Nonstick skillets are the invaluable utility player on your pots-and-pans team, but they're not like the cast-iron pan lovingly handed down from your mother: These pans are fragile, and when the coating becomes scratched or starts to peel, you'll need a new one. Even the most expensive nonsticks will eventually show wear, especially if you forget the "don't use a metal spoon or spatula" rule, or if you tend to bang pots around in your cupboards—so how much you should pay is a matter of debate among the Cooking Light staffers. Some prefer to buy the least expensive (but solid) nonstick skillet and replace it every year or two. Others opt for a premium pan and treat it with maximum respect. Test Kitchen Chef Robin Bashinsky recently replaced his well-cared-for All-Clad nonstick skillet after 10 years. "I think the expense was well worth it," Bashinsky deadpans.
Most pans feature a layer of polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), a petroleum-based polymer. "It's a waxy substance that repels water," explains Hugh Rushing, executive vice president of the Cookware Manufacturers Association. "As the cooking temperature rises, water is released from food and pushes the food off the pan."
To make a pan, a primer is sprayed on the base metal (usually hard-anodized aluminum), followed by an optional secondary layer containing reinforcing materials to help prevent scratches; then comes a top coat consisting of the nonstick material. Teflon is the most widely known, but there are many proprietary coatings. Higher prices usually buy you more layers.
Concerns about toxins released by PTFE or perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), the chemical bond that helps nonstick coatings adhere to the metal pan, relate mostly to the manufacturing process rather than careful everyday cooking. But you should never crank the heat above medium-high, and toss any pan that's heavily scratched.
Ceramic or silica-based "green" coatings, which form a slick, glasslike surface, are an alternative to traditional nonstick. Ceramic needs a bit of TLC; we've found it chips easily if banged against other pans.
5 Ways to Keep Your Pan Performing
- High temperatures reduce the pan's lifespan, so use only low to medium-high heat.
- Use only plastic, silicone, or wooden utensils, and avoid cutting in the pan.
- Cooking sprays are another no-no. "They contain lecithin, which leaves a gummy residue that interferes with the nonstick qualities," says Michael Witsch, senior research chemist with DuPont.
- Skip the dishwasher (even if the manufacturer says it's OK). Let your pan cool after use, then wash with warm, soapy water and a sponge. Avoid abrasive cleaners.
- Warranties range from a few years to a lifetime, but most don't cover normal wear and tear. Stick with a known brand if you want the guarantee; store brands may not be made by the same company every year.