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I made roast chicken for dinner the other night and thought I knew what I was doing as far as giving proper roasting time for a 3.5 pounder. At an hour and five minutes I checked the temperature of the bird and the thermometer, inserted into the thigh, registered only 87 degrees. Mild panic set in, as I expected to see 155 or 160. I flipped the bird over, which did look underdone on the backside, then increased the temp from 375 to 425 and set the thing to go another 15 minutes. Of course, some of you already know the nature of my mistake. I had accidentally moved the the switch that sets the readout on the digital thermometer from Farenheit to Celsius, and so my 87ºC bird had been basically done the first time I took the temperature reading. The meal wasn’t ruined, everything tasted fine, but I was chagrined for not having the sense to realize that if the readout was off by that much it must have been Celsius rather than Farentheit. I have to admit, I’ve become pretty dependent on Costco’s wonderful $4.99 roast chicken, though I’m also very dependent on my meat thermometer and only made the flipped switch mistake once before and that was many years ago.

When my husband and I started living and cooking together I learned a lot from him and also got the use of a lot more tools in the kitchen that had never been on my radar screen before, and the meat thermometer was one of them. Now that I am in the habit of using one, I am a firm believer in the accuracy and security of just checking with the thermometer rather than inspecting clarity of juices, etc. to know what’s going on. I also gained a food scale, pairs of tongs, and found those items indispensable as well. I  bought my mother, a fine cook, her first pair of tongs last year and she reported that she doesn’t know how she did so long without them. She is not interested in using a meat thermometer however and I haven’t pushed one upon her.

Another element introduced in the merging of my and my husbands’ kitchens over a decade ago were several plastic utensils that were meant only to be used with the big nonstick skillet. I had had some cheap nonstick pans before that, but never really liked them and clearly didn’t understand how to use them. Special utensils? It took a while for me, and not without a few scoldings, to have it drummed in that you must only use these plastic/non-metal spatulas and tongs to protect the nonstick pan’s special surface. Clearly, others knew about this and were holding out on me. I had a lively lunch discussion with friends from work one day where the table was evenly divided between those who knew the nonstick rules and bought special tools for their nonstick pans and those who didn’t. It’s not just about treating the pan well so it will last longer by not scratching it up, it’s about not poisoning your family or pets. Take a look at this handy list of prohibitions/safety tips about using nonstick pans from the About.com website:

Using Nonstick Cookware Safely

  • Never leave nonstick pans unattended on an open flame or other heat source
  • While cooking, don’t let temperatures get hotter than 450 degrees
  • Don’t use metal utensils on nonstick cookware
  • Wash nonstick cookware by hand using nonabrasive cleaners and sponges (do not use steel wool)
  • Don’t stack nonstick cookware on top of each other
  • Keep pet birds out of the kitchen

It all sounds a bit fussy, doesn’t it? And yes, you read that last one correctly: cooking with a nonstick at too high a temperature can and does kill pet birds. Talk about a canary in a coal mine. If the temp of the pan gets too high, the nonstick coating releases PFOA’s that are fairly conclusively thought to be carcinogens. Why do I still use these things? If I use them properly it is supposedly ok, but I should have been forced to pass some kind of Teflon® test because I know there are years there when I used to heat up the pan higher than medium heat to cook the food. I made pierogies in that nonstick skillet just a night or two ago and fretted that I needed to nail down all the do’s and don’ts because my thermometer episode was a sign of a flakiness flare-up. And hence, my consultation with the bulleted list above and a renewed suspicion of these pans and whether we were suited for one another.

According to The About.com article by Fiona Haynes,

There’s little dispute that, above certain temperatures—hotter than the smoke point of cooking oils or the point where food is burned—the nonstick coating will break down and release toxic fumes. Any surface that’s subject to extreme temperature will give off toxic gases. According to DuPont, cookware with Teflon nonstick coating has a recommended maximum use temperature of 500 degrees Fahrenheit and that significant decomposition of the coating will occur only when temperatures exceed about 660 degrees Fahrenheit, which could easily happen if nonstick pans were left dry or empty on a hot burner.

To make sure I am being fair and not heedlessly buying into alarmist web rhubarb about nonstick danger myths, I consulted the F.A.Q. from the DuPont website, makers of Teflon®  (We know that Dupont manufactures many other things than Teflon®, most of them involving chemicals that don’t sit too well with human respiratory systems. In case you care to refresh your memory of the Dupont Plant Disaster of 1984 in Bhopal India, here is a report from Pub Med. The product being manufactured in that case was pesticide.) A lot of what DuPont says to be reassuring about how safe nonstick pans are matches the About.com sites safety page, though they point out that all birds have very weak respiratory systems and can be quickly killed by excess smokiness in the air from any pan, not just nonstick. I guess they have had to defend themselves on apocryphal or not apocryphal bit of Teflon® trivia before before. The About.com website cites Cook’s Illustrated’s experiments about pan temperatures and reveals that these pans do spike in temperature, hitting dangerous levels even at the prescribed medium heat setting.

While the articles citing the rising scrutiny of nonstick pan safety by the EPA and subsequent promises on the part of nonstick pan manufacturers to phase out certain compounds by 2015 are about 5 years old, our pan is at least 11 years old. And it was only a few years ago that this idea of not using the nonstick on high heat penetrated for me and I like to think of myself as fairly bright but perhaps too much proximity to Teflon® has changed all that. How much damage have I done to myself and others in the meantime, I wonder, by not being mindful and forgetting the rules?

I have never forgotten the time my wonderful roommate when I first lived in Los Angeles, a recent Harvard Grad, and her friend a Vassar Grad, were heating up a Styrofoam Chinese takeout container in the oven. The smell of the fumes was dreadful and I ran into the kitchen to stop them, shocked that they didn’t know, at least, that Styrofoam and regular gas ovens did not go together. I think we all might need a license or a special degree to handle some of this basic “playing with matches and beyond” curriculum. I’m sure many a functioning adult has committed many a nonstick indiscretion and caused him/herself and errant domestic birds irreparable harm. Most people I know don’t even want to read the directions or warning labels on things, just as kids don’t want to read the directions on board games or their homework worksheets. It would be interesting to do a study to see if geeks and conscientious folks, those who read the fine print and (key point) remember it later, have a longer life expectancy. Time will tell. Perhaps DuPont would even want to fund this one, since if you follow their rules you should have nothing to worry about.

Are these convenient pans worth it? There must be some big benefit to using nonstick over regular pans. My husband is a safety guru too, and wouldn’t own them and buy special utensils for them if they didn’t have a strong upside.  Easy Clean-up is of course the biggie associated with nonsticks. That’s why people think to reach for them if they are not already relying on them in order to cut down on fat and oil. Here is what Dupont says on this subject, the last item on their FAQ page:

What are the benefits of using cookware coated with Teflon® nonstick?  

The nonstick properties of cookware coated with Teflon® nonstick allow you to cook food and clean up easily, saving time and effort. The American Heart Association advises people to “use nonstick cookware so you can cook with a minimum of oil or vegetable oil spray” to help “create a healthier diet without losing out on flavor.” Also, by limiting the amount of oil and fat in your cooking, you reduce your risk of stovetop fires, the number one cause of house fires.

So there you have it. If going by Michael Pollan’s adage – don’t buy groceries that your grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food – you could argue that the nonstick pan falls into that category as a parallel item with Uncrustables and Pizza Rolls.  If you like the pan, are you making a Devil’s bargain? If you know what you’re doing and don’t regularly abandon food on a burner until the smoke alarm goes off, probably not. But I find all the rules and warnings off-putting and I also want to remember Michael Pollan’s reminder that the gooiest food that sticks to the pan so horribly is probably something you should eat only very rarely and, I’m sorry, but certain foods like eggs and pancakes really need butter to taste good. If your grand- or great- grandmother were going to cook something with less oil she’d shir it in water or stock and/or leave a tough-to-clean pan to soak overnight. Going low tech is nothing to be ashamed of, and a little knowledge, in the case of nonstick use, can definitely be dangerous.