Why Your Frying Pan Smells Like Burnt Plastic

Published Categorized as Kitchen
Photo of an egg being fried in a non-stick skilletSeeDJan /Depositphotos

So you bought a new frying pan or got one gifted to you as a present. Excited to give it a try, you unboxed it, rinsed it under running water, then put it on your stove and turned up the heat.

All of a sudden, the pan started to smell like plastic… What gives?!

Your frying pan can smell like plastic because you heated the non-stick coating above its maximum temperature of 500°F (260°C). Another reason may be that excess heat from your stove melted the handle.

As a home cook, there are a few things that you need to know about cookware that, for one reason or another, no cookbook author or YouTube chef will tell you.

So, in the rest of this post, I’m going to help you troubleshoot what happened to your frying pan—and give you my best tips on how to keep it from ever happening again.

Never Preheat a Non-Stick Pan Empty

Most of us are attentive and careful when we prepare food, that’s for sure. But is it the same before there’s food involved?

Depending on the type of pans that you’ve equipped your kitchen with, it turns out that preheating can sometimes do more harm than it does good.

While you should always preheat a cast iron skillet or stainless steel frying pan—and you can do it with or without the use of butter or cooking oil—non-stick pans are a completely different story.

Non-stick coatings are made of polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE).

The maximum operating temperature of PTFE coatings depends on the quality of the coating in question (this includes its production and its application onto the pan). All in all, can vary anywhere from 450°F (232°C) on the lower end to 600°F (315°C) on the higher end.

As you can already imagine given what I just shared above, this has a number of implications for the way you use your frying pan.

The maximum temperature that you can heat a non-stick frying pan to is 500°F (260°C). Go higher, and the non-stick coating will start to break down, begin to smoke, and emit a plastic, chemical-like smell.

These fumes are dangerous and, when inhaled in sufficient quantity, can cause a rare condition known as polymer fume fever. They’re so toxic, in fact, that they can even kill birds.

That threshold probably seems pretty high to most of you, and you’re generally right. But not when you factor in the fact frying pans can quickly get heated to—and easily exceed—it when they’re preheated empty on your stove.

So what should you be doing instead?

Kate Shannon, Deputy Editor of America’s Test Kitchen Reviewsrecommends always adding butter or olive oil when preheating non-stick skillets on the stovetop.

Butter and olive oil have smoke points lower than non-stick frying pans’ maximum operating temperature (check them out on my list of the smoke points of cooking oils).

So, when the butter or olive oil in your pan starts to smoke, that’s a tell-tale sign that you need to add your ingredients and/or cooking liquid to the pan, which will bring the cooking temperature down.

Use an Appropriately Sized Cooking Zone

Suppose your frying pan has a plastic handle (as a matter of fact, most non-stick pans do). 

One reason why you may be getting a whiff of plastic every time you cook is that your frying pan could be smaller than the size of the flame on your gas stove or the diameter of the electric coil/radiant panel on your hob.

The plastic handles on most frying pans can withstand temperatures of up to 212°F (100°C). They’re generally safe to use on the stove—unless too much heat radiates from a zone that’s much bigger than the pan.

The next time you fire up your stove, take a closer look at what’s happening. If you suspect that that’s indeed the case, try using a smaller zone or consider buying a more compact frying pan.

My guide to buying a frying pan can help.

Avoid Cooking Over High Heat

Non-stick pans are designed to make basic cooking tasks—like browning bacon strips, frying sunny-side-up eggs, or cooking whitefish—quick and convenient.

Keep in mind that they were never intended for heat-heavy tasks, like searing thick cuts of meat or large fish fillets.

No matter if they’re made of coated aluminum or clad stainless steel, non-stick frying pans heat quickly and evenly enough for most cooking tasks. So there’s no need to turn the heat dial all the way up to high, as it may damage the coating.

When you want to sear steak or salmon over medium-high to high heat so that it forms a deliciously crispy exterior (searing is when you briefly cook food on high heat until it forms a crust), a more suitable choice of cooking vessel is an uncoated cast iron, carbon steel, or stainless steel skillet.

If you want to maximize the life of your non-stick pan, it’s a good idea to use it mostly over low to medium, seldom on medium-high, and never on high heat, especially when there’s little-to-no fat or liquid involved.

Other Possible Causes

Of course, there’s always the obvious cause that something plastic melted in your frying pan. This could have happened if you kept a cheap spatula (made of plastic or silicone) inside the hot pan for a bit too long. Contributing author Lane Madison gives you a few practical tips for removing melted plastic from non-stick cookware over at Hunker.

Last but not least, the frying pan could be defective. That can sometimes to China-made cookware; Chinese subcontractors tend to use cheaper materials and don’t always have reliable quality assurance practices. Refer to the pan’s warranty when you suspect that that’s the case.

By Jim Stonos

When Jim isn't in the kitchen, he is usually spending time with family and friends, and working with the HCW editorial team to answer the questions he used to ask himself back when he was learning the ropes of cooking.