After a quick search for a safe ceramic frying pan coating turned into days of research and frustration, I decided that it was time to just put up an article with my findings and keep it updated to save you, and myself, the trouble of starting over from square one the next time a pan wears out.
There have been acronyms and trademarks aplenty in this search, and unfortunately, they are more often used to obscure the truth than to enlighten. Let’s see if we can peel back the obfuscation like old Teflon and get to some truth. Our goals here are to find a frying pan coating that doesn’t release anything notably unhealthy into our food or air, does a good job of cooking food, and doesn’t wear out quickly, more or less in that order.
Let’s start with the elephant in the room, Teflon. For preventing food from sticking, it can’t be beat. The problem arises when it gets hot. Teflon is a fluorocarbon thermoplastic polymer made of Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), which, above 392 °F, begins to releases all manner of harmful acronyms. When the temperature gets above 500 °F, it starts to really come apart to a point where the fumes alone can be lethal to birds and both acutely and chronically harmful to you. These temperatures aren’t even all that hot when it comes to cooking. Keep in mind that we aren’t talking about the average temperature of your food, but the high temperature of the surface of your pan. This is well below the smoke point of many cooking oils, so this could be occurring before the point where you’ve even burnt your food.
If you’re willing to risk low level acronym exposure, and are willing to have a frying pan that you use only for sticky low temperature foods, the best nonstick pan I’ve found is the ScanPan. They’ve done their best to minimize problems from scratching and overheating, but it is still made of PTFE.
Second guess yourself
When shopping through sites like amazon, keep in mind that the sellers and reviewers there are generally not the original manufacturers. This is important from a litigation perspective, since they can mislead you about the actual content of the product, and the manufacturer is unlikely to jump in to enlighten you that the product is actually not as good as a third party advertised.
While all of the other acronyms you will run into while looking into nonstick pans are likely real things of real concern, they are generally things that PTFE degrades to when heated, so stay focused. Don’t assume a pan is safe until you’ve been to the manufacturer website and seen them make the claim that it is PTFE free. The ScanPan above is a great example. To read the amazon sales page and reviews, you would think it’s PTFE free, but check their own website and you see that it is coated with “a specially formulated PTFE that works in conjunction with SCANPAN’s patented ceramic titanium surface technology. Details are proprietary to SCANPAN.”
Something else to note from the above quote is that we see the terms PTFE and ceramic thrown around in the same coating. Ceramic doesn’t mean safe. Ceramic doesn’t mean PTFE free. A ceramic is any nonmetallic solid that remains hard when heated, which is a term so vague that you could apply it to just about any frying pan coating. Conversely, nonstick doesn’t mean Teflon, it just means that things don’t stick to it. What the base pan is made of rarely matters beyond heat conduction or compatibility with induction cooktops. Aluminum is standard. I’ve yet to find a stainless, copper, or titanium nonstick pan that is convincingly non-PTFE, though there are some from Chinese companies with poorly documented claims of safe ceramic coatings.
Once you think you’ve found the pan of your dreams, please, take another moment to think about what assumptions you may be making. Go to the manufacturer’s website. Find where it’s made. Make sure they’ve explicitly stated whatever it is that you find important in their product.
Safe Ceramic Nonstick
Lets look at those frying pan coatings that go out of their way to advertise themselves as safe ceramic and PTFE free. So far I’ve found four ceramic coatings that are used by a variety of brands. They are Thermolon, Ecolon, Greblon, and Stonetec. These are all trademarks for various proprietary processes. They won’t tell us what’s in them, but they assure us they’re safe ceramic. You can click the category headers below to see a selection of the better frying pans made with each coating.
Ecolon is a ceramic-glass reinforced Nylon 6 coating applied with a sol-gel process. Glass reinforced nylon 6 is sometimes used for flame resistance. I wouldn’t say that nylon is especially scary as plastics go. Your toothbrush is probably made of it. It’s got good abrasion resistance, and doesn’t seem to be made with anything especially nasty. It does release hydrogen cyanide when burned, which, while deadly, is more of an acute risk than chronic. I’m still not sure I’m on board with cooking in a nylon frying pan.
It sure makes for a nice looking pan though. Yes, it’s faceted, inside and out. This is the NeoFlam Carat, lined with Greblon ceramic. It states on the manufacturer website that it doesn’t contain PTFE, which is great so long as you don’t mind cooking in nylon. Made in Korea.
The people who make the Thermolon coating took to the web to combat some misinformation about their coating composition and stated that, “Thermolon has an elemental composition of oxygen(O), silicon(Si), carbon(C), aluminum(Al) and titanium(Ti). ” If that is truly all that is in it, then it should be pretty safe. Ceramic could still conceivably be unsafe within that boundary, but not likely. Thermolon also has a pdf that goes to great lengths to tell us very little about their coating, but does confirm that it is PTFE free, and a list of some test results, though they don’t specify which of their many formulations was tested. Their website says all of the Thermolon coatings are PTFE-free.
The GreenPan line seems to be the most popular of the Thermolon coated pans. They’ve got a really nice looking pan made for Sur La Table that is 18/10 stainless with an aluminum core for even heating, and the newest Thermolon formulation, a diamond impregnated PTFE-free ceramic coating. They haven’t updated their documentation for the diamond coating, but I have found info on how diamond can be added to such a coating, so it’s credible. Here’s their video sales pitch. Made in China.
WaxonWare has developed a coating they’re calling Stonetec. Their site says it’s PTFE free, and made “overseas”, so assume your least favorite nation of origin. The above pan has a Stonetec coated aluminum core. I’m posting it because it’s a reasonably major brand stating clearly that it’s PTFE free, but they aren’t giving us much more to go on.
I’ve gone through my share of Greblon pans over the years, having owned 5 Green Earth frying pans. They wear out eventually, and now that I’m looking at things with eyes hardened by skepticism and betrayal, I notice that the Ozeri Green Earth website is terrible, and it’s just secondary sellers making claims about the composition of these Chinese made pans. Looking into the Greblon coating specifically, I see that there are six different Greblon formulations, four of which have PTFE. I can’t find much info on what is in the two non-PTFE formulations, so at this point we still know slightly more than nothing about them.
I’ve noticed a subset of Greblon pans that pretend they are made of granite. So far, every one I’ve looked into is just speckled PTFE Greblon, labeled as things like STONEHENGE.
At this point, I can’t even recommend a Greblon pan. I’m only finding one pan that specifies that it uses one of the non-PTFE formulations, and It’s just a claim by the amazon seller. I can’t find any sign of it on the parent company’s site. They appear to be sold by a German company, but made in China. Until we as consumers demand some transparency and accountability, sellers will continue to find deception more profitable than telling us what’s in their assuredly safe ceramic coatings.
After reading about all these supposedly safe ceramic nonstick coatings, you’re probably about ready to try your hand at cast iron seasoning. Reading up on the subject left we with the impression that it is more superstition than science. My question here was the same as for finding a safe ceramic coating, what is the seasoned coating made of, and how safe is it? After reading several forums on the same question, and the wikipedia article, I’d say the answer is: We don’t know, but it’s probably a lacquer, soap, or plastic by the time it’s done polymerizing. Sure, that’s better than PTFE or hydrogen cyanide, but it’s also a very fragile coating, and you’re likely to end up eating it in quantity.
Add to that, the iron from the pan ends up in the food in surprisingly massive quantities. That’s great if you’re anemic, but do a bit of research and you’ll find excessive iron buildup in the body being blamed for all sorts of problems in older men and post-menopausal women, from inflammation, to blood thickening/clotting, to accelerated aging from the free-radicals. Personally, I get more than I should already from meat and green vegetables.
Hard Anodized Coatings
One other coating of interest is hardcoat. A ManPan, from Lloyd’s Pans. PTFE free, oven safe, heat safe to 700°F, metal utensils encouraged, and made in the USA. They state all of this clearly on the manufacturer’s website. The pan is coated with hard anodized aluminum.
Aluminum gets a bit of a bad rap in the alternative health communities, but that doesn’t make sense to me. Aluminum is the most abundant metallic element on earth at 8.3% by mass, and it’s concentrated in the crust (where we live). We’ve evolved in a high aluminum environment, and it’s excreted by our kidneys. People eat aluminum hydroxide as an antacid. It’s in baking powder, beverage cans, and aluminum foil. Most of the pans above are made of aluminum under those coatings. Current guidelines say that you would need to eat something like 3 grams of aluminum a day to exceed your body’s ability to excrete it and have notable toxicity. The Alzheimer’s scare seems to have more to do with a breakdown in the brain’s cleaning system than with aluminum itself.
The hard anodized aluminum coating on the ManPan should be around the hardness of the hardest steels, and stable enough to not notably come off while cooking. I’ve been considering trying one, but I’m a bit concerned about their topcoat. They don’t say what’s in it. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s something similar to Tufram. I don’t know what’s in that either, except that it’s a topcoat for aluminum with the properties they describe, and is FDA approved for use in food processing and cooking.
Stainless gets good marks for safety. I’ve been using a good 18/10 stainless for my other pots for many years without complaint. Stainless doesn’t heat evenly, so an aluminum core is a big plus and also cuts down the weight. Sticking can be a problem. The general consensus is that you should preheat the pan on low heat, and then expect the food to stick a bit and then release when things get going. These pans are chemically durable, so cook what you want in them, but be careful not to scratch them up with utensils or cleaning. I’m not convinced that mirror finish is a plus, but scratches definitely hurt functionality.
This one from Cook’s standard looks like a good combination of features and price.
I wish I could claim to have found a sure thing, safe ceramic coating after all of this. The Thermolon probably has the best claim at this point of being a safe ceramic. I’ve already updated the post to reflect a couple new additions, and I’ll continue to update this post as new products arrive. If you’ve got information that you think would contribute to the post or readers in search of a better pan, please comment below. I’ll be moderating the comments to keep things productive and will add to the post as needed.