What Is PTFE? Understanding the Coating Used in Nonstick Cookware
- Nonstick cookware coated with PTFE is safe to use.
- Delicate food cooked at lower temperatures comes out better using nonstick cookware.
- Proper care and storage will prolong the lifespan of your PTFE-coated cookware.
What’s that stuff lining your favorite nonstick pan? You probably know it by the brand name Teflon.
Teflon is certainly easier to say than polytetrafluoroethylene, its scientific name. Like many long and complicated names, polytetrafluoroethylene was shortened to the acronym PTFE.
This fluorinated plastic coating was discovered by accident in 1938 by DuPont chemist Roy Plunkett. (DuPont still manufactures Teflon through Chemours, one of their subsidiaries.) Generations of cooks grew up loving Roy Plunkett’s accidental discovery. And still today, the majority of skillets and frying pans sold in the United States have a nonstick, PTFE coating.
Why does a skillet coated with PTFE prevent eggs and other food from sticking to the bottom of your pan? Polytetrafluoroethylene prefers to socialize only with itself. The unique properties of PTFE keep food from sticking to nonstick cookware because it has an amazingly low coefficient of friction.
That low friction means things like butter or oil aren’t needed to keep food from sticking to the bottom of the pan. The molecular structure of the nonstick coating bonds with the cookware, but not with the food you’re cooking.
Is PTFE Safe?
Recently, people have been concerned about their nonstick pots and pans. There were widespread reports that cookware coated with PTFE might cause health problems, including cancer. Does this mean it’s time to throw out your favorite nonstick pan and forget about replacing it?
PTFE itself is not suspected of causing cancer, so says the American Cancer Society. That’s because PTFE is inert. It will not react with other chemicals inside or outside of your body.
However, the organization will not make the same statement about perfluorooctanoic acid. Perfluorooctanoic acid’s scientific name has been shortened to PFOA. PFOA is a chemical that was — until 2013 — used to make PTFE.
Studies in recent years have looked at the possibility of PFOA causing cancer and found it can increase the risk of certain tumors.
Stay Away From PFOA
Swearing off nonstick cookware won’t prevent you from being exposed to PFOA. It’s found in items ranging from medical catheters to fabric protectors. PFOA is so common that it showed up in blood tests in 98 percent of people in a study conducted in 1999.
The good news is that PFOA is no longer used to make Teflon or PTFE. The Environmental Protection Agency worked with DuPont and other chemical companies to stop using PFOA. It hasn’t been part of the Teflon manufacturing process since 2013.
To stay competitive, other manufacturers of nonstick cookware have also phased out the use of PFOA. But you still need to be careful when you pick out a nonstick pot or pan. Check to see that your nonstick cookware was manufactured without PFOA. (At Misen, we only use the safest nonstick coating that’s completely free of PFOA.)
Are There Other Concerns With PTFE?
Even if your nonstick cookware is PFOA-free, You still have to be careful about how you use it. Overheating a PTFE-coated skillet can be dangerous. Very high temperatures can cause the PTFE to release gases that can give you “polymer-fume fever.” You’ll get the chills, a headache, and yes, a fever.
There are other cookware choices — like the classic cast iron pan or, every chef’s best friend, the stainless steel pan — that are better suited for cooking on high heat. Save your nonstick cookware for what it does best.
Cooking With Nonstick Cookware
It’s easier to overheat a skillet than you think. An empty pan left on the stove on high heat can reach 500 degrees Farenheit in less than two minutes. That’s higher than what’s recommended for PTFE.
It’s not necessary to preheat a nonstick pan because food that cooks better in nonstick skillets does not need a high temperature. Fried or scrambled eggs, for example, will do nicely at just 160 degrees. Even bacon will cook up to crispy goodness at about 465 degrees in a nonstick skillet.
Chemours, the manufacturer of Teflon, says the best way to keep a nonstick pan from overheating is to use only low or medium heat. The normal range for pan-frying meat is between 400–470 degrees. That’s safely within the acceptable range for nonstick cookware. Don’t use nonstick cookware for broiling because this cooking temperature often exceeds 550 degrees.
Certain types of foods fare better in cookware coated with PTFE because they benefit from both the nonstick properties of the pan and the lower cooking temperature. Because food seldom sticks to it, you also can cook with less butter or oil. Here are some of the things we recommend cooking up in your nonstick pan.
Without that slippery protection, the proteins in eggs will stick to a metal pan during cooking. But with a nonstick pan, you won’t lose any of your breakfast.
Cookware with nonstick properties does a better job cooking shellfish and many types of fish fillets. The delicate structure has a tendency to crumble in metal pans. Plus, too much oil or butter can mask seafood’s delicate flavor.
Anything That Needs to Be Flipped
Tortillas and frittatas turn out better using nonstick cookware — especially if you plan to flip them during cooking. Crepes and pancakes also fare better in a nonstick skillet, and not just because of the flipping. Since you’ll be cooking slower on a lower temperature, you won’t have to worry about biting into raw pancake batter.
What Not to Cook in Nonstick Cookware
The molecular structure of PTFE prevents heat from the burner from efficiently traveling to the surface of the pan, which makes it difficult to brown or sear meat. Fast and hot is not what nonstick does well.
Also if you’re a fan of starting a dish on the stovetop and then finishing it in the oven, a nonstick pan might not be your best bet. Check to see that your nonstick cookware is oven safe. You might not exceed the safety temperature for a PTFE coating, but the manufacturer may advise against using it in the oven.
Taking Care of Your Nonstick Cookware
It’s easy to damage the PTFE coating on nonstick cookware, but with these simple tips, you can keep that coating safe and prolong the life of your pans.
Avoid Metal Utensils
The PTFE coating can be scraped and damaged by the sharp edges of metal cooking utensils. Use wood, heat-safe plastic, or silicone to cook and serve from nonstick cookware. If you store your pans in a stack in the cupboard, put a napkin or a dish towel between them to prevent the nested cookware from scratching.
Skip the Dishwasher
Think of your dishwasher as a sharp, metal cooking utensil. Keep your nonstick cookware away from it.
Dishwashers get your plates and silverware clean by using abrasive detergent. You’ll hasten the deterioration of the nonstick surface this way. Little if any food will be stuck to your pan after cooking, so you can quickly hand-wash it with a soft sponge and liquid dish soap.
Pass on the Cooking Spray
You’ll need less oil or butter to cook with nonstick pans, and you shouldn’t use nonstick cooking spray at all. The lower heat keeps the spray from burning off during cooking. You’ll end up with a sticky buildup that’s difficult to remove.
Skip the Cold Water Plunge
Drastic changes in temperature can weaken the bond of the nonstick coating. Don’t run your nonstick pans under cold water to cool them down. It can cause microscopic cracks in the PTFE coating. The cracks will lead to flaking. Let the pan cool on the stovetop or counter before you hand-wash it.
When Is It Time to Replace Nonstick Cookware?
Cast iron skillets can last for generations. Depending on the quality, nonstick cookware that gets regular use will last about five years.
If you can see visible scratches in the nonstick surface, the PTFE may be flaking off and ending up in your food. Remember that PTFE is an inert substance. It can’t harm you. But it can make your food unattractive.
A new nonstick pan has a distinctive sheen. It may be time to start thinking about a replacement when you notice that the sheen is gone. This may also be when you start to notice that food sometimes sticks to the nonstick surface or that you have to use more oil.
Finding a Good Nonstick Pan
When you’re shopping for new nonstick cookware, the first thing to keep in mind is that you’re not making a lifetime commitment, so it’s probably not worth it to buy a fancy nonstick pan that costs over $100. Instead, look for safe, quality craftsmanship at a fair price.