When to Use Nonstick Pans, and When Not To

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I’m discovering that a lot of people have a stash of beat-up nonstick pans in their cupboards that they use all … the … time. And they have maybe one shiny, pristine stainless-steel pan they’re afraid to use. Does that scenario sound familiar?

Let me simplify your life.

nonstick-pan-vs-regular-pan

When to Use Nonstick and Regular Pans

First of all, nonstick pans and regular pans are like apples and oranges. The uses of each are almost mutually exclusive. If you wanted to fry an egg or sear a delicate fish, you’d use a nonstick pan. If you want to saute vegetables or whip up a quick stir-fry, you’d use stainless. Why? Because nonstick pans are all about preventing any sort of stick at all. Stainless-steel pans–used properly–are all about getting a flavorful crust on the food and just enough to stick to the bottom (that stuff is called fond) to create a base for easy pan sauces and such.

When to Use Nonstick

  • Egg dishes
  • Delicate fish (firmer fish like tuna and salmon are fine in a stainless-steel pan)
  • Oozy, cheesy things like quesadillas
  • Stir-fried Asian rice noodles
When to Use Stainless Steel

  • Stir-fries
  • Sauteed vegetables
  • Seared meat, chicken and seafood
  • Sauces

How to Use Nonstick and Stainless-Steel Pans

Nonstick

You always want a thin coating of fat in a nonstick pan if you’re preheating it, so that the heat doesn’t go to work directly on the chemicals in the nonstick coating. They also shouldn’t be heated too much above medium.

Stainless Steel

Unlike nonstick pans, you actually want to pre-heat stainless-steel pans. Heating the pan over medium heat before adding fat or food causes the cells to expand and create a slicker surface. Then swirl in your oil and wait until it, too, is heated through. That essentially gives you two natural layers of “nonstick” coating that works wonders for most foods.

Once the pan and the oil are heated, add whatever you’re cooking. If you’re searing something like pork chops, be sure to leave plenty of room between them for air to circulate so that each piece can brown. Otherwise, they’ll just steam and will never get that lovely bronze crust. Same goes for sauteing … don’t crowd the pan.

If it seems like food is sticking, leave it alone for a bit … it will unstick itself once it’s good and ready. In fact, once you put your food in and give it an initial toss (if sauteing or stir-frying), just walk away from the pan. If you futz with it too often, you’ll keep it from forming that awesome crust. Plus, life is just easier that way.

One last thing … while I wouldn’t necessarily call nonstick pans disposable, they certainly aren’t going to (and shouldn’t) become heirlooms either. I tend to replace my nonstick pans every 12-18 months and I spend accordingly–usually between $15 and $30 per pan (P.S. — I only have 2 nonstick pans at any given time … a big one and a medium one). My stainless-steel pans, on the other hand, cost a small fortune … but I’ve had them for over a decade and know they’ll still be going strong for several more.

For any of you who have been scared of stainless, I hope this helps! And if you haven’t yet branched out into the non nonstick realm, check out some of our favorite pans in our Nourish Network Market.

 

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  • Laurie

    Teflon is toxic!! I use cast iron (properly seasoned is non stick) and I also have a new ceramic pan that is fantastic for eggs and is truly nonstick. 

  • Slounsbury24

    What do you think of orgreenic cookware?

  • liahuber

    And we’ve got a GREAT piece here on cast iron: http://nourishnetwork.com/2010/10/11/iron-chef-cast-iron-is-the-original-nonstick-surface/. I have to admit, though, to never having luck with cast iron for the super delicate, stick-to-the-pan foods, which is why I strategically use nonstick for some things. As for orgreenic, from what I see, it’s an aluminum pan coated with a porcelain surface, which makes it relatively nonstick. That sounds good to me, but I also find a lot of scam warnings on the company, so I would likely steer clear.