The non-stick pan


The development of a non-stick pan received its technical impetus from the needs of the Manhattan Project during World War II. After its development, one of the lowest coefficient of friction values for a utility surface had been created. During the 1950s Dupont marketed the technology to create the non-stick cooking pan, and these products became known as Teflon coated pans. Many brands still use Teflon coatings today and the pans are marketed by companies and brand names such as Blue Marble Stone, Non Stick Sapphire, Circulon, Flavor Stone, Gemstone Tough and many more. These all derive from the use of Fluoropolymer technology.

A Teflon coated cooking surface has excellent non-stick qualities; if non-stick was your only concern then Teflon would be your best choice. However Teflon coatings also have a poor anti-abrasive capacity and the lifetime of a Teflon coated pan is relatively short. Teflon pans also have a limited temperature range for safe use. These factors create "the perfect storm" – when Teflon coated pans are dramatically overheated, their PTFE coatings break down and release toxic gases.

A gathering of online advice warns:
• Never preheat an empty pan
• Never cook with high heat
• If cooking broth or liquid check the cooking surface has not been damaged
• Ventilate your kitchen or risk flu like symptoms a few hours are cooking.
• Don't broil or sear meat
• Never overheat when baking, broiling or roasting
• Lightweight pans heat up very quickly, avoid high heat
• Surface damage will increase the likelihood of PTOA and substrate aluminum contamination also

Dupont has released new variants of fluoropolymer technology and Perfluorooctanic Acid free pans are now advertised in the marketplace. The old technology abounds in retail and wholesale stock piles and should be avoided. Teflon is due to be phased out of use in the USA in 2015. The EPA is finally responding to long known health concerns relating to PTFE and PTOA (perfluorooctanic acid) as used in Teflon coating manufacture.

Dupont claims with moderate usage, users can expect their pans to last three to five years. Retailers commonly suggest customers replace their Teflon pans every couple of years.

More reading: In Search of a Pan That Lets Cooks Forget About Teflon

Ceramic Coated Pans

Ceramic technology presents a new technology providing pans free from PTFE and PTOA, and this is an excellent development. Some marketing names and brands are Green Pan, T-Fal, Neoflam, Ecolution, Calphalon , Ceramcor-Xtrema.

However some in the trade argue that nano-particle ceramic coatings have an even shorter life than Teflon and that the colours and glazes, more often than not in real world production, will be set with the use of lead and other heavy metals like cadmium.

The abrasive nature of cooking will expose users to such chemistry, as well as the toxic aluminum, which 90 per cent of non-stick pans utilise as a base metal, hence their light weight.

Ceramic non-stick surfaces break down after two to three years of use.

More reading: Teflon Dangers in Nonstick Cookware and a Better Alternative

Enameled Cast Iron Pans

A good quality French enameled cast iron pan is a superb cooking implement. However, the enamel surface is easily scratched by metal utensils. Again, in the diverse reality that pans are subject to during years of cooking, contrary to marketing stories, enameled coated cast iron does get wear and tear, and also has a limited life. The enamel surface, given careful use, should last many years and grants an excellent low reactivity with cooked food. Beware of lesser quality enameled aluminum based pans, which often have toxins embedded in their glazes and the aluminum substrate itself.

The 21st Century Non-Stick Natural Cast Iron

A conventionally well-seasoned cast iron pan will achieve a good level of non-stick performance, but historically not at the level of a Teflon pan.

However, over the last decade a new technology has been brought into play. It was discovered that flaxseed oil, when polymerised during the seasoning process, produced the smoothest, hardest, longest wearing, easiest to clean, natural non toxic surface, immanently suitable for use with cast iron cookware.

More reading:

We at element cookware took Sheryl's advice and organic flaxseed seasoning techniques became integral to our production line. Given the time-intensive nature of this applied technique, and subsequent production cost, traditional cast iron manufacturers are reluctant or unable to make this move and continue to market cast iron pans with a cosmetic blackening that is not effective seasoning.

A cast iron pan is more than a non-stick surface, as non-stick capacity is intrinsically linked to the surface and pan temperature range and temperature stability.

The "secret" to cast iron's cooking success is its weight. When produced with a 5mm-6.35 mm (USA 1/4 inch) thickness, cast iron is heavy and the cast iron mass provides a thermal reservoir far superior to "modern" lightweight cooking pans.

Because of this greater mass and the crystalline nature of cast iron itself you can heat cast iron pans to very high temperatures without any fear of damage.

A high temperature capacity allows you to crisp up a pizza base, or sear your steak to perfection. The result is superior browning and caramelisation of food.

Bringing a cast iron skillet to the correct operational temperature for a particular type of cooking is a significant part of achieving a non-stick performance.

Flaxseed coated cast iron cooking surfaces need time to mature. Cast iron needs a bit of abrasive cooking work over time, and when utilising an extremely hardened flaxseed oil polymerisation, a cast iron pan does not have sticking difficulties. At Element, we have found that about three months of daily cooking will provide another level of improved performance of cast iron as a non stick surface. After three months of daily use the pan should be reseasoned.

Your pan can be maintained in this simple way in excellent non stick condition and remains your least toxic non-stick alternative.

Cleaning back the cooking surface and applying at least two coats of flaxseed oil will literally give you a "new cooking surface" but one that performs better again as a non-stick surface.

At a molecular level the best non-stick performance is achieved by simply using the thinnest amount of butter applied to a well heated cooking surface. The butter – an animal fat - "bounces off" the vegetable-based and polymerised flaxseed oil at the correct cooking temperature. It takes a cast iron skillet around three minutes to be temperature set.

Excellent ranges of natural cast iron pans stocked in Australia can be seen at:
Chef's Richmond Melbourne, Rosebery Sydney
Chef's Hat South Melbourne

Brendon O’Sullivan
Managing Director, Element Cookware