How to cook with non-stick cookware if you’re stuck with it

Teflon pan safety
CC BY 2.0 An early ad for a Teflon-coated pan. (Wikimedia Commons)

If you can't make the change from unhealthy pots and pans, you can at least make cooking with them healthier.

So here’s the thing. It’s easy enough for us health and sustainability writers to say “don’t use non-stick cookware,“ but what does that mean if you already use it? Are you supposed to just toss your Teflon pots into the landfill? If you can’t afford a new set of stainless steel or cast iron pans, are you expected to start a raw food diet instead?

After reading about the potential danger of the chemicals used to make pots and pans slippery, you may indeed decide to replace your cookware. But if you’re stuck with your non-stick, there are some measures you can take to at least make it safer.

The consumer watchdog group EWG has a lot to say about PFCs – the chemical family to which Teflon belongs – and offers some great advice on how to avoid these toxins in general; the chemicals are really all over the place. Among other ways to reduce your exposure, they explain how to cook with Teflon-coated pans if you have to by following these basic guidelines:

  • Since fumes are released at higher temperatures, never preheat non-stick cookware at high heat – empty pans can rapidly reach high temperatures. Heat at the lowest temperature possible to cook your food safely.
  • Don't put non-stick cookware in an oven hotter than 500 degrees.
  • Use an exhaust fan over the stove.
  • Keep pet birds out of the kitchen; the fumes from an overheated pan can kill a bird in seconds. (Canary in a coal mine much?)
  • Skip the self-cleaning function on your oven. It cleans by heating to high temperatures, which can release toxic fumes from non-stick interior oven parts. Who knew?!
  • Choose a safer alternative when purchasing new cookware.

And if and when you can move on to cast iron cookware, this is for you: Cast iron pots and pans, demystified.

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