The advent of nonstick cookware was somewhat of an accident. In 1938, research chemist Roy Plunkett was experimenting with alternatives to the refrigerant Freon for the DuPont chemical company. One of his experiments involved freezing and compressing tetrafluoroethylene, a colorless, odorless gas; the gas transformed into a white, waxy solid. Dubbed polytetrafluoroethylene, or PTFE, this unique solid had an extremely low coefficient of friction (translation: it’s super slippery). DuPont trademarked PTFE as Teflon, and 20 years later it became the primary component of nonstick cookware. PTFE as well as more recently developed nonstick surfaces are now found on everything from skillets to waffle irons, and nonstick cookware accounts for the vast majority of cookware sales in the United States.
How does nonstick cookware work?
If you could magnify a metal pan, you would see that its surface is ragged and covered with thousands of microscopic nooks and crannies. When heated, the metal expands and these pores enlarge, allowing food to seep in, solidify, and stick. To minimize that sticking tendency, you can coat a metal pan with oil, which fills the metal’s fissures so that food can’t enter (that’s what you do when you season a cast-iron skillet), or you can use a pan that has been industrially coated with a nonstick material like PTFE, which fills the pores of the pan, making its surface smooth and virtually nonstick.
What are the best foods to cook in nonstick pans?
Foods that benefit from lower heat and that tend to stick, like fish and eggs, are good choices for nonstick pans; foods that need to be deeply browned don’t do as well. Heat energy moves through solid objects, like pots and pans, by making electrons in the pan jump from one atom to the next. Metal pans excel at conducting heat to food because the electrons in metals are more active and move quickly and easily through the metal. But the molecules in nonstick coatings hold their electrons tightly, so these materials don’t conduct heat as efficiently. As a result, coating a metal pan with a nonstick surface diminishes the pan’s ability to conduct heat. Although it’s possible to brown food in a nonstick pan, the level of browning isn’t as dramatic, and you don’t get enough of the brown bits that are essential to creating a rich pan sauce. Plus, the intense heat needed for thorough browning is not advisable in nonstick pans, since they degrade at high temperatures. (Keep reading for more about this.)