‘Throwaway gear’: nonstick pans are rare in restaurants – should home cooks quit them too?
Aculinary bombshell landed in March when thechef David Chang, owner of the Momofuku empire and host of Netflix’s Ugly Delicious, admitted on his podcast that he’s changed his tune on Teflon. “I never thought in my wildest dreams that I’d cook with a Teflon wok – I’m not embarrassed any more, I’m coming out, I’m telling the world that my favourite piece of equipment right now is a Teflon wok made in Korea,” he chortled, saying that it was the ease of cleaning that swayed him.
Like many chefs, who don’t wash dishes at work, Chang was previously forthrightly anti-Teflon, claiming they barely lasted a year.
“It’s sort of like throwaway gear,” says Annie Smithers, chef-owner of Du Fermier in regional Victoria, who’s been cooking in commercial kitchens for more than 30 years. “No matter what quality they are, that coating wears off eventually and you throw them away.”
In hospitality there’s no mucking around with sensitive pots and pans. They go from a ripping hot stove to the sink over and over, every service. This is why pans with a friable coating are rare and chefs mostly stick to steel and cast-iron (the original nonstick).
“If you have Teflon pans in a commercial kitchen environment, it’s just not practical to say to every dishwasher, ‘Don’t use the scourer on that pan,’” Smithers says. “And given that you’ve got a lot of metal utensils, which are encouraged because they are more hygienic than using wood, you can’t just say to everybody, ‘Don’t use those utensils on that pan.’”
Teflon, a trademarked chemical, was discovered by accident in 1938 when an Ohio scientist working on refrigerant gases at DuPont discovered a white, waxy solid, later identified as polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE).
According to Choice, Australia’s leading consumer advocacy group, the reasons to buy Teflon are the same as when the “happy pan” was launched in the US in 1961: effortless clean-ups and lower-fat meals without the need for oil or butter.
When assessing nonstick cookware for its independent reviews, Choice starts with the fried-egg test. How loose is the egg when fried with no fat on the pan’s first, second, third cook? It then test for evenness of heat distribution and, finally, durability, which involves a mechanical scrubbing arm fitted with a scourer and a 10kg weight used to scratch a spot on each pan 10,000 times.
“Every 500 repetitions we look at it and we’ll just see if there’s any wear,” says a home economist and head of the Choice kitchen lab, Fiona Mair. “Usually, if it’s got a weak nonstick coating, you’ll notice [wear] within the first 500 repetitions.”
But while coated pans can cost anything from $5 to $500, Mair says the best quality items, if treated with care, still have a maximum lifespan of six to 10 years.
I divulged to Mair over the phone that, while going hard in the kitchen during Melbourne’s second lockdown, I had massacred a pricy nonstick pot. “Did you use any metal utensils?” I told her I hadn’t. Mair, who’s tested more than 3,000 appliances, hypothesised that I’d been preheating it on too high a heat.
“High temperatures can ruin the Teflon coating,” she says. “And even though a lot of brands state you can use metal utensils, you can put them in the oven up to 260C – in my opinion I would avoid that because if you’re doing it constantly over time, you can’t tell me that it’s not going to damage that nonstick coating.”
At 280C, PTFE starts to release degradation particulates, which, if inhaled, can be lethal to birds. 280C seems high but on a gas stove an empty lightweight pan can reach that temperature in less than two minutes – so keep pet birds out of the kitchen. PTFE toxicosis or “polymer fume fever” can also occur in humans but it is rare and mainly associated with the manufacture of PTFE.
The safety of chemical coatings has been under the microscope since the early 2000s when a class-action lawsuit alleged that perfluorooctanoic acid – at the time a key ingredient in the production of PTFE – contaminated drinking water supplies in West Virginia and Ohio, leading to six diseases including testicular and kidney cancers in more than 3,000 residents. The US Environmental Protection Agency asked companies to voluntarily phase the acid out by the end of 2015, and in 2017 DuPont agreed to pay US$671m to settle the lawsuit. A film about the scandal, Dark Waters, came out in March 2020.
Choice says when the surface of a nonstick product starts to chip, it’s time to replace it. It also suggests that to use PTFE pans safely, you must avoid metal utensils, high heat and dramatic temperature changes. The list of don’t continues: don’t use oil spray, don’t leave a preheating pan unattended, don’t put it in the dishwasher, don’t use metal scourers or harsh detergents and always soak used pans before you scrub them.
Or you could switch to something less temperamental. Chefs’ cast-iron and steel pans and woks start at about $14.
“[My] copper pans will see my life and they’ll be around for generations,” Smithers says. “And the cast-iron pans, if you look after them, they don’t wear out.”
Just a month after his shocking revelation, Chang too rescinded his endorsement. He crowned cast-iron as his preference, saying that while nonstick has its place, “it’s pointless to buy a fancy one”.