"What happened to this pan?" I asked my mother-in-law as I pulled a nonstick skillet from her kitchen drawer. It looked like it had a severe case of eczema, every inch of its Teflon skin scratched and flaking. "Oh, we cook our steaks in that, and Felix likes them well-done," she answered.
I held my tongue on the well-done part—there's no winning that argument—but I had to say something about the pan. She needed to get rid of it, right away. I eventually forced the issue by buying her a replacement, but it didn't take long before that one started breaking down, too.
There seems to be a grave misunderstanding among many home cooks about the role of nonstick cookware in the kitchen. The mere existence of cookware sets in which the inside of every piece is coated in Teflon is enough to prove the point. That's to say nothing of head-scratchers like anti-adhesive grill pans, stockpots, and, lord help us, woks. (Woks? Yes, woks!)
Broiling a steak to death on a withered nonstick surface is a bad idea; boiling water in a polytetrafluoroethylene-coated pot reaches a level of absurdity that's hard to match. I could make a far better case for a Teflon toilet. In fact, Skidz-Off Thrones may just be the idea that makes me rich.
I'm not here to try to convince you that your nonstick pans are going to kill you (though, based on some research, I wouldn't assume they're totally safe, either). I also have no desire to try to banish every last piece of nonstick cookware from your home. I have a few nonstick pans of my own, and no plans to change that. But there are very good reasons why we should all limit the number of nonstick pans we own and the frequency with which we use them.
What's Wrong With Nonstick Pans?
First, there are lingering questions about what effects nonstick chemicals have on our health and that of the environment. I won't dwell on those for long, though they are a concern. Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), the fluoropolymer used to create Teflon coatings, and some of the chemicals used to manufacture it, have been linked with certain types of cancer, infertility, and other negative health outcomes. Some of them also persist indefinitely in the environment.
This doesn't mean cooking in nonstick pans at home is necessarily a direct threat to your or your family's health. The people most vulnerable seem to be those who have worked closely with the production and manufacture of the chemicals, and those who live near production facilities. These chemicals are also not limited to nonstick cookware—they've been used in everything from electrical wiring and pipes to microwave-popcorn bags and waterproof clothing—so eliminating all nonstick pans from your home won't really solve the problem.
On top of that, it's probably safe to say that nonstick coatings have improved over time and are less risky than they used to be, though one should not assume all dangers have been eradicated.
Beyond those health questions, the main point I want to make is that nonstick cookware is rarely your best choice from a culinary perspective. Most of the time, your food will come out better if you don't cook it in a nonstick pan.
Why is that? Because sticking isn't inherently bad. Often, it's exactly what we want, at least to a limited degree. Food that fuses to a pan and won't budge is a problem, but food that sticks just enough is often a good thing.
Take two skin-on chicken breasts I cooked recently as an example. One I seared in a nonstick skillet, the other in a stainless steel one.
The first thing you'll notice is that the chicken in the stainless steel pan adhered more: As I pressed down on it to increase contact with the pan, the skin bonded to the pan, so that when I stopped pressing, it maintained that contact. This allowed more surface area of the skin to brown more fully. Once it was nicely crisped and a deep golden color, it detached with no trouble. The result: a pan-roasted chicken breast with perfectly crispy skin all over.
Compare that with the chicken in the nonstick skillet. I'd pressed down while cooking it, but as soon as I released the pressure, the chicken would spring back up, leaving only a small portion of the skin in direct contact with the pan. This resulted in a pan-roasted breast that had only a couple square inches of truly crisp skin. There was more skin that was brown outside of that, but it was much softer to the touch than the skin from the sample cooked on stainless.
Okay, you might say, but if I set a weight on top of the chicken in the nonstick pan, I'll get the contact I want along with the convenience of nonstick cookware, right? Perhaps, but you know what you won't get? The fond.
That's the French term for the layer of browned stuff that builds up on the bottom of a pan when you're roasting meats and vegetables, and what it amounts to is flavor. The fond is a necessary component for delicious pan sauces, stews, braises, and more, and nonstick cookware makes it virtually impossible to develop.
When to Use Nonstick Pans
So, when should you use nonstick? I reserve mine almost exclusively for eggs, in particular dishes that require the eggs to be beaten first. That includes scrambled eggs, omelettes, Spanish tortillas, and frittatas. Fried eggs are easy to do on well-seasoned cast iron, but there's something about the broken yolks that make beaten eggs much trickier to work with.
If you do buy any nonstick cookware, I'd suggest limiting yourself to one eight-inch skillet, which is perfect for a classic three-egg French omelette, as well as a 10-inch skillet for larger crepes and such. If you have a lot of mouths to feed, a 12-inch nonstick skillet could come in handy, too.
Beyond that, I won't fault anyone for using nonstick to cook fish, especially delicate fish, like thin fillets of sole or flounder. With practice, though, even fish is easy to do in a cast iron, carbon steel, or stainless pan. Crepes, blini, and other pancakes are also made incredibly easy with nonstick, but, once again, cast iron and carbon steel are very good choices there.
If you're still not convinced, let me give you just one more reason to limit your use of nonstick cookware: your wallet. Unlike cast iron, carbon steel, stainless steel, and copper cookware, which can all last more than a lifetime if cared for properly, nonstick cookware is inherently disposable.
Sure, there's a lot of budget nonstick cookware out there that may be appealing, but once that coating wears out—which will happen eventually, no matter how careful you are—the pan is garbage, forcing you to buy a replacement. Why would you build your cookware collection around a product like that?