When I got married oh-so-many years ago, my cookware set was shiny and new. I registered for (and received) the hard-anodized Calphalon cookware, and just looking at my Dutch oven made me happy. But after years of on-the-fly meals that are requisite with raising young kids, I’ve often cheated on my cookware by supplementing it with a non-stick skillet and a waffle pan. Lighter and easier to clean than their hard-anodized counterparts, I’ve abused them without thinking of the consequences. And then, the news of toxins in the non-stick coating began to filter through the news. The health risks made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end as I recited a litany of “what ifs” in my head. Before I knew it, I was banning anything non-stick.
Why Nonstick Gets a Bad Rap
When describing or categorizing cookware, the phrase “non-stick” refers to a solid coating made of a fluorocarbon called polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), commonly known as Teflon. Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), also known as C8, is a chemical commonly used to make PTFE in non-stick cookware, usually when adhering the PTFE to a hard metal base like aluminum.
While PTFE is stable and non-toxic in its solid form, it begins to deteriorate after the temperature of the cookware reaches about 500° F. These degradation by-products may include PFOA, which the Environmental Protection Agency has identified as a likely carcinogen. It has been found to be lethal in birds and can cause flu-like symptoms in humans.
Keeping Nonstick Safe and Reliable
When used over a low to medium flame, non-stick cookware is considered safe because the high temperatures that would degrade the nonstick coating and thus release the harmful PTFE or PFOA are avoided.
To preserve the coating and thus avoid having bits of it flake off in your food, never put non-stick cookware in the dishwasher; always hand-wash it with a mild dish detergent. Also, avoid metal spatulas and spoons, instead using utensils made of wood or silicone.
Try to avoid non-stick cooking sprays, which can lead to carbon build up and make the non-stick cookware, well, not-so-nonstick anymore.
Better for Our Waistlines?
One reason consumers buy non-stick cookware is for low-fat cooking. When preparing fried foods, non-stick pans require only half the amount of oil or butter usually needed. Another reason many cooks love non-stick cookware is the easy clean-up—no scouring or soaking is needed. Often, a gentle wipe with a sponge is all the effort required to clean it.
But if you’re still a bit concerned by the possible toxicity of non-stick cookware, there are some PFOA- and/or PTFE-free options on the market.
1. Conventional Aluminum Teflon
Popular Brand: T-Fal
Conventional aluminum non-stick is the least expensive type of non-stick cookware. It comes in various layers. Single-layer non-stick cookware tends to scratch easily, and in some cases, might even begin to peel off after repeated use. Dual-layer non-stick cookware has a non-stick layer followed by a sealant, is more resistant to scratching and peeling, and lasts a little longer than its single-layer counterpart.
As price increases, so should the layers of coating. Triple-layer non-stick coating is incrementally more durable than dual-layer, and the durability trend continues with four or more layers. Because conventional aluminum non-stick is the least expensive type of non-stick cookware, you can replace it easily if it gets scratched or you suspect that the coating has been compromised in any way.
2. Hard-Anodized with Teflon
Popular Brand: Calphalon
Hard-anodized cookware refers to metal pots and pans made from electrochemically-hardened aluminum. It’s available uncoated as well as non-stick. It also has a significantly longer lifespan than traditional non-stick cookware, is virtually non-porous, and is twice as hard as stainless steel. Since hard-anodized cookware is highly resistant to corrosion and scratching, the non-stick coating supposedly lasts longer than conventional non-stick cookware; however, it does eventually scrape off. And while hard-anodized, non-stick cookware is more expensive than conventional aluminum non-stick, the coating should last longer and the periods between replacement should be much longer.
3. Stainless Steel with Teflon
Popular Brand: All-Clad
Stainless steel non-stick cookware is for home cooks who like the look of stainless steel. Although the construction of each piece is almost indestructible, there are no significant benefits of purchasing stainless steel, non-stick over any other type of cookware. As with hard-anodized, non-stick cookware, the coating will eventually come off. But the price and the sheer beauty of the cookware should make any person want to hand-wash it—and maybe even cuddle with it.
4. Titanium with Nonstick
Popular Brands: Anolon and Scanpan
Titanium is a metallic material that has the highest strength-to-weight ratio of all metals known to man. It’s lightweight, yet as durable as cast iron. It won’t warp, dent, or scratch. Manufacturers of titanium cookware also claim a patent non-stick surface. For example, Scanpan Green Tek pans claim to use a PFOA-free “clean and green” PTFE-nonstick compound in their coating. Too good to be true? Perhaps. For every ten positive reviews found on the Internet there are two negative ones. Professional consumer guides have yet to fully review titanium non-stick cookware, so the jury is still out.
Popular Brand: GreenPan
GreenPan cookware, which is sold on the Home Shopping Network, claims to be PFTE- and PFOA-free. The manufacturers of GreenPan state that Thermolon is a hybrid polymer nano-composite non-stick coating. Because it’s sold on HSN, the reviews on their Web site are probably not reliable. No professional reviews have been found so far.
Popular Brand: Cuisinart GreenGourmet
Cuisinart recently released its GreenGourmet line, which it claims is both PFOA- and PTFE-free. Cuisinart calls its new coating Ceramica, a ceramic-based non-stick substance that won’t peel off.
The truth is that not all non-stick cookware is created equal, whether it uses Teflon or some other non-stick technology. With so many manufacturers producing non-stick cookware, the choice of non-stick versus uncoated cookware may be best left to a matter of taste and lifestyle above anything else.