Everything You Need to Know About Nonstick Skillets

The nonstick skillet is a staple in most American home kitchens. Here’s what you need to know about using yours safely and efficiently.

Published Dec. 10, 2020.

The test kitchen uses nonstick skillets a lot, and we’re not alone—70 percent of the skillets sold in the United States are nonstick. And the trend doesn’t end there. Roughly 56 percent of all cookware sold here is nonstick, too. In the test kitchen, we particularly like nonstick pans for baking, since their slippery coating makes for easy release and cleanup. Our winning round cake pan13 by 9-inch rectangular pan8 by 8-inch square panspringform panBundt pantart panpopover panpie plate, and tube pan all have nonstick coatings.

What Are Nonstick Skillets and Are They Safe?

To make a pan nonstick, manufacturers apply a coating to its aluminum base, spraying on anywhere from one to five layers. Unlike cast-iron skillets or traditional stainless-steel skillets, which are not chemically coated, nonstick skillets wear out with use. The nonstick surfaces simply degrade, especially if they’re scrubbed too hard or if they’re scratched with metal tools. Luckily, nonstick skillets tend to be less expensive than other skillets—and we’ve assembled some helpful tips for extending the life of your pan.

For many decades, all nonstick coatings contained the same key compound, a substance called polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). Its unique molecular structure makes for a superstrong, fairly flexible, and very slippery coating, and it’s the reason that Teflon and similar products are so slick and reliable. We’ve reviewed this style of skillet several times over the years and regularly use 12-inch10-inch, and 8-inch versions of our winner in the test kitchen. But there has been and continues to be considerable concern surrounding PTFE-based coatings because of the chemicals used to manufacture them. The Environmental Protection Agency asked manufacturers to remove one specific chemical, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), from their cookware by 2015. When we reviewed nonstick skillets in 2016, all the manufacturers we contacted reportedly complied; it is now the norm for skillets to be PFOA-free. But you still have to be careful when using these pans. When heated above 500 degrees, the PTFE in the coatings can break down and release toxic fumes. That’s why we always add oil or butter to a skillet when preheating a PTFE nonstick skillet (those fats start to smoke well below the 500-degree threshold) and don’t recommend putting a nonstick pan in an oven hotter than 450 degrees.

The other major category of nonstick cookware, ceramic nonstick, hit the market in 2007, right around the time that the risks of PFOA and PTFE were becoming clear. The key component in ceramic nonstick pans is a material derived from beach sand, so there is no risk of it releasing toxic fumes when heated, even to high temperatures. However, there’s long been a major drawback to these pans. Ceramic surfaces are brittle by nature, and we’ve found in past testings that the nonstick capabilities of a vast majority of ceramic nonstick skillets are subpar. But in our most recent review of these pans, published in March 2020, we recommend two models, an encouraging sign that ceramic cookware appears to be improving.

When Should You Use a Nonstick Skillet?

We like to use nonstick skillets when cooking delicate foods, such as eggs and fish, that might tear if they stick to the cooking surface; when making recipes with sugary sauces, such as stir-fries, that scorch easily; and when pan-frying breaded foods so that the coating sticks to the food and not to the pan. Nonstick skillets are also our go-to choice when making pancakes because they don’t let bits of batter burn on their surfaces the way that stainless-steel skillets sometimes do.

When NOT to Use a Nonstick Skillet

We’ve found that uncoated skillets are better than nonstick skillets for making pan sauces, such as the simple white wine, garlic, and thyme sauce that accompanies our easy Weeknight Roast Chicken. This is because in a stainless-steel skillet the fond (the crispy browned bits of food) sticks to the cooking surface, where it stays until you make your sauce, thus contributing deep, rich flavor. In a nonstick skillet, the surface is so slippery that the crispy bits stick to the food itself instead of to the skillet, so you don’t have the fond to flavor your sauce. We also don’t like nonstick skillets for browning butter or toasting nuts, because their dark surfaces make it hard to monitor progress.

Can You Use a Nonstick Skillet in the Oven?

Because the coatings of nonstick skillets make them less ovensafe than stainless-steel or cast-iron skillets, we call for putting them in the oven only occasionally. We never broil food in a nonstick skillet; a properly functioning broiler will quickly heat cookware to more than 500 degrees, which can damage the nonstick coating and potentially cause PTFE-based coatings to emit unsafe fumes. The silicone handles of some nonstick skillets can be problematic, too. Most of those handles aren’t ovensafe at temperatures greater than 390 degrees, but we’ve found a work-around: Wrapping a silicone handle in wet paper towels and a double layer of aluminum foil is enough to keep it at a safe temperature for more than an hour in a 425-degree oven. We also recommend following all manufacturer temperature guidelines, as the exact ovensafe temperatures for handles will differ.

How to Season a Nonstick Skillet

Cast-iron and carbon-steel skillets aren’t the only pans that benefit from seasoning. In our recent nonstick skillet testing, we learned that a few manufacturers suggest seasoning nonstick skillets before use. We tried it on all the models in our lineup and noticed a marked improvement in their nonstick ability. We recommend doing this with new nonstick skillets and any time you notice that your nonstick skillet is getting a little sticky. Simply warm the empty skillet over low to medium-low heat for 30 seconds, remove it from the heat, and rub it with 1 tablespoon of oil. Be sure to wipe it with a clean paper towel before using it.

How to Keep Your Nonstick Skillet Nonstick

Scratching: These days lots of manufacturers tout their nonstick skillets’ “scratch-resistant” surfaces, saying that it’s okay to use metal utensils. While newer nonstick coatings are more durable than previous generations, they’re still susceptible to scratches. Knives are an obvious no-no, but we’ve also found that whisking with an uncoated metal whisk can damage nonstick surfaces. We’re not saying not to use metal utensils, but use them judiciously if you really want to maintain your cookware’s surface: avoid cutting, repetitive motions, and excessive force. A safer bet: Use plastic, wood, and silicone utensils, such as our winning wooden spoon and silicone spatula.

Storage: Stacking other skillets and pots on top of your nonstick skillet can wear down its coating as you move the pans around. To protect the surface of your nonstick cookware, don’t stack anything on top of it, or, if you do, protect the cooking surface by placing a paper plate or a layer of paper towels on top to act as a buffer.

Cleaning: The surface of a nonstick skillet can get damaged during cleaning, too. We recommend avoiding abrasive sponges (including the abrasive side of the classic two-sided sponge) as well as abrasive cleaners such as Bar Keepers Friend, Comet, or Ajax. Though some manufacturers claim their skillets can go in the dishwasher, we don’t recommend it because dishwasher detergent can be abrasive. We prefer to use soft sponges and regular dish soap; luckily, because of their slick surfaces, nonstick skillets are notably easy to clean.

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