Lots of bad news about Teflon lately. By 2015, DuPont and a handful of other companies will eliminate a harmful chemical in Teflon called PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid), which has recently been classified as a likely carcinogen by the EPA. No one will straight up admit Teflon is the next asbestos. But does it really matter? Hot pans kill birds.
Why restaurants never used Teflon anyway
- Restaurants cook on high. To a restaurant cook, stoves have only two settings: off and high. And Teflon burns too easily on high.
- It’s easy to scratch, so forget about using metal tongs, spatulas, whisks, or spoons with your pan anymore. What a great way to get people buying more cheap plastic tongs, spatulas, whisks, and spoons, right?
- Teflon doesn’t sear food well. A restaurant kitchen must deliver beautiful food, of course, and a boiled-loking bit of chicken leg, cooked in a Teflon pan, just doesn’t look very exciting.
- It isn’t even non-stick! Teflon is forgiving, but you can still dork up an omelet six ways from Sunday in a Teflon pan. So what is the point?
Certainly there are restaurants that use Teflon pans, but they typically use it for a handful of specific purposes like crepes.
Your options now
- Old school cast iron pans are fantastic and cheap: $15-25 for a nice heavy skillet that fries food beautifully. But cast iron takes some care and takes an ice age to warm up. You have to season them if you don’t want you food to stick. More on this later.
- There’s also enameled cast iron. This is more expensive than cast iron, but it doesn’t need any seasoning. I consider it somewhere in between cast iron and stainless steel: it warms up slow and holds heat forever, just as well as a heavy cast iron pan, but its surface is smooth like stainless steel. You don’t have to buy an expensive Le Creuset or Staub pot; there is a German brand whose name escapes me, and they sell the same thing without the 66% marketing surcharge (but that’s why the brand name escapes me…).
- But how about stainless steel? Stainless steel is a great cooking surface but a bad heat conductor, so any stainless steel pan worth its salt will have an aluminum or copper core to help distribute heat nicely. These pans are much more expensive than cast iron, but they require zero maintenance and, when used properly, they’re effectively non-stick.
- Lets not forget the carbon-steel wok. Great for a stir-fry. And they are cheap: about $20. You have to season them, but it’s easier than seasoning cast iron: just heat some canola oil on high and coat the inside of the pan with it for a couple minutes, until it starts to smoke. Turn if off. Clean your wok as you would a cast iron skillet (see below).
Tips for non-stickiness
OK, so you have your stainless steel or cast iron pan. The goal now is to prevent things from sticking in the first place. Here’s what you need to know:
- Temperature is key. Most people do not heat their pans enough before they start to cook. When you add food to a hot pan, it will sear and release some water. That water vapor is the non-stick magic, as it will keep the food floating atop the oil. But if your pan is too cold, searing won’t happen, water won’t be relased, and the food will fuse to the pan. Oops. As a general rule, you need to preheat your pan in proportion to the amount that your food will cool it. If you’re going to fry up four pork chops that you just took out of the fridge, your oil should almost be smoking. But if you’re just frying a bit of garlic, you’re better off at a lower temp—garlic bits will burn easily.
- Do not crowd the pan. Your goal is to sear. If you put 10 chicken legs into a 12 inch skillet—no matter how much you’ve preheated it—they will not sear. When in doubt, sear in batches.
- Take the chill off of your ingredients before cooking. Food cools the pan dramatically when you add it. You’ll want to minimize the temperature differential. So get your eggs out of the fridge 10 minutes before you heat the pan, and just let them hang out on the counter. This may sound silly but I promise it makes a difference.
- Use oil. You need some, but you really don’t need much. The more oil you add, though, the hotter and faster you can cook things without sticking.
Eggs fried fast and hot: Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium-high until tiny wisps of smoke start to rise from the pan, which happens about 30 seconds after the oil starts to shimmer. Add your eggs and spoon the oil over the top of them as they cook. They’ll be ready in no time. And they’ll be beautifully crispy around the edge and slightly brown on the bottom. Remove with a slotted spatula. No sticky!
- Patience. When searing meat or fish over high heat, you might notice that it sticks to the pan right away. Leave it alone, and do not be afraid. It will unstick! It just has to brown first. A hunk of salmon will come unstuck after about 2 minutes of searing over high heat, and it will be perfectly brown. Take the leap of faith and discover that this really works, or you’ll lose the crispy goodness and have a tough cleaning job ahead of you.
At this moment you might be thinking, “This is really annoying. Too many rules.” But if you lose the Teflon, you’ll see that these techniques really become second nature.
Oops, my food stuck. Now what?
You don’t have to soak the pan forever in the sink. Just put a little water in it and heat it to a simmer on the stove. Whatever was stuck to the pan will come away in short order. For anything that isn’t seasoned, you can use a cleaner like Bon Ami to quickly remove a really tough fond.
Cast iron pan care
Stainless steel pans are so easy to take care of, but cast iron requires a bit more work.
- Keep it seasoned. A seasoned cast iron pan has a tiny bit of oil fused to the pan, which makes for an exceptially good non-stick surface and prevents rust. Most cast iron pans are already seasoned when you purchase them. But if you start to see rust forming, you need to reseason your pan. Seasoning a pan is easy, and it’s been covered many times elsewhere.
- Barely wash it. Pour some salt in the pan and rub it around with a paper towel. Rinse. Done. It’s ok if a bit of your oil from cooking remains in the pan for the next use.
- But if you have to wash it… Don’t use a lot of soap, and don’t let it soak. Use a tough sponge to remove the stuck bits. Dry it thoroughly, because if it gets rusty you will have to reseason it.
- The irreplaceable cast-iron skillet is a great resource from a major cast-iron enthusiast.
- Tell Wal-Mart: no nonstick chemicals in food packaging
- DuPont covered up decades of internal PFOA studies