How to Find the Best Nonstick Pan
- Nonstick cookware is easy to use and easy to clean.
- A reported 70% of all skillets purchased last year were nonstick.
- Nonstick pans are best for cooking delicate food, like eggs or fish fillets.
Do you like to cook? Do you like not having too much to clean? Nonstick cookware lets you enjoy both of those things in one convenient pan.
The history of nonstick surfaces began with a mistake while a research team at DuPont was looking for a less toxic chemical to use for another kitchen marvel: the refrigerator. Scientist Roy Plunkett arrived at work one morning to discover that instead of a gas, he had created a white, waxy powder that was resistant to heat and corrosion, and exceptionally slippery. This substance was later found to be polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), and later still, trademarked by the company in 1944 as “Teflon.”
The first piece of nonstick cookware came over a decade later when French engineer Marc Gregoire (who purportedly had been applying Teflon to his fishing gear to minimize tangles) and his wife Colette found a way to bond PTFE to their aluminum pans. The couple eventually founded their own company called Tefal (a portmanteau of TEFlon and ALuminum) or T-Fal, and began selling nonstick pans around the world.
About Nonstick Cookware
So how does nonstick cookware work? If you place a regular metal pan under a microscope, you’ll see a surface covered with nooks and crannies. Apply heat to this, and those nooks and crannies enlarge, allowing food and liquid to seep in and stick to the surface.
This is where fat comes in — adding oil or butter before cooking will fill these nooks and crannies, creating a smooth cooking surface where food can no longer enter. The result is a dish that doesn’t stick or burn onto the cooking surface, and can easily slide from pan to plate.
Now, you can remember to coat your cookware with enough oil or butter every time. Or you can get pans that already have a nonstick coating. Then you can sauté, stir-fry, and simmer without a worry.
The demand for nonstick cookware is strong. Last year, a reported 70% of all skillets sold were nonstick — and for good reason. Nonstick pans not only provide quick cleanup, they’re also easy to cook with. They’re the best — some say only — option for delicate dishes, like eggs, seafood, and rice.
With so many benefits to going nonstick, there are some key points to consider before you make your purchase, namely the type of coating used and the thickness of the pan.
Types of Nonstick Coatings
Since the introduction of PTFE, a slew of other nonstick coatings have been created — hard-anodized nonstick aluminum, ceramic, silicone, and enameled cast iron. Each one has its unique characteristics, ideal for many different cooking purposes.
The best nonstick cookware will also have a primer applied beforehand, which works together with the nonstick coating to further reinforce a scratch-resistant surface.
The original nonstick coating, PTFE or polytetrafluoroethylene, is a synthetic polymer made of carbon and fluorine. While it’s also present in nail polish and windshield wipers, the features that make PTFE perfect for pans are its very high melting point, its water-resistance, and its low coefficient of friction (which basically means nothing can stick to it).
Hard-Anodized Nonstick Aluminum
This scientific sounding material is a favorite nonstick choice for many cooks. It starts off with an aluminum or aluminum-alloy base, which is then processed to be twice as strong as stainless steel cookware. This produces an ideal nonstick interior that’s scratch-resistant, non-toxic, and non-reactive (safe to use with acidic foods).
Ceramic cookware actually has no ceramic at all. Instead, it has a ceramic-like coating called “sol-gel” (short for solution gel). Sol-gel is silica-based and marketed as an environmentally-friendly alternative because it doesn’t release any fumes or require PFOA to manufacture.
Ceramic coating offers a clean surface that’s scratch-resistant and heats up quickly and evenly. However, as the nonstick property of ceramic pans doesn’t last very long — about a year with regular use — they need to be replaced more often and may actually create more waste at the end of the day.
Silicone is another “green” alternative, great for withstanding high temperatures without melting or releasing chemicals into your food. However, it doesn’t fare too well against direct heat, which is a problem for stovetop pots and pans. If you like a good slick, silicone-coated piece, stick to bakeware, bread pans, muffin tins, spatulas, or other utensils.
Enameled Cast Iron
This is a favorite for cooks who like to serve straight from the stove or oven. Cast iron has a warm, rustic charm and makes for some of the prettiest pots and pans on the market.
To coat cast iron with enamel, a layer of porcelain powder is applied to the metal and baked at high temperatures until it forms a smooth, shiny surface.
The end result? A heavy-duty pan that is non-reactive, holds heat well, and is safe to use in the oven, on the stove, or on the grill. Cast iron is a heavy, durable material, which makes it great for family-size dishes and naturally heftier pots, like Dutch ovens, large skillets, and grill pans.
Choosing an Ideal Nonstick Pan
An ideal nonstick pan is basically an ideal traditional pan — user-friendly design, good weight and balance, and even heat distribution — but with the addition of a convenient nonstick surface.
Note, however, that nonstick pans won’t last forever. The nonstick surface of a pan is essentially just a coating applied to its cooking area (similar to a coat of paint), and even with the best care, this coating won’t last.
For this reason, the only nonstick piece you really need is a skillet. It’s a multipurpose pan that serves as your kitchen workhorse, and will eventually need to be replaced once the coating wears off.
Other pieces, however, like stockpots or saucepans, are intended to last for a long time. Plus, the things you’ll cook in a stockpot or saucepan don’t require that nonstick quality and often benefit from higher heat, which is not a nonstick pan’s forte. Buying ones that are nonstick will only render them unusable — when the nonstick coating naturally erodes — despite still being in good condition.
Since you’ll be replacing your nonstick skillet every few years, look for one that is good quality but won’t break the bank. Luckily, there are many good quality nonstick pans is relatively affordable.
You’re looking for a nice, flat pan that can distribute heat evenly. Since nonstick coating breaks down at high temperatures and lightweight pans tend to heat up too quickly, it’s better to go for heavier weight options. Thick, heavy pans are far better at retaining and distributing heat, compared to their thinner alternatives. Some notable brands include All-Clad, Anolon, Misen (hey, that’s us!), and Scanpan.
Nonstick pans come as small as 6 inches or as large as 16 inches with the most versatile range being from 10-12 inches.
Using a Nonstick Pan
As with all cookware, there is a pot or pan best suited to each specific dish. This is no different with nonstick varieties.
In fact, the uses of nonstick and regular pans are just about mutually exclusive. This is because a nonstick pan is clearly all about keeping food from sticking, while a regular pan relies on the stick to give food a flavorful crust and sear.
What to Cook in a Nonstick Pan
Reach for a nonstick pan when the dish you’re making tends toward the delicate or the sticky.
This can be anything from eggs and crepes to sweet and sour pork, breaded fish sticks, or cheesy quesadillas. When cooking dishes like these on a nonstick pan, you don’t have to worry about those niggling bits of batter or burnt sauce sticking to its slick surface.
And because nonstick pans are so easy to clean, they're the best for quick jobs, like omelets and scrambles, grilled cheese sandwiches, and stir-fries.
What Not to Cook in a Nonstick Pan
For the dishes that are less delicate or need that bit of flavorful sear, reach for a regular stainless steel or metal pan. These are better for deeply browning and crisping food, or creating thick, rich sauces that need those little charred food bits for added flavor. This is because coated cookware doesn’t conduct heat as well as bare metal.
Nonstick pans also shouldn’t be used for broiling or cooking methods that require temperatures above 500-degrees Fahrenheit. When nonstick coatings reach such high temperatures, the coating may begin to break down and the pan will become ineffective.
Temperatures will rarely reach 500 degrees in regular cooking, however. It’s “way hotter than you need to cook just about anything, because the smoke point of many oils and butter is around 350 degrees,” writes Wirecutter’s Leigh Krietsch Boerner.
As a general preference, most cooks will also use regular metal pans to brown butter or toast nuts as nonstick cooking surfaces are typically dark and make it difficult to see the changing color.
Caring for Nonstick Pans
The nonstick part of the pan is what gives its distinct functionality, and therefore the part you want to protect. Keep nonstick pans in good cooking condition for a longer time, by sticking to some simple rules:
- Never preheat your pan: An empty nonstick pan can get hot very fast, which damages and breaks down the nonstick surface. Add a little oil or butter first, which also provides a helpful visual cue as to the pan’s heat (oil begins to smoke between 400-450 degrees, and butter begins at 350 degrees).
- Don’t cook with high heat: Nonstick surfaces are not built to withstand very high temperatures. Keep your stove top knob at a low to medium setting. For any higher, reach for a steel or cast iron pan instead.
- Refrain from using cooking sprays: The problem with cooking sprays is that they contain more than just oil — they also contain lecithin, which “cooks” into the pan and builds up over time, damaging the entire surface.
- Don’t use metal utensils or harsh cleaners: Each time you do, a tiny bit of the nonstick surface is scratched off. Wooden or silicone utensils are your best choice when cooking with nonstick. And don’t even think of putting nonstick pans in the dishwasher.
- Store your pans carefully: Stacking nonstick pans can slowly wear down their coating because the surfaces grate along each other whenever one is pulled out. A better choice would be to hang the pan on a hook or a dish rack, and if stacking is the only option, at least place a paper towel between each one.
A Nod To Nonstick
Most home cooks have at least one nonstick pan, and it’s usually the workhorse of the kitchen. Nonstick pans serve so many convenient dishes — from fried eggs to seafood — and require just a quick rinse. They’re easy to cook with, easy to clean, and at such affordable prices, they’re the most purchased piece of cookware today.