From R.K., 10 January 2012, working with nonstick cookware?
Q: Do you have any experience with this type of cookware? If so, I’d love to hear your thoughts. I need to replace a few non-stick pans. http://www.greenlifehousewares.com
A: Thanks for your question – this is something that I’m sure has been on the minds of a lot of home cooks, what with concerns about the substances that turn up in our food.
Here’s a caveat, first. We don’t have any nonstick cookware, since I don’t use it. I’ve found that really well-seasoned pans and a little oil provide all the nonstick surface I need, while avoiding some of the shortcomings of nonstick pans. But I know that many cooks like to use them, especially for eggs, so it’s definitely worth discussing.
Why does food stick to a cooking surface at all? Maybe it’s easier to talk about why food doesn’t stick when cooked properly. When you add food to a very hot pan that has been coated with oil, water on the surface of the food turns to water vapor, creating an almost imperceptible barrier between the oiled pan and the food, and preventing it from combining with the metal atoms on the surface of the pan and sticking. This is called the “steam effect.” Eventually, this surface dehydration leads to the Maillard reaction, or what we know as browning. If you keep on cooking the food at too high a heat, though, the oil will break down (or rancidify), and the food will burn. Once it releases all its water, it will stick, since nothing separates the dehydrated surface of the food from the pan’s surface. Knowing this, good cooks never add food to a cold pan; if the pan isn’t adequately hot the steam effect won’t take place, and the food will stick to the pan. Scratches and pits on the surface of the pan can accentuate stickiness, since the pan’s surface is not uniform. Although you probably can’t see them, such surface imperfections eventually arise in the use or cleaning of nearly any metal pan.
Nonstick pans are engineered to provide an exceptionally smooth surface to which foods generally will not stick. The original nonstick coating was Teflon(R), which has fallen out of favor as it contains polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) and formerly contained perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), which is being phased out due to its classification as a pollutant. Both substances undergo pyrolysis (heat-related breakdown) at high temperatures, and can be released into the air. Although normal cooking temperatures should not cause PTFE to break down completely, breakdown first becomes evident around 200C/392F, which is well within the range of cooking temperatures, and complete lysis begins to take place around 300C/572F. The effects of breathing the lysed fumes from PFTE/PFOA breakdown are well documented and include a flu-like illness. Above 450C/842F, the fumes can cause acute lung injury.
Accordingly, the search for nonstick materials continues. Ceramic has nonstick properties, but ceramic bonded to metal pans can be expensive, and if the ceramic chips, it loses its utility. Nylon (such as you would find in utensils for nonstick use) also has nonstick qualities, but is only stable to about 232C/450F. The pans you asked about use Thermolon(R), which from what I understand is a silicon oxide-based polymer bonded to ceramic. Glass is a type of silicon oxide, so you get the idea. Thermolon is supposedly heat-stable to at least 450C/842F.
If I were choosing a nonstick pan, I would select something that is heat stable to temperatures far in excess of even abusively high cooking temperatures, since sometimes pans are overheated. That means avoiding nylon (which actually will melt at high temps) as well as Teflon. Between the ceramic and the Thermolon, I don’t have an opinion. Both sound like environmentally sound alternatives to Teflon. I recommend, however, that when buying any pans, nonstick or not, you avoid plastic or nylon handles and buy only metal-handled pans. If you ever need to place a pan in the oven for, you want to be sure the handle doesn’t melt or deform. Also, when making a dish that calls for a fond (browned bits clinging to the pan’s surface), don’t use a nonstick pan. Although foods can brown just fine in a nonstick pan, the fond often will come off with the food, leaving little residue in the pan for deglazing.