What’s The Difference Between Cheap And Expensive Nonstick Frying Pans?

Expert insights from chefs, test kitchen cooks and culinary school instructors.

Nonstick frying pans are great for cooking eggs and other delicate foods with ease, but having to replace them when their nonstick coating gets scratched by a metal utensil –– it happens to the best of us –– or inevitably wears away isn’t so great. As you shop around for a replacement, you may be wondering if it’s worth splurging on an expensive nonstick frying pan and what the difference is between that $200 pan and one that costs less than $50.

We consulted several experts and found that while more expensive pans may feature better designs (balancing aesthetic appeal and functionality) and their nonstick coatings may be higher quality and more carefully applied, their nonstick characteristics won’t necessarily outlast those of their cheaper counterparts. In short, price doesn’t always equal quality or longevity.

This doesn’t mean that you should pick up the cheapest nonstick pan you can find, however. As Lisa McManus, executive editor of America’s Test Kitchen Reviews, said, it’s all about “hitting that sweet spot between spending enough to get a well-designed, sturdy pan but not spending so much that when it inevitably chokes on you, you’re going to cry about having to buy another pan.” America’s Test Kitchen’s top-rated 12-inch nonstick skillet, for instance, costs $59 on Amazon.

With this in mind, let’s take a closer look at all things nonstick.

Nonstick pans are great for preparing that breakfast essential –– fried eggs.
Shaiith via Getty Images
Nonstick pans are great for preparing that breakfast essential –– fried eggs.

Design is key.

When shopping for a pan, nonstick or otherwise, a few things are given. Pans with a thicker-gauge bottom are better at holding heat than the less costly thin-bottomed alternatives, said Romeo Stivaletti, executive chef at The Langham, New York, Fifth Avenue. The strength of a pan’s handles and how securely they’re attached can be another difference between pricier products and cheaper options, he noted. “More expensive pans have a visible design quality,” Stivaletti told HuffPost.

The shape of a skillet and the size of the actual cooking surface (the diameter of the inside of a pan at the base of its walls) are also factors to check out.

“Skillets are measured from rim to rim, and depending on the slope of the walls, some of them go down to about 7 inches across while others can be 11 1/2 inches, and that’s a huge difference,” McManus said. “We’ve found that even a half-inch difference in the diameter of the cooking surface changes the way a pan behaves.”

She prefers a wide cooking surface with low, flared sides (rather than tall and bowl-like), as that encourages evaporation. “You’re frying, and you don’t want to crowd the pan because that makes [food] steam, bubble up and turn gray and rubbery instead of nicely browning.”

Know your nonstick materials.

In the world of nonstick pans, the most common materials used are polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE, best known by the brand name Teflon), ceramic, cast iron and carbon steel. There doesn’t seem to be a correlation between price and the type of nonstick material used (America’s Test Kitchen tried out 10 nonstick skillets with PTFE-based coatings ranging in price from $30 to $200), so the choice is yours. PTFE is the most ubiquitous but not without its controversies, whereas ceramic, cast iron and carbon steel may not provide the same slick, reliable cooking experience.

When testing 12-inch ceramic nonstick skillets, America’s Test Kitchen found that only two of the seven pans passed their standards. One standard cookware industry test that they used involved cooking eggs in a dry skillet back to back until the eggs began to stick or they managed to prepare 50 consecutive eggs (in which case, the pan passed the test).

The winning ceramic pan ($80) was then put up against their favorite PTFE-coated pan ($50) in a series of side-by-side cooking tests. They found that the ceramic pan ran hotter, which meant that foods cooked faster and were more prone to sticking.

“If you want to avoid PTFE and its potential to release dangerous fumes, you’ll simply have to make that trade-off with ease of use,” the article reads. “But if you’re smitten with the superslick, ultra-reliable results provided by your favorite traditional nonstick skillet and are careful never to heat it while it’s empty or let it exceed 500 degrees [Fahrenheit], you’ll probably want to continue using it. Though ceramic skillets have improved dramatically since we first tested them more than a decade ago, they can’t quite match the performance of PTFE skillets.”

Adrienne Cheatham, chef at the Institute of Culinary Education, generally prefers to use cast iron pans. “If it’s seasoned properly and maintained well, cast iron is always nonstick,” she said. “I also like carbon steel because they are nonstick and a little smoother than cast iron, so if you have something more delicate or are looking for a hard sear, this material works really well. In an instance where I have to have a slick nonstick surface, I go for anodized aluminum. I prefer to stay away from anything that has a thin chemical coating layer because generally speaking, they’re not heat resistant above 500 degrees [F], and above that temperature, they start to break down and release toxins.”

Beyond the nonstick surface, the materials that make up the rest of the pan can drive up costs. All-Clad’s $210 nonstick pan and OXO’s $59 nonstick pan both have a PTFE-based coating, but All-Clad’s pan is made of three layers of bonded metal (stainless steel with an aluminum core) while OXO’s is made of hard-anodized aluminum. These two pans were the top-performing nonstick skillets for America’s Test Kitchen, with OXO as the overall winner despite coming in at a lower price point. They found both pans to be supremely slick and durable, with generous cooking surfaces and gently sloped walls.

“Cheap isn’t always correlated to dollar value ― there can be expensive pans that are cheap in quality,” Cheatham said. “Rather than price, I suggest you look for the same things you look for in a regular pan; the construction of the pan, if it has multiple layers, etc. A well-made nonstick pan will have a copper or stainless steel base so the heat is distributed evenly, and it has a heavy bottom so it holds heat consistently.”

Not all nonstick is created equal.

Nonstick coatings applied to the surface of a pan, whether PTFE or ceramic, will wear away over time, and the amount of time the coating sticks around can be affected by its quality and application.

“Think about painting a room in your house,” McManus said. “You can do one quick coat or you can prime it, put a coat on, let it fully dry, put another coat on, let it fully dry, [and so forth]. The more you put on, the more carefully it’s applied and the more you let it dry and cure before you add the next coat, that’s kind of what nonstick is like.”

She explained that companies that provide nonstick surfaces to cookware manufacturers offer a menu of options reminiscent of airline frequent flyer categories. “There’s gold, titanium, platinum, diamond ― they all have very inflated, terrific-sounding names,” she said. “There are ones that are more frugal options for the manufacturer and others that are more premium options.”

Cast iron skillets can be nonstick if they're properly seasoned, but they don't have quite that slippery feel of a PTFE- or ceramic-coated pan.
ATU Images via Getty Images
Cast iron skillets can be nonstick if they're properly seasoned, but they don't have quite that slippery feel of a PTFE- or ceramic-coated pan.

The key differences between premium and more affordable nonstick coatings of the same general kind are how many layers are applied and how thoroughly they’re applied. Choosing a premium surface will naturally drive up the price of the resulting cookware.

In America’s Test Kitchen’s recent nonstick test, the pans had PTFE-based coatings of two to five layers. McManus found that while more layers alone was generally better, that wasn’t always the case. “Because there are other variables — including the quality of the base pan and how those nonstick layers are applied — the number of layers is just one of several important factors,” she said.

Whether you skimp or splurge, taking care of your nonstick pan is essential to longevity.

However much you spend on a nonstick pan, there are things you can do to ensure it lasts as long as possible. “No abrasive surface should ever touch the bottom of the pan,” said Gerald Sombright, chef de cuisine at Florida restaurant Knife & Spoon. In other words, keep your metal cooking utensils away from your PTFE-coated and ceramic nonstick skillets.

Sombright is partial to Tefal and Teflon pans following his experience as a breakfast cook earlier in his career. “As a breakfast cook, one of the tools that is essential is the nonstick pan, and there is no way to continue cooking correctly and effectively without these pans performing properly. They are coveted and cared for,” he said. When storing your nonstick pans, he recommends placing towels between them to prevent the nonstick coating from getting scratched.

Stivaletti also recommends keeping a towel inside nonstick pans when storing them, as well as cleaning them with a soft, soapy sponge.

McManus has found that wiping down nonstick pans with some vegetable oil (particularly if the coating is looking a little dry) before cooking can help them along. “Almost like you’re seasoning the pan the way you would with carbon steel or cast iron. You’re not going to heat it up so hot but you are going to gently heat it, wipe it off with some oil and a paper towel, then wipe most of it back off again,” she said. “It can zhuzh up your pan’s nonstick ability and keep it going a little longer.”

However much we paid, that’s what we all want out of our nonstick pans.

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