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Nonstick Pan Care: How to Clean, Maintain, and Use Your Cookware

Jun 21, 2023Jun 21, 2023

By Audrey Bruno

Nonstick pans come with a bunch of benefits like homemade pancakes never getting stuck mid-flip and minimal effort for cleaning. But, without proper nonstick pan care, you might not be making the most out of this convenient cooking tool.

Nonstick pans can make your cooking easier, since they’re produced in such a way that prevents food from sticking to its surface, Michael Handal, chef-instructor of culinary arts at the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE), tells SELF. Most are made of aluminum and have a polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) coating, which you may know colloquially by its brand name, Teflon.

“Teflon has the ability to slide by other substances it encounters, and it is this slippery quality that gives it its usefulness in cookware,” Handal says.

This makes nonstick pans great choices for preparing things that have a propensity to stick in other pans, such as scrambled eggs, meat and fish, and melted cheese.

While nonstick pans can make cooking a breeze, there are a few things you need to keep in mind to make sure you’re making the most out of their nonstick promise. Using the right utensils, keeping your pan below certain temperatures, and washing them correctly are all simple ways to keep the chemical coating of your pan intact so that this nonstick tool delivers on its name. Though that all may seem like a lot of work for one cooking tool, professional chefs say that it’s worth it for the ease a nonstick pan provides during the cooking process: You don’t have to slather your pan in oil to ensure food doesn’t stick, and you don’t have to worry about doing an arms workout afterward just to get it clean.

Having said all that, there is one significant difference when it comes to these types of pans versus other cookware: They won’t last as long. It’s important to temper your longevity expectations for nonstick pans, especially when comparing them to other kinds of cookware. For example, unlike cast-iron pans, which can last for generations with proper care, nonstick pans have a much shorter lifespan—about five to seven years, according to America’s Test Kitchen.

To make sure your pan stays nonstick and smooth to the end, read on for everything you need to know to care for it—and cook with it.

Unlike cast-iron skillets, which are seasoned, meaning they’re bonded with oil at high temperatures to create a nonstick layer, you don’t need to season a nonstick pan before first use or at any point after, says Handal. Again, that’s thanks to its built-in layer of Teflon.

“Seasoning a nonstick pan in the same way we would season a cast-iron or carbon-steel pan would be impossible, as the base substances are completely different,” Handal explains. Because Teflon causes anything that it comes in contact with to slide right off, it won’t soak up oil the way that cast iron or carbon steel does. “The whole idea with a nonstick pan is that nothing will stick to it at all, so layers of seasoning would not be possible in nonstick cookware.”

So what should you do before your first use? Give your new pan a quick wash with soap, water, and a gentle sponge, Chayanin Pornsriniyom, chef-instructor of plant-based culinary arts at the ICE, tells SELF. This will help remove any potential contaminants or debris from processing and packaging.

According to Pornsriniyom, there are just a couple of special things you need to keep in mind when cooking to preserve that nonstick surface.

Perhaps most importantly, avoid using metal tools of any kind—whether that’s a steel spatula for flipping meat or steel wool for scrubbing up afterward—and instead stick with rubber or silicone utensils and soft sponges and washing pads, Pornsriniyom says. This is vital because metal can scratch and remove the layer of Teflon. As a result, food will be more likely to stick, and you may inadvertently consume some of the nonstick Teflon compound as it flakes off. (Research remains inconclusive on the potential health implications of PTFEs in cookware, and the US Food and Drug Administration still authorizes these pans for safe use. Keep on reading to find out when it’s a good idea to toss your pan and buy a new one.)

While you likely won’t need oil in the pan to prevent your food from sticking, that doesn’t mean you should skip the oil when cooking, says Handal. Using oil can still benefit the flavor and texture of whatever you’re cooking.

“Oils and fats add flavor to food, and also act as heat transfer agents that allow food to brown and cook without scorching,” he explains. “They allow the heat of the pan to transfer to food in an efficient manner.” Using a nonstick pan without oil of any kind, although possible, may make the cooking process take longer and lead to food that’s unevenly cooked.

Finally, for nonstick pan care, medium or medium-high heat is going to be your friend here: Avoid extreme overheating with your nonstick pan. You don’t want to use temperatures higher than 500 degrees Fahrenheit, Pornsriniyom says. That’s because it can cause the release of gasses and chemicals which can degrade a pan’s nonstick qualities, Handal says. In rare cases, this can be harmful.

“This may cause temporary illness in humans, sometimes referred to as polymer fume fever,” Handal says.

But this high temp isn’t usually an issue, because most stovetop cooking at home doesn’t exceed this temperature in the first place, says Pornsriniyom. Many residential stovetops and ovens often only reach 500 degrees at the highest setting, and food cooked on stovetops generally doesn’t exceed 350 degrees or so.

There are three main things that can destroy a nonstick pan’s coating: the metal utensils and high heat that we mentioned above, and improper storage.

Improper storage can harm the nonstick coating, which can cause scratching and make it less effective. For example, if your nonstick pan is stored among other cooking tools (such as cast iron, stainless steel, and even meal prep essentials like glass food storage containers) it may get scratched up in the process, says Pornsriniyom.

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When in doubt, she recommends covering nonstick pots and pans with a paper towel or a soft cloth to prevent it from getting accidentally damaged while just chilling in your cabinets.

Cleaning nonstick pans is relatively easy to do because food doesn’t get stuck to them, so intensive scrubbing or elbow grease is rarely necessary.

The only instance in which you may need to give your nonstick pan some tough love is if it has carbonized. Carbonization looks like a sticky layer of oil on the inside of the pan that can occur from excessive use, says Pornsriniyom. If not removed, this oily film may cause your pan to appear burned the next time you cook with it, which won’t affect the nonstick quality of your pan but may give your food a strange flavor. Fortunately, it can easily be remedied by letting your pan soak in hot water and soap for about 10 minutes, then gently scrubbing with a non-abrasive sponge.

Otherwise, Pornsriniyom says that all you’ll usually need to do to clean your nonstick pan is briefly wash it with warm water, dish soap, and a gentle sponge.

You definitely don’t need to put a nonstick pan in the dishwasher, says Handal. “Adding them to a dishwasher could possibly expose the pan to being scratched and marred by other pots or utensils,” he says. Plus, you can get it just as clean by handwashing it in your sink.

Although it may be painful to bid adieu to any cooking tool, it’s the best thing to do if your nonstick pan is scratched, says Handal. Cooking with a scratched nonstick pan makes it more likely that you’ll accidentally ingest chemicals from the coating as they chip off during the cooking process, he explains. Not to mention, the more scratches on a nonstick pan the less effective (and more sticky) it will be during cooking—and that’s the whole reason why you’re cooking with it in the first place, right?