How to Choose, Use, and Care for Your Nonstick Cookware
- Nonstick cookware is the ultimate pan for cooking delicate food like eggs and fish.
- Taking care not to scratch or damage the nonstick surface will extend your pan's life.
- Eventually, your nonstick pan will need to be replaced.
Not a single cookware essentials list goes by without the inclusion of a nonstick pan. Nonstick is one of cooking’s modern conveniences — it scrambles eggs, flips pancakes, and makes a mean (and clean!) grilled cheese sandwich. All with minimal cleanup required.
For every piece of cookware, there is a nonstick version. There are even nonstick cookware sets with as many as 30 pieces. However, not every pan in your kitchen needs to be nonstick. In fact, most of them shouldn't be.
While a nonstick surface brings a lot of advantages to the plate — easy to cook, easy to clean — it isn't intended for all dishes. Broths, soups, or other liquids, for instance have no real need for a nonstick surface and would be best in a stainless steel stockpot or saucepan.
If you're looking for delicious searing and browning (called the maillard reaction), this won't come from a nonstick pan. To achieve that thick, dark-brown crust on food, you’ll need an uncoated cooking surface, like a cast iron or stainless steel skillet.
Instead, most home cooks will find that a nonstick surface is most useful in a skillet or frying pan shape. So if you're going to buy one piece of nonstick cookware — which is really all you should be buying — get a nonstick skillet.
Why a Nonstick Skillet
You won’t need to search long to find all the different ways to use a skillet. There are recipes with the very word in the name — skillet fries, skillet mac ‘n’ cheese, steak and rice skillet. There are entire books dedicated to one skillet meals
Skillets or fry pans, with their large flat bottoms and flared, wide sides, provide the perfect cooking surface. The shape allows food to slide smoothly into the serving dish or to be served straight from the pan (diners can easily help themselves, without having to reach over a tall, vertical sided vessel).
As compared to other cookware with wider bottoms, such as sauté pans or grill pans, skillets are much lighter and easier to shake, toss, and flip food in. You can comfortably stir and spread ingredients within the pan, ensuring an even cook-through for the entire dish. This feature ironically can make skillets much better at sautéing than even a sauté pan.
Add to that the convenience of a nonstick surface, and you have yourself an essential piece of cookware.
What to Look for in a Nonstick Skillet
A standard home burner can fit pans with diameters of 12 inches and below. To cook comfortably, make sure you get a pan that fits this space. Keep in mind that cookware lists the entire diameter, measured from the top opening, not the bottom.
Many professional and home cooks keep a selection of nonstick skillets in their kitchen — a smaller 6-inch or 8-inch skillet for quickly frying eggs or bacon, and a larger 10-inch or 12-inch option for full meals and larger seafood, like fish fillets.
The most important feature of a nonstick pan is naturally its coating. These days, there are a number of choices with the most popular being PTFE (Teflon is the best-known variety of PTFE, but there are several other varieties as well) and ceramic or porcelain nonstick, which is actually still made from a coating of a silica-based gel.
PTFE is the original nonstick coating, a synthetic substance that repels water and can withstand high temperatures. Ceramic nonstick, on the other hand, is made from inorganic minerals (meaning no carbon), primarily silicon and oxygen. Another option is hard anodized nonstick, which is aluminum that has been oxidized to create a nonstick surface.
There are many notable brands for all options. Anolon, Zwilling, T-Fal, and Misen (us!) offer PTFE-based nonstick pans. Calphalon and Farberware have many ceramic varieties. And All-Clad specializes in hard anodized aluminum nonstick cookware.
Another important nonstick feature is proper construction. A pan’s materials and make directly affect the quality of your food, so look for a high-quality metal that offers even heat distribution, like aluminum, stainless steel, or multi-ply with layers of both.
Oven-safe, riveted handles are also important, to facilitate stir-frying, flipping pancakes, and transferring a savory cheese quiche from stovetop to oven. Silicone or stainless steel handles are also safe to use in the oven, as they stay cool longer than aluminum, while rivets will help keep the long handle secured to the base (bolts and screws tend to come loose with regular use).
All factors considered, a nonstick pan should be affordable (well under $100). No matter what features it has or how well you take care of it, the nonstick coating — its primary feature — will eventually wear off. Food will start sticking and burning onto the pan, and the nonstick surface may even flake off into your food if it’s used past its prime.
Note: While there were previous health concerns about nonstick cookware — mainly surrounding the chemical PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) used in early versions of the PTFE manufacturing process — the majority of cookware companies have been required to remove the substance from production. Still, it’s always best to double-check that the piece you purchase is labelled “PFOA-free” and to take care not to overheat the pan or mistreat your nonstick coating.
Proper Nonstick Care
Although nonstick cookware definitely has a shelf life, how long that shelf life is depends a lot on you. Properly caring for a nonstick pan follows a “less is more” school of thought.
Keep the temperature at low to moderate heat when cooking with a nonstick pan. Although nonstick coatings can withstand high heat of up to 500 degrees Fahrenheit, you don’t want to continuously monitor temperatures while you’re cooking. A general rule of thumb is if your butter starts to burn or your olive oil starts to smoke, turn down the flame.
Rather than using just any utensil from the drawer, limit it to ones made from wood, silicone, or plastic. Stay away from metal utensils or anything with rough edges that may scratch the nonstick coating.
After use, nonstick pans are relatively easy to clean, and can be hand washed with everyday dish soap and a soft sponge. Don’t apply any harsh cleansers, detergents, or abrasives to the surface, and don’t even think of putting your pan in the dishwasher. Even if the label says it's dishwasher safe, it's really not.
Nonstick cookware lasts longer if stored separately, with minimal contact between other kitchen tools and the pan’s nonstick surface. If you don’t have extra space or are one to nest your pots and pans, simply place a soft buffer in between each piece. Something like a thick paper napkin or kitchen towel will help protect the coating from being scratched.
Knowing When to Let Go
A good nonstick skillet quickly becomes a cook’s trusted tool. A great portion of a home cook’s repertoire relies on sautés, quick fries, and yes, eggs. But when you start to notice scratches accumulating on the cooking surface, food starting to stick a little more, or even slight peeling and flaking, it’s time to retire the pan.
Stick to the Pan
A good nonstick pan is an essential piece of cookware. As long as you know how to properly care for it, store it, and when to replace it, having one in the kitchen will help you make all kinds of delicious meals.