Turns Out, Nonstick Pans Can’t Stand the Heat

Photo: Getty Images/ Morsa Images
The benefits of a nonstick pan are pretty straightforward:  "[They] allow you to cook highly stick-able ingredients without fail," says chef Joshua Lanning. (Think: eggs and fish.) Lanning says that if you take care of your nonstick pan, it should last at least a year—whether it cost $30 or $100. "If you get two years out of a nonstick, you really did a good job," he says. However, there's one common mistake people make that cuts the lifespan of their nonstick pans down exponentially: using them with high heat.

Nonstick pans are made with a special coating that prevents food from sticking to them. "When you look at a metal pan under a microscope, you’ll see a bunch of small nooks and crannies. When that metal is heated up, the metal expands, and those nooks and crannies close up," explains Lanning. "If a food item is contacting the metal while it is expanding, the metal is like a vice and it bites down on the food, effectively sticking it to the metal. To prevent this from happening, a coating is added to pre-fill the nooks and crannies to make it really smooth."

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He explains that the plastic coating is made of a gas that is frozen and then compressed into a waxy substance, and it will begin to flake and break down at high temps. "When you consider that a nonstick surface was once made of gas, and processed into a waxy coating, it makes sense that once mistreated, it will turn back into a gas and start to degrade like a candle," he says. Not to mention that, when heated above 400–500 degrees, the molecules on the coating break down and release fluorocarbons in the air," Lanning says. These polymers, common in household products, but inhaling them is linked to respiratory illness, hence why overheating your nonstick pans is so problematic. To prevent this (and extend the lifespan of your cookware), Lanning recommends using a nonstick pan to cook things that require medium or low heat like eggs and veggies, and using a stainless steel pan to cook at high heats.

Another thing that can take your nonstick pan out of commission too soon is how you clean it. Lanning says to simply wipe it out with a paper towel whenever possible. If you use soap, scrub lightly with something non-abrasive. And never use metal on your nonstick pans, because it will scratch and damage the coating. Lastly, he says to always store your nonstick pan with a clean towel inside of it, so that when you put another pan or other kitchen tool on top of it, the nonstick coating is protected.

Bottom line: "Nonstick pans are really great tools,” Lanning says. “You can't cook everything in them, but when you want to make a French omelette that would rival Jacque Pepin, bust out that nonstick.”

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