When cooking eggs, fish, and other delicate foods that are prone to sticking, we usually use a nonstick skillet. There are two types of nonstick skillets: regular nonstick skillets coated with layers of a synthetic material containing the chemical polytetrafluoroethylene (the most common brand name of which is Teflon) and ceramic nonstick skillets coated with a material derived from sand. Carbon-steel skillets are a third option; in place of a chemical coating, these pans develop nonstick patinas with careful seasoning and use. (Although seasoned cast-iron skillets are also quite slick, they’re much heavier than carbon-steel skillets and not as easy to maneuver as thinner, lighter-weight nonstick skillets.) We’ve tested all three types of pan and can recommend one in every style.
Regular Nonstick Skillets
The key component in their coatings is polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), a tough, flexible compound that scientists at DuPont discovered in the 1930s. When new, the best versions of these pans are superslick and incredibly user-friendly. However, the coatings wear away with use. There are also concerns about the safety of this type of nonstick cookware. Although PTFE is inert (chemically inactive) once it’s made and applied to a product, it can degrade and release dangerous fumes when it’s heated above 500 degrees.
Ceramic Nonstick Skillets
Instead of PTFE, these skillets get their nonstick properties from a material that’s derived from beach sand. Their nonstick surfaces are more brittle than PTFE nonstick surfaces, which means that they’re prone to developing microscopic cracks that can cause food to stick. But there is no risk of their coatings releasing dangerous fumes, even at high temperatures. Like all nonstick cookware, these pans won’t last forever. They will become gradually less nonstick with use and will eventually need to be replaced.
Unlike regular nonstick and ceramic nonstick skillets, carbon-steel skillets aren’t layered with synthetic coatings. To make them nonstick, they must be seasoned (which is both fairly quick and fairly easy with our preferred method), and this seasoning improves over time with use. Acidic foods and heavy scrubbing with soap can strip off that seasoning, but it can be completely restored if damaged. This style of pan requires time and attention to maintain, but it’s a one-time investment that can last a lifetime.