Nonstick Skillets

Published September 1, 2010. From Cook's Illustrated.

Overview:

Update: July 2013

When we tested nonstick skillets, T-fal informed us that the winning skillet was rated as oven-safe to 450 F, which we printed in our story and followed in our recipe development since that time, with no problems. However, the company now lists this pan as oven-safe to 350 F. We checked back with T-fal, and learned that the maximum temperature T-fal recommends for using this pan in the oven is 410 F. Beyond 410 F, the silicone handle may be damaged, and may crack, change color, or emit odors, although it will not melt. The company reports that there is no health hazard if the handle is heated above 410 F, but that the handle will become more fragile.

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No matter how gently you treat your nonstick skillet, the day will come when it lets you down. While cookware manufacturers claim they've improved nonstick coating strength and durability, scratches will eventually mar the pan's surface, it will become rough and stained, and it may pill or flake into… read more

Update: July 2013

When we tested nonstick skillets, T-fal informed us that the winning skillet was rated as oven-safe to 450 F, which we printed in our story and followed in our recipe development since that time, with no problems. However, the company now lists this pan as oven-safe to 350 F. We checked back with T-fal, and learned that the maximum temperature T-fal recommends for using this pan in the oven is 410 F. Beyond 410 F, the silicone handle may be damaged, and may crack, change color, or emit odors, although it will not melt. The company reports that there is no health hazard if the handle is heated above 410 F, but that the handle will become more fragile.

 _________________________________________________________

No matter how gently you treat your nonstick skillet, the day will come when it lets you down. While cookware manufacturers claim they've improved nonstick coating strength and durability, scratches will eventually mar the pan's surface, it will become rough and stained, and it may pill or flake into your food. But even if your pan continues to look fine, its slickness will inevitably fade, much as wax wears off a car, and food will start sticking to the surface.

Despite these frustrating flaws, it’s hard to beat nonstick pans for cooking fragile foods like eggs and thin fish fillets. We also prefer nonstick for stir-frying, because fond won’t build up and scorch when you’re cooking in batches. Our longtime favorite is a tri-ply pan (aluminum sandwiched between stainless steel for even heat conduction) topped with nonstick. But its staggering price of $159.95 is a lot to pay for a pan that won't last you a lifetime—or even close to it. In the test kitchen, these pans barely last six months. And even if you use your nonstick pan only a couple of times a week, the Cookware Manufacturers Association concedes it isn't built for the long term: “If you get a year to a year and a half of life out of [a new nonstick pan], we think you got a pretty good deal," says Hugh Rushing, executive vice president of the association.

If we’re going to keep replacing nonstick pans, we’d prefer to spend less on them. Setting a limit of $50 for a 12-inch skillet, we found seven contenders from $17 to $49.95. But would “cheaper” mean “not so good”? To find out, we tested them against the super-pricey longtime favorite and along with our former Best Buy.

 

Put On a Coat

Most cookware manufacturers don’t make their own nonstick coating; they buy it from suppliers offering a menu of options, from basic to premium, and spray it on their pans. What goes into the coating helps determine its quality, but so do how exactingly it's applied and cured and how many coats go on. But while suppliers have figured out how to make the coating tougher—some brands even boast of using such hard materials as titanium or diamonds—nobody has figured out how to keep nonstick slick forever.

For this attribute, nearly all pans rely on a top coat of polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). The trouble is, the minute you start cooking, this polymer starts to wear away. Frying over high heat, using cooking sprays, scrubbing the pan with highly abrasive pads, and sticking the pan in the dishwasher for cleanup—a big no-no even if manufacturers say it's OK—only speed the top coat's inevitable demise.

To see how this topmost coating in our pans would cope, we began by frying eggs, without fat, in each one. One pan stuck on the third egg. Several others quit before we cooked 20 eggs, and a few more got into the 30s or 40s, including our former winners. Only two pans were still going strong at 76 eggs (at this point we stopped the test).

Next we stir-fried beef and vegetables. Beef fond stuck and burned on pans that had already lost some slickness, so instead of merely wiping out the pans with a paper towel between batches of beef, we had to stop and scrub away the scorched fond with soap and water. We also noted when a pan's construction interfered with cooking; too-low sides let snap peas slip out as we stirred and flipped, but if the sides were too high, they trapped steam and prevented meat from browning.

Under the Surface

Slickness wasn't our only criterion for an inexpensive nonstick skillet. We also wanted a pan that cooked food evenly, had good size and heft but remained comfortable to maneuver, and continued to perform despite kitchen abuse.

Making crêpes gave us an excellent snapshot of how evenly food cooked and helped us evaluate the weight and shape of the skillets. While all pans measured 12 to 12½ inches rim to rim, their actual flat cooking surfaces ranged from a skimpy 8 to a generous 10 inches. We preferred skillets with a broad cooking surface and low, flaring sides of about 2 inches, which let us swirl the crêpe batter around evenly and allowed us to reach in and under crêpes easily with a spatula. In this test, one of the pans that released 76 eggs proved overly thin and lightweight, producing uneven browning. The other, which weighed a solid 2½ pounds and boasted a 9¾-inch surface and flaring 2-inch sides, continued its stellar performance. 

These days many nonstick skillets are advertised as "metal utensil–safe," and we decided to put this claim to the test. We cooked a frittata in each pan and cut it into pieces with a metal spatula. Afterward, several pans sported a deeply etched starburst of cuts, and even our longtime favorite exhibited light marks. But we were hard pressed to detect any marks at all on a few pans, including—you guessed it—our soon-to-be-new favorite.

Next, to simulate the impact of months of use, we heated pans to 500 degrees, plunged them in ice water, and banged them on a countertop six times. As you'd expect of a pan of its top-notch construction, our old winner came away from this test unscathed. But a few pans warped or dented, and, heartbreakingly, the new front-running pan came away with loose handle rivets. Finally, we sent them all through the dishwasher, including the pans not advertised as dishwasher-safe.

Taking up these pans, many of which were now worse for wear, we performed one last test: scrambling eggs with no fat. A few gave up the ghost at this point; eggs stuck as if no nonstick coating remained. Our expensive old favorite now had a slightly hairy nonstick surface that required a bit of urging for scrambled eggs to release from the pan. But our front-runner looked ready for a few more rounds, and it served up perfect yellow scrambled eggs with little cleanup.

The Bottom Line

We’d like to say our new favorite pan aced every test, but that loose handle was a sign that it’s not high-end cookware. Still, at $34.99, it's a bargain. Its proprietary five-layer nonstick (most pans have two or three layers) never gave up during our testing, remaining slick and intact to the very end. It was the only pan in the lineup to give us the best of both worlds: an exceptionally slick, durable nonstick coating and top performance in cooking. As for the test kitchen's pricey old favorite, it boasts a lifetime warranty, so we still recommend it. But we'll be buying the more affordable pan from now on for our own kitchens.

Methodology:

We tested seven large nonstick skillets under $50, comparing them with our high-end former favorite and our former Best Buy.

INITIAL RELEASE: Number of eggs fried and released from the new skillet before sticking occurred.

COOKING: We averaged scores from cooking crêpes, beef and vegetable stir-fry, 12-egg frittatas, and scrambled eggs. Pans that browned evenly without hot spots earned higher marks.

DESIGN: We rated ease of use, shape, weight, balance, and maneuverability; size of cooking surface and handle comfort; and sturdiness after abuse tests, including heating pans to 500 degrees and plunging them into ice water.

COATING DURABILITY: Pans that released food easily throughout cooking and abuse tests rated higher. Tests included cutting frittatas in pans with a metal spatula, running pans through the dishwasher, and scrambling eggs in them without fat.

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