Choosing a set of pans can be daunting if you're not a foodie, so convenience and cost usually trump quality when it comes to buying cookware. But regardless of what you buy, there's probably one constant: If you don't feel like scraping the charred remains of what used to be dinner off of your pan, you'll be looking for something labeled "non-stick."
For decades now, the go-to answer has been to buy a pan coated with a non-stick finish like DuPont's Teflon. But in recent years, concern has grown over the safety of these coatings—specifically regarding reports that the pans can emit toxic fumes when overheated. Now there's a potential savior on store shelves. It's possible that the age of ceramic nano-coating could render conventional non-stick obsolete.
Mo' chemicals, mo' problems
Last year, there was a scare about the use of perflurooctanic acid (PFOA) in non-stick cookware manufacturing, as it's been identified as a possible carcinogen in humans. The EPA has stated that Teflon and similar high-quality coatings are not PFOAs, though they're used in the manufacturing process and have been found in trace quantities in the finished product.
There has been plenty of noise about PFOAs from both sides of the fence. DuPont and other organizations that sell traditional non-stick products have been extremely active in their efforts to counter hysteria over PFOA use, both downplaying its use in their materials and downplaying its toxicity. Manufacturers of non-stick alternatives, on the other hand, have been quick to brand their products as "100% PFOA-free" in fairly transparent effort to cash in on consumer fears.
Related studies are still ongoing and it's not entirely clear how much of a threat the chemical is to owners of traditional non-stick cookware. In a proactive effort, the EPA is forcing manufacturers to all but ditch PFOA and moving to tightly control its use. Don't expect them to slap on a Mr. Yuk sticker on products containing PFOA, though.
The fact of the matter is that we don't know everything about the associated risks just yet. In the interim, consumers are now looking to other non-stick options to avoid any potential health or environmental issues. So what's taking Teflon's place? Ceramic nano-coated pans.
Papa's got a brand new pan
Not only are ceramics an affordable, low-maintenance option, but they also seem to perform about as well as the pans they're replacing, contrary to DuPont's claims. Owners simply need to remember to use soft utensils made of wood, plastic, or silicone to avoid damaging the cooking surface. And the best part is that ceramic-coated pans don't employ chemicals of questionable safety.
Having picked up a couple of these solely for the purposes of satisfying my curiosity, I can say that the ceramic pans seem to handle normal cooking well, and are also very easy to clean—most leftover gunk is easily wiped away with only a wet cloth. This easy cleaning is thanks to silicon dioxide, the hydrophobic and oleophobic compound common in ceramic cookware. Some ceramic pans also use dimple patterns to promote non-stick behavior, and user reports indicate the technique is quite effective.
Opinions vary on this point, but ceramic may also be longer-lasting than traditional non-stick, which has a lower threshold for heat-based decay (pyrolysis). When used at higher temperatures, non-stick pans run a greater risk turning sticky, because the compounds can simply break down. Teflon-style coatings are also susceptible to scratching in ways that ceramics are not. How many times have you used a conventional non-stick skillet simply couldn't prevent charred bacon fat from clinging desperately to the metal? This is largely due to high temperatures gradually and consistently compromising the integrity of the non-stick coating.
Good for the environment
After you're done with your cookware—that is, after it's become unusable due to misuse or constant decay—where you do dispose of it? Most of the time, it goes straight into the garbage.
What happens when you chuck Teflon-coated pans? For one thing, you could become an unwitting bird slayer if the pan ends up getting melted down. Researchers at the University of Missouri have concluded that Teflon (PTFE) is highly toxic to many species of birds—killing scores with only low doses of the chemical when it's vaporized by high heat or decay. Want to help avoid another Silent Spring? Don't chuck that pan!
Ceramic's known victims are essentially limited to people misusing ceramic knives—not pans. When ceramics are cadmium and lead-free, as they as they are in virtually all reputable brands of ceramic cookware, they're an inert substance that won't poison you (or wildlife) as time goes on. And while there are other solid alternatives to traditional non-stick, such as stainless-steel and anodized aluminum cookware, they're not as easy to clean and are often more expensive than ceramics.
With a reputation for being easy to clean, relatively cheap to buy, and solid performers, ceramic cookware makes a great case for breaking up with your old non-stick pans.
[Hero image: Flickr user "waferboard"]