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Nervous About Nonstick?

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Cook-Smart Precautions

You can use nonstick safely, as long as you use it properly. Any food that cooks quickly on low or medium heat and coats most of the pan's surface (which brings down the pan's temperature) is unlikely to cause problems; that includes foods like scrambled eggs, pancakes, or warmed-up leftovers. And many other kinds of cooking are safe as well: In GHRI's tests, the only food prep that yielded a nonstick pan temperature exceeding 600 degrees Fahrenheit in less than 10 minutes was steak in a lightweight pan. But to be cautious, keep these tips in mind.

  1. Never preheat an empty pan. In GHRI's tests, each of the three empty nonstick pans we heated on high reached temperatures above 500 degrees in less than five minutes — and the cheapest, most lightweight pan got there in less than two minutes. Even pans with oil in them can be problematic; our cheapest pan zoomed to more than 500 degrees in two and a half minutes.
  2. Don't cook on high heat. Most nonstick manufacturers, including DuPont, now advise consumers not to go above medium. (DuPont maintains, however, that Teflon does not pose any health risks, and that its guideline is simply meant to maximize the life of the product.)

Do people still cook on high, despite manufacturers' instructions? "There's no statistical answer to that question," says the FDA's Honigfort. But you know if you're doing it, and if you are, the consensus is clear: It would be safer if you stopped. (Since some people won't switch to medium, or will overheat accidentally if distracted, says Jane Houlihan, vice president for research at the Environmental Working Group, "we recommend that people simply phase out the use of nonstick pans.") To play it safe, set your knob to medium or low and don't place your nonstick cookware over so-called power burners (anything above 12,000 BTUs on a gas stove or 2,400 watts on an electric range); those burners, seen more often in recent years, are intended for tasks like boiling a large pot of water quickly.

  1. Ventilate your kitchen. When cooking, turn on the exhaust fan to help clear away any fumes.
  2. Don't broil or sear meats. Those techniques require temperatures above what nonstick can usually handle.
  3. Choose a heavier nonstick pan. Lightweight pans generally heat up fastest, so invest in heavier-weight cookware — it's worth the extra money.
  4. Avoid chipping or damaging the pan. We've all been told not to use metal utensils on nonstick pans. Newer products may be harder to chip, "because the adhesion between the pan and the nonstick coating is better," says Honigfort. Still, if pans do chip or flake, they may be more likely to release toxic compounds, says Kannan of the New York State Department of Health. To prevent scratching, use wooden spoons to stir food, avoid steel wool, and don't stack these pans. (If you do, put a paper towel liner between them.)

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