As with most kitchen innovations that save time and effort, non-stick cookware has always been subject to hesitation, particularly from the entitled Indian male’s “Great Indian Kitchen” mindset that is obsessed with making sure women never have it easy. For, the “natural” order of things involves laborious cleaning and scrubbing. Indian men have famously resisted pressure cookers, refrigerators, washing machines and dishwashers in the past, so believing that non-stick cookware is harmful is not surprising at all.
This time, the distaste for convenience in the kitchen may not be entirely misplaced. Non-stick cookware can be safe but it does need careful handling.
The very first time I used a non-stick pan was when I lived in the US in the early 2000s, and one day I decided to make a Parsi dish named Tarkari nu Bafat, a vegetarian variation on what is originally a rich mutton-based, semi-gravy dish. The process involves painstakingly reducing dry and fresh spices till they fully coat the vegetables. I followed the recipe to the nearest milligram but forgot one mildly important kitchen safety instruction—“Do not play two-player games on PlayStation 2 with your roommate when things are cooking in the kitchen.”
When Teflon is heated to temperatures above 260 degrees Celsius, it will start breaking down into chemicals straight out of an episode of Breaking Bad—hydrofluoric acid and other organofluorine compounds are not exactly nice things to breathe in. In fact, they have been known to kill small birds, although why cookware manufacturers conducted this grisly experiment in the first place is something worth pondering.
My bafat, along with the $20 discount non-stick pan, was understandably ruined but the lesson I learnt that day was not that Teflon was not safe, but that my irresponsibility needed some fixing. Most cooking happens at temperatures well below the boiling point of water (100 degrees Celsius). Only when dry dishes (like bafat) are involved does the temperature go up to 150 degrees Celsius or so. Even deep frying involves a maximum temperature of 180 degrees Celsius. If you are cooking at any temperature higher than that, you have far bigger problems than Teflon breaking down.
Originally invented serendipitously by Roy Plunkett at DuPont, this synthetic polymer had the lowest coefficient of friction of any known substance at that time. In simpler terms, it was slippery as hell and nothing stuck to it. It was originally used to make seals resistant to toxic gases used in the manufacture of the first atom bomb. After the war, it became commercially available for use in cookware.
Modern-day Teflon-based cookware is exceedingly safe and well-tested against a range of kitchen situations, but if you are still wary of cooking atop something that can kill small birds at high temperatures, there are other options. A mixture of Titanium and ceramic sandblasted on the surface of metal cookware can also provide a decent non-stick surface (it’s not as good as Teflon though).
Scientists are also looking at nature, particularly the likes of the diabolical Venezuelan Pitcher plant whose surface produces a liquid layer with tiny hairs that causes ants to slide into the pitcher and be eaten as a high-protein snack. Pretty soon, we should have a cooking spray that turns any surface into a temporary (and food-safe) non-stick surface by imitating the pitcher plant.
Current non-stick technology has its limitations. You need to use silicone ladles and not metal ones that will scratch the surface. Culinarily, these surfaces don’t result in the kind of browning that you get from stainless steel or iron cookware. The surfaces also wear out over time, and in a year or two of daily use, there’s a good chance that small bits of Teflon or Titanium-ceramic composites will get into your food, and that’s not good for you. It’s recommended that you replace your non-stick cookware every two-three years.
But it turns out that there is a sustainable way to create a non-stick surface using one of the oldest materials in the world—cast iron. If you cook regularly with a cast-iron pan, the cooking oil you use will slowly coat the surface and get polymerised into a non-stick surface over time. The key to maintaining this surface is to not wash the pan too aggressively with steel wool; instead, use a more gentle approach. In fact, you can buy specific seasoning oils such as grapeseed oil that are particularly well-suited to creating long-lasting non-stick surfaces, and then coat your pan with it and heat till the oil starts smoking. Then let it cool down, and repeat this process a few times.
To summarise, use Teflon/ceramic if you are careful and value convenience. Use cast iron if you are super risk-averse, don’t mind its heavy weight or the effort needed to maintain it.
Krish Ashok is the author of Masala Lab: The Science Of Indian Cooking.