Ask Casey: Natural Alternatives to Nonstick Pans

Casey Barber

by Casey Barber on January 28, 2013

Ask Casey: Cooking and Kitchen Questions Answered

I’m worried about whether or not I should still be using my nonstick frying pan. I don’t want to throw it away but I don’t want to be eating Teflon either! Is there anything I can do?

This fall, after eight (eight!!) years of service, my All-Clad nonstick pan was ready to fry its last egg. Though I had given it a good, coddled life—no metal utensils, no dishwasher, no oven, no high heat, no heating “dry” without” oil—the nonstick finish had deteriorated to a scraped, faded shell of its former self.

It was time to say goodbye to the nonstick crutch and really commit to using a pan I wouldn’t need to replace every decade.

The biggest considerations in moving from a chemical-coated nonstick frying pan, (or skillet, or whatever you want to call it) to a version with a more natural finish are how much time and effort you want to put into creating and maintaining that finish. All of the below recommendations are stove- and oven-safe, and can be heated over high heat without oil—though it’s always recommended to use at least a dab of oil when cooking; that egg will taste ten times better with a little olive oil crust! Most importantly, they’re all Teflon, PTFE, and PFOA-free; you can cook safe with these and keep them for the rest of your life.

natural nonstick skillets
And when you’re ready to get rid of your old nonstick pans, please don’t just throw them in the trash or donate them to Goodwill—if it’s not safe enough for you to eat on, why would you let someone else cook with it? Just take them to your local scrap metal company for recycling; they’re more than happy (well, also amused) to melt them down.

Staub Fry Pan

Even if you’re not a seasoned cook, you’re likely familiar with the Crayola-colored enameled cast iron pots and pans that so many of us use for braising and simmering. Le Creuset is the most well-known French brand of these ovens, but for the best enameled nonstick finish, I’m throwing my hat in with another French company: Staub.

staub fry pan
The smooth black interior finish of a Staub frying pan is enameled wizardry, I tell you. It’s forgivingly nonstick—far superior to the matte black finish of the Le Creuset skillet in my eyes—and sears like a dream right out of the box with no pre-seasoning required. For those who don’t want to spend their time building up the perfect nonstick finish through seasoning a regular cast iron pan, this is the one for you. You’ll pay a little more for the privilege of a ready-to-cook finish (about $100 more), but you’ll also be able to clean this one with soap and Bar Keepers Friend, if desired.

Caveat: this one’s heavy, with the 12-inch fry pan pushing 7 pounds (yeah, I weighed it). I keep my potholders at the ready and view my use of this pan as a chance to build my upper arm strength.

Cast Iron Skillet

As I’ve discussed at length in my post on seasoning and cleaning cast iron skillets, the versatility of plain old seasoned cast iron is nigh unparalleled. Short of simmering tomato sauce in the pan, there’s really nothing you can’t cook in a deep cast iron skillet; the big difference between this and the Staub pan mentioned above is the amount of time it takes to build up the perfect nonstick finish.

cast iron skillet
Lodge cast iron cookware comes pre-seasoned from the factory, so you can in theory cook an egg in your pan right off the bat. (The fried-egg test is always my test for a new pan, by the way.) But a true nonstick finish won’t come until you’ve repeatedly heated the pan and let oil soak into its porous surface, turning the rough initial finish into a smooth, glossy sheen. Want to kickstart this process? Take your cast iron to the steak spa: pan-roast a big, juicy steak with a knob of butter in your skillet, basting the meat with the butter and juices until it’s cooked to your liking. I know, it’s a hardship to bear, but after that meal, your pan will look better than ever.

Don’t clean cast iron with soap: just rinse it with hot water and a clean washcloth as soon as it’s cooled down, and scrub off any schmutz with plain old kosher salt.

Carbon Steel Wok

For easy vegetable sautéing, simple solo meals—and quick stovetop popcorn!—my flat-bottomed wok hits the burners at least once a week.

The easy-to-handle thin metal wok requires a quick scrub and initial seasoning before use, then can be pressed into service for everything from basic pan-seared green beans to a full-on curry dinner. The 14-inch bowl holds a lot, should you need to brown off a bunch of ground pork in a pinch—or take a tip from GFS Senior Writer Danielle Oteri, who has found it indispensable for large-quantity meatball frying.

seasoning a wok
But wait, Casey—you said above that all of these pans are oven-safe. The wok has wooden handles! Yep, it in fact does. But should you want to oven-season your wok or throw it into the hot box for any reason, take a page from wok evangelist Grace Young‘s book and wrap the handles with wrung-out wet washcloths before placing in the oven. It’s rare that you should need to stick this beast in the oven, since it gets plenty hot on a stove burner and can also maintain a bare simmer for hours, but it’s totally possible.

DeBuyer Mineral B Element Pan

The newest member of my naturally nonstick retinue, I bought the DeBuyer Mineral B Element iron frying panon a whim to see if its beeswax-enhanced finish could stack up to my cast iron skillet. The verdict? So far, so good! Like a combination wok and cast iron pan, this skillet is made of pure unseasoned metal and develops a nonstick patina after a quick oil seasoning (mine’s not quite fully seasoned yet, but it still worked well enough to pass the fried egg test after the first go-round).

It heats up more quickly than cast iron—crucial for those 5-minute breakfasts—and cleans up simply with hot water and a swipe of a wet washcloth. Again, no soap is needed to wash this pan; once the seasoning is built up, the pan deglazes easily and a kosher salt scrub removes stubborn stuck-on food. After only a month with this pan, I find myself reaching for it more often than I expected, and think it’ll become another crucial tool in my kitchen arsenal.

Other Options

You might be wondering why another ceramic nonstick pan, the Bialetti Aeternum, isn’t on this list. Though it’s been recommended by others, I was surprised to discover that its cooking surface is not oven-safe, so as much as I love its chemical-free makeup, it doesn’t meet my Triple-A (that’s All-Around Awesome) criteria.

I also can’t speak to Scanpan, GreenPan, or other anodized aluminum cookware, as I don’t own any pieces. If you’re interested in this type of cookware as a natural nonstick alternative, click over to Simple Bites, another trusted resource, for a review of Scanpan’s features.

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