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The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Grazie mille!

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Let's Talk About Non-Stick Cookware

Nothing That Fragile Has A Place In A Busy Kitchen

Over the years I've written a lot about cookware. And even though I've mentioned it in other posts and articles, I don't know that I've ever directly addressed the subject of non-stick cookware. So here goes.

In the first place, I hardly ever use it. And when I do, it's for specific purposes only. You see, for general use, non-stick cookware is really lousy.

Oh, I know it's popular in big box discount stores and in those “as seen on TV” places. But in a real working kitchen, it's pretty much useless. In my restaurant kitchens, I kept non-stick pans in stock for one purpose: eggs. And I threatened my cooks that if they damaged the egg pans, they'd replace them. Because non-stick cookware is incredibly easy to damage. You can damage it with high heat. You can damage it with rough handling. You can damage it with improper tools and utensils. Sometimes I think you can damage it just by looking at it. Nothing that fragile has a place in a busy kitchen. Unless you want to replace it every couple of weeks.

In my home kitchen, I have a few non-stick pots and pans hanging around among the stainless steel, the carbon steel, and the cast iron. And I use them for eggs. And rice; my favorite rice pot is non-stick. Otherwise, everything else cooks in the aforementioned stainless steel, etc.

“But doesn't everything stick,” you ask? No. Largely because I know how to cook. And I know how to care for my cookware. And I guess there's a third component: I'm not afraid to spend money on my cookware.

Non-stick cookware became the rage of the age soon after it was introduced back in the 1950s. Developed by DuPont in 1938, “Teflon” was the first practical non-stick coating. “Teflon” is a synthetic fluorinated polymer, or fluoropolymer. Technically named polytetrafluoroethylene or PTFE, the stuff was a military secret at first. They used it to make seals resistant to the uranium hexafluoride gas used in atomic bombs. In 1944, DuPont registered the “Teflon” trademark and began developing it for commercial use.

According to legend, a French engineer started using the stuff to coat his fishing gear to keep it from tangling. His wife suggested he apply the coating to her pots and pans, and a new industry was born. The Tefal company was formed in 1956 and began turning out non-stick cookware for home use.

The question is often asked, “If nothing sticks to Teflon, how do they get Teflon to stick?” They start by roughening up the substrate metal. That allows for better adhesion. Then they apply Teflon in layers, either rolling or spraying it on over the textured surface. The more layers, the better the non-stick quality. Some pans have as many as seven sprayed-on layers. You pay money for those. Some have only a single layer rolled on. With those you get what you pay for.

Early on, DuPont realized that high cooking temperatures would cause Teflon to exude toxic gases. That's why they originally only employed it in coating bakeware. When PTFE-coated pans are heated beyond about 650°F, the coating begins to break down, releasing a byproduct called Perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA. PFOA was initially used as an emulsifier in the processing of PTFE-coated pans, but when manufacturers figured out that the fumes produced were harmful to humans and lethal to birds, they started phasing out the substance. In fact, the resulting polymer fume fever is nicknamed “Teflon Flu” in medical circles because it causes flu-like chills, headaches and fever along with chest tightness and a mild cough.

Pardon me if I don't get excited over the prospect of being made sick by my cookware.

In addition to the fumes, overheated non-stick coatings can become unstuck. High temperature cooking can result in blisters, pits, and flakes. Further damage can be done to the coating through improper use of cooking utensils. A metal spatula, spoon, or fork is an invitation to replacement of a non-stick pan. And you really should replace scratched or damaged non-stick because the scratching and pitting only exacerbates the fume problem and do you really want flakes of polytetrafluoroethylene mixed in with your scrambled eggs?

Another problem with common non-stick cookware is construction; it's usually made of aluminum. Aluminum has been known to leach from the cooking vessel into the food being cooked. And aluminum has been identified as a toxin for the human nervous, immune, and genetic systems. Hard anodized aluminum is a little safer, but it's usually more expensive. And it doesn't really matter once the surface gets scratched up through heavy and/or improper use. Even anodized aluminum is gonna leach.

Furthermore, aluminum is soft. Bang an aluminum pan around your kitchen for awhile. Drop one from time to time. See how nice and oval-shaped they become?

Lastly, non-stick cookware is useless for making pan sauces. Oh sure, if you're the kind of cook who makes sauce or gravy from a packet or a jar, non-stick is great. Just dump and stir. But if you like to make a real sauce that gets a lot of its flavor from the little brown bits – called “fond” – that stick to the bottom of the pan, well......you're kind of out of luck with a non-stick pan, aren't you?

Okay, so non-stick cookware is easy to clean. But don't be lulled into a false sense of security. Inattention and improper cooking techniques can screw up a non-stick surface, and once it's screwed there's no unscrewing it. Toss the pan and start over. I got distracted while working on a mornay sauce once and it burned to the bottom of my stainless steel saucepan. Five minutes with some Bar Keepers Friend and a non-scratch plastic scrubbie and my pan was good as new. In fact, the stainless steel pans I use every day are more than ten years old and I can still see my reflection in the surface. That's mostly because I paid decent money for the pans to begin with and because I take care of them. They hang from a pot rack in my home kitchen just like the ones in my restaurant. I don't throw them in a drawer or a cabinet where they can get battered and beaten up. And they've never seen the inside of a dishwasher. Oh, and by the way, the average useful life of a non-stick pan is three to five years.

Now, you want something that's non-stick and nearly indestructible? Try cast iron. I have a Lodge 10-inch frying pan that's nearly forty years old and its surface is as smooth as glass. Nothing sticks to that rascal and it will probably wind up with one of my granddaughters someday. And if she takes care of it, she can pass it on to her kids.

When you add a ceramic coating to cast iron, you get the ultimate in durable non-stick cookware. Yeah, my Dutch oven weighs fifteen pounds, but it's more versatile than anything on the market. You can take it right from the stovetop to the oven – it'll easily withstand 500°F – and clean it up with just a wipe. Try that with cheap, lightweight aluminum cookware. No, really, don't.

The latest generation of non-stick cookware also employs ceramic coating materials rather than PTFE. It's a safer choice from a health standpoint and most of them perform pretty well. Again, you get what you pay for. If the underlying material is cheap and flimsy, no amount of ceramic coating will make any difference. I'm fond of the Bialetti brand of ceramic ware. But there are other good brands available.

Something of which to steer clear, however, is the new “copper” fad. They sell for, like, $19.95 – double your order if you order now – and are the ultimate example of “you get what you pay for.” In the first place, they're not “copper.” They're 2.5mm aluminum coated with copper color epoxy paint. I was reading over some reviews and they ain't pretty. “A crap product” was the way one guy described it. Way too light. Not heavy duty as claimed and smaller than expected, to boot. Eggs cooked on medium temperature stuck and had a metallic taste. Another satisfied customer said hers were “the worst pans she has ever bought .” They worked fine at first, but then the non-stick, non-scratch surface came off and she couldn’t get rid of the stains on the bottom and the sides. Now her pans are badly stained and scratched and she just wants to get rid of them. “Scam”was a word that got used a lot. Especially by people trying to return the things. Caveat emptor.

So here's the takeaway: By and large, non-stick cookware is okay to have around for specific purposes. You can't rely on non-stick for everything because it isn't suited for everything. It's good for eggs but it's useless for pan sauces. You can't use it with high heat, you can't put in the oven, and it'll dent, warp, scratch, and ding if you look at the wrong way. Your best bet is to buy a few pieces of the better quality stuff and stay far, far away from the cheap junk. Use it for what it's intended to be used for, care for it the way it needs to be cared for, and then go out and invest in decent stainless steel and cast iron for everything else.

Buona fortuna e buona cucinando!

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