The 10 Best Nonstick Frying Pans
A Sticky Situation
If you've ever had the terrible misfortune of using cookware that didn't have any non-stick technology applied to its construction, you know that horrible feeling you get when you realize your food has stuck itself to the pan. You can tell just by looking at it; you don't need to poke it, or prod it, or slide a spatula beneath it. It's as though the food takes on a new attitude, a bratty kind of posture that says, "I dare you to try to get me off this pan."
Few moments in the kitchen are as deflating as this one, but avoiding it is as easy as investing in a decent set of non-stick cookware.
A good pan all comes down to its metal composition or its coating. Metal surfaces have pores and grooves in them, like your skin does, and like a sponge does. When you get a sponge wet, the sponge and its openings expand. The same happens to your pan when you get it hot: the metal expands along with its pores and grooves. The tendency for those grooves to catch on material is called the coefficient of friction, and it determines everything from how well your food slides out of a pan to how dangerous a freshly waxed floor would be to a person walking around in his or her socks.
When your food gets stuck in those little openings, very small changes in temperature trap food particles and cause your meal to stick. When you add oil to a pan, it fills these pores in, so you won't see that happen as readily. The problem there is that your food will absorb the oil, sucking it right up from those pores, and what you're left with is a less healthy piece of food that's stuck anyway.
A non-stick surface either has a material coating the metal surface and filling in those pores, or it's made with a certain kind of metal and stone combination, like titanium and ceramic, that is virtually without pores.
To Teflon, Or Not To Teflon
Pan manufacturers often utilize combined means to imbue their pans with non-stick properties. One of the most common coatings for a pan–due to its low cost and high efficiency–is Teflon, a chemical less commonly known as Polytetrafluoroethylene, or PTFE.
DuPont, the company responsible for making Teflon, claims that the product is completely safe, although consumers have long noticed a connection between heating Teflon pans beyond a certain temperature and the acute death of pet birds in the vicinity.
The theory, which has been tested to certain degrees of scientific accuracy, states that an empty Teflon-coated pan will reach a temperature of about 721˚F in five minutes. DuPont claims that decomposition of the non-stick coating begins at approximately 660˚F, well below the temperature you can reach in that short time.
When that decomposition begins, particles and gasses toxic to birds enter the air, and, when inhaled by the birds, cause death within 12 hours, though sometimes death is practically immediate.
Fortunately, the pans on our list claim to use coatings that do not use the same chemical compounds found in the Teflon manufacturing process, specifically PFOA, a certain type of acid that's most closely associated with any and all negative effects of Teflon.
The challenge here, however, is that, while the use of a PFOA-free non-stick coating sounds swell, manufacturers aren't completely forthcoming about what they're using in its place from material to material.
The safest bet, if you're concerned about chemical particles and toxic gasses, would be to choose a pan that combines metal and stoneware materials, the latter of which naturally fills in the pores and grooves occurring in the former. They are more expensive than their coated cousins, but it might be worth it in the long run to keep your medical bills–and your bird replacement costs–at a minimum.
While chefs and home cooks have used oils and water to prevent their foods from sticking for many centuries, chemical non-stick coatings have only been around since the late 1930s.
In 1938, specifically, and engineer for DuPont experimenting with tetrafluoroethylene stumbled upon PTFE, which the military quickly applied to everything from parts inside atom bombs to the tips of their missiles. A French fisherman used it to lubricate his lines, and one day in the early 40s, his wife asked him to throw it on the bottom of one of her pots. From there, the culinary application was inevitable.
It's only been in recent years that the potential dangers of Teflon and its chemical components have caused consumers to seek out new methods of non-stick cooking. Some companies have responded with pans that use stoneware with a naturally low coefficient of friction to fill in the gaps, pores, and grooves present in their metals, as well as metals with naturally smaller pores.
Other methods, like salting or seasoning, are much older, but they've become popular among consumers who don't want to spend an arm and a leg on high-quality, chemical-free non-stick, but who still want a safe way to make their cooking easier.