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Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette
Matthew Nolot, executive chef at Eddie Merlot’s, uses aluminum skillets at work but prefers cast iron at home. Seasoned properly, he says, they are non-stick and heat evenly.

‘Green’ skillets panned

Cast iron best for non-stick cookware, local chefs say

Trent & Co.
GreenPan cookware uses the non-stick surface Thermolon and is PTFE-free.

Matthew Nolot has put frying pans through some tough paces.

At Eddie Merlot’s restaurant, where he’s executive chef, hundreds of entrées for discerning diners are prepared in them every week. Because of cost and convenience, those pans are mostly standard restaurant-issue aluminum, Nolot says.

But when he’s cooking at home, what does he use? Maybe one of those futuristic, non-stick “green” skillets being touted by celebrity chefs on TV?

Nope. This Fort Wayne chef prefers cast plain old cast iron for his skillets.

“They heat well, they hold their heat and they heat evenly, even if you have a stove that doesn’t,” he says. “And they last forever. I try to buy mine used at yard sales.”

Nolot says he hasn’t been tempted to try the new-surface pans, and his old-fashioned preference is not unlike that of other experts who have put alternatives to traditional non-stick skillets to the test.

Ever since concern was raised in the past decade about two chemicals associated with non-stick cooking surfaces, PFOA (perfluorooctanic acid) and PTFE (polytetrafluoroethylene), the race has been on to build more eco-friendly cookware.

But some testers have found some of the green pans’ performance less than stellar, says Hugh Rushing, executive director of the Cookware Manufacturers Association.

Typically, green pans are made with some variation of a ceramic-based non-stick surface such as Thermolon, used in the GreenPan line sold by chef Todd English on the Home Shopping Network, Rushing says. But the cookware, “in our testing in our kitchens here at the CMA, does not release food with near the longevity that traditional non-stick pans do,” Rushing says.

Some of the ceramic surfaces, which are brittle, blister and “crack substantially” when heated repeatedly or to high temperatures, he says. And a silcone coating touted to aid food release tends to wash off after several weeks or months, he says.

Rushing explains traditional non-stick cookware releases food because the surface repels water, including water released by food as it cooks. It’s actually the water that pushes the food from the surface, he says, and the newer surfaces don’t have that property.

“There’s a lot of consumer discontent floating around” about green pans, Rushing says, adding that testers “didn’t really see a whole lot of difference (in performance) between one (brand) and another.”

Other testers have had similar results.

When Cooks Illustrated magazine tested eight eco-friendly pans in 2009, testers found the pans didn’t perform as well as traditional non-stick pans. They found not only the cracking and wash-off problems, but also noted that, although ceramic-coated aluminum surfaces heated up quickly, they didn’t hold the heat, allowing foods to steam instead of sear.

“Not a single one of the ‘green’ pans was without flaws,” testers concluded. “Until ‘green’ skillet technology improves, we’re sticking with traditional non-stick or a well-seasoned cast iron pan.”

Meanwhile, Consumer Reports found some pans did reasonably well, giving the EarthPan brand, which has a silica-based coating called SandFlow, good marks for surface durability and food release but bad marks for evenness of cooking.

GreenPan spokeswoman Izabela Socha says since the introduction of the pans to the U.S. five years ago, improvements have been made in the technology of the coating and in quality control. She says problems arise when people misuse the cookware.

“They say it was perfect for a few months, but then they start treating it terribly,” she says. “They put it in the dishwasher, which they shouldn’t, or they start using cooking sprays or they start using scrubber sponges, which they shouldn’t, or use too high a heat. All those things combined will really cause the surface to start to break down,” she says.

Rushing says there’s debate both over whether traditional non-stick pans pose a health hazard and what makes a pan “green.” One finding of the Consumer Reports studies: at normal cooking temperatures, traditional non-stick surfaces didn’t give off chemicals that posed what testers called “a significant health risk” for humans – although concern about fumes has prompted some cooks to buy green pans.

Concern arose about PTFE, in of non-stick coatings including Teflon, after tests showed that at temperatures around 665 degrees Fahrenheit, gases are released that can kill birds and cause illness in some people.

The other concerning chemical, PFOA, is used during cookware surface manufacture. Prompted by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. cookware makers agreed to phase it out by 2015, although the chemical is still used in pan-making overseas.

The chemical is linked to cancers and birth defects in animals.

Rushing says some pans are free of both chemicals, but others still use PTFE even though they are PFOA-free; he urges consumers read labels carefully.

Lisa Williams, chef at Fort Wayne’s Honey on the Table, tends to side with people like Nolot who like cooking in old-fashioned pans.

Her restaurant pans, she says, are stainless steel and at home, her favorite cookware is Le Creuset, which is made with heavy cast iron coated with enamel. She also uses traditional non-stick pans from Calphalon and All-Clad and a well-used cast-iron griddle.

“I haven’t bought new pans in ages,” she says. “They’re not cheap, which is why I don’t buy new pans.”

Williams recommends home cooks purchase the heaviest pan they can afford that they’re comfortable handling and “do some research” before deciding on something new.

“It’s better to buy one great pan that you’ll have and use 20 years from now than three that you’re going to pitch in a year,” she says.

Nolot agrees. If home cooks want a skillet that’s non-stick, he says, new cast iron, once seasoned, will fill the bill.

“Just fry some bacon it,” he says, “and it would be good to go.”