The Ultimate Guide to Nonstick Cooking Safety

Nonstick is so convenient for people like me who only have a little time that it’s hard to imagine managing without it.

Yet, I wanted to know if nonstick cookware was safe for my family and me, and what the alternatives were.

The answer?  Nonstick is probably safe if you’re careful; but it’s not the only choice out there!

Nonstick and PFOA

What is PFOA?

Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) is a chemical that was used when making nonstick and other products.  There was some concern that it could be damaging to health. In particular PFOA might be carcinogenic, although this isn’t clear.

Any risk like this is scary, but, most PFOA should have been burnt off in the manufacturing process. 

Nonstick was never a major source of PFOA.  What’s more, it wasn’t the only source. Popcorn bags were a source, for example.   Ironically it might be healthier to prepare popcorn in a nonstick pan than microwave a popcorn bag. Even drinking water, food or dust could contain PFOA.

PFOA & Nonstick Today

Most reputable companies have worked to drop PFOA from their production processes.  This includes Teflon.

The main players completed this phase out in 2015.  Any new nonstick cookware you buy from a major manufacturer today shouldn’t include PFOA.

Modern nonstick does have Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) which is inert, chemically resistant and food safe.

Main Nonstick Risks

Of course the elimination of PFOA doesn’t mean that nonstick is 100% safe no matter what you do with it.  There are other chemicals used in making it that you should take into account. I believe, though, that this comes down to how you use nonstick.

High Temperatures

Modern nonstick can survive most cooking like frying, boiling, and baking. The manufacturer does recommend not broiling food with Teflon, as this involves temperatures above 260 °C (500 °F).

In reality this is super high and you won’t be reaching this temperature with most cooking.  Remember most food is mainly water and water boils at a temperature of 100 °C (212 °F). Food is  deep fried at 180-190°C (350-375°F) and most baking happens at 200-220°C (390-425 °F). You can see why if you aren’t broiling or searing food, you should be fine.

Chipping and Scratching

According to Chemours, the company behind Teflon, “Particles from Teflon™ nonstick coatings are not harmful, even if ingested.”  Of course they would say that! It’s even, probably, true. However, no one wants to be eating little bits of nonstick in their food.

In the end how you use your nonstick pan will have a big impact on whether you end up with a “nonstick condiment.”

Microwaving

The main risk of microwaving is not the nonstick material itself, but the metallic base layer.  I’m sure you already know that you should never microwave metal.  If you need to heat something in a nonstick container – use the oven, it only takes a few minutes longer.  I binned my microwave years ago, and I haven’t looked back.

Dishwasher

I’ve heard claims that you shouldn’t stick nonstick cookware in the dishwasher.  I’m skeptical about this.  Teflon claim this isn’t a problem.  I put my nonstick pots and pans in the dishwasher and I’ve never seen any fading or damage as a result.  Not once.

I would suggest watching out for two things:

  • Carefully position your cookware.   The nonstick coating must not touch anything metallic inside the dishwasher.
  • Check what the manufacturer of your cookware says about using cleaning.

In any case, this is a personal decision.  It might depend on the dishwasher, or detergent.  If the dishwasher damages your nonstick cookware; throw it away, buy a new one, and don’t put it in the dishwasher!

Metal utensils

Modern nonstick is quite hard and scratch resistant, but why risk it?  At home we only use wooden, silicone, or (heat resistant) plastic utensils with nonstick.  I have seen nonstick scratched with metal before, so I try to be careful with this.

Pets

There is a risk to pet birds from fumes emitted by some damaged nonstick coatings.  If you follow all the precautions around temperature and chipping it might not be a problem.  I would suggest not keeping a pet bird in the kitchen when you are cooking with nonstick. In fact I wouldn’t keep it anywhere it could breathe the fumes.

Alternatives to nonstick

It’s easy to think about the risks of nonstick, but what about the other side of the coin?  Are there risks to using the alternatives?

Greasing

One option for avoiding nonstick pans is to use oils or butter to grease the pan or pot.  This helps avoid food getting stuck to your cookware.

In fact, even with nonstick, I’ll normally add a little bit of olive oil to help avoid food getting stuck.  The difference, though, is with nonstick I need to add a lot less oil than with non-nonstick (is that a word?)  For more traditional bakeware surfaces I tend to need to grease it a lot with a butter substitute.

Is using all this oil, or fat, to grease a pan unhealthy?  I think it’s fine as long as it is the right type of oil. Olive oil, especially extra virgin olive oil is widely regarded as very healthy.

For heavier duty greasing where you might need butter, there are alternatives.  My favourite is butter made from olive oil.

Greasing Risks

Let’s be honest – the good olive oil (extra virgin) is not cheap – so there’s a risk to your budget!  I don’t mind paying extra for good olive oil and having less to spend elsewhere. The health benefits are worth it for me.

It’s also a little bit more work to grease up the cookware, and a tad more to clean up as well.

The main risk, though, is the temperature.  Oils can form harmful chemicals when they reach their smoke point.  Their smoke point is when they start burning and releasing smoke. (If they are just bubbling a little that’s OK).  For olive oil the smoke point is around 190–207°C (374–405°F) which is high enough for most cooking.

There is an alternative if you need to go higher; avocado oil has a smoke point of 271 °C (520 °F).  This means you can use it for stir frying and, potentially, for broiling.  Avocado oil is super healthy, and a great alternative to olive oil for cooking, as well as for salads. The only catch is that, at least in my experience, good quality avocado oil tends to be even more expensive than extra virgin olive oil!

Food build up

Have you ever tried to clean a “normal surface” pan after some heavy use, especially if it wasn’t greased?  Even with a metal wire brush it can need some real elbow grease to get going. Sometimes, to be honest, there’s a bit of a discolouration on the metal that I can’t get out.  At this point I normally call my husband to sort it out.

Of course, the problem is that if you don’t have the time to clean it properly, or don’t notice it, then the food build up can harbour bacteria.  Sure, it will probably burn off the next time, but what if it doesn’t? In any case, is avoiding nonstick worth the extra effort needed in cleaning?  Only you can decide that…

Other harmful substances

A surface not advertised as nonstick could still have harmful properties.  Nonstick has been around for a while, and some risks have been removed or controlled over time. 

There are many alternatives out there, like stone, ceramic, and copper.  These are normally based on traditional cooking materials. However, if their surfaces have had a substance added to make them less sticky, who’s to say if that is more or less dangerous than nonstick?

I’m not saying here that any of these are dangerous, I don’t think they are actually and would be happy to use them. It’s just that if you want to avoid nonstick for health reasons, you might want to look carefully at the alternatives.

Using Nonstick safely

Coming back to nonstick, how do you use it safely?  Here are some of the tips I follow:

  • Don’t heat completely empty pans.  They risk getting too hot which is the main risk factor for modern nonstick.
  • For the same reason don’t heat anything on a high heat for long.
  • Take care cleaning it, use the soft side of the sponge, or better yet stick it (carefully) in the dishwasher.
  • If you stack it then cover the nonstick coating with a serviette.
  • Use wooden, silicone, or heat resistant plastic utensils.
  • If you see the pan is starting to chip – throw it away and buy a new one.
  • Don’t keep a pet bird near where you are cooking with nonstick.
  • Avoid chipping or scratching nonstick by:
    • Using non metallic utensils
    • Using serviettes to separate cookware if stacking

Conclusion

Nonstick is probably safe if it you use it correctly.  That being said I don’t always use nonstick. There’s no need to use it, for example, for anything I boil in water as it isn’t likely to stick to the surface of the pan.

On the other hand if I’m cooking skin on fish, I’ll use nonstick cookware. If nothing else it’s a total nightmare to clean up otherwise!

I use nonstick, carefully, when I need it, but I’m happy to use alternatives when nonstick isn’t necessary.

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