Today in the New York Times, I saw an article about PFOA, a carcinogenic chemical commonly found in food packaging, most notably certain cardboards, paper plates, and microwave popcorn bags. (I always knew there was something not quite right about that microwave popcorn!) PFOA is also used in the production of Teflon pans. Now according to DuPont, "none of it remains in the finished product," but they acknowledge that overheating an empty non-stick pan releases toxic fumes. Of course, DuPont says the pans have to be heated to 660 degrees before scary things start to happen; the non-profit environmentalists say that barrier is a much lower 325 degrees. Which would you rather believe?
I don't expect everyone to toss out their beloved pans or stop ordering pizza, but while we're waiting to see what interesting (or even dirty) little secrets the PFOA class-action lawsuit brings to the surface, let's check out these easy news-you-can-use tips mentioned in the article:
For those who don't want to wait for definitive answers from the government, the Environmental Working Group has some suggestions: Use Teflon pans at lower temperatures, and never put them on the stove to heat without food or liquid inside. Greasy food that is heated in a microwave oven in a cardboard container is a potential source of PFOA; take the food out of the container and heat it in glass or ceramic.
For popcorn in the microwave, the group suggests the following: Place a quarter-cup of good quality popcorn in a standard brown paper lunch bag; mix with oil and seasoning; seal the bag with a single staple (one staple does not contain enough metal to cause a spark) and heat for two to three minutes. Alton Brown, who cooks on the Food Network, uses this method.
Another solution is to cook the old-fashioned way. If cast iron pans are seasoned and heated properly, very little oil is needed for browning. Chefs generally do not use nonstick pans because they do not think they do as good a job of cooking as cast iron and stainless steel, especially for browning.
Meanwhile, I think we'll...um...stick with the pans we have.