Teflon Nonstick Pans Are Bad. Consider These Alternatives
Jun 23, 2023
Some of my favorite recent products from cookware manufacturer Oxo have come from end-of-conversation asides from the company’s in-house PR guy. I found out about its fantastic travel mugs that way, for example. More recently, he and I spoke about nonstick pans, and as we wrapped up our chat, he mentioned something funny about a critics’ favorite nonstick from the brand that I'll paraphrase here.
Oxo Guy: We're phasing it out.
This made no sense. Why drop something that sells and works so well?
The answer, I think, is that Oxo is reading the room. Soon after I spoke with the PR rep at the end of August, word came from the US Environmental Protection Agency that PFAS—perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, such as those commonly found in traditional nonstick pans—are slated to be labeled as hazardous substances.
"It's a good idea," says Catherine Karr, an environmental health researcher at the University of Washington, citing a list of potential negative health effects that can also depend on individual genetic risk.
"If you want to have no exposure to PFAS from your pans, use alternatives. You can't remove your genetic risk, but in this case, you can remove an exposure," Karr says, listing cast iron, stainless steel, and ceramic as options. The EPA announcement, "will likely motivate industries to move away from this class of chemicals that we call ‘forever chemicals’ because they are so persistent."
Sure enough, right around then, I happened to be checking out a fancy new line of Martha Stewart pans that offered ceramic options but no traditional nonstick. Ads for carbon-steel pans bubbled up in my timelines. Ads for Teflon, the OG of PFAS, did not. To add fuel to the fire, it turns out some pans that claim to be forever-chemical-free are not.
According to a spokesperson, Oxo’s outgoing nonstick pans contain PFAS, but the company's new ceramic pans have none. The only problem there is that ceramic pans have a mixed track record on the stove, as they are known for not being as durable as traditional nonstick pans. Their not-always-great durability comes up often in reviews and when I speak with friends who have tried them.
As my pro-level-home-cook friend Shannon says, "I can’t imagine doing serious stuff in ceramic."
It was time to break some eggs. On and off for several months, I cooked with the $50 Oxo Ceramic Professional Non-Stick 8-Inch Frypan, folding it into my daily kitchen testing and home cooking. (I also had a larger 10-inch version but barely used it so I could put as much as possible wear and tear on just one pan.) Scrambled, omelets, sunny-side up, or over easy, my wife Elisabeth and I were up to the challenge, and that small pan size worked very well for eggs for one or two. I even put it in my checked bag on a family visit to New Hampshire.
During these months of use, I'd say there were two big takeaways.
First, I was expecting this ceramic pan to be a dud, but it wasn’t. In fact, I can easily imagine swapping out my T-fal nonstick for it with no regrets. At a little over a pound and a half, it's solid without being too heavy for most and is comfortable to grip and maneuver. It's considerably lighter than carbon steel and cast iron, pleasingly heftier and more comfortable than most cheap pans. The interior rivets are coated and flush with the sidewall of the pan. Very importantly, I didn't have issues with sticking. As a bonus, it is induction compatible, and while it is much slower to heat up than most other pans on my induction stove, I now appreciate that "feature" as a way to protect the coating. After all those eggs and all that coast-to-coast traveling, I noticed only the slightest bits of wear right on the edges, and only if I looked carefully.
Second, and this is a high horse I won't dismount, if you're going to use a pan like this—something with a surface that will eventually degrade, causing you to throw away the whole pan—treat it with kid gloves at all times. This is especially important since, by swapping to ceramic, we're likely moving toward something less durable.
By Joe Ray
This means no high heat on the stove, no metal utensils on the pan surface, no dishwasher, and no scratchy scrubbers. When it's not in use, cover it with something—a plastic bag, a dish towel, a hot pad, whatever, especially if you're going to stack it to store it. You could also take the extra step of turning it into an egg-only pan, using it just for your scrambles and sunny-side-up specials with your sweetheart.
If you're worried about the environment and waste and are not ready to commit to “walk on eggshells” levels of care for pans like these, maybe don't use them.
Fortunately, I have another alternative to suggest, as Oxo has also put out a new line of carbon-steel pans that can take a beating and last decades. Before you say, “Hey, what's with all the Oxo,” I'll remind you that it’s a big, respected brand with a lot of sway, and it’s using its weight to popularize two types of pans that could use a nudge.
Carbon steel isn't new at all, but while it's the darling of chefs and line cooks everywhere, it has never caught on for home cooking like its close cousin cast iron.
It makes for a great skillet. It's durable, pleasingly inexpensive, and excellent at searing, just like cast iron. Carbon steel is by no means light, but pans made with it weigh less than cast-iron pans of similar size and tend to have a desirably smoother surface, leaving little for food to cling to. The downsides are that carbon steel needs to be seasoned—a potentially labor-intensive job that involves cooking thin layers of oil onto the surface—and cannot be put in the dishwasher.
In an uncommon move I have long been hoping to see from more manufacturers, Oxo preseasons its carbon-steel pans, and while they need to be washed by hand, you should hand wash your nonstick pans anyway. In fact, with a pat of butter and a thin-bladed metal spatula, you can get nonstick-style results on the carbon steel. Occasionally, in all of my egg eating, I'd use the carbon steel as my egg pan, and it did great. Sure, it's not floating-on-an-air-hockey table nonstick, but not bad at all. Seasoning, which also happens naturally with use, makes it even slicker. So slick in fact, it's worth considering giving up ceramic or Teflon or whichever other breed of nonstick pan coating you prefer. Toward the end of my months with the pans, I naturally gravitated toward the carbon steel and never regretted it.
So! If you still want a coated nonstick pan and want to follow the trend away from PFAS or simply want to prepare for the possibility of a day when Teflon is phased out, give Oxo's high-performing ceramic pans a try. If you want to push yourself a bit and really go green, try carbon steel. With a bit of effort to take care of what you've got, you'll have a pan that lasts a long time, or even forever.
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