AKA how to increase the life of your nonstick pans!
When I sat down to write this article, I was convinced of one thing:
Surely I’m not the only one who has to replace their Teflon type nonstick pan every 2 – 3 years, sometimes even sooner, because it’s no longer nonstick?
Despite all the noise about consumers moving away from traditional ptfe (teflon) non stick pans due to health or environmental concerns (which I’m not going to go into in this article), the fact remains that the nonstick market in the USA is huge, $1.47 billion huge as of 2019, and expected to keep growing.
Which means millions of us are using non stick pans and facing this challenge of ruined non stick pans every few years.
And while there’s a lot of talk about what to look for when buying a pan, there’s not enough focus on what to do once you’ve bought it so that it can stay nonstick for longer.
Now let’s be clear about one thing – all nonstick pans have a finite life and will eventually start to stick. So unlike, say, a stainless steel pan which can last a lifetime, a nonstick pan will need to be replaced at some point.
In order to understand how to extend the life of a nonstick pan, we first have to understand…
Why do nonstick pans start to stick?
Most traditional nonstick coatings are made of PTFE or Teflon, which is a plastic compound.
With usage and over time, this plastic simply disintegrates. According to Wikipedia, PTFE (aka Teflon) begins to deteriorate once the cookware reaches about 260 °C (500 °F), and decomposes above 350 °C (662 °F).
Meaning it literally flies away in fumes.
This is despite ‘reinforced’ nonstick. You might have heard of nonstick pans reinforced with titanium or granite or even diamonds.
Yes, those pans tend to be tougher and more durable due to the addition of the reinforcements. But that still doesn’t change the fundamental properties of PTFE. Over time, it will disintegrate and lose its nonstick functionality.
Which brings us to the main purpose of this article. There are a lot of tips on how to use a nonstick pan but none on how to not use it so that you don’t end up ruining it prematurely. Worry not, the Cookware Advisor has compiled a list of:
12 ways to not ruin your nonstick pan
(and therefore extend its life)
1. Always use some oil or fat and rub it on the nonstick pan before heating it.
Here’s the problem – whether due to fat phobia or some other reason, most people assume that nonstick cooking means zero fat cooking.
But despite the nonstick, I truly think most cookware needs a light coating of fat to act as a lubricant and to help the nonstick perform optimally.
Now I’m not talking about pouring on the oil or adding a big lump of butter, because then, the fat would not be sticking to the pan but rather, getting absorbed by the food.
I’m talking about a light rub of oil or butter, just enough to coat the nonstick pan. A teaspoon or so. Here’s what I do. I take a small silicone brush, dab it in some oil and spread it on a cold pan before heating.
2. Handwash, don’t dishwash.
Yes, many nonstick cookware brands claim to be dishwasher safe. Just like some of them also claim you can use metallic mixers and knives right inside the pan (another big no-no).
Accept these as the marketing gimmicks they are. Because the truth is, the high heat and harsh detergent in a dishwasher can ruin the nonstick coating and shorten the life of your cookware.
3. Don’t preheat an empty pan.
Firstly there’s no need to preheat a nonstick pan. This might seem counterintuitive since we’re always supposed to preheat a stainless steel pan before adding food to it. Different surfaces, different rules.
Secondly, we know that Teflon type coatings start to deteriorate when a pan heats up to 500 F. Ever wonder how long it takes a pan to get to that temperature? Here’s the answer:
The Good Housekeeping Institute did a test to see how long it would take for a nonstick pan to overheat. Surprise, surprise, an empty pan took less than 2 minutes to heat up to over 500°F. A pan with oil? A whopping 2.5 minutes to hit 514°F.
4. No high heat.
Nonstick cookware should always be used on medium and medium low heat. Why? Because at high heat (500F and over) the coating starts to give off fumes and disintegrate.
These fumes can cause what is known as ‘Teflon’ fumes in humans and can be deadly to pet birds.
5. Don’t use metal utensils.
A lot of nonstick pans claim to be metal utensil safe due to a fortified coating. But take it from me, DON’T follow those claims. Stick to using wooden, plastic or silicone utensils.
I’ve found that even with those, any nonstick pan will inevitably get a lot of fine lines and even scratches. That’s just the reality of any nonstick coating.
And as for those ads we’ve all seen where you see metal beaters or knives being used right inside a nonstick pan – take them for the marketing gimmicks they are. No nonstick coating can withstand that kind of abuse.
6. Don’t use cooking spray.
Cooking sprays are made of some sort of cooking oil, like canola, olive or corn oil, soy lecithin (an emulsifier that prevents the oil from separating from the other ingredients), an anti-foaming agent and a propellant, which is a gas that helps the mixture spray out of the can nozzle.
Over time, the emulsifier (lecithin) and other additives which don’t burn off during cooking, can build up as a sticky residue and affect the nonstick properties of the pan. Not only that, it doesn’t wash off easily and needs some extra steps to remove it.
Simpler solution? Opt for the previously mentioned trick of brushing the pan with some oil or butter. No additives = no residue = no loss in nonstick.
7. If it overheats and fumes, lower or remove heat
During the life of your nonstick pan, this is an almost inevitable occurrence where the pan will overheat by accident. You can recognize it by the fumes emitted from the pan. As a simple explanation, that’s the plastic nonstick coating disintegrating and ‘flying’ away.
Immediately lower the heat in this case or better still, remove the pan from the heat source till it cools down sufficiently.
8. Don’t store food in it
Constant exposure to food, particularly acidic food (e.g. anything with tomatoes) will cause a nonstick coating to break down sooner. Avoid the temptation of leaving food in the pan once cooked. Or worse, storing it in the pan in the fridge.
9. Don’t stack without a protective layer
10. Don’t expect it to do what it is not meant to do
This includes charring a piece of meat, or searing to create a ‘fond’ for deglazing into a gravy. These end results require a reaction between a hot metallic surface and meat protein and don’t quite happen in a nonstick pan. An attempt to do so might result in overheating your nonstick pan.
Nonstick cookware is ideal for delicate cooking like eggs and crepes. Leave the high heat cooking to your stainless steel pan.
11. Don’t clean with an abrasive pad
Tempting as it is sometimes to use the rough side of a scrubbing sponge, that can damage and scratch the nonstick coating. Use a soft scrubby or washcloth. No abrasive cleaning tools.
12. Don’t use nonstick cookware in an oven
A lot of nonstick brands with metallic pan handles also boast about being oven safe (up to a certain temperature). But there are so many better options for oven use, e.g. cast iron, stainless steel and even ceramic.
Oven cooking means a pan will be surrounded by a high and constant source of heat. Remember, traditional nonstick coatings, in the simplest sense, are essentially plastic. Oven exposure will inevitably speed up the breaking down of this plastic.
Let’s assume you did all that and managed to get a few years of productive life out of your favorite nonstick pan. But the pan is not performing as it used to and you’re trying to figure out if you indeed managed to ruin your pan.
How do you tell if your nonstick pan is ruined?
There are several indications, but generally, you’ll know your nonstick pan is ruined when:
- Food is starting to stick. This means the nonstick coating is wearing off.
- The coating is heavily scratched, which again leads to food sticking to the pan instead of releasing easily. Keep in mind, a lightly scratched pan is normal, and in my experience, inevitable, despite using only wooden or plastic utensils.
- The coating is chipping off and you’re finding flakes in your food.
- You can see the underlying metal where the coating is worn off or scratched. This will again mean that the nonstick doesn’t work anymore and food is sticking to the pan. If the underlying exposed metal is plain aluminum, you might also have concerns about metal leaching into food.
- The nonstick coating is discolored or stained.
As an example, here is a photo of one of my favorite cookware brands, with a 3 layer nonstick coating.
After almost 4 years of heavy usage, food is starting to stick and the pan needs extra seasoning for better food release. Also, as you can see in the picture, not only is the coating heavily scratched, despite always using wooden and silicone utensils, but the color has deteriorated from a dark graphite to a dull gray.
So by the looks of it, its time for me to replace this pan.
Should you replace a nonstick pan that is starting to stick?
In most cases, you can get a few more months (possibly years) out of a pan by using a bit more oil or butter while cooking. This helps the food not stick and the pan can keep performing, except maybe for more ‘sticky’ foods like eggs.
Should you replace a nonstick pan that is badly scratched?
I would say yes. A badly scratched pan would mean the nonstick coating is damaged and cannot provide the food release that you might be looking for.
Is it safe to continue using a scratched or flaking nonstick pan?
This question needs an answer into parts:
First, if the coating chips or flakes off and you ingest it – is that risky?
It’s a given that no one wants to eat pieces of plastic with their food. But in case of accidentally ingesting a piece of Teflon, rest assured that there’s not much risk. Teflon or PTFE is an inert plastic and it will simply pass through your system. As a point of interest, Teflon is even used in joint replacements due to its non-reactive nature.
Second, if the coating is so badly scratched or worn off that the underlying metal is exposed – is that pan safe to use?
To summarize, it is not unsafe to use a scratched of flaking nonstick pan. However, it is advisable to replace it at that point because you really don’t have a functioning nonstick pan in such a case.
How long should a nonstick pan last?
One thing to be prepared for is that unlike a stainless steel or cast iron pan that literally lasts forever, nonstick pans tend to have a much shorter life.
- For a light, affordably priced, around 1-2 years.
- For a good quality pan with a heavy gauge metal on the base and 2-3 layers of reinforced non-stick, around 3 years.
Your personal experience, of course, could be anywhere between or beyond these 2 options. It all depends on the frequency, usage and care of the pans.
What to look for when buying a nonstick pan
1. Look for hard anodized aluminum vs plain aluminum.
How do you recognize that a pan is hard anodized? It should clearly say it in the name. Example this popular Rachael Ray Hard Anodized set.
A plain aluminum nonstick pan will not have hard anodized in the name. Example this T-fal Initiatives nonstick pan
Why hard anodized?
A hard anodized nonstick pan tends to be more expensive than a plain one. This is because hard-anodized aluminum goes through an extra process that makes it much harder, stronger and scratch resistant than plain aluminum.
But here’s the real reason why. A non-stick coating applied to a hard anodized aluminum pan lasts much longer than a plain aluminum pan.
In fact, according to Circuloncanada.ca, when an abrasion test was performed on a hard anodized aluminum surface and a plain aluminum surface with the same quality of non-stick coating, the hard anodized material proved 3 times more durable!
Worth the extra cost, in my opinion.
If you prefer stainless steel and want an induction friendly option, you can’t go wrong with this All Clad Stainless Steel Tri-Ply Bonded Fry pan
2. Pay for quality.
Avoid cheap pans that you would need to replace in a year or so. Look for a reinforced nonstick coating that is applied in multiple layers. The more layers, the better, since that means the tougher and more durable the coating. Check reviews and look for a long or lifetime warranty and buy the best pan your budget can afford.
For a good quality pan, 3 layers is the minimum though there are brands offering 5 and even 7 layers.
Can nonstick pans be recoated?
This is an interesting question that I see asked quite often. Unless you have access to professional services, the short answer is: no.
This is not a DIY process that can be done by the average home cook. Once the nonstick coating is ruined, it’s time for a new pan.
How do you deep clean a nonstick pan?
Sometimes a nonstick pan will accumulate a sticky residue that won’t come off with the usual soft soapy scrub. That means its time for a deep clean. Warm a mixture of 1/2 cup vinegar and 1 cup water in the pan. Let is simmer for a few minutes and let cool, after which wash your pan as usual.