The best pan in the world for frying up eggs and fish fillets. As long as, that is, you don’t use it over high heat.
Recipes have step-by-step instructions and measurements, and celebrity chefs show you the ropes in their shows. And yet, in the heat of cooking, unanswered questions can, and often do, come up.
In “You Asked,” we answer these questions for you. Tell us your name, city, state, and question at email@example.com
Anne from South Pittsburg, Tennessee, asked: “I read that non-stick pans mustn’t be used over high heat. Can you tell me if this is true?”
Whether for fluffy omelets, homemade pancakes, or flaky salmon, a non-stick frying pan is a boon to the family cook. It heats quickly and evenly, lets go of food without resistance, and, as soon as you’re done cooking, is a cinch to clean up.
Non-stick pans are made out of an aluminum or stainless steel body that’s sprayed with a few layers of polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), a material discovered in the 1930s by an American scientist who worked for The DuPont Company, and has had a number of domestic and industrial uses since.
As a material, PTFE happens to have of the most slippery surfaces known to man, which is what makes it so good at keeping your food from sticking to the pan. As an added benefit, it prevents the metal from reacting with the acidity in your food (and leaching into it).
However, these pans have a weakness, and that weakness is high heat.
Generally speaking, non-stick coatings don’t do well when they’re used over high heat. For this reason, a few ground rules apply when you are cooking with them.
Non-stick pans should only be used at high heat for boiling liquids. The maximum operating temperature for non-stick coatings is 500°F (260°C), and this temperature can be exceeded if the pan is dry or the cooking surface isn’t completely covered with oil.
When a non-stick frying pan overheats, the PTFE coating begins to break down. The frying pan starts to smell like plastic and gives off toxic fumes that, if inhaled, can cause polymer fever. In some cases, the coating can get permanently damaged and develop cracks or start flaking off.
How to Not Overheat a Non-Stick Frying Pan
You’ll hear it from us, and you’ll probably hear it from others: “Don’t overheat your non-stick pan.” And yet, the question that’s often left unanswered is, how exactly do you do that?
Our best advice, below.
Never heat your non-stick frying pan empty.
If a recipe calls for preheating the pan—which many recipes do, for obvious reasons—add a tablespoon of cooking oil and rub it on the bottom and sides with a paper towel. This will help you ensure that you’re not heating the pan empty.
Most non-stick frying pans are made out of aluminum, and aluminum is a conductive metal that heats quickly. Nine times out of ten, 20-30 seconds of preheating is all you need to sear steak, brown chops, or fry fillets on the stove.
Some makes and models, like T-fal (Tefal), have heat indicators that tell you exactly when the pan is hot enough to cook in. In case your frying pan doesn’t have such a feature, use the 20-30 second rule.
Use high heat only for boiling. For all else, opt for low, medium-low, medium, or medium-high.
Use high heat only for simmering down liquids, like a gravy or sauce, and don’t leave your frying pan unattended, or it may boil dry.
For searing steak and chops—a cooking technique that’s best done briefly to give the meat a crispy and flavorsome crust before or after cooking it through at a lower temperature—grease your skillet with oil and crank up the stove to not more than medium-high.
For shallow-frying portion-sized cuts of meat and battered cheese or vegetables, use medium heat. By doing so, your food will have enough time to brown on the outside and cook fully on the inside without burning.
For sweating carrots or caramelizing onions, use low to medium-low heat. Both of these tasks require a gentle cooking temperature, occasional stirring, and plenty of patience from you, the cook.
Don’t leave your frying pan unattended.
The easiest way to ruin a non-stick frypan is to leave it unattended, especially when you’re cooking over relatively high heat. The cooking liquid will slowly but surely start to evaporate until the pan eventually boils dry, overheating the non-stick coating and causing food to burn onto the bottom and sides of the pan.
Stay close to your stove when you’re cooking with non-stick. These pans are quick and easy to use, but they require you to be prudent in how you use them. Otherwise, you may damage your cookware and need to look for a replacement.
Alternatives to Non-Stick Cookware
If the above instructions seem too cumbersome, there are alternative cookware that can replace, to one extent or another, your non-stick frying pan. They include ceramic, cast iron, enameled cast iron, and carbon steel skillets.
Arguably, ceramic cookware is the closest substitute for non-stick. Like their non-stick counterparts, ceramic skillets comprise an aluminum or stainless steel pan sprayed with multiple layers of coating.
In the case of ceramic pans, this coating consists of sand, additives, and impregnation of the cooking surface with silicone oil. When you heat the pan, small amounts of silicone oil get released, which prevents the food from sticking.
Like pans with a non-stick coating, ceramic pans also have a limited life. Sooner rather than later, the pan will run out of impregnated oil and become sticky. From that moment on, you can use it like a normal pan… but you will have to cook with fat, butter or cooking oil.
Cast Iron Skillets
Cast iron skillets aren’t inherently non-stick. However, the seasoning—the thin patina of oil baked onto the inside and outside of the cooking vessel to protect it from corrosion and rust—acts as a barrier between the iron and the food, preventing the food from sticking.
The downside to cast iron is that it’s made out of bare, uncoated, and highly reactive metal. This means that they can’t go in the dishwasher and they can’t be used for cooking acidic food, as the iron reacts to the acid and significant amounts of dietary iron leach into your dinner.
The upside is that they’re extremely sturdy and they last forever. You can use them on the stove, in the oven, under the broiler, and on the grill. You can even cook with them over an open fire; they won’t budge. They’re also cheap and, as long as you protect the seasoning, highly dependable.
Carbon Steel Skillets
As metals, carbon steel and cast irons share a similar molecular makeup and exhibit roughly the same properties. They heat slowly, but evenly. They are not suitable for acidic recipes, as they have the tendency to leach. And they must be seasoned for protection against corrosion and rust.
Still, carbon steel is lighter and much easier to season than cast iron. To season a cast iron skillet, you must rub it with flaxseed oil and bake it upside down in a 450-500°F (230-260°C) oven for at least one hour. To season a carbon steel skillet, all you have to do is grease the surface and heat the pan.
Like cast iron, carbon steel moves freely from stovetop to oven, broiler, grill, or campfire grate. It’s also relatively inexpensive to buy, and, with enough care and attention from you, the owner, is capable of lasting forever.
Enameled Cast Iron Skillets
Suppose seasoning isn’t your thing. In such a case, you should consider equipping your home kitchen with an enameled cast iron skillet. These skillets consist of a cast iron cooking vessel with a coating of vitreous porcelain.
The coating protects the iron from corrosion and rust, so seasoning is not necessary. In addition to that, this type of cookware can safely be loaded in the dishwasher without any problems. (Still, be careful. Floating utensils and dishes in the dishwasher can collide with them and chip the enamel.)
An enameled skillet isn’t as slick as a well-seasoned cast iron pan, and they’re far from non-stick and ceramic’s ability to release foods effortlessly. But, as long as you grease the bottom and sides, they perform pretty well.