In our last article, we discussed how the PTFE nonstick cookware industry is polluting the planet. We’re following up with some tips on how to break your nonstick cookware habit.
Why Stop Using Nonstick Cookware?
You can read our previous article to find out about the safety and environmental issues of the PTFE/Teflon industry, which we think is the biggest reason to stop using Teflon cookware.
Here, we’re just going to talk about why nonstick cookware isn’t the best choice for any kitchen.
You Can’t Use High Heat
The first rule of nonstick cookware is: don’t use high heat with nonstick cookware.
High heat destroys the nonstick properties faster than anything else you do.
Just as bad, high heat breaks down the PTFE into potentially toxic substances, making high heat an absolute no-no with this cookware.
While it’s true that most cooking can be done at low-to-medium heat settings, this means that you can’t even pre-heat a nonstick pan on high heat ever. It also means that you’ll never get a nonstick pan hot enough — safely, anyway — to put a good sear on a steak.
If you break this rule, you are vastly shortening the life of your pan, and possibly exposing you and your family to toxic chemicals.
It Doesn’t Brown Food Very Well
Because of its slippery surface, PTFE cookware doesn’t brown food very well.
Even if you could use high heat with abandon, the smooth surface isn’t great at producing those lovely browned bits you can use to make a delicious pan sauce.
But you can’t use high heat, and the combination of the smooth pan at a low heat setting results in not-very-browned food.
If you’ve been using nonstick cookware for a long time, you may not even know there’s a better — that is, tastier —way to do it. But there definitely is.
One easy way to up your cooking game is to switch from nonstick to a pan you can actually brown food in.
You Have to Baby It
In addition to never heating the pan above medium, you have to baby your Teflon in a number of other ways.
You can’t use metal utensils. (They can scratch the surface, which will ruin it and possibly release toxic chemicals.)
You can’t put it in the dishwasher. (Dishwasher detergent has abrasives that ruin the nonstick coating.)
You can’t use aerosol cooking spray. (The propellants can chemically react with the PTFE, ruining it.)
Even if you follow all these rules meticulously, your nonstick still has a finite life span: compared to other types of cookware, very finite.
And all of this is true even if the manufacturer says you can do these things.
It Doesn’t Last (And It’s a Landfill Issue)
Finally, no matter how careful you are with your nonstick cookware, it doesn’t last. If you buy a more expensive brand, you might get an extra year or two out of it, but if you google “what is the life span of nonstick cookware?” you’ll see that it’s 1–5 years.
A lot of people who use nonstick cookware are okay with this. They just replace their nonstick pans every few years without thinking much about it.
This is a problem for a few reasons, but probably the biggest one is the landfill issue. Most nonstick pans can be recycled, but the majority of them end up in landfills because they require special programs — one that removes the nonstick coating and another that recycles scrap metal — and most municipalities do not take them.
Another reason the short lifespan of nonstick cookware is bad is because it’s more expensive to buy pans every few years than to buy one or two pans (or a set) that’s going to last for decades. And most other types of cookware do last for decades; some will even last for centuries.
Most nonstick cookware is less expensive than other types of cookware, such as clad stainless, but if you consider the cost-per-year-of-use of the cookware, nonstick is definitely the more expensive option.
What to Use Instead of Nonstick Cookware
If you’re accustomed to nonstick cookware, you might be aghast at the thought of switching. Even if you want to make healthier choices that are better for the planet, nonstick cookware is just so…convenient.
But we promise: your fear of other types of cookware is unwarranted. All cookware is easy to use when you know the right techniques.
We won’t lie: you may have to use a little more elbow grease to clean a pan occasionally. But for the most part, other types of cookware have so many advantages that you won’t miss your nonstick pans.
Bare Cast Iron or Carbon Steel (Preferably Pre-Seasoned)
Cast iron and carbon steel are the original nonstick cookware. We group them together because they’re nearly identical materials. They’re both dense and heavy, with cast iron being the heavier of the two because it’s thicker.
These pans require seasoning — that is, heating with a thin layer of oil to create polymers that protect the pan from rusting and give it a smooth, slippery surface — which is probably the biggest inconvenience in using them.
However, most cast iron and carbon steel pans now come pre-seasoned, so you don’t have to worry about it.
Seasoning isn’t hard, and if you use and care for the pans well (never let them air dry because that’s how they rust), you’ll rarely have to re-season.
Even better, these pans get smoother and more nonstick every time you use them.
Well-seasoned cast iron and carbon steel is so close in performance to PTFE, you may wonder what took you so long to make the switch.
But the best part? Actually, there are two: 1) they’re inexpensive, and 2) they last forever, no matter how cruelly you treat them.
Of the two, we prefer cast iron because its mass makes the best use of its amazing ability to hang onto heat. But if you have any strength or ergonomic issues, go with carbon steel.
Cast iron and carbon steel skillets are best for:
- high-heat searing
- deep frying
- eggs, fish, and other tasks you would use a nonstick pan for.
You can read more about cast iron skillets here.
Clad Stainless Steel
If you’re willing to stray a little further from nonstick, consider clad stainless steel cookware.
Our favorite daily use cookware by far is clad stainless steel. It’s durable, it lasts forever, and when used properly, it cleans up almost as easily as nonstick cookware.
To keep your clad stainless cookware easy to clean, follow these simple steps:
- Heat empty pan for several minutes until hot on medium-high or high heat.
- Add a small amount of cooking oil; just enough to lightly coat the pan. Swirl it around to cover the cooking surface.
- When the cooking oil is hot — it will start to shimmer; if it starts to smoke you’ve gone too long — add your food. Turn the heat down to medium or low, depending on what you’re cooking.
- Allow your food to cook without moving for a few minutes. It will form a crust, which naturally releases from the pan with no sticking. You’ll know when your food is ready to flip or stir because it no longer sticks to the pan.
That’s all there is to it. If you get this technique down, you can even make eggs and other sticky foods without making a mess.
Clad stainless cookware is best for:
- All-around daily use cookware (including whole sets, not just skillets).
Clad stainless cookware comes in a huge range of price and quality, so you should do some research before buying, though you don’t have to spend a fortune to get good quality. You can find out more about choosing clad stainless cookware in our article The Top 5 Brands of Clad Stainless Cookware.
What About Ceramic Nonstick Cookware?
You’ve probably considered switching to ceramic nonstick cookware, or maybe you already have.
Ceramic nonstick cookware, such as GreenPan, Green Life, and some of the popular direct-to-consumer brands like Caraway and Our Place, have been hailed as revolutionary. But the truth is that these pans tend to have an even shorter nonstick life than PTFE. (Read the Amazon reviews of any brand to see what we mean.)
Ceramic nonstick also has most of the other drawbacks of PTFE cookware: you can’t use high heat (the hotter the pan, the less nonstick it is), and you should wash by hand and not use metal utensils.
And even if you follow all of these rules religiously, your pan still probably won’t last more than a year or two.
Thus, you have all the same landfill issues with ceramic nonstick that you do with PTFE.
If you must have nonstick, ceramic is a safer choice than PTFE (although the jury isn’t totally back on that, either). There are some good quality brands to choose from. But the best choice is to move away from nonstick altogether.
You can read more about ceramic nonstick pans here.
If you want to break your nonstick cookware habit, it’s not hard to do. And we strongly encourage you to do so! Moving on from nonstick cookware is healthier for you and your family, and better for the planet.
Thanks for reading!