What About “Ceramic” Nonsticks?

Cookware Manufacturers Association

A typical sol-gel "ceramic" nonstick pan.

Consumers are seeing cookware with the term “ceramic” nonstick appear in the marketplace.  Most of the big box retailers are carrying at least one or two lines of these pans.  Additionally there’s a huge TV push to sell these products.  Here’s some facts that may be helpful:

1. The pans use a hard silica based compound typically combined with a release agent to achieve a smooth non-food-adherent surface.  It is a combination of  inorganic and organic compounds but not strictly a “ceramic” surface in that there’s a lot of chemistry going on in the preparation and application of these products to pans.  To be precise, most all of these coatings are of the sol-gel family of chemistry reactions.

2. Initial food release can be quite good.  However, the pans are not as “water-repellant” as traditional nonsticks after a couple of uses and many advise the use of some oil to aid in food release.  The TV ad shows an egg being blown out of the pan, a bit of “staged magic” we suspect.  While this adding of oil may certainly not add appreciably to fat intake in one’s diet, most traditional nonsticks don’t call for the use of any oil after a teaspoon is wiped into the pan at its initial use.

3.  While resistance to scratching is good in that the surface is very hard, the rigidity of the pan’s coating can aid in the cracking or peeling of the coating.  This is not so much a problem when the products are applied correctly, but preparation of the coating and its application and curing are very critical.  Most sol-gel “ceramics” are a two-part reactant coating which means they have a short shelf life between mixing and application (sort of like epoxies).  Some off-shore producers (where most of these pans come from)  don’t pay much attention to such things, particularly with cheaper priced products.

4.  It is true that “ceramic” coatings don’t have PTFE which is the active ingredient in traditional nonstick.  Consumers often get PTFE and PFOA confused in their minds, aided by much miss information often found on the internet.  But claims that “ceramics” are more environmentally friendly due to lower curing temperatures are essentially spurious.  Over the 90 percent of the energy which goes into a pan is from that needed to make the substrate–i.e. the metal such as aluminum or steel which is what the pan is essentially made from.  Most pans are now made, whether they state it or not, from recycled materials.  The amount of energy expended on cookware production in its entirety is a miniscule percentage of that used  in the world.