Green Skillets

Published September 1, 2009. From Cook's Illustrated.

Overview:

With every product from the shopping bag to the SUV undergoing an environmentally friendly makeover, it’s no surprise that the nonstick skillet is getting its turn. Cookware makers have launched a variety of nonstick pans touted as “eco-friendly,” some also promising that their new coatings will last longer, work at higher temperatures, and resist scratches. But as our testing revealed, it’s not easy being both green and a solid performer. Furthermore, whether some of these pans are really any greener than the old nonstick is a big open question.

Traditional nonstick coatings use two controversial chemicals: PFOA and PTFE. PFOA, or perfluorooctanoic acid, is a processing agent widely used in manufacturing that has been detected in water, food, wildlife, and human blood samples. The Environmental Protection Agency cites it for causing birth defects in laboratory animals and has urged that companies eliminate it by 2015.

PTFE is polytetrafluoroethylene. Though inert, when heated above 660 degrees (a range easily reached if the pan… read more

With every product from the shopping bag to the SUV undergoing an environmentally friendly makeover, it’s no surprise that the nonstick skillet is getting its turn. Cookware makers have launched a variety of nonstick pans touted as “eco-friendly,” some also promising that their new coatings will last longer, work at higher temperatures, and resist scratches. But as our testing revealed, it’s not easy being both green and a solid performer. Furthermore, whether some of these pans are really any greener than the old nonstick is a big open question.

Traditional nonstick coatings use two controversial chemicals: PFOA and PTFE. PFOA, or perfluorooctanoic acid, is a processing agent widely used in manufacturing that has been detected in water, food, wildlife, and human blood samples. The Environmental Protection Agency cites it for causing birth defects in laboratory animals and has urged that companies eliminate it by 2015.

PTFE is polytetrafluoroethylene. Though inert, when heated above 660 degrees (a range easily reached if the pan is left empty over high heat), PTFE breaks down and releases toxic fumes that can kill birds and cause flulike symptoms in people.

Two of the new coatings (ceramic and silicone) are entirely free of these two chemicals. But a third type merely eliminates the most notorious chemical, PFOA. We rounded up all the “green” skillets available as open stock items in a 12-inch size (or the closest to it) in each of the three types. We took these eight pans and compared them to our previous Best Buy nonstick skillet with a traditional Teflon-style coating from WearEver (it has since been discontinued). In each pan, we cooked several of the dishes that nonstick skillets do so well—scrambled eggs, fish fillets, and frittatas, along with steak and stir-fries—and rated the pans on how evenly they cooked the foods and how easily they released them. We used metal utensils on the pans to test manufacturers’ claims about scratch resistance; we also monitored their tendency to stain or discolor and the durability of their coatings. Since we don’t recommend spending a lot of money on nonstick pans because the coating gradually wears off, this was a particular concern. A well-designed pan was another requirement, so we also rated them on balance, weight, and shape.

Underachievers

Not a single one of these “green” pans was without flaws. In some, delicate eggs burned, thin fish fillets stuck, and steak charred on the outside while remaining raw within. Others stained or transferred heat inconsistently. Some pans started to build the browned bits known as fond as we seared steak, indicating an unwanted sticking power. Stir-fries were more forgiving, but a few pans steamed the meat and left vegetables pallid and rubbery.

To test claims made by some manufacturers that the pans could withstand metal utensils, we made frittatas and sliced them directly in the skillets with a chef’s knife, then used a metal pie server to remove each slice (a test we have conducted on regular nonstick skillets). While some models sustained shallower scratches than others, all showed marks and scrapes, just as the traditional nonstick pan did. (Despite manufacturers’ claims, we recommend treating “green’’ skillets as carefully as you would any regular nonstick pan; do not use metal utensils.)

Overall, the performance of the new skillets was subpar compared with our traditional nonstick skillet. A pan’s strengths and shortcomings depended mostly on the type of nonstick coating.

Surface and Performance

Ceramic coatings are made by slowly baking a mixture of ceramic powder and water or solvent onto a base of stainless steel or aluminum. Because ceramics are extremely brittle, expanding and contracting at a different rate than the metal base they are bonded to, we expected that such coatings might prove less durable. Testing confirmed our suspicions; when we were done, the surface of one ceramic pan was even covered with what looked like burst bubbles.

Ceramic-coated aluminum pans had another flaw: Because aluminum is a rapid conductor of heat, these pans quickly became extremely hot. But due to the thinness of the ceramic coating, the pans could not retain heat once food was added, resulting in overly slow cooking and steaming rather than browning.

Silicone copolymer coatings, in which a fine layer of a silicone copolymer is sprayed over a metal pan, proved more resilient than ceramic coatings, but still wore off within a few days as we cooked and washed them repeatedly. While these pans reacted more predictably to temperature adjustment, steak did not release easily and left fond; eventually food stuck even when we added oil, leaving a blackened mess. Despite this flaw, their low marks on durability, and their tendency to discolor and become scratched, these pans still outperformed the ceramic contenders.

The final category of skillets, whose coatings are PFOA-free but contain the moisture-repellent PTFE, performed much as we expected, maintaining their nonstick properties well compared to other models. These pans easily released food and browned evenly during every test. Eggs cooked perfectly. Fish did not stick, nor did it leave an imprint. However, like traditional nonstick, these pans can emit dangerous fumes from the PTFE if left empty over high heat.

Not Ready for Prime Time

As we conducted cooking tests, we realized we don’t really care how good the nonstick coating is if the pan is uncomfortable to use. None of the skillets had a flawless design—if it was the right size, it was too heavy; if it was lightweight and maneuverable, the cooking surface was too small for many recipes. We had to conclude that while the engineers focused on new nonstick coatings, they forgot about the basic requirement of a comfortable, well-designed pan.

In addition, most of these pans are also just not as durable as traditional nonstick. Hugh Rushing of the Cookware Manufacturers Association (a trade association) concurred with our assessment. Based on testing the CMA has done in its own test kitchens, the ceramic-coated models are simply “not as well-performing,” Rushing said.

Furthermore, experts like Rushing remain unconvinced that these pans are really “green.” Because of their newer technology, ceramic- and silicone-coated skillets require more resources to manufacture than traditional nonstick pans. And how “green” can a pan really be that still contains at least one potentially harmful chemical, PTFE? Rushing’s answer: “Not very.” Until “green” skillet technology improves, we’re sticking with traditional nonstick or a well-seasoned cast-iron pan.

Methodology:

We tested eight “green” skillets ranging in price from $32.24 to $139.99, comparing them to our previous favorite traditional nonstick pan from WearEver (since discontinued). Prices were paid in Boston-area retail stores or online.

 

NONSTICK PERFORMANCE

We scrambled eggs, fried fish fillets, seared steaks, and stir-fried beef and vegetables. High marks were given to pans that released food evenly, browned well while avoiding fond development, and cleaned up easily.

 

DESIGN

We considered features such as handles, weight, and shape.

 

DURABILITY/SCRATCHING

To assess durability, we used the pans repeatedly for three 8-hour days, hand-washing the pans between tests. To test scratch resistance, we sliced a frittata with a chef’s knife in each skillet and removed slices with a metal pie server.

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