Teflon Redux

By Robert L. Wolke
Wednesday, May 10, 2006

My April 26 column on the Teflon Terror Syndrome -- the fear of using nonstick cookware -- elicited quite a few questions from readers about related issues. In brief, I said that Teflon-based coatings are harmless unless heated to higher temperatures than are normally reached in range-top cooking.

I read your column about Teflon and wondered about electric grills, such as the George Foreman grills which are all stick-free, I believe. Do you know what temperatures they get to?

Because grilling and broiling can reach temperatures well above those at which Teflon has been found to emit toxic fumes, I wrote that Teflon-coated grills and grill pans should be banned. By that I meant cooking surfaces intended to be heated to meat-searing temperatures, whether over a charcoal fire or a range-top burner.

But Mr. Foreman's "grills" and their copycats aren't really grills in that sense. Like other electric indoor cooking appliances such as waffle irons, deep fryers and frying pans, the temperatures are thermostatically controlled. For example, Foreman's Lean Mean Fat-Reducing Grilling Machine (model GRP99) preheats itself to 300 degrees and stays there until the user raises the temperature, to a maximum of 425 degrees. That's well below the temperatures of 500 to 700 degrees that are commonly reached in grilling meats on charcoal or gas grills.

I've seen recipes that call for food to be sautéed in a nonstick pan on the range and then finished in the oven (not the broiler) at 350 to 400 degrees. I assume this is okay because at that temperature Teflon doesn't emit toxic gases.

Right. Home ovens can reach 450 to 500 degrees at most. That's within the safe temperature range for nonstick cookware. Just make sure the handle can stand the heat.

What is the difference between Teflon nonstick and SilverStone pans? Is the latter also Teflon?

The SilverStone nonstick coating is partly Teflon. It is made from Teflon (PTFE) plus another polymer called PFA. As far as heating and cleaning are concerned, it can be treated the same as Teflon. DuPont Co. has sold the SilverStone brand name to Meyer Corp. of Vallejo, Calif.

I should mention that cheap nonstick pans, being light and thin compared to heavy (and expensive) big-name brands, will heat unevenly, developing hot spots mimicking the heat pattern of the burner beneath. Even with food in the pan, these hot spots can reach Teflon-destroying temperatures, with negative consequences for both the life of the pan and the probability of toxic-fume emission.

Should I be wary of a pan whose surface is losing its nonstick quality? I don't mean that the coating is visibly flaking off, but the pan just isn't quite as nonsticky as it used to be. Does this mean I've been overheating the pan and releasing carcinogens into my kitchen, and I should therefore throw the pan out?

I'm not in favor of throwing away nonstick pans for casual reasons, but in your case, I recommend it.

Perhaps you haven't treated your pan with the TLC it deserves. A nonstick pan must be thoroughly cleaned after each use. Every vestige of food and fat must be removed by scrubbing with a brush and detergent or a mildly abrasive cleanser such as Soft Scrub. Any fat left on the surface will turn into gunk the next time you heat the pan, and it will build up on subsequent uses.

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