You can throw that skillet, but don't throw it away

Future Tense for Mar. 27, 2007

By Steve Welker

I need a new frying pan. Should I buy high-tech or low?

Last Wednesday’s spaghetti sauce — sauteed onions, crisp bacon, chopped tomatoes and garden-fresh basil — had a distinct metallic taste. The next night, the pan-roasted potatoes’ crust stuck to the "non-stick" skillet.

You don't have to hit me over the head with it to convince me I need new cookware.

As much as I enjoy cooking, I have owned only three or four really good frying pans. The first slipped out of my mother’s pantry when I went to college. The second was an expensive, but much-appreciated wedding gift: a copper-bottomed stainless steel gem. It never worked very well after my first wife threw the pan through the kitchen door.

(A few years later, my ex's team placed second in the National Skillet-Throwing Contest at Macksburg, Iowa. Now in its 28th or 29th year, the competition is judged on how many times a five-member team can throw 4- or 7-pound cast-iron skillets and knock the head off a scarecrow 30 feet away. My ex couldn’t sling hash, but she could sure sling a skillet.)

That first great skillet I "borrowed" from mom was a 10-1/8-inch cast-iron one untouched by soap and water. That’s not unsanitary. Properly seasoned with lard or Crisco, a good cast-iron skillet fries eggs without sticking. I clean mine with coarse salt and a damp paper towel.

For centuries, technology could not improve on cast-iron skillets. Here in Surry County, at least five ironworks operated as early as 1810. I would be surprised if several didn’t produce cast-iron “hollowware” — as pots and pans were known in the trade — including frying pans and dutch ovens.

To me, one cast-iron skillet is much like another. However, collectors argue passionately about whether Wagner or Griswold made the best. Both are incredibly smooth (and well worth seeking at flea markets). There are no makers’ marks on my cast-iron skillets, but I own a Wagner Wear griddle that makes unsurpassed pancakes.

After World War II, DuPont revolutionized the cookware industry. A DuPont chemist, Dr. Roy Plunkett, was experimenting with Freon-related gases on April 6, 1938, when he noticed that a frozen, compressed sample had changed into a white, waxy solid called polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). DuPont dubbed it Teflon in 1945 and the first non-stick Teflon-coated cookware appeared in 1946.

Teflon is said to be the slipperiest stuff on earth. So how do you make it stick to a skillet? For many years, DuPont tinkered with the formula and how to apply it to various substances. To this day, when you see non-stick cookware labeled something other than Teflon or Teflon II, it’s still usually PTFE applied with a special process.

In addition to being slippery, Teflon is almost inert. Consumers resisted it for a long time because the stuff flecked off in their pans. It has no taste and can’t hurt you. On the other hand, a non-stick skillet without Teflon is not much better than a cheap aluminum fry pan.

Happily, scientists eat, so cooking technology moves forward. DuPont has a new system that sprays a metal mist onto a pan, followed by a spray of Teflon. The Teflon lodges in the metals’ microscopic cracks and canyons, binding stronger than ever. DuPont calls it the Platinum or Platinum Pro system

A relatively new discovery, quasi-crystals, appears to produce a surface even more slippery than Teflon, but there’s no prediction of when, if ever, it will show up on pots and pans.

The other great cookware innovation requires binding metals. No metal is perfect for cooking. Copper conducts heat fast, but is hard to maintain at an even temperature; also it corrodes and adds metallic flavor to some foods. Aluminum conducts heat quickly, but food sticks to it (unless the metal is anodized) and acids attack it. Stainless steel is, well, stainless, but it heats unevenly and it’s heavy. Cookware manufacturers now bind metals together in plies, sandwich-style, to get the best attributes of each.

Early manufacturers concentrated on bonding copper or aluminum to steel. Today, you can buy Teflon-lined all-clad (aluminum or copper plate sandwiched between stainless steel) and even tri-ply (a copper base bonded to all-clad) cookware.

Whether I can afford to buy such exotic cookware is another question. The stuff is expensive.

Until I decide, I’ll go back to using my good, old, reliable cast-iron skillet ... in the future.

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