What did I cook this in?
From: 11/24/05 11:24 AM
Yesterday at work, I had a long discussion on whether or not Teflon causes cancer. The paranoia is best outlined in articles such as this. (Nora, stick to romantic comedies, because I’m going to rip you a new asshole by the time I’m done with this article.)
Basically I decided to “call bullshit” based on what little I remembered of my college organic chemistry class (misspent pre-med youth), I couldn’t see how anything in the body could react with polytetrafluoroethylene (Teflon® = DuPont’s trademark of PTFE) or keep it from passing right through our system.
When I got home something they mentioned rang a bell. Almost a year ago there was something about how some teflon-like lining of popcorn bags were being pulled—something about how the oils in popcorn butter leach the stuff out.
Uh-oh! Better do some research.
[More than what you want to know about non-stick cookware after the jump]
Here was the relevant article. Despite the sensationalist headline, it isn’t Teflon (PTFE) that is being pulled but perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). PFOA used in such large quantities in the manufacture of Teflon and in Teflon-like plastic linings, that trace amounts have been found in people, fish, what-have-you.
It’s toxic in large doses. Like many things, some lab mice died of cancer. People who worked at Dupont got fucked. No surprise there. If you work at a chemical company you’re bound to get fucked in ways nobody has figured out—for example read the blasé manner the author notes the deterioration of factory workers in The Case of the Frozen Addicts.
Solution: Companies will voluntarily eliminate the release of PFOE into the environment by 2015.
My guess is your exposure to PFOA is going to be mostly due to DuPont dumping the shit into the environment than in ruined nonstick cookware. I’d be more worried about the aluminum surface that sometimes peeks through when my cookware is dying.
I’m not too sure if PFOA is a byproduct of PTFE decay. This sounds unlikely. (Spoiler: Here is Dupont’s take.)
What about my dead exotic bird?
I was reading this interesting comment thread from Cooking For Engineers and I noticed this comment:
Regarding the health concerns about teflon, I can personally attest to its byproduct fumes being toxic as it nearly killed my African Grey parrot. I was heating a pot of water, got distracted and the water evaporated which caused the teflon coating to get hot. I myself noticed my throat feeling acrid, but the poor bird was puffed up, breathing with great difficulty and listing. He was so ill, he didn’t mind me putting my hands around him to place him in his carrier for an emergency trip to the vet. My dear parrot survived, and fortunately being an engineer I could afford the three days of vet services that totaled over $700.
I want to smack the person upside the head. What are you doing with a tropical bird in your kitchen. You just blew like 100x past the smoke point of every oil or fat you ever could have put in that pan. You a sadist or something? Here is the low down from Dupont. And these people call themselves engineers.
(Please someone name something that doesn’t mess with an exotic tropical bird’s respiratory system when smoked.)
What about the Teflon decay?
Most people note that their cookware instructions say they are not supposed to heat their non-stick cookware past “medium” on their stove and immediately theorize that the Teflon coat will create a carcinogenic gas when heated past 500ºF. This is no different than people reading “May contain sulfites” on wine bottles and being convinced that sulfites are the cause of their headaches. (Argh! Read the symptoms of food allergies!)
What is going on at that temperature is that Teflon is turning from a solid to a liquid. To understand why this is bad (for the cookware, not for you), we have to answer this question that always bugged me.
If teflon is so slippery, how the hell does it stick to the pan?
The answer is it’s baked into the surface of the pan. The best analogies I heard are ice cubes in the tray or how velcro works. Ice is pretty darn slippery but I always have a heck of a time getting them out of those plastic trays. Why? Because water expands as it freezes and lodges itself good and tight in the tray by the time it turns solid. Similarly velcro is physically bonded together because the hooks get caught on the loops on the other side.
So it is with Teflon.
Teflon doesn’t react to pretty much anything and it doesn’t stick to anything… except itself. That last part is self-evident when you buy a roll of plumbers tape and is how the process of coating pans with teflon gets it to ”stick” to the pan—it doesn’t. It sticks to itself and gets lodged into the microscopic shapes on the surface of the pan good and tight. These microscopic surfaces come from an acid wash treatment.
When you heat a pan too high, the coat begins to decay and the surface will wear quickly.
Yeah, but the life of my pan is teh suck
Yes, the nylon tools thing. I hate that.
New high-end nonstick cookware has molten stainless steel blasted blasted onto the surface to roughen it up. The idea is the PTFE falls into those valleys and you have a microscopic version of Circulon. The nonstick surface magically lasts a heck of a lot longer than before, but it still starts to decay at high temperatures and can be scratched off if you’re dedicated.
I think All-Clad Excalibur is a popular example of this. People are always telling me I should buy All-Clad which is a sure reason that I never do: I own a Mac! I shoot Nikon. Why the hell would you think I’d buy All-Clad?
Another option is ScanPan which uses Titanium-Ceramic beading instead of stainless steel.
What about SilverStone®?
Near as I can figure SilverStone is a trademark for a Dupont process that bakes in three layers of Teflon onto the surface. (Teflon is always baked in three layers.) There is some implication that it isn’t exactly PTFE or just PTFE. In any case, it’s supposed to be more durable.
If anyone can figure out what SilverStone really is, comment below.
What about Swiss Diamond?
In people’s search for non-teflon cookware, a lot of people recommend Swiss Diamond. Just go back and reread that Cooking for Engineers thread above if you don’t believe me.
If you read Swiss Diamond website closely, you will see that they use Teflon (well technically they’re too cheap to pay for the trademark from Dupont so it’s PTFE which is where they get away with saying “we don’t use Teflon®”) for the reason I mentioned above. Only instead of blasting the surface with a molten metal, they’re using diamonds via deposition.
I have no idea why—maybe it sounds cool. Ignore the crap they say about conductance: there is no way a microscopic layer of diamond dust is going to transport much heat anywhere—sort of like that copper foil I had on the bottom of my old T-fal pans—marketing BS, but I digress!
I’m low maintenance and really hard on nearly everything I own. Telling me to not raise my stove past medium is hard for me to follow. My stove’s dial goes to 11, dammit! I also spend way too much time thinking about any purchase I make (isn’t that obvious from reading this blog)?
The easiest and cheapest solution is to use a seasoned cast-iron pan from Lodge. Good deal, but you have to re-season is you cook at too high a temperature and burn off the oils. I own a Lodge griddle, a Lodge frypan, and a Staub La Cocotte, so I’m not above using cast iron.
(By the way, I’m sick of Nora and others raving about Le Creuset frypans. One of these costs $90. A Lodge Logic Skillet costs $16!2 Save Le Creuset for enameled dutch ovens. Personally for those, I got a Staub (that contrarian in me peeks on through), but if you find a deal like this one, I’ll forgive you.)
For a general purpose non-stick frypan I have a Sitram Cybernox2:
They give you steel wool to clean the surface. Sweet! The crappy thing is it’s nowhere near as non-stick as a new teflon pan. Stuff sticks, but it’s trivial to clean. Short of nanotubes, you’re not going to get any more non-stick than teflon so I deal.
It also works with induction burners, can withstand being put in the oven or the dishwasher (or so I’ve read), has a 7mm thick aluminum core, and a mirror polish that resists scratching.
It’ll also cost you a heck of a lot more than a good non-stick pan with a aluminum disc bottom. That’s because it’s Sitram which means it’s professional French cookware. Surprisingly though, it won’t cost you any more than All-Clad (unless you’re getting those crazy promo pans you see from time to time—an insanely good deal). But I digress into my highly-opinionated biases.
A little hurt that I’m peeing on your favorite cookware? Hey, you should see me bitch about Microsoft and Canon. 😀