Today in Tedium: In the breakdown of domestic chores, I’m usually put on weekend breakfast duty, which means I am generally in charge of making a lot of eggs—generally scrambled, with an onion chopped up, and some cheese. In this long period of breakfast duty, I’ve generally found these eggs to be the bane of my existence, not necessarily because of the eggs themselves (I’m pretty good at making them at this point) but the cleanup. Despite the fact that we use nonstick pans, the pans basically have never lived up to the name for me, and have left me frustrated. To put it another way, I have a fraught relationship with pans because stuff sticks. So, when I was asked to review some pans, even though this is not a cooking newsletter, I thought it might solve one of my most tedious problems. Here’s what I learned. Today in Tedium, I’m wrapping my head around the nonstick pan. But not completely—I still have to breathe, after all. — Ernie @ Tedium
Quick editor’s note: This piece includes a product review.
The year that DuPont scientists Roy J. Plunkett and his assistant, Jack Rebok, discovered the material that would become to be known as teflon, by happy accident. As American Heritage’s Innovation & Technology notes, Plunkett was attempting to uncover new types of refrigerants in part because of the success the company found in that field previously. After releasing tetrafluoroethylene in a heated chamber, then spraying in some hydrochloric acid—a usual process for developing refrigerants—nothing came out, but instead, they got a waxy coating. That turned out to be teflon, and after researching it, they found it had desirable properties. It would take decades for others to apply those properties to cookware, however. Two separate inventors—Frenchman Marc Grégoire and American Marion A. Trozzolo—are credited with developing the market for Teflon cookware globally.
It’s not just them, it’s you, too: Why nonstick pans are often frustratingly imperfect
Why is it that I can never keep my pans free of stuck-on stuff? The challenge is that the coating promises to be nonstick—but nonstick is something of a misnomer.
Despite the name, stuff sticks. Often. Even when you think it won’t. And eventually the stuff that sticks will char, and become a permanent fixture on the pan. And that will degrade the nonstick coating. And soon, you will be out of a pan.
What gives? According to a 2010 New York Times piece, part of the problem is that, despite nonstick pans being the most common type of pan sold by a country mile, most people are using them incorrectly, which means that the pans have gained a reputation of being imperfect, when in many ways, it is yet another sign that we, as humans, are horrible at following directions.
The key aspect of nonstick pan usage that we all screw up is the every first thing—the seasoning process, in which you put oil in the pan the first time, which can lead to issues down the line.
Another problem, cited by The Washington Post last year, is a failure to preheat pans when cooking—though the situation is confusing, as highlighted by the correction on top of the piece:
An earlier version of this article incorrectly indicated that preheating a metal pan will smooth out its irregular surface. Heat alone will not smooth the surface enough to prevent sticking. It is the combination of a preheated skillet to which you add oil that will quickly begin to cook the food so it does not stick to the pan. This version has been updated.
The story notes, additionally, that different pan manufacturers offer different advice for their given pans, meaning you can’t even trust the advice on pans will even be consistent.
Over time, pans will fall victim to damage from burning, from misuse, from challenges in cleaning. And when those imperfections surface, the solution is often dumping on more fat that would otherwise not be needed.
And the truth is, many people are total amateurs at cooking, which means that when they stumble upon videos like this one telling them how to cook eggs properly, it’s somehow a revelation rather than something basic they already know. Love or hate nonstick cooking, the fact of the matter is, education remains one of the gaps to being a great cook.
As a result, nonstick pans feel like an important shortcut for amateur chefs, but often end in tears—for many of the same reasons that the shortcut feels attractive in the first place.
Would a better pan make a difference? That’s a question I was posed just recently.
The number of years that a nonstick pan should last, up from an estimated two to three years a decade ago, according to an assessment from America’s Test Kitchen. Pan technology generally has improved and changed, especially with the retirement of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a chemical commonly used in nonstick cooking, starting about a decade ago. While the teflon base has generally stuck around, the pans have gotten safer and sturdier over time, but still have to shake off some of that bad reputation from PFOA. (If you have an older pan, you may want to upgrade just because of changes to the chemical makeup of nonstick pans.)
HexClad review: What I learned from using a set of fancy pans for a month
Until recently, I didn’t have anything in common whatsoever with Gordon Ramsay. I’m a passive guy. I don’t have a British accent. Unlike Gordon, I can appreciate microwaves. I tend to be good-natured, and I don’t show up on TV very often.
And while I cook things, I’m not, like, known for it.
But like Ramsay, I happen to have had the chance to try out a fancy new type of pan called HexClad, which purports itself to be an innovation in the way that nonstick pans are made.
To explain what HexClad is, in many ways it is a hybrid of nonstick and traditional stainless steel pans (which often tend to sport a core made of aluminum, a material effective at distributing heat). As the name suggests, the surface is that of a series of hexagon shapes, and it gives the pans a high level of structural integrity. And within this structure are the properties of two pans. The stainless steel part is very slightly raised, while the nonstick coating is directly below it. In many ways, it attempts to combine the even-cooking benefits of stainless steel with the not-sticky aspects of nonstick pans. Rather than being completely nonstick, a little bit of the stainless steel nature of the pan kisses the surface of whatever you’re cooking—meat, veggies, eggs, a single-pan dish, or what have you.
The result is that you, according to them, get the best of both worlds. You don’t have to be as touchy with these pans as you might a traditional nonstick; if you want to use metal utensils, knock yourself out. I would argue that it, at least so far, seems to have minimized one of the most common annoyances of dealing with pans while still being relatively easy to clean.
Starting off with the pans was dead-simple. To season the pans, we put a small amount of avocado oil in, then let it seep through the pan’s nooks and crannies—of which there were many, because again, it has an intricate hexagon design. Within a couple of minutes, they were ready to go. These have a little more heft than what I’m used to—mostly Orgreenic-style ceramic nonstick pans, as well as a larger traditional aluminum nonstick—but for the most part, I did not find this a detriment.
I tried lots of different kinds of cooking with these pans—including my nemesis, the egg. I found that eggs did not stick uncomfortably to the surface, and nor did the pancakes I cooked. The eggs cooked fairly evenly, even with our old-school electric range, which tends to have hot spots. I also found it was a champ with pancakes, for which I’ve often had to pull out a cast-iron griddle for because of deficiencies in our regular pans.
My wife Cat, who is a much more experienced cook than I am and can very capably make high-end meals on demand, tried cooking a variety of things using these pans, including making fried chicken tenders (brined in pickle juice as one does with fried chicken tenders) using a large wok-style pan supplied by HexClad. It worked effectively for the job, and handled the splashback of oil without causing too much of a mess. (Atop this piece is a GIF of her work in action.)
As far as cleaning goes, I won’t say that these pans were 100 perfect perfect in terms of preventing stuff from sticking to them. Plenty of stuff did; nonstick coating does not produce miracles. But for the most part, whatever was left behind was fairly easy to remove, sometimes by just wiping off the inside of the pan. The pans were not immune to some degree of staining, but unlike other pans I’ve used over the years, I did find I had better luck removing the stains with a little elbow grease.
I did have a point where I might have gone astray with my cooking style, leading to not-great results: I cooked sausages in a small 8-inch pan, but made the mistake of leaving the pan a little too hot. The sausages themselves cooked fine, but left the pan with slightly more of a stain (burn marks, really) than I might have been comfortable with. And because I had put the lid on, some of the stain from the sausages actually affected the stainless-steel rim of the lid.
This stain did not fully come off by simply wiping, so I had to use something slightly more abrasive to get it—using a chain-mail style cleaner that the HexClad website says should work without causing damage. This proved to be the case. Stains eventually broke up, pan still looking new. And there are other strategies worth keeping in mind—HexClad claims these pans are machine-washable (if not preferred), a big difference from many nonstick pans I’ve used in the past.
Over time, the large 12-inch pan seemed to get a bit of a modest patina to it from the heavy use in an average kitchen, taking on eggs and burgers and cheese and single-pan pasta dishes like a champ. It was not a pain to use these pans by any means, though of course, the question always remains: What are these pans going to look like in a year? Will the hexagon design make it harder for the nonstick coating to get unnecessarily scratched up?
As anyone who knows how to take care of pans will tell you, taking care and using them at proper heat levels goes a long way, as does care of the pans themselves. (To help with said care, each pan came with a fabric pouch for safe storing when not in use.)
So in conclusion, I guess I’d say this:
- Does a fancy pan make you a better cook? No way, but at least in the case of actual solid cooks like my wife, it does improve their flexibility because they can use this in cases they might have previously grabbed a cast-iron pan.
- Does it save you a little time? Yes, but it does not produce miracles; expect to still do a little cleaning, but with a bit less elbow grease.
- Does the difference in materials lead to a better result? Yes; a lot of no-stick pans are primarily made from aluminum on the surface, which simply can’t compete with stainless steel from a cleanup standpoint. This offers the benefits of both.
- Does the novel approach to the material have an effect? I obviously can’t get down to the molecular level here, but I do think that you get a pretty solid sear on a burger patty while not getting the stuck-egg problem that has ruined many a Saturday for me. And while I can’t say the longevity is obvious just yet, I’ll keep an eye on it and if the pans are giving me issues in the future, I will update the piece to reflect that.
- Is it worth it? These are not inexpensive pans—after a 30 percent discount, a full set with pots and a wok goes for $699.99, while the 12-inch pan we’ve come to prefer goes for $129.99 after a 17 percent discount—but I do think the case is strong that if you want some long-lasting pans that offer the creature-comforts of no-stick with the benefits of stainless steel, it’s worth the investment. It doesn’t feel like corners were cut here, and the price is comparable to higher-end stainless-steel and nonstick pans by competitors like All-Clad and Calphalon. But it depends on how serious you are about cooking—and whether you’d pay more for less frustration. If you’re cooking every day, frustrations with a worn-out nonstick you bought for cheap at Target or Walmart are going to add up.
Not everyone has the same calculus as me, but I’m going to say, after being burned by $50 aluminum nonstick pans that degrade over time, I think the value of a pan like this shows itself well. It might even make it past the five year mark, which is the real goal when you buy an expensive kitchen tool—that it lasts.
So, that’s the deal with HexClad, who I’ll thank again for supplying for review. Let’s hope I don’t ruin these pans in a month.
I think the nonstick pan as a cultural concept represents that kind of space-age innovation that so many people have found appealing.
Much of what I write about at Tedium, intentionally or not, often finds an arc along the lines of “then World War II happened, and an innovation found its way into the lives of lots of people.” It applies just as much to instant mashed potatoes as it does nonstick pans.
More than many other types of cookware, it’s a chemical that we become intimately familiar with if we try to cook anything of note. The promise of the chemical is put to the test as soon as you drop an egg onto the pan. That means that the spell of space-age innovation can be broken very easily as soon as something goes wrong.
Sure, you need to put in a certain level of care—no metal utensils, for one thing, and don’t overheat the pan—but in so many ways, nonstick coating is just like everything else. It is put to the test. Sometimes it fails that test if the parameters are slightly wrong, or if signs that it might be unsafe emerge.
And perhaps we need to keep innovating, to see what a safer version or a more innovative approach might look like. With that in mind, I think my chance to experiment with high-end nonstick pans taught me something: If something frustrates you, keep looking—though buying something expensive won’t make you better at the thing that frustrates you.
Thanks again to HexClad for supplying review units for this piece. Want to try out a fancy pan of your own? Check out their website to see their offerings.
Find this one an interesting read? Share it with a pal! And may your next batch of eggs not stick to the pan.