expensive brands of nonstick pans, but did not care for them as much as the higher quality brands. Inexpensive brands are usually more lightweight, don't cook as evenly, and don't last very long. My inexpensive nonstick skillet worked great in the beginning, but then quickly began to degrade (and is hastened by using them on high heat).
So, whether or not you use nonstick cookware is up to you. For some people, using nonstick pans is out of the question entirely. Some will instead make their pancakes, hash browns and burgers in the oven, or simply not make these types of foods. Using the oven to cook these foods takes longer, and does not result in the same kind of even, dark browning that cooking on the stove-top does, but the food still tastes great.
Of course, we do not need to use nonstick cookware; but if we are to believe what we read from a variety of sources about its safety, using high-quality, nonstick cookware responsibly and safely should not be cause for alarm.
(If would like to read a thorough article on cookware of all types, including nonstick, check out: The Ultimate Guide to Healthy Cookware)