Is there a healthy non-stick pan?
Non stick pans are tremendously popular.
Most of the cookware people are buying, as you read this, is of the non stick kind. Are non-stick pans healthy or are they a health hazard?
In search of healthy non-stickiness
Non stick pans have a dark side. They cannot stand the kind of hard use any metal pan gets daily. The coat may flake and it can also produce hazardous fumes it heated over the recommended temperature.
The pans work well if used as directed. Unhappily, any breach of conduct may cause the non stick coating to deteriorate and break up with use. The coating is easily scratched if the cook uses metal utensils and tiny flakes may get into the food. The use of scouring pads for washing may add to the problem. If the pan gets too hot - more than 500°F - the non stick coating will become part of the smoke emanating from the pan and this smoke could make anyone very sick - from flu like symptoms to more serious problems as a couple of the chemicals released in the fumes are of the cancer causing sort.
Despite the potential health hazards, non stick pans are hugely popular. Not only they are ideal to cook the type of food that tends to stick to the bottom of the pan, one can brown with virtually no oil -making it the pan of choice for low fat cooking. Non stick pans are also easier to clean than traditional ones. Whatever has been prepared in them, no food will stick to the bottom, no need to soak them for hours to loosen burnt food.
If having a non stick pan is a must, do not trade health for convenience and choose a good quality, modern one. Modern pans are made with higher quality materials and this helps the coating to keep attached to them. The latest technologies have designed new ways to apply the coating, making easier for the coating to hold on to the pan and more difficult for it to break during normal operation. Some can even take certain dose of abuse.
The minimum requirement should be heavy duty anodized aluminum exterior, so it can take moderately high heat without bending, and a non stick interior that can handle some unintentional scraping. There is the possibility to choose a non stick pan that is also oven proof.
For those wanting non stick with less risk, there is a middle way. Infused anodized pans are closer to the goal. In this case, the pan is infused with a polymer similar to the non stick coating that permeates the pores and makes the surface less sticky.
Infused anodized pans can stand high temperature with or without oil. However, the non-stickiness quality is not total. This is a blessing for some as it allows for fast browning while and drippings for gravy while still having and easier release of food -if not perfect- and needing less oil to cook. The infused anodized pans are easy to clean and this is good because they need to be thoroughly clean to work their non stick bit of magic.
On the eco-healthy side, there are the traditional cast iron pans to consider. Although they cannot be regarded as nonstick pans at the beginning of their cooking life, these pans develop non stick properties if properly seasoned. Their nonstick properties improve with use and are hindered by washing with harsh detergents. The carbon-steel woks -for stir-frying- share many of the characteristics of the cast iron pans. These pans also release material into food but the contribution from both materials is from a healthier nature because it increases the iron content in food and this may help to prevent iron deficiency.
If going for oven proof pan or skillet, look also for a handle easy to grip and an oven proof lid.
Use as directed
Heating the pan with a little oil or butter in it will prevent the risk of reaching the fatal 500°F because the smoke point for most cooking oils is reached somewhere between 350°F and 400°F, while butter smokes around 300°. Smoking oil or butter act as an early warning and tell the pan is ready to cook.
Never leave the pan unattended. Typically, heating an empty pan for 12-15 minutes will make it hot enough to damage the non-stick coating.